Horse Ploughing and Country Skills

A demonstration of Horse Ploughing and Country Skills is held in the grounds of the Ulster Folk Museum at Holywood in February every year. It’s always held a week before the Mullahead and District Annual Ploughing match in Portadown, one of the main events in the year.

Horse ploughing Holywood

You can see more images here.

I’ve been told some use the Holywood event as preparation for the much larger Mullahead competition. It gives an opportunity to get the horses back to form after the winter. For competitors who have travelled far it allows a week to adjust and settle the horses.

Preparation for the Mullahead competition or not the competitors take it seriously. Bob and Tom, a pair of horses of television fame are there among others not so famous. All are well turned out in teams of two horses with a ploughman and sometimes an assistant. The team works as one, with horses movements synchronised. They give an insight of how it was done in years past. It’s clear it is hard work. The ploughs stop frequently to allow adjustments. To my eye the furrows are left straight as a ruler. I wonder what criteria the judge uses to find a winner.

Gerry Mallon demonstrates the Loy spade in a neighbouring field. He’s wearing a long coat and a huge cap.The Loy was used, at the time of the Famine, to dig furrows when planting potatoes. Gerry is from Donegal and travels widely promoting the spade. I didn’t get any photographs of the Loy Spade but I’ve photographed it previously here.

The always popular Blacksmith’s Forge is working and crowded with spectators. Too crowded for photographs. The smith pumps the bellows and the coals glow white hot. He hammers hot metal on the anvil and the crowd watches in silence. I spoke to one of the smiths a couple of years ago and he told me he was a member of staff and self-taught. He had read books and then it was all trial and error and practice.

Nearby a member of staff dressed in period clothing demonstrates how to make rope from straw. He has lit a fire and stands in front of a makeshift shelter holding a large steak he intends to cook. He explains that a ropemaker would probably have been an itinerant and lived in such a place. Some young children arrive with their parents and he gets the youngsters involved in making rope. They delight in it.

There are terraced houses, cottages, farmhouses and a small town with shops, a church and even a bank in the grounds. Members of museum staff are in some of the buildings and explain how people lived in the past. Sometimes, in one of the farmhouses, there is a peat fire lit and soda bread on the griddle.

Many of the buildings were brought from their original sites and reconstructed brick by brick in the museum grounds. Walking through the rooms you are reminded how life has advanced in the last hundred years and how much we take for granted in our well lit centrally heated homes.

To me, this event kicks the season off each year. It’s an indication that Spring is near with warmer weather and brighter days ahead.


© 2017, J Orr. All rights reserved.