IRISH PHOTO ARCHIVE

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Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The evolution of ploughing in Ireland

In 1952, there were 286,000 draught horses working on farms across Ireland. By 1975, that number had dropped to less than 4,000. Horse power had been well and truly harnessed by Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson.

1952 was also the year the Lensmen Photographic Agency was set up by Andy Farren and Padraig McBrian, the first independent press agency in Ireland. The agency were in a unique position to chart the progress of Irish agriculture from hard manual labour to a high-tech mechanized process. And these changes have been preserved for posterity by the Irish Photo Archive as we digitize the Lensmen negatives.

So, for a brief outline of the evolution of ploughing in Ireland, see below.

1. Working by Hand
Human being started cultivating the land by hand many thousands of years ago, and the practice still continues in some parts of the world to this day. It was often necessary in difficult terrain, such as on the rocky land of Connemara. And it was in Mayo that the incredible Céide Fields have been discovered, demonstrating how farmers have worked to develop the best possible soil on their land for generations. This image captures farmers in Carna, Galway, eking out a living from their meagre topsoil.

Carna, 14 May 1959

2. Horse Ploughing
Ploughing with horses made the task easier, but it was still a laborious task. Ploughing an acre field was equivalent to walking eleven miles. Somebody had to walk behind the horses, manipulate the plough, and keep the furrows as straight as possible. The blades could not go too deep, or the physical strain could cause serious damage to the horses.

Ploughing at Stoneyford, Co. Kilkenny, 5 July 1953

3. Vintage Tractor Ploughing
The first tractors may have seemed a luxury at the time, but they are a far cry from the hydraulic cabs drivers sit in today. In fact, cabs were considered unnecessary, leaving the farmer still exposed to all the weather conditions though some tractors had flaps that diverted heat from the engine back to the driver if the wind was blowing in the right direction. It was Henry Ferguson, of Massey Ferguson fame, that invented a hitch that allowed the tractor’s power to be channeled properly by the plough, but the most ploughs were still single-bladed.

Tractor demonstration of the Monarch, distributed by Lincoln & Nolan,
26 March 1953

4. Conventional Ploughing
This involves ploughs with two or three blades, and was pulled by a 2 wheel drive tractor. Cabs were starting to become more popular around this time, though springs in the driver’s seat still seemed to be considered frivolous. The blades in these ploughs were also easily damaged through contact with stones, so many farmers’ children spent long evenings walking the fields and removing stones in preparation for the ploughing.

Deutz tractor demonstration at Collinswood, Co. Dublin
4 April 1960

5. Reversible Ploughing

These are the high-tech monster tractors that roam the country these days, with ploughs that can cover up to 8 furrows in one sweep. The driver can sit in an air-conditioned cab on a comfy chair, hook an iPod up to the surround-sound system and sing along to a favourite Bon Jovi CD while whizzing through a task in hours that would have taken days just one generation earlier.