St Johnston and Carrigans Donegal



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Carrigans Flax Mill

For many years, up to about 1951, there was a flax mill in Carrigans.

It was located where the CCCP complex now stands. It was one of the largest flax mills in Donegal and was owned by the Herdman company. Part of the process of producing linen from the flax plant was known as ‘scutching’.

To give some clarity to what flax is and what it was used for, as many younger people might not know, or indeed, might have never even seen it. Flax is a plant, which produces the fibre, which is used in the production of linen, which, in turn, is used in the making of, for example, shirts, ladies fashion wear and table dressing, etc.

Flax has been grown for thousands of years, the Chinese and the Egyptians and the Indians, for example, among others, grew it, centuries ago. In fact, an upper-Paleolithic excavation site at Dzudzuana Cave in the eastern-European country of Georgia, archaeologists discovered that flax fibres were preserved inside pollen chambers for 34,000 years !!

Ireland and Ulster in particular, was famous for flax production and the countryside was awash with flax mills, almost every farm had one.

Flax seed is a small brown seed, not unlike an apple seed and is scattered in fields, just like sowing barley. During the season, it will grow to three or four feet high. Just before it ripens, it produces a lilac blue flower and there is few sights so beautiful as looking over a twenty acre field of flax in full bloom and the whole field completely blue in colour. The plant itself is unique in that the part we use, namely the fibre, is on the outside of the stalk and the unwanted piece, the stalk itself, is on the inside. Nature has developed its own reason for this. The fibre could not stand on its own, so the plant grows a wooden like stem or stalk, upon which the fibre will cling and grow. The stalk is the frame or skeleton, which supports the fibre. When ready for harvesting, the plant is pulled from the ground, unlike barley, corn and wheat, for example, which is cut. The plant needs to be pulled as the fibre goes all the way into the root and so it's necessary to obtain the whole fibre from top to bottom. In pre-machinery days, the old men will tell you that this 'flax pulling' was one of the most back breaking jobs on a farm.

When the plant was pulled, several plants were 'stooked' together and tied with a band of fibre. After a few days the stooks were then taken and placed in what was known as 'flax dams' or sometimes called 'lint dams'. (Flax and lint are different names for what is basically the same plant). The placing of these stooks into these dams was necessary, because, to get the fibre from the stalk, it first had to be 'retted', or, rotted. By placing the stooks in the dam for about two weeks, the wooden type stalks gradually rotted. and when it was seen that this rotting was complete, the stooks were then taken out of the dam. This part of the job was a dirty, stinking job, as the water had turned foul, during the rotting, or 'retting' process. The stooks were then spread out to dry in the fields and when properly dried, they were then piled on the a cart and taken to the flax mill.

At that stage, the scutching machine in the mills came into play. The stalks of flax were put through a pair of rollers, which broke up the wooden stalks before being subject to a fast spinning number of blades, not unlike the blades of an aeroplane propeller, which 'scutched', or battered, basically, the stalks to an extent, that the previously rotted inside stem was reduced to pulp and separated, leaving the fine threads of fibre. This fibre was known as 'Tow' (to rhyme with 'flow'). Many fingers and indeed hands, were injured or lost, during the process, it was very dangerous.
In fact, in one mill near St. Johnston, one lady had long hair and unfortunately it got caught in the rollers and she received very severe injuries, from which she subsequently died.

The beaten stalks were known a shows, pronounced like 'flows' in some areas, but in parts of Ulster, especially Donegal, pronounced 'shows' as in 'cows'. This waste product was very combustible, with a high temperature output and low ash content. While some of the smaller flax mills were powered by waterwheel, the large mill at Carrigans was self sufficient, powerwise, as the waste product, or shows, was used as fuel in the steam engine, which powered the machinery. When the fibre was separated, it was then sent to linen mills, which turned the fibre into the finished product, linen. This, in turn, was then used in the making of clothes, etc.,
However, as with many traditional industries, the end, i.e. the end in Ireland, came in the early fifties, for a number of reasons.
First of all, the linen, produced from flax was of various grades or qualities, first grade, second grade, third grade, etc., etc. The quality of flax and linen in Ireland was rarely better than third grade, because of climatic reasons, whereas the flax produced in, say, the Low Countries and France, was of a much higher quality. Wars, especially the Second World War, created a boom for linen. Firstly, for the production of uniforms and sacks, etc. and secondly, the linen previously acquired from Europe, was, for obvious reasons, no longer available.

But quality did not matter so much in the making of soldiers' uniforms, quantity was more important, so the flax industry boomed. However, with the end of the war, European linen came available again and this was compounded by the fact that uniforms and everyday work wear was now being manufactured with artificial textiles, like rayon and nylon, which was recently invented at a fraction of the cost. This left the only demand for real linen was for high quality wear, like real linen blouses and shirts. But the quality of linen required for this was simply not available in Ireland and so the manufacturers had to source from Europe, which was now, post wartime, readily available.
As a result, we no longer see fields of blue flower, we no longer smell the lint dams, we no longer have the 'scutch' mills, we no longer have the linen mills, with their major employment potential. That's why the Herdmans Mill in Sion Mills now stands empty and silent. It is another victim of 'modernization'. All we have left is photographs and little poems, like the one below.

For further reading, see pages/linen-history

The last manager of Herdmans’ flax mill in Carrigans was Leo McGurk, who was manager from 1940 to 1951. Among his staff was a local man, called Moses Wray, or more commonly Mosey. Mosey was one of those village bards, numerous throughout the country in days gone by, who although poorly educated, had a talent for composing poetry, mostly based on local people and events.

One of his poems, which he called ‘McGurk’s Scutching Machine’, was written about 1941.

Away down by Carrigans, there's a scutching machine,
The finest oul patent, you ever have seen.
The belts that are on her, they go up and down,
And she scutches more flax than the mills all around.

McGurk, he's the gaffer, a hard working man,
He'll come up to the laft, but he won't let you stand.
The lint is not shuck, it's plain to be seen,
You'll break the wee plate on the scutching machine.

When you go down to the toilet to get a good smoke,
McGurk, he steps in, you'll find it's no joke.
"Come on now, young laddies, will you get up abeen
And get back to your work on the scutching machine."

The season's now finished and the flax is all through,
There's nothing for us now but to join the bru.
But there's one thing, I'll say, and this I do mean.
"To hell with McGurk and his scutching machine."

Many thanks to Phonsie Browne, from St, Johnston, for keeping this poem alive, so that we have it written down for posterity.

Frank McGurk,