Of Bread and Flails by Geoff Cronin
In or about the year 1875 my paternal grandfather opened his shop at No. 12, John Street, Waterford. There was an ancient brick oven in the back, of the type used for making bread at that time and for generations earlier. It was shaped like a bee hive made of brick and the floor of the oven was paved with baked brown, rough tiles over two inches thick.
The modus operandi was that a fire would be build inside the chamber, which had a flue at the top to allow smoke to escape. The fire would be kept going for a couple of hours and when the fire died down, it would be spread to cover the floor. The embers would be pulled out and the floor of the chamber cleaned off with a wet sack on the end of a pole. This floor would dry quickly being extremely hot and would be dusted with handfuls of flour, making it ready to receive the dough for baking.
The dough would be placed on the blade of a flat wooden shovel-like implement with a handle long enough to reach the far end of the baking chamber. This implement was known as a Peel and would be used to place the piece of dough in any desired position. It would likewise be used to remove the baked bread which had a distinctive nutty flavour, which came from contact with the hot tiles. This oven was called a peel oven for obvious reasons.
So, bread was produced and sold in the shop, but only one or two batches of bread could be produced in a day and turnover was small-scale, but the trade also consisted of flour, wholemeal maize, maize meal, oats, bran, barley and pollard, in other words, food for all farm livestock. Light hardware was also stocked – buckets, spades, forks etc. and standing in a corner a bundle of Flails.
Here I must digress because I guess, dear reader, you probably don’t know exactly what a flail is or how it was used. So, let me explain:- This was the time before farm machinery like the reaper and binder where invented and a crop of corn was cut with a scythe or a sickle, bound into sheaves by hand, dried in stacks (stooks) and then threshed with a flail on a threshing floor.
The flail was basically two pieces of wood joined loosely together at one end. One piece, about two feet long and about two inches thick was the handle. The second piece of similar thickness but only a foot long was the Boltawn.
The flail was used when the sheaf of corn was on the floor. It was raised head high like a hammer and the sheaf was struck with the boltawn, separating the grain from the stem.
In an emergency the flail could be used as a weapon and could easily dislodge a rider from his horse. In fact many of the peasants who took part in the rebellion of 1798 were armed with nothing more than a flail.
When I visited Enniscorthy Museum some years ago, I came across examples of flails which were in use in the 17th and 18th C. I noticed a peculiar feature of these Wexford flails – the hinges were made of Eel skin. Eels were always in ready supply in the Slaney river and the skin, as well as being extremely tough, had a high oil content and did not deteriorate for many years. Thus the flail had a self-lubricating hinge with a long life.
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An illegitimate child was by no means a rarity in the Ireland of yesteryear and it usually fell to the grandmother to rear him or her. One such boy was being quizzed by the schools inspector and he asked.
“And what does your father work at?”
“Sir, I have no father,” answered the boy.
“And what of your mother?” asked the inspector.
To which the boy answered, “sir, I have no mother.”
“Then you’re an orphan?” said the inspector.
“I’m not an orphan sir,” said the boy. “Tis how someone took advantage of me aunt.”
About Geoff Cronin – 1923 – 2017
There were few jobs that Geoff could not turn his hands to, and over the years he mastered an impressive number of professional undertakings. Master baker and confectioner, mobile cinema operator, salesman, band leader, senior executive and master wood turner, storyteller and writer.
Geoff Cronin published his first book in 2005 at age 82. The Colour of Life is a collection of stories of life in Waterford during his childhood and early adulthood in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. This was followed by two further books that related tales of further adventures in Waterford and Dublin.
Thank you for dropping in today and you can read The Colour of Life and the previous chapters of The Black Bitch in this directory: