I love funny little museums, the Pencil Museum in Keswick, Cumbria, is wonderful. It gives a fascinating glimpse into the history of that so commonly used writing tool, the humble pencil. Pencils had a huge impact on history, believe it or not… but go to the museum and find out, and enjoy a cup of good coffee and a delicious cake too!

www.pencilmuseum.co.uk/

However, one of the most moving museums heritage centres I have been to is Patterson’s Spade Mill at Templepatrick, County Antrim in Northern Ireland. I thought, before I had visited, that it would be a water-mill with the paddles shaped like spades, but no. A spade mill makes spades, obviously!

It was fascinating to see the process which goes into making a spade, but what I found really interesting was the fact that in Ireland there were literally hundreds of different spades from massive to tiny, and with all sorts of different shapes to suit the particular digging task, ditching, peat cutting, spades for stony soil, spades for clay soil, spades for sandy soil… hundreds of different spades. Those who could afford it would have a had their spade made to fit, left footed, right footed (get the reference?) and with a haft made to measure their height. My husband had a spade made for him with a handle long enough for his 6’7″ height; he had a Lurgan spade, a long thin, spade to suit the sort of soil we have in our garden.

www.nationaltrust.org.uk/pattersons-spade-mill/

This blog has some great photos and other information:

http://greenwood-carving.blogspot.co.uk/2009/08/pattersons-spade-mill.html

I recommend you look at this virtual tour:

http://www.virtualvisit-northernireland.com/gallery.aspx?dataid=52390&title=Museums+and+Galleries

I got to thinking about Ireland’s history and the spade; the men and women who used these humble tools were experts. They had stamina, strength and skill; they could work for hours in appalling conditions, often ill-fed and sometimes starving. When the horrific years of the Famine came to Ireland and people emigrated in millions many took with them the only skill they had, digging.

It’s thanks to these strong brave men that Britain has its canal system; many of the ‘navigators’ who dug the navigations – the canals, were Irish. Men who dug out tunnels for canals, railways and roads sometimes gave their lives  to increase the prosperity of Britain before and during and after the Industrial Revolution. The underground system in London (and new York and other American cities) and then the motorways in 1960’s Britain… Irish men skilled with their shovels, strong and uncomplaining of the conditions in which they worked and the prejudice they encountered…

I’m not a great poet, but I wrote this poem:

Spade

Would I love my family so much
That I would leave them
And go out into the world
With the only thing I had
My only skill
A spade
To dig?

357 different spades,
One for every different sort of work.
Would I take my spade and go
To where I was reviled
to do the lowest sort of work.
How to confuse an Irishman:
Give him three spades and tell him
To take his pick.
“No blacks, no dogs, no Irish.”
Would I do that?

Would I love my family so much
That I would leave them
And go out into the world
With the only thing I had
My only skill
A spade
To dig?

5 thoughts on “Spades

  1. I like your poem, Lois. Irish navvies built Britain. As to the Pencil Museum, I lived in Keswick for 4 years and didn’t visit the place once. I should have. Keswick has another, brilliant museum at Fitz Park. It contains a Victorian collector’s treasure trove, ranging from slate chimes played for Queen Victoria to a 500 year old cat (you have to open a box to see it). Well worth a visit next time you’re there.

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  2. This is wonderful, Lois. You went beyond the objects, to the human story they represent. I respond especially to this history of Irish labour, since they were brought out to create the canal systems in 19th c. eastern Canada. Once the canals were made, the companies who had brought them out abandoned them instead of giving them passage home; the stranded men then sought to put their skill in working with stones to new uses… and we had our first wave of stone buildings. (There are some wonderful specialty museums here too, e.g. the Canoe Museum in Peterborough ON and the Bata Shoe Museum here in Toronto.)

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