The main crops grown around the Lough were potatoes, wheat, oats and flax for the linen industry. Since their introduction to Ireland in the 16th century, potatoes had become the staple diet of the Irish. An important attribute was that a small area of land could yield a large crop and thus the potato became indispensable amongst the small tenant farmers. A succession of famines caused by potato blight in the 18th and early 19th centuries culminated in the Great Famine of 1845-49 where malnutrition lead to widespread disease and death. Those that did not die emigrated and the population of Ireland was decimated from an estimated 8million pre-famine to 2million post-famine. It must be noted however, that those living around the shores of Lough Neagh were not as badly affected as elsewhere in Ireland as fish from the Lough provided a much needed source of food.
Potato crops were cultivated in hand-dug ridges, known as lazy-beds, and harvested by spade. The use of drill ridges became more common in the later 19th century; drills could be ploughed instead of being hand-dug and therefore took less time with fewer labourers, saving time and money for the farmers. The introduction of the mechanical digger, which was first patented in 1855 by J. Hanson of Doagh, Co. Antrim, was embraced on large farms as a much welcomed labour saving device. However, the small tenant farmers of Lough Neagh and elsewhere continued to harvest by hand, their yields being smaller. Potatoes continue to be cultivated around Lough Neagh but in small quantities which are mainly consumed on the farm.
Prior to mechanisation, grain crops such as wheat and oats were harvested by hand with a reaping hook. Sheafs were divided into individual bundles or ‘stooks’ and left to dry in the fields before being threshed, i.e. removing the grain from the sheaf. Again this work was done by hand with sheafs being beaten with a flail to remove the grain. Wheat grain was brought to corn mills where it was ground into flour and sold on at market. Oats were ground into a coarse and fine meal both of which were popular with the weaving class who made ‘stirabout’ (a type of porridge) with the coarse meal and thin oatcakes with the fine. Unlike today nothing was left to waste: oats and the stalks left over from threshing made a healthy animal fodder, and unused, undamaged wheat stalks were used for thatching. Flax was once the most widely cultivated crop in Northern Ireland and prevalent on the eastern shores of the Lough, but shortly after WWII it went into steep decline as synthetic materials became more popular in the cloth industry. (Image: Harvest time near Randalstown.)