Little blue flowers were a vital part of our unique history

At the end of November 2019 I promised myself a trip to Bessbrook to see a sculpture set in the historic linen-manufacturing town’s mill pond.

Wednesday, 14th April 2021, 6:00 am
Flax dam at Cloney Farm, Knocknacarry, Co Antrim, circa 1914. Picture: Welch Collection, Ulster Museum

The stunning artwork - a stainless steel single stem of flax rising six metres from the water - is by Newcastle sculptor Alan Burke.

A photograph of the water-bound installation was included in the second of Dublin-author Ann Lane’s two books entitled ‘By the Way’, featured on this page in 2019, about Ireland’s outdoor sculptures.

It was the flax flower’s intriguing shade of blue that particularly beckoned me to visit the sculpture.

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Alan Burke’s stunning flax flower installation in Bessbrook

Covid-19 struck and I haven’t gone there yet but it’s high on my visiting-list when the lockdown is safely past.

Ann Lane explained in her book, “the Camlough River was harnessed at Bessbrook pond to power the mill that drove the local economy. The key to this industry was the flax plant.”

Burke’s steel flax-stem is embellished with a woven pattern representing the linen industry, an epic story summarised in a caption in Lisburn’s Irish Linen Centre and Museum - ‘the wee blue blossom’.

“In Ireland flax was usually sown in May and then pulled in August,” the Museum’s website (www.lisburnmuseum.com) explains, adding “in Ireland flax is colloquially known as the ‘wee blue blossom’, given the flax flower’s pale blue colour.”

‘Wee blue blossoms’ in an Irish flax field

The inspiration for the Bessbrook sculpture comes from a poem entitled ‘The Ballad of Camlough River’ by James N Richardson MP, Chairman of the mill’s Board of Directors between 1890 and 1921.

The poem highlights the colour of the flax flower.

“Know ye the fame of the brilliant little river,

Which floweth through Bessbrook from moorland and lea,

Between blue waving flax-flowers and rushes which quiver,

He runs his short course from the lake to the sea.”

While we’re all aware of the linen’s industry’s immense role in our history, it was the photograph of Alan Burke’s sculpture that first attracted Roamer to the flax flower’s special colouring, followed by a letter last year from Ballygawley-reader Ivy Lambert.

“Perhaps my epistle may be some use as not many would know of flax growing” Ivy’s letter began and continued, “especially during the war years when farmers were encouraged to grow flax for the war effort.”

She shared her wonderfully evocative memories here of being brought up on a flax farm near Sion Mills, from the soil being prepared to the flax “going to the scutch mill where the linen fibre was separated from its casing.”

Her family farm had two fields of flax which “were a sight to behold,” Ivy recounted, “a sea of bright blue flowers shining in the sunlight.”

Following Ivy’s vivid reminiscences, more letters and e-mails about flax arrived in Roamer’s mailbox, all referring to the flower’s unique hue, some from folk who are still growing flax!

So when the lockdown is past I’ll be able to see the real thing as well as the sculpture.

Meanwhile, I telephoned Gretta Craig (nee Gilmore) who e-mailed me about her childhood on a flax farm at Blackhill, between Coleraine and Garvagh.

“I remember them sewing the flax, and then the wee blue flowers,” Gretta told me, at the start of an intriguing conversation that took her from her birth in 1931 right up to today.

“I loved the flax growing so much,” she enthused, “ I now much prefer gardening to housework!”

She was bought up on “a general farm, with corn, cattle and pigs as well as flax.”

Gretta left school aged 14 and started to work on the farm, where four to six acres of the land was devoted to growing flax.

“I remember them sowing the flax, and then the wee blue flowers,” she told me “and then we started to pull it by hand and put a band of rushes around the flax ‘beet’. Then it was ‘stooked’. There might have been four or six ‘beets’ in a ‘stook’. And the air dried it out.”

As with Ivy Lambert’s colloquial description of flax farming, some of Gretta’s terminologies have fallen out of use.

She called flax ‘lint’; about four handfuls made ‘a beet’ or ‘a sheaf’ which was tied with a band made from rushes and stacked together in a ‘stook’.

“We collected all the beets together in a cart,” Gretta added,“which was pulled by two horses called Barny and Darky to the water dam. We put stones on top of the beets, to keep them under the water.”

Sometimes in boots, or just in their bare feet, they tramped on the stones twice a day, for two weeks, to keep the flax submerged.

“The smell of the ‘retting’ (the fibres separating in water) gave me an appetite,” Gretta recalled fondly, “it was the smell of rotting, but unlike refuse in a dump heap, it was nice!”

Then the flax was taken out of the water - “soaking wet and dripping” - spread in a field for drying, and collected with a crook-shaped hook.

“I remember it clearly,” said Gretta. “I could take you to the very field it happened in.”

Then it went to the mill.

“After that I never ever saw it again,” said Gretta, stressing, “I loved working with it. I loved the air. It was generally nice, sunny weather…for all the blue flowers to grow.”

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