Scoil Naomh Fiachra

The Twilight of Steam Power

The Twilight of Steam-Power

by Larry Hamilton

This story was written for the Lisdowney parish magazine, “The Raven”, in 1990.

The threshing-engine was already belching black sea-coal smoke as Jackie reached the farmyard. The sight of the big Clayton-Shuttleworth engine rocking to and fro under the momentum of its powerful steel pistons filled him with awe. He discarded his school-bag and the twine message-bag which contained a loaf for the supper. Jackie would be fed but his folks could wait!

The chill October evening was filled with sounds of the droning mill and the laboured puffing of the engine. The odours of the coal-smoke, oil and newly threshed straw blended to fill the air. Black smoke and escaping steam ascended into the steel-blue sky. The pitchers stood on the corn-rick and tossed the sheaves onto the mill platform. The expert pitcher turned the sheaf butt towards the two cutters who stood on the platform. They in turn cut the twines and placed the sheaved head down on the feeding board. Bill, the feed-man lowered the sheaves into the drum where they were swallowed and threshed. Bill’s sure hands gave a steady feed and the steady drone of the mill was only occassionally distured by a “double feed”.

Inside the bowels of the mill grain, straw and chaff were separeted. The “bag-men” at the front of the mill kept the supply of sacks hooked up to the grain -shutes. The full sacks were taken away tot he barn by men who ducked back and forth under the “big belt” barely avoiding a premature bald patch!

The golden straw was taken on the elevator to the rick-building team, led by Paddy. Paddy lorded it over his team. They pulled the straw from under the elevator head and passed it along a line of three or four men. “Keep the middle full”, Paddy would shout now and then, as he arranged and groomed the corners and sides. As the sheaf rick lowered the straw rick climbed, and time was measured by their progress.

Jackie, like most young boys of his age, was anxious to be part of the “meithreal”. There were two tasks at a steam threshing that were usually left to young boys, clearing the chaff and keeping water in the boiler. Jackie found himself with rake and sprong keeping the underside of the mill clear.

He was happy enough with this as the old Clayton & Shuttleworth had a “Hell of a thirst” and made big demands on a little boy’s arms, dragging buckets of water from the tank. Packie, the engine man sat on his machine keeping an eye on his steam pressure, belt-line and furnace. Occasionally, he descended from his throne, took a swan-necked oil can and did an inspection tour of engine, mill and elevator oiling shafts and bearings. An engineman’s pride would be seriously hurt if any component broke down!

Soon, the man with the enamel bucket appeared, the fingers of his left hand festooned with mugs. There was a pecking order in the distribution of the drinks. The engine crew was first, followed by the sheaf cutters. Last of all was the chaff boy. Jackie didn’t mind but the bottle of lemonade tasted like it “was not made on Earth”.

Just after nightfall, the last bag was tied and the men trudged into the big farm kitchen. Tired, but happy with a task well-done, they sat down to a bountiful meal of bacon and cabbage followed by mugs of steaming hot tea. Jackie, as part of the “meitheal”, sat at the table with the best of them. Before he set out across the fields to his home the big hearted owner pressed a half-crown into his palm.

Running through the moonlit fields his thoughts now turned to the supper his parents were awaiting. He was three hours late, his belly was full …….. he would now have to call on his imagination ……. maybe the half-crown would work ……….