Spades, again

While visiting a museum in the Netherlands recently I saw this spade and it reminded me of the Spade Museum in County Antrim, Northern Ireland.

This is a post I wrote about it:

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.

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:


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?


  1. David Lewis

    My dad would refer to navvies back in England but I never knew what he meant until reading Andrew Simpsons blog about making canals. He makes a great read and that’s how I found you. So blame him!


    1. Lois

      I shall tell him that next time I see him! Our favourite pub in Oldham was the navigation, called the navvi by all. Navigation meant canal – as you know!! x


  2. David Lewis

    I think people were more intimidated by the navvies than the gypsies as I recall as a kid and my parents would make up stories about them to scare the hell out of us.

    Liked by 1 person

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