Picking Billberries, Fraochans and Whorts in Ireland: The Human Story, by Michael J Conry, Chapelstown Press, 375 pp, €30
Like many first generation Dubs I spent part of every childhood summer with rural relatives. In my case the relatives lived in a remote part of northwest Cork that is still officially part of the Gaeltacht. Even in those days there was hardly any Irish left in Réidh na nDoirí (the Plain of the Oak Woods), but the English spoken there was replete with Irish expressions and turns of phrase. Puzzlingly to me, it also contained many archaic English expressions and words such as “Tis aikel to you”; “I’d sooner do that” and “pismire”.
One word, which my cousins and I pronounced “blackhurts”, still has resonances of companionship and warm days and pleasure after more than half a century. It was only much later that I realised this was the local version of the English word whort. And whort is just one name for vaccinium myrillus, the small blue berry also known as bilberry, whortleberry, winberry, or blueberry, but not to be confused with its larger and less tasty US cousin, the blueberry. I have no idea why, although the English of west Muskerry was replete with rich Gaelicisms (sciolláns, mothaolach, ainniseoir, dailc, dúthracht, táthaire, cnáimhseálaí … ), whorts there were called blackhurts rather than fraocháns.
I think I could still find the spots in the townlands of Leac and Doireach where my cousins and I picked those blackhurts. Memories abide too of our blue-dyed hands and of the tasty concoction of hurts, sugar, and hot water that Annie and Johnnie and I made with the fruit we hadn’t eaten. I am always reminded of those times when I happen upon a spot in the Wicklow hills where the fraughans (as they are called there) are plentiful.
All this came back to me while reading Michael Conry’s wonderful Picking Billberries, Fraocháns and Whorts. How could someone write such a powerful book of nearly four hundred pages on such an obscure and marginal topic? Part of the answer is Conry’s talent for meeting interesting people and relaying their stories; part of the answer is that there is much that is striking and surprising here; and, finally, the very marginality of the subject matter should make it attractive and relevant to all kinds of readers.
Anyone who picks whorts or fraughans in today’s Ireland does so for fun. But as Conry documents so powerfully, not so long ago poor people in different parts of Ireland picked them as a means of supplementing their meagre incomes. In the whort-picking districts only the children of big farmers, who were given other jobs to do, were spared this seasonal task. The pickers were more likely to be women than men, and women with large families of young children were particularly prominent. Conry links the willingness of people to harvest whorts to trends in the prices paid for them; he vividly documents the improvised utensils and the transport—usually Shank’s mare and often barefoot, but sometimes donkey and cart—associated with the work; he rediscovers and describes the merchant networks that sustained the trade; he illustrates its geographical spread with useful maps; and he draws interesting comparative parallels.
Picking whorts for money was slow and tedious work. Midges and ticks and wasps were never far away; the prospect of thunderstorms on the exposed mountain was a worry; and, given the terrain (place names like Brandon Hill, Slievenamon, Mount Leinster, Clohernagh, and the Nire will register with hill-walkers), there was always the real risk of spilling the proceeds of a day’s work. The activity never impacted on national income or census data, and its role in international trade was never more than minimal. Still, the £64,292 worth of hurts exported in the peak year of 1941 amounted to 7,888 hundredweight. Given that a good picker might average a stone a day, that would have entailed over sixty thousand days’ labour. The volumes exported during World War I may have exceeded this tally, but data are lacking. Seven hundred and twenty-four hundredweight (£4,003) were exported in 1952 and 835 (£5,232) in 1953; the trade spluttered on for some years thereafter, but was not recorded separately. Falling prices due to competition from eastern Europe, the spread of conifers in wooded areas formerly promising hunting grounds for whort-picking, and rising incomes put paid to this mini-industry in Ireland; but Conry documents its persistence elsewhere today, notably in Roma communities in Romania and Hungary.
This is overwhelmingly an exercise in folklore and oral history, in which Conry presents the testimony of dozens of people, mainly from south Leinster and east Munster. The pickers’ stories ‑ and there are lots of them ‑ tell of resilience and hardship, of rivalry between families, and of cheerfulness and sociability. The combined effect of dozens of photographs, old and new, and the stories that Conry has collected is powerful. And yet a striking and worthy feature of this study is the absence, in the main, of self-pity and nostalgia.
Conry reproduces a letter written by a schoolchild as a class exercise in Wexford in 1911:
There is a great number of people picking fraughans in Conogue wood. They are very dear this year. They are 11 shillings to 14 and 15 shillings per stone. They are used for making dye and that is why they are so dear. They are getting scarce now on account of so many people picking them. People are going to pick them from the three counties around Kilkenny, Wexford and Carlow. The buyers are Mr Doran, Mr Molouney and Mr Hollaway.
Doran, Molouney, and Hollaway are only three of the many buyers identified by Conry. The others include one Abraham Feldman, who, according to Conry’s source “came to Tipperary town shortly after the pogrom against the Jewish community in Limerick”. This seems unlikely: there is nobody of that name listed in the 1901 census and the only Abraham Feldman listed in 1911 lived in Dublin, where all his nine children had been born. He is described as “a traveller in soft goods”. Perhaps this Abraham moved to Tipperary soon thereafter; according to Conry’s informant, he started out there as a scrap merchant and a furniture dealer on the never-never system, but during the Great War he began buying whorts in the Glen of Aherlow and as far away as Cahir.
Michael Conry and his invaluable chronicles on Irish society are a small but rich part of Ireland’s social capital. For four decades he held an interesting and demanding position as erudite soil scientist with a PhD in An Foras Talúntais. His day job led to many scholarly publications and many consultancy trips abroad. But in his spare time he has been producing fantastic studies like this one for more than two decades. His books range from Grinding Stones in the Barrow Valley (1990) to The Carlow Fence (2000); and from Corn Stacks on Stilts (2004) to Dancing the Culm: Burning Culm as a Domestic and Industrial Fuel in Ireland (2001). All these works on “hidden”, unfamiliar topics deserve to be better known. Picking Billberries should be available in all good bookshops but, alas, isn’t. Copies may be had for €30 plus postage from the author, who deserves another PhD or two for his labours, at [email protected].
Cormac Ó Gráda is professor emeritus, UCD. His current research focuses on intermarriage in nineteenth century Ireland, population in seventeenth-century London, and attitudes to immigration in Europe today.