Friday, 1 June 2012

Homo Habilis: Irish Digging Shovel

What you see here in front of the shed (notice man-trap at door) is an Irish digging shovel a superlative tool not to be confused with the Suffock pattern or West Country shovel. The latter has a flatter face with a less pronounced fold in the middle. It is the weapon of choice in the building trade but it can also be used for digging. Due to the flatter fold they are less resistant to bending force as you pry rocks out of the stubborn soil. Still I used one for 20 years as an all purpose tool before it split across the face. Spear and Jackson Suffock pattern as I recollect. An excellent tool but the slightly narrower at 9" and slightly longer at 13", with a more cranked face makes the digging shovel a must for rough ground. A good spade will do that too but at a much slower pace. The pointed end for easier insertion and the slicing action of the curved sides as you lep' on the shoulders make for easier work and you take out more with each fill. It is 5ft. long overall with a stout ash handle which saves bending as you can lift the load by using your knee as a fulcrum. The short English spade is a device designed to break the backs of subject peoples. A terrible tool.

Oh yes, it comes without a tread or step which can be ruinous to the boot so buy a spring clip and tap it on to suit your digging foot. 'He digs with the other foot' is the code for Protestant or Catholic as apparently there was this difference in country districts long ago. Even though I'm naturally left-footed I find it awkward digging with that foot. Recalcitrant Papist!


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

(From Death of a Naturalist)


john doyle said...

Very satisfying the linkage of physical features to their utility. It's odd that Catholics and Protestants would use shovels differently. I too am left-footed when kicking but I shove down on the shovel with my right foot. You may have observed this in movies, but Americans shovel food differently from the French and the English -- I don't know about the Irish. Most notable to me is the use of the knife. Being a left-handed American, I stab the slab of meat with the fork in my right hand while sawing away with the knife in my left. Once I've severed a bite-sized morsel I lay down the knife, shift the fork from right hand back to left, and maneuver the food mouthward.

The poem reminded me of a term of endearment by which my (Polish-Slovak) mother used to address my (Irish) father: You old sod-buster.

ombhurbhuva said...


The digging with the other foot comes from the fact that the Ulster Planter brought steel spades with them which had the lug on the left whilst the native Irish stuck to the loy which was a tool specially designed for making lazy beds for the potatoes and it customarily had the little tread for the foot cut out of the stock on the right. The man in the photos had his customised for his own 'leaning'. They are no longer available but my gardener friend know someone who will make them to order. By all accounts they were a very efficient tool. The rocker on the back of the stock was perfect for lifting up the sod like a hinge. When you did the same from the other side you had a bed. The sod was on the down side and would rot and material from the sides would be thrown onto to bed to make deep gulleys between the beds.

You will notice that the steel fits on the stock like a sock somewhat like the ancient plough thus giving rise to its name in polite English - the breast plough.