McMahon spades made in Clones

By Cormac MacConnell. Shovels made in Clones, back home you did NOT call a spade a spade. No, you called it The McMahon and I sold plenty of them in my time in Sandy's country shop and I used a few of them too.

And there was a time when I was fourteen and watching Pee Flanagan setting early spuds in Sandy's garden for us that I knew I could do nearly as good a job as Pee if I only had his special McMahon, as old as a bush, as light as a feather, with a long and angled bright blade to it from years of work, that had and edge sharp enough to shave a quarryman on a Sunday morning. The McMahon were made in Clones and my father always had a dozen of them for sale. They occupied one corner of the litle shop with their "T" tops close together against the wall, dignified and clean as the Presbyterian farmers that would always pass our Catholic shop and buy their McMahons in Cathcarts.
Our McMahons were for the men with Mc and O in their names, and less land, and big families and never a tractor. So it was with The McMahon that the family was red..........spuds and cabbage and turnips, kale, onions, carrots, parsnips, all the salad stuff like scallions and lettuce.....but mostly the spuds. And it was a bad day you broke the shaft of a McMahon. And it was a big day you came to Sandy's to buy a new one. "Never interfere with a man buying a McMahon", is what Sandy told us, "if he comes in to buy one he'll buy it. And he'll pick it himself in his own good time". The McMahons that waited behind our door had one half of the blade painted blood red. The handles were virgin white. The label proudly announced that they were the finest product of their type crafted by McMahons of Clones. I sold them for ten old shillings at the time when they were needed in the summer. And a Scotch rake was three shillings.

The blades of the new McMahons were not worn scimitar sharp like Pee Flanagan's, they were heavy and blunt, quite sharply angled forward for the last six or seven inches of the fifteen or sixteen inch narrow blade with its built-in lugs on top for the downpressing boot in heavy ground. Pee did not need to use a boot at all. His McMahon was a magic wand that he could take out into lea ground, unbroken for years, and create a vegetable garden within a few days of craftmanship. To see him setting spuds in that lea ground was a work of art. The seed spuds would be dropped in a diamond shape atop the bed of manure on the unbroken earth and, with a cord, he would define the ridges of spuds he would make. And to see that implement become an instrument in those wristy hands that were also a histlers' hands, was to have a memory forever. The long sod was cut maybe two inches deep on three sides, the side nearest the seeds representing the uncut "hinge" on which,with one flick, it would drop perfectly. And, in time, when he was working the other side on his way back, the other sod was matched perfectly. And little bit of loose earth in the space between, a flock and pat here and there and, suddenly, you had two ridges of spuds that would feed the young MacConnells all the year. All as straight as black arrows. When a man came to buy The McMahon you left him alone. He would take maybe a half-hour at it.

The thing I noticed was that the one he would not like at all would be the first choice of the next man. And he would always claim, would the buyer, that The McMahons of that era were not a patch on the stuff that the firm was turning out even a few years ago. But, in the end, he would buy and he would usually borrow two pieces of twine to tie the McMahon to the crossbar of the bicycle to bring it home. Men drive home new cars nowadays with the same solemnity in their bearing. It was reminded of The McMahons and the men who used them this morning when I read a splendid article in the Bord Failte magazine, Ireland of the Welcomes, about the Patterson Spade in Antrim. That great company's Spade Mill is still open and attracts thousands of visitors every summer. It is the last of the spade mills which, I learn, produced nearly 180 different styles of Irish spade in those heydays of the Thirties and Forties. Including our McMahon. And, one last thing, I am indebted to the author of the article, Leslie Gilmore, for a nugget of old lore. He writes that armies of Irish spadesmen built all the network of English canals with such skill and precision that they eventually earned the title of navigators, later shortened to navvies!