The following account of the Quern, or hand-mill, appeared in the fourth volume of the Dublin Penny Journal109, (an extremely curious and interesting miscellany, which, for there is a fatality attends every thing Irish, has been recently discontinued). It is there illustrated by prints, showing the appearance of this rude contrivance for grinding corn, and by a section exhibiting its operation. Specimens of the Quern are now very rarely to be met with in Ireland, and when found are generally in a mutilated state.
Passing through a bog in the neighbourhood of Armagh, my attention was attracted by obserying a number of men examining something on one of the banks. On approaching, I found that they had discovered at the bottom of a mud-hole, two circular stones, which I immediately knew to be an ancient Irish hand-mill, commonly called a quern.
That this primitive mill was in general use in this island, is evident from the number of perfect and broken portions of it so frequently found in bogs, and in the neighbourhood of ancient raths. That it was in general use over Europe, Asia, and Africa, has been satisfactorily proved by various ancient and modern travellers; but, in particular, by Dr. Clarke. When he visited the Greek island of Cyprus, he saw, in the house of his guide's father, a quern, which he thus describes:
I observed upon the ground the sort of stones used in grinding corn, called querns in Scotland, common also to Lapland,
p.128and in all parts of Palestine. These are the primeval mills of the world, and they are still found in all corn countries, where rude and ancient customs have not been liable to those changes introduced by refinement. The employment of grinding with these mills is confined solely to females; and the practice illustrates the observation of our Saviour, alluding to this custom in his prediction concerning the day of judgment, two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
When he visited Palestine, he stopped at a village near Jerusalem, and saw the quern at work. Looking from the window into the court-yard belonging to the house, we beheld two women grinding at the mill in a manner most forcibly illustrating the saying of our Saviour before alluded to. They were preparing flour to make our bread, as it is always customary in the country when strangers arrive. The two women seated on the ground, opposite to each other, held between them two round flat stones, such as are called querns.
In the centre of the upper stone was a cavity for pouring in the corn, and by the side of this an upright wooden handle for moving the stone. As the operation began, one of the women with the right hand pushed the handle to the woman opposite, who again sent it to her companion, thus communicating a rotatory and very rapid motion to the upper stone, their left hands being all the while employed in supplying fresh com, as fast as the bran and flour escaped from the sides of the machine.
In the Hebrides, the quern was in use at a very recent period. Pennant, in his account of his voyage there110 has described the manner in which they are used by the inhabitants. He says, This method is very tedious, for it employs two
p.129pair of hands four hours to grind a single bushel of corn. The landlord can oblige his tenants, as in England, to make use of the more expeditious method of grinding by water-mills, and empowers his miller to search out and break any querns he can find, as machines that defraud him of his toll. Many centuries ago, the legislature of Scotland endeavoured to discourage these awkward mills, so prejudicial to the landlord who had been at the expense of others. In 1284, in the time of Alexander III, it was provided, that Na man sall presume to grind quheit, maishlock, or rye, in hand-mylne, except he be compelled by storme, or be in lack of mills quhilk soulde grinde the samen; and in this case, gif a man grindes at hand mylnes, he sall gif the threllein measure as milture; gif any man contraveins this our proclamation, he sall tyne his mill perpetuallie.
In many districts in Ireland, the quern was in use until very lately, and perhaps it is still in operation in some remote parts of the country. Being ignorant of the manner it was used in our own country, I applied to a friend who had an opportunity of knowing, and I subjoin his statement, which gives a minute description of the mill and manner of grinding, differing very little from the description given by Clarke of the oriental one. A prohibition against the use of querns in grinding com, existed to a more recent date than you may imagine. I think it was in the year 1794, Mr. Wm. Acheson, of Roscagh, who was then proprietor of Kesh mill, in the county of Fermanagh, gave orders to his miller, Stephen Belford, to break all the querns he could find. The only pair I then remember in the neighbourhood, belonged to one Patrick M'Manus of Rosculbin, and had been made about forty years before by his uncle, Bryan M'Manus, a cooper, known in the
p.130vicinage by the name of Bryan Beg (little Bryan); and when any neighbour would borrow the quern, it was as carefully concealed from Stephen Belford, as an illicit still would now be hidden from an exciseman.
The quern was tolerably adapted for grinding corn. The upper stone was about twenty-two inches in diameter, the under surface considerably concaved; the under stone was about an inch narrower, and convexed, so that the two surfaces might coincide, and afford an easy descent for the meal when ground. In the centre of the upper stone was a circular hole, nearly three inches in diameter; across this stone was set a bar of wood, having a hole in its centre about half an inch deep and the same in width, by means of which the upper stone rested in equilibrio upon the punthan (a strong peg, or pivot in the centre of the lower stone), and by the use of little pieces of leather, fitted into the hole in the bar above mentioned, the upper stone could be raised or depressed, so as to make the friction greater or less, as the meal was meant to be coarser or finer. There was also an upright handle about ten inches long set firmly in the upper stone, within about two inches of the edge; and thus was the whole machine fitted for work. The corn was generally dried in an iron pot, over a slow fire, and kept constantly stirred to prevent its burning, and when it arrived at a certain degree of crispness, it was taken out to be ground. Two women generally worked the quern, one sitting facing the other, the quern between them, and each in her turn taking hold of the handle, turned it with a degree of velocity much greater than you, perhaps, imagine. One or other of them fed as it was calledthat is, put the corn into the large hole (called the eye) in the upper stone, as above described. The feeding required some dexterity in
p.131avoiding a blow of the handle in its rotatory motion, and at the same time to drop the corn into the eye without scattering it. The process of shelling was never performed, but the corn and husk ground down together, so that the meal appeared at first very dark and rough, but was afterwards sifted. It required little cookery. The ordinary way of using, was to mix the meal in its raw state with milk, and make it to the consistency of stirabout. This simple mixture was called a croudie, and eaten without any other accompaniment. The great drying which the corn underwent, prevented the meal from having that raw taste perceptible in meal made in water-mills. I cannot state with any degree of confidence what quantity could be ground in a given time; but I think two stout women could grind about ten pounds of clean meal in an hour.C.