Tobacco plants on the Taaffe Estate in Smarmore. Courtesy of County Museum, Dundalk.
Tobacco was one of the more unusual crops historically grown in Louth. There are two instances of the Tobacco Field: one in Smarmore and one in Commons, Carlingford. The growing of tobacco was banned in Ireland by James I, whose book A Counterblaste to Tobacco (1604) is one of the earliest anti-smoking texts. Prohibition on the crop was revoked in the latter part of the eighteenth century and the crop became popular in some areas. There was an upsurge in tobacco cultivation in the 1930s, when the DeValera governemnt decreed that cigarettes produced in Ireland should contain a certain percentage of natively-grown tobacco. The crop was extremely lucrative and many small farmers began to grow it, spurring the introduction of regulatory measures, restricting growing permits only to those who had taken part in the 1933 growing season (Ó Faoleán 2013, 41). Early twentieth-century tobacco growing in Louth was centred in the south-west of the county, particularly around the Taaffe estate at Smarmore, where the crop is still remembered.
Harvesting tobacco on the Taaffe estate in Smarmore. Courtesy of County Museum Dundalk.
Tobacco in Smarmore: an interview with Gerry Caraher
Captain Taaffe grew tobacco round Glenkieran and there’s a field in Smarmore called the tobacco field.
A lot of farmers round here grew tobacco in the late twenties and the early thirties. They had to build a shed. The shed was I suppose about 25 foot high, maybe 20 feet wide, wooden sheds, and there was racks in them. The tobacco was cut with a knife, like for snigging turnips. It was for all the world like a dock [leaf] with a strong stem on it and then they were speared. There was a light lat with a metal end on it that was driven through the stems of the tobacco. The whole plant was taken in, hung on these racks in the tobacco sheds and coke fires were lit in barrels to dry the tobacco and then the tobacco was all packed and sent either to Player’s or to Carroll’s.
There was great money to made in tobacco up until … the government put a big levy on it.
The tobacco that could grow here I think was a bit strong or there was something wrong with it. It didn’t suit the cigarettes.
Years and years ago there was a tobacco shed here. There was one in Tom Finnegan’s, the Rogers had one, Tom Caraher had one over further, Frenchs had one. There must have been about a dozen of them in this area. It seems to have been an area that there was a fair bit of tobacco grown.
There was a lot of work [in tobacco]. It had to be grown in beds and then it had to be transplanted, and then, they used to say, you had to go and take the sprouts off it. I never saw tobacco growing. Did you ever see tomatoes growing? Do you know the little side shoot that comes off the axial of the leaf? I’d say that’s what they had to take off to let the plant grow up straight to get a bigger leaf.
Captain Taaffe used to send a lorry to Ardee to collect people. There was over a hundred people working at the tobacco in Smarmore in the twenties.
Did Captain Taaffe grow it on his estate?
He did. He grew it, he grew it on the estate.
Buy Irish tobacco! Advert from Temple’s Annual. Courtesy of Gerry Caraher.
And then, did small holders grow it as well?
They did. It was grown here. It was grown in all the other places I mentioned. There was a receipt, and I don’t know whether it was from Carroll’s or from Player’s. There was half an acre of tobacco grown here, and the cheque was for 13,000 pound. That was the first couple of years, and then after that the levy went on it. Then after that the tobacco, the plant, the leaf that they could grow here didn’t suit.
There was a teacher from Co. Cavan teaching in Ballapousta and some of the children said about growing tobacco in the area. She says, ‘Ah what are you talking about? Sure tobacco is grown in America!’ It must have been just very local to here. There was some grown in Randalstown, Co. Meath, as well. It seems to have been big in this area as well, I suppose it was from Captain Taaffe growing it.
He owned Glenkieran, and there was huge big sheds in Glenkieran [Co. Meath] where he used to do the drying of the tobacco. There were three-storey building in it. It was built for malt houses by people called Norrises and they lived in Kilpatrick. There’s some of them buried in Kildemock.
Tobacco workers on the Taaffe Estate in Smarmore. Courtesy of County Museum, Dundalk.