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How catching rabbits helped developed farming practices

A PORTNOO man’s story of his father’s life as a rabbit trapper in Donegal during World War 2 is featured in a new book that will be in bookshops before Christmas.
‘National Treasures A Peoples’ Archive’ features a picture of Gerald McHugh with a rabbit trap that he brought along to one of the National Treasures Roadshows in Belfast earlier this year.
Speaking to the Donegal News, Mr McHugh recounted the story which led to him being one of a select few individuals to be featured in the new publication.
“I found out, thanks to local historian Bart Whelan, that my father John Peter McHugh was the first man to have a tractor in the parish of Ardara. He bought a brand new Massey Ferguson TVO from McMahon’s in Milford in 1948 with the proceeds of trapping rabbits.
“People no longer had to delve in the fields anymore. They didn’t have to walk behind their horse and cart from the bog or cut the hay with scythes. The tractor brought a huge change to the area. It was something akin to the mobile phone when it was first introduced in the 1980s,” Mr McHugh explained.
“The eldest in a large family, he went off to manage a farm in County Offaly after marrying my mum, Bridget.
“They returned to lease a little cottage in Portnoo. There was little work at the time.
“Due to the lack of food in England at the time of the war there was a huge demand for rabbits from all over Ireland. Dad rented Inniskeel island and lands elsewhere and started trapping rabbits and saved the price of a brand new tractor.
“Within ten years he had bought a small farm and was able to build a new bungalow in Narin,” he explained.
Traps and snares were used to catch the rabbits which were then taken to the train in Glenties and transported to Dublin.
“He would send away consignments of between sixty to one hundred fresh rabbits at a time, often on a daily basis. He had no transport. There was no quads or even a donkey and cart but there was a CDR (County Donegal Railways) lorry used to pick up the rabbits and bring them to the station in Glenties.
“What I’ve since learned was that many of the rabbits were used to feed soldiers while their skins were also used to line officers’ tunics,” he added.
“Basically, the rabbit trap allowed my father to gather together enough money to buy a tractor which, in turn, fundamentally changed farming practices in the locality,” Mr McHugh said.
The National Treasures project was a campaign to collect objects cherished by people and families that explore the history of the island of Ireland over the past 100 years. The aim was to gather objects, passed down through generations or relatively recently acquired, which revealed an aspect of Ireland’s history, culture and experience.
Since then, the project has transformed from a website to nationwide roadshow events, a TV series, an exhibition and now a book containing some of the amazing objects and stories uncovered.
Authors and producers of the National Treasures project, Ciarán Deeney and David Clarke said it was a real treat to spend the past year meeting the people of Ireland and discovering so many amazing objects and the stories behind them.
“We’re forever grateful to all the people that participated and we feel that this book illustrates perfectly how the National Treasures project was a powerful insight into the fabric of a nation”
With a foreword by RTÉ’s John Creedon, this fascinating book reveals a selection of 200 diverse and fascinating objects that were unearthed by the project and presents them alongside the owners and the personal stories attached.
From a pair of Sonia O’Sullivan’s Olympic running shoes to a War of Independence grenade, the stories contained within are profound, entertaining, heart-warming and tragic.

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Donegal News is published by North West of Ireland Printing & Publishing Company Limited, trading as North-West News Group.
Registered in Northern Ireland, No. R0000576. St. Anne's Court, Letterkenny, County Donegal, Ireland