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Haymaking in Ireland long ago
by Bridget Haggerty

In days gone by, preparations for making hay were begun as early as February. Farmers usually set aside one or more fields for meadow. Later in the spring, they'd encourage the pasture-quality grass to produce a higher yield by spreading farmyard manure on it. This was known as "top-dressing."

How this was done by most farm folk was to load up the cart with the droppings, drive the cart to the meadow and then use a pitchfork to unload the dung, little by little, until the entire field was dotted with cowpats. Later, these would be spread out as evenly as possible until the field was fully dressed.

Hay-cutting Time
The best time for cutting hay was in June, when the grasses were in flower. Once the grasses were tall enough, the farmer cut it with a scythe. The long-handle scythe has always been held in high regard by Irish farmers, and because it was built to specifications in the old days, no two scythes were exactly the same.

Different types of grasses were grown, including sheep's fescue, timothy grass and cocksfoot which yielded a particularly coarse type of hay. A grass to avoid was 'hungry' grass, This was a type of mountain grass which was said to bring on a craving for food if one accidentally stepped on it. To overcome this craving, a bit of food as small as a breadcrumb should be carried in the pocket!

After the hay had been cut into swaths, it was left to dry for a couple of weeks and then it was turned by fork for drying on the other side. It was then shaken out and made into cociní (cockeens, cutyeens or lapcocks). Unless the hay was already very dry, these were left in the fields for a few more days to dry out some more.

Once they were fully dry, the cociní were shaken out for a second time and built into proper haystacks between seven and eight feet tall. Súgans, or hayropes were then twisted and drawn over the stacks to secure them; heavy stone weights at the ends of the ropes held them down in high wind. The farmer would also "head" the stacks by raking all the loose hay from the top to tidy it and then he would use a pitchfork to put the loose hay back.

Hauling home the hay to the haggard
The haystacks stood in the field for a month or so and then it was time to bring it back to the haggard - the traditional storage area for the crops. In most parts of Ireland, horse-drawn haycarts were used, but in very poor regions, one would often see a donkey being led home with a huge burden of hay on its back.

In her book, The Festive Foods of Ireland, Darina Allen recalls that as late as the 1960s, haycarts were still horse-drawn. She also remembers that gathering the hay was a community event, when everyone in the village pitched in to help each other, moving from farm to farm as they did at harvest time.

"As children we were welcome in every house and adored all of the excitement. We raced into the fields after school, flinging our satchels into the headlands. The boys were full of importance helping to make the haystacks but I would rush into the farm kitchen to help with the tea. Spotted Dog (a type of fruit bread) and apple or rhubarb cake were the standard fare and I was sometimes allowed to peel the apples or chop the rhubarb or best of all, roll out the trimmings of pastry. As soon as everything was baked, great big teapots of strong tea were brewed and poured into a tin can with a lid or into whiskey bottles which were then wrapped in several layers of newspaper.

Haymaking, like harvesting, was thirsty work, so we always got a great welcome, Everyone gathered, and sitting up against a haystack, drank hot sweet tea and ate thick slices of warm fruit bread smothered with country butter, followed by apple cake."

The benefits of making hay the old way
Once all the hay was in the haggard, it was built up into a large rick. Men on the ground pitched the hay up to the men on top, and when the rick was made, a ladder was provided. The sides of the rick were then tidied up with a rake, with special attention given to the base; finally, the rick was headed and tied with strong rope from which stones were suspended.

Without question, the old-fashioned way took more time than modern methods, but the exercise was good, the air was fresh, and it was an event that brought a farming community together.

Additionally, the simple tools and equipment were very well built and easy to maintain. In fact, the farm machinery built in the latter part of the horse-drawn era was made to last forever. There were other benefits as well.

In this era of powerful agricultural equipment, it would be dangerous to allow young children around a modern round baler. But, in old Ireland, kids grew up working alongside the adults and undoubtedly, thoroughly enjoyed the rides in the hay cart back and forth. Perhaps some of you came from a rural background and can remember the joy of jumping into the haystacks?

Black & white shot is kindly provided by our friend and subscriber in England - Patricia Edwards. It was taken when she visited her grandparents in Kilmurry McMahon, Co. Clare in 1958. She is the 16 year old in front with the pitchfork.

This has the added benefit to the farmer of packing the hay. Then there's the advantage of being able to work with loose hay even when you're up in years. So that meant even the oldest member of a farming community could help out, because with loose hay, skill counts as much or more than strength.

Besides bringing a village and generations of a family together there was also the benefits inherent in having to keep a closer eye on the animals. As opposed to today's method of often dumping a round bale and just leaving it for a couple of days, our farmer of old would probably have filled his feeders at least twice a day. Thus, he would know a lot sooner which animals were sick, not eating, or ready to give birth.

But best of all, there was the satisfaction of knowing that when the cold winds of winter came, the fodder in the haggard would feed the animals in the fields; fodder provided for by a community of people working side by side, and by God's gift of good summer weather.

Resources: The Festive Foods of Ireland by Darina Allen and Old Days, Old Ways by Olive Sharkey.
Images: Haywagon by W.B. Stone, Haymaking by Winslow Homer and Haymaking by Leon Augustin L'hermitte from All Posters,


Fri, Feb 2, 2018

Irish God and Goddess of love

Oengus is the Irish God of love, beauty and youth. According to the old folklore, his kisses became birds. It is also said that he dreamed of a beautiful maiden, named Caer, for whom he searched all over Ireland. Eventually, he found her chained to 150 other maidens, destined to become swans at the time of Samhain. Legend has it that Oengus transformed himself into a swan and was united with his love.
Aine of Knockaine is the Irish Goddess of love. She is also known as the Fairy Queen of Munster and as a goddess of fertility beause she has control and command over crops and animals, especially cattle. Another name by which she is known is Aillen. To learn more about Irish mythology, please click Irish Myths & Legends.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Click for More Culture Corner.

Old Days, Old Ways
by Olive Sharkey

This is a wonderfully written commentary on many aspects of rural Irish life in the recent past - when my grandparents and great-grandparents lived like this. There are a multitude of good drawings, interesting to learn about and/or compare with American implements. It's easy to pick up again after a hiatus, or easy to read right through. The author draws on her own family's experiences and acquaintances to illumine her narrative. I'm so glad I stumbled on this little volume!
Amazon Reviewer
Click for Old Days, Old Ways.

Through the words of West Ireland story tellers,we are drawn into the lives of coopers, thatchers, farriers, and weavers. An elegy to the loss of traditional life in the west of Ireland, the book details the region's vanishing communities and landscape with deep reverence and precision.
Amazon Review
Click for Notes from the West of Ireland


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