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."
Haymaking in Ireland long ago
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.
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 Edwatds. 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.
This turn of the century photograph is of the hay market in Eyre Square showing the Bank of Ireland and the county club in the background. In the centre of the photograph is a weighing scale, where a bag of hay is being weighed. Hay was an essential commodity in those days, and it was a common enough sight to see a few hundred horses with carts loaded with hay lined up here form early morning. There was a regular specialized haymarket, but cartloads of hay were sold at other times as well, especially during fairs.
As hay-laden carts made their way to the Square, some enterprising boys, unbeknownst to the farmer, often pulled an armful of hay from the load and made a penny or two by selling it to a neighbour who kept hens.
The Square was the scene of most of these. There were cattle fairs, sheep fairs, pig fair, horse fair, egg markets, butter markets, potato markets, vegetable markets, fowl markets, sock markets, basket markets, fishmarkets, turfmarkets etc.
These were all highly animated affairs when the Square, or Woodquay, or the Fishmarket, or Market Street would be crowded with country people and their cattle or sheep, all being policed by sheepdogs trying to keep the animals under control. There were occasional water troughs situated in the area for the horses, generally near a tap or a pump. There was plenty of wheeling and dealing and haggling and spitting on hands and slaps to the shoulder.
It was town meeting country, and the business conducted was critical to both - for the townspeople it meant a steady supply of food and fuel, and for the country people it meant an income which enabled them to by necessities in town that they could not produce on the land.
There would have been a mixture of báinín clad men, and those in bowler hats, of ladies in shawls and red petticoats and those wearing more "fashionable" clothes. Business was conducted in Irish and English.
The saddest market of all in the Square was one which took place regularly along the railings opposite the Skeffington Arms Hotel- that for people, of spailpins who came into town , mostly from the west, and waited there for farmers to come and hire them, and take them away for days or weeks at a time. This sad spectacle was to been seen here until the early 1950's.
This photograph is one of these used in Victor Whitmarsh's excellent book, "Shadows on Glass, Galway 1895 - 1960s".
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Foto's Dick Hanekamp 2003
Foto: Maja de Zwaan 2008
Hooien in Kerry