Oil painting of an old Irish scene of farmers bringing home the hay.
“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.
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.
“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?"
My thanks to Irish Heritage (Irish Historical Pictures) for their kind permission to use their photo as a reference for the painting.