Happy the man whose wish and cave
A few paternal acres bound
Content to breath his native air
In his home ground
Whose herds with milk
Whose fields with bread
Whose flocks supply him with attire
Whose trees in summer
Yield him shade
In winter, fire.
So wrote a poet of long ago, but the herds could not supply
the milk nor could the flocks supply the attire unless all
the animals were fed. In the days before silage-making or
such like, saving the hay was one of the most important
jobs which the farmer had to carry out.
In the late thirties and early forties some big farmers
began to have items of machinery such as swathe turners,
hay shifters, machine rakes, in addition to one-horse and
two-horse moving machines. The outbreak of World War II
in 1939 and consequent scarcity of oil and petrol made it
very difficult to keep machinery in working order. There
were no tractors to be seen then and horse-power had to
be relied on.
However, in County Cavan during the Emergency
years on most of the bigger farms horse-drawn mowing-machines
were in evidence, but on a great number of small farms any
type of machinery was out of the question.
Hay was cut by a scythe. The scythe had a long wooden handle
with two hand-grips fitted in near the centre. A long steel
blade was attached to the handle. The mower, or reaper,
with his hands on the hand-grips, swung the blade underneath
the standing hay thereby cutting it close to the ground
and causing the crop to fall in swatches. A familiar sight
and sound in the countryside was the sharpening of a scythe.
When deemed necessary the mower sharpened the scythe with
a specially made scythe-stone about one foot in length and
oval-shaped. The stone could be bought in a hardware premises
but was also stocked in many rural shops. Sharpening was
done by placing the point of the blade in the ground with
the scythe-handle in a horizontal position and the blade
The mower rubbed the scythe-stone up and down the blade
using alternate strokes to right and left sides. Alternatively,
the mower placed the scythe in an upright position close
to his side with the blade higher and in front of his shoulder.
Holding the instrument near the joining of the blade and
handle with one hand he then used the stone on the blade
with the other hand.
Normally, this procedure was carried out after one or two
swatches had been mown down. Mowing was a slow process.
A person who could mow approximately one stature acre in
a day was regarded as a good scythes-man. My
late father, anois I bPárrthas na Naomh, had a reputation
of being a top-class scythes-man and was often called on
to help neighbours.
In good weather when the hay was laid out in swatches it
was left to dry for a few hours. It was then necessary to
turn over each swathe by means of a pitchfork or hand-rake
so that the underneath side would dry out. After turning
the hay was shaken out by pitchfork. The hand-rake
was a wooden implement with a long handle to which at its
base was attached a long piece of wood holding the teeth,
approximately twenty-four, twelve on each side of handle.
On some rakes this attachment was straight and on others,
In wet weather it was necessary to constantly watch out
for a few dry hours and the turning and shaking-out
of the hay by pitchfork might have to be done several times.
Then it became necessary to make what was known as laps
- gathering small bundles of hay, putting a sort of vent
in the bundle of means of rolling it over ones arm,
and then placing the laps in rows. These had
to be shaken out again. When the hay was sufficiently
dry the next procedure was to get it gathered in for the
making of cocks.
The gathering-in was done by pitchfork and rake, and the
crop was formed into a circle. The person building the cock
stood in the centre of the circle, placed layers of hay
on the ground, also in a circular fashion, in order to make
the butt of the cock. He continued to place
layers on top of each other, all the time narrowing the
circumference of the layers so that a narrow rounded top
could be formed, approximately six to eight feet from ground
This usually got a covering of rushes. When the cock was
finished it was necessary to preserve it from wind and it
had to be tied down by a couple of ropes. Ropes were made
by one person releasing - letting-out hay from
the cock in a narrow strip while another made a loop trying
same on to a tooth of the rake and then twisting the rake-handle
while moving backwards until a sufficiently long-rope was
finished. However, this was more easily done by using an
old bucket-handle to twist a rope instead of the rake-tooth.
When harvest time came the hay-cocks had to be brought in
to the haggard and built into a hay-rick or pikes.
Pikes were constructed by building a number of cocks into
one large rounded structure. The hay-rick was built in a
rectangular shape, pitch-forked from the cocks brought in
from the fields. One or two persons walked around the edges
tramping down and firming the hay according as the rick
was being built up. The centre had also to be filled up
and firmed. The rake was used to dress down
the sides. The heading with rushes and roping completed
the work and hay was later cut into bundles for feeding-purposes,
according as the need arose, by means of a hay-knife.
The bringing-in of the cocks from the fields to the haggard
was done by horse and traces. Traces
were similar to reins with a hooking attachment which was
tied around the butt of the cock. The horse
then moved off bringing the cock with it.
Usually, hay-saving commenced in the months of June and
July. I have many memories of days spent in the hay-fields
when I was a teenager and for some time later. I recall
my late fathers anxiety to get the work done as quickly
as possible. He did the building and was fast at the work.
On days when the sky was azure blue and no sign of rain
he shouted at me, also my brothers.
Hurry up. Do ye not see the clouds coming? What are
ye standing up for? See the pile thats in front of
the rake, etc
On a particular occasion a rake-handle got broken in our
exertions and I was dispatched to the near-at-hand shop
of the late John Smith (Shan), Killygrogan, for a new rake.
(The shop mentioned was famous in our locality and is described
in the booklet published by the Upper Lavey School Re-Union
Committee in 2002). I recall that the new rake was painted
all-green, had a semi-circular base, and cost three shillings
and six pence in old money. Towards evening, all cocks completed
and prior to roping my father went to a rushy field, cut
bundles of rushes, and quoted a long-departed neighbour
You must adorn then with a cap of green.
On another occasion I was my fathers only assistant
and gathering hay in a field alongside the Dublin/Cavan
road when the late Connie Lynch, Lacken, Ballyjamesduff,
a well-known GAA personality, happened to come along on
his pedal bicycle. Connie dismounted, came into the field
and launched a verbal attack on my father for, allegedly!
having me working so hard.
Do you not realise that Lavey have a game next Sunday?
Do you not know that this lad is the coming footballer of
Lavey and one day he will don the blue sweater for Cavan?
My ego must have become inflated as Connie was often referred
to as the discoverer of Jim Smith and had refereed
a few games in which I played. Alas, his predictions were
not to come true.
When Connie left, the work continued non-stop until the
field of hay was saved. In my case, the GAA seemed to affect
every aspect of life. On Monday, August 19th 1940 we were
due to have a hay-rick with a meithéal
of neighbours arriving for the work. On the previous day,
18th August 1940, one of those neighbours, the late Noel
Donohoe, Killygrogan, and myself went by bus to the two
All-Ireland semi-finals, Cavan v Kerry and Meath v Galway
played on the same day in Croke Park. This was the last
bus which our Upper Lavey club were able to hire out during
the Emergency. Most of the people on that bus were pioneers
but others were not and some were missing when the bus was
due to leave Dublin at 10pm. In the event it was after 2am
on the morning of 19/8/40 when the stragglers were located.
When the bus arrived in Navan some of the passengers insisted
on knocking up the owner of a licensed premises with the
result that the publican joined his Cavan customers in drowning
the sorrows of both Meath and Cavan. By the time I reached
home it was 6.30am.
More than somewhat annoyed with the non-pioneers I was awakened
early on the morning of the hay-rick. My job
that day was taking in the hay from the pitchforks and doing
the firming along the sides. Noel was doing some of the
pitching and dressing the sides and seemed nothing
the worse following his loss of sleep.
May I conclude by quoting some lines from the poet, the
late TD Sullivan -
In every calling and rank and station
Good men and true will be always found
But midst their masses
And ranks and classes
When noble work must be dared and done
No hearts more ready
No hands more steady
Than the heart and hand of a farmers son
His homely garb has not fashions graces
But it wraps a frame that is lithe and strong
His brawney hand may show labours traces
But tis honest toil that does no man wrong.
Taken from Breffni Blue