Saving the hay

Joe McManus remembers.

“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 upright.

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, semi-circular.

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 one’s 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 level.

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 father’s 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 that’s 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 father’s 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 heart’s more ready
No hand’s more steady
Than the heart and hand of a farmers son

His homely garb has not fashion’s graces
But it wraps a frame that is lithe and strong
His brawney hand may show labour’s traces
But ‘tis honest toil that does no man wrong.”

Taken from Breffni Blue
April 2003