Stories of rats, stacks, stilts and stands

The brown rat could be said to be the architect, indirectly, at least, of a stone structure in Spink and of a monument on the Stradbally-Carlow road.

The stone structure in Brophys' haggard at Graiguenahown, Spink, is a corn stand, and is believed to date form the Great Famine.

The monument, in the form of a base and two crosses, commemorates brothers Andrew and Edward Hacket who perished when caught in a snowstorm on February 16, 1838.

At the time, they were returning home to the Doon of Clopook, Luggacurren, after having had oats ground in Ballykilcavan mill. The area where they died is now known as Hacket's Cross.
The brown rat (Rattus rattus) arrived in Ireland in the 18th century and, quickly adapting to the climate, soon reached epidemic proportions.

In contrast to the black rat (Rattus norvegicus), which largely confined itself to urban areas, the brown rat inhabitated the country-side inflicting massive damage on grain crops.

In bad weather, the rats migrated to haggards and farm yards, where they fed and bred in corn stacks. Many, if not most, of these were not threshed until spring. Not that there was much to thresh following the rodents' depredations.

Farmers fought back by inventing stands upon which they erected the stacks. In the majority of cases, the stand bases were mushroom shaped and were arranged in circles or rectangles.
Rats and mice could climb the mushroom stem but, in theory, at any rate, not the cap. Hence the stacks were saved, and the grain, maturing slowly over the winter, was in perfect condition for spring threshing.

The Spink corn stand does not conform to type. Consisting of two large half-moon like flag stones fitted together, it rests on two circular walls instead of mushrooms. What is certain is that without the need to counter the brown rat it would not exist.

To blame the brown rat for the demise of the Hackets in that terrible snowstorm 167 years ago would probably be an exaggeration, but they did lose their lives in circumstances connected to the use of cornstands and spring threshing.

The horses were reluctant to move as, in the early morning of February 16, 1838, the brothers set off for Ballykilcavan mill with two cart loads of oats they had threshed with flails.

Their mother pleaded: "In the name of God leave it so today. Those horses have never refused to pull a load before and don't you know there's some bad omen attached to it." Fateful words, indeed.
The snowstorm caught them on the return journey. Andrew struggled towards a lightened window in Tarletons (now Farrells) of Tullamoy, but died as he crossed a stile within yards of safety. The drifting snow smothered Edward. The horses survived.

Michael J Conry tells the story in his recently-issued book Corn Stacks on Stilts-Corn Stands for the Spring Threshing in Ireland.

An agricultural scientist, he worked for many years in the Oak Park Research Centre in Carlow. His previous publications including Dancing with Culm (2001) which was very successful in Laois, as well as in other counties.

Irish Agricultural Museum Curator Dr A.M O'Sullivan, in the foreword to the new book, states: "Michael Conry had done a great service to history and agricultural science."

"By careful collection of oral knowledge from men with practical experience, he has gathered the building blocks to write the story of an important facet of Irish harvested corn that was threshed in the spring. Thankfully, he did it when first-hand experience could still be reordered for posterity."

Lavishly illustrated with photographs and drawings and very readable, Corn Stacks on Stilts is available in the Laois Education Supplies Bookshop, Portlaoise, or from Chapelstown Press Ltd at 059 9131535.

Courtesy of The Leinster Express
August 2005