Midsummer's day marks a time of scented hedgerows and lush meadows, of bees buzzing contentedly from flower to flower on long sunlit evenings and drifting in the air and the wonderful aroma of mown grass. The summer solstice has always been an occasion for celebration and in ancient times the Celts held great feasts with bonfires and festivities to honour the sun on the longest day of the year.
On June 21 this year, the sun was at its maximum elevation, but I couldn't see it because of the dense black clouds overhead that were brimming with rain and thunder. At that point, I, too, lit a fire. Well, it was actually a wood-burning stove, but not for any reason other than I was bloody freezing and needed to keep warm, for the day had been a cool one with heavy showers and decidedly wintry for the end of June.
So far, this year has not been a year for haymaking. Recently we have had what is often termed 'broken' weather, with hailstones, late frosts and periodic torrential downpours. My outdoor spuds got burnt by frost a week ago and the temperature should surely be higher than the 12Â°C showing as I write this.
And there may be worse to come, for despite the dire warnings of the consequences of global warming, weather forecasters are predicting a change in sun spot activity similar to that encountered in the 1600s when whole rivers froze over and people skated across the Thames in Britain. A milder form of mini ice age also occurred in the early 1800s and it was this that gave us the familiar snow scenes on Christmas cards that have remained popular up to the present time.
Apparently, an absence of sun spots affects wind behaviour and means that this time around, just like last winter, we will have to endure weather blowing straight from Arctic Siberia. The 70 years from 1645 to 1715 was a period when there were virtually no sun spots and this in turn produced the Little Ice Age, which generated a catastrophe for agriculture.
If we have another lengthy freeze up, more fodder will be needed but at least we are not totally dependent on hay as we were in the past. The making of silage has transformed livestock farming and the round bale guarantees that we can always salvage wet hay into something that at least cattle can eat, albeit of low nutritional value.
Young farmers may wonder what I am talking about here but I well recall the importance of saving hay and the dire financial implications in the past of a wet summer.
The recent Trim Haymaking Festival was a reminder of how dependent we all were on a few fine weeks to save the hay crop and the extraordinary amount of manpower that was involved in the task. Held in the show grounds along the Boyne and overlooked by the imposing ruins of King John's Castle, this annual festival is a great occasion where old machinery and even older farming systems are on show. I met many friends there who recalled the days when we all got out the hayforks and prepared for the hard labour that seemed to last throughout the summer. The finger bar mower had replaced the scythe when I first got enlisted into the farm team but the rows of mown grass were still shaken out by hand.
Who else remembers the panic when the hay was nearly ready to cock and rain was looming? Or the hardship of pulling the butts and making hay ropes when the cocks had settled and the hay was full of thistles? But there are lovely memories, too, of thirst-quenching black tea and welcome sandwiches during breaks and later sitting on the bogies as the cocks were drawn into the haggard.
Helping at building a rick while standing on a ladder and passing up huge forkfuls of hay on a hot day, while the seeds and small insects gathered and itched on your sweaty back, was another tough task but somehow it all got done -- and once the ricks were made and tied down, everyone could relax.
When winter arrived, the hay knife was brought out, sharpened and used to cut benches for hauling out to the foddering banks in the fields. On a bright frosty morning with the ground hard, this was a pleasant and satisfying job.
The dedicated volunteers who run the Trim Haymaking Festival each year deserve our thanks for reviving those, and many other, happy memories.