Monday 23 September 2019

When haymaking was the highlight of the summer

The problem with Rosiebrook field was that it was too far from the hot 'tae'

Jim Commins

In the not too distant past before hedges and ditches were leveled by bulldozers even the smallest of fields had names and the one in front of our house was no exception, it was called "The Corner".

It was about an acre in size and triangular in shape. At one time it had a shed which was used for housing hens, turkeys and even geese. Newly born lambs and calves that had to be hand-fed were often accommodated there. It was an all wooden structure and one night when a gale force eight wind blew off its roof, it was demolished. It was never rebuilt and it's wood was used for firewood. When the grass was not grazed it was let grow for making hay. The field was so well fertilized with the manure of the animals and fowl that crops of after-grass were also saved.

In June when the grass was about three feet tall my two younger brothers and I could not resist the temptation of going into the meadow and crawling on our knees, made passages akin to a maze. This would have been in the late 1930's when I was about seven years of age. This childhood playful pursuit lasted for a few years until the field reverted to permanent pasture. When the time for mowing came, there was always a bit of a commotion because of the flattened grass. For punishment, the grass had to be lifted up with sticks or handles in order that the finger-bar of the mower could get under it.

The nearness of the house did not deter pheasants from nesting there and it was always heartening to see the birds and their chicks escaping from the sharp triangular blades of the mower. Frogs on the other hand were less fortunate, injured or not, they became victims of the opportunistic magpies and seagulls.

The cut grass was left in rows to be dried out by the sun and wind. Sometimes the swathes had to be tossed and turned over. This was done with the aid of a pitchfork as it was before the advent of the swathe turning machine. When we did buy the machine my father called it "That yokeibus". If the meadow or after grass was being cut late in the season a watchful eye had to be kept for the appearance of the obnoxious weed known as the "Bauchalan". Yellow stripped caterpillars gorged themselves on it. It had to be extracted straightaway as the yellow flower of the ragwort was regarded as being poisonous to horses. The dried swathes were collected with a horse rake into windrows which were then gathered and forked into lap-cocks or larger cocks. The latter were tapered to the top so that the rain would run off. The tops were held in place with hay-ropes. The ropes were made by feeding handfuls of hay from a pile of rakings to a person using a twister.

There was always a mid afternoon tea break. In Rosiebrook which is about mid-way between Ardee and Tallantstown, there was a field noted for its crops of hay and because of the distance to it, the "tae", when it did arrive was either luke-warm or cold and the buttered brown bread although wrapped up in a tea-towel, crispy. Some of the cuts of bread would have a spread of neither jam nor marmalade. At the bottom of the field there was a stream and on one occasion I remember a helper going to it and bringing back a fistful of water crest. On his return he grinningly asked if anybody had a pinch of salt for his salad sandwiches. In an adjoining field, a ragwort mower obviously intrigued, looking through a gap in the hedge asked "what is that yis are ate-in" Back then many a farmer was brought to court and fined for not cutting the weed. Having been fatigued by working long hours in the hot sun the workers certainly appreciated the luxury of a rest. Calls to restart unfailingly brought protests of moans and groans.

When it was convenient, the cocks of hay were carried on a horse-drawn flat cart or hay-slide to the hay barn. The conveyance was unique in its design, one end could be lowered and maneuvered to go under part of the cock. With a rope around its base, the hay was gradually winched on to the slide. As a youngster, I had many an enjoyable ride on the slide.

The hay was not saved until it was safe and secure in the barn. Even then extreme care had to be taken that none of it was musty or damp. In the shed the hay was forked from the cocks to the builder. When the stack was too high for the pitcher to toss the forkfuls upwards, a third person was employed. He perched himself about half-ways up a ladder with his back to the stack. From this position he received forkfuls of hay from the pitcher on the ground, to be passed over his head to the builder, who pulled it in. In my mid-teens I was often given the ladder job of hoisting the hay up and over my head. Motes of dust caused bouts of sneezing, rashes from mite bites and itching from blizzards of hay-seed.

In order to make more space for the hay in the barn, other members of the family were roped in to trample on it. Overnight it could subside by several feet.

The hay ropes were usually thrown to one side and on one occasion I remember an incident when one of the pitcher's legs became entangled in them. As he stumbled around, someone shouted to him to stop doing the "Haymaker's Jig" and to get on with the job. The seriousness of the incident was only realised later on and it was no joking matter. The prongs of the swaying fork with its hay could have accidently injured the handler on the ladder.

The hay season would be well and truly over by the time I returned to school. During the first few days holiday experiences were exchanged among class mates. Those who went to the Gaeltacht appeared to have a great time. Perhaps I was a wee bit eadmhar!

Drogheda Independent