Con Houlihan: Awkward

Con Houlihan

Haymaking has been romanticised in song and in story; this isn't surprising as it was part of life in these islands and many countries on the European mainland until modern technology brought a revolution.

In the old days the hay was cut with a scythe. You will see that in drawings of Old Father Time. It was used from time immemorial and can still be seen in small holdings. When the hay was cut, it was left lying in rolls for a day or two.

It was turned so that the bottom half could dry. It was turned over again and again. And then made into what people called creabhars. These were about two feet in diameter and about six inches high. They were flat on top so that they could be turned over repeatedly. Eventually they would be made into wynds.

Many people today have never seen a wynd. Imagine a giant eggshell with the bottom half cut off, you have a good picture. The average wynd was about five-foot high and a thing of beauty when well made. After about three weeks the hay was drawn into the barn.

Then came the mowing machine in about 1920 and the scythe was used only in awkward corners. The mowing machine, however, didn't make haymaking any easier. A lot still depended on the weather. There were years in the 1960s when the summer was so bad that little hay was saved.

When silage came from New Zealand in about 1960, it revolutionised Irish farming. You no longer depended on the weather. Hay could be cut and taken to the silage pit on the same day. This was a great change from the days when time was pressing you. In that era the lunch was perfunctory. There was an old saying: "You should have a spud in your mouth and a spud in your fist and your eye on a spud on the table."

Until about 70 years ago, hay was the main topic of conversation in my county, even when Kerry were going well. I remember one night when I came back from Paris, my father said "Have they all the hay saved in France?"

Corn was cut the same as hay with a scythe and needed only a few days to dry before being stooked. In fine weather it was no problem but there were years when much of the corn was lost.

Now there is a machine called the combine harvester. It mows and threshes the corn in one day. This is a great innovation but bad weather can still be the cause of disaster.

Women or girls never used a scythe. When cutting corn in small holdings, they used a sickle. We meet this in Wordsworth's famous poem The Solitary Reaper: "Alone she cuts and binds the grain." And then he tells us that "She was o'er the sickle bending." She must have been a girl of great skill to cut and bind the corn.

Farming today in Ireland is free from drudgery. The milking machine is a big help. Nevertheless, many young people are leaving the land.

They do not see farming as a good profession. The reason is simple: Irish farming faces fierce international competition and a farmer's annual income can sometimes work out at a loss for him.

Farming should be at the basis of our economy but it isn't -- in some areas it has to be subsidised. Beef and butter are our main exports. How long more this will continue we don't know. And so you can see why the number of people on the land is dwindling. Of course, there is another cause: the number of farm workers has decreased since modern technology came.

In the old days even a small farm needed at least one worker. A middle-sized farm needed two or three. And it took a skilled worker about a half a day to mow half an acre and he needed a man on the headland to edge his scythe every few hours. A mowing machine will cut maybe 20 acres in the one day.

The farm worker was essential to the economy: he had no fixed hours and he wasn't well paid. He was deemed an inferior species. Conditions have changed now but there are very few farm workers left. Those who would be farm workers have almost all emigrated to Britain.


The farm workers kept the old music alive both as singers and as players. It was a great part of their culture. When the would-be farm workers come home on holidays, they usually bring new songs and new tunes because the folk tradition has always been strong in Britain.

In the old days the farm worker was often expected to work on Sunday and that's why you hardly ever saw a farm worker playing a big game in Croke Park.

In all of Kerry's triumphs there was never a farm worker. And the same was true of most counties. I can name only one farm worker who played in an All-Ireland Final. He missed a penalty that could have won Armagh the Sam Maguire. He had had a great game and that was his only mistake.

Rural life has been diminished by modern technology. There was a song long ago that began about a girl going milking. The chorus was: "I am going a milking, sir, she said. I am a going a milking, sir, she said. I am going a milking, sir, she said, on a bright and frosty morning."

The times they are a changing.

Fogra: Delighted to learn that Molly, first daughter of Elaine and Ruairi Carolan, is doing very well and thriving week by week after a very delicate start. We give thanks.