John Corbett takes a look at meadow-work in previous decades

In earlier days, haymaking was the principal preoccupation of farmers during the summer months. As with turf-cutting, it required strength and stamina, and harvesting depended very much on the weather. In the late forties, scythes had been replaced by horse-drawn mowing machines, most of which were manufactured by Pierces of Wexford. Horse-drawn hay rakes, ‘slides’ and ‘tumbling paddies’ (not to be confused with the musical group), were also beginning to make their appearance.

These speeded up the process of gathering hay and meant less elbow grease for those working in the meadows. However, in our district, much of the work was still being done manually using forks and rakes.
Summer work in the countryside could be compared to a symphony performed to the accompaniment of Mother Nature’s orchestra. The lark announced the coming of morning and later the thrush, swallow, blackbird and cuckoo sang their summer selections to the rustics, though one wonders how many meadow workers appreciated the beautiful sounds.

A MISSING VOICE
The corncrake heralded the arrival of hay-cutting via its croaking call which re-echoed through the meadows. Late June or early July was when it made itself heard. It wasn’t noted for its agility, but it was fast enough to escape the dangers of the newly introduced horse-drawn mowing machines. However, it failed to survive the threat of the high-speed tractor mowers, especially rotary mowers, which arrived on the scene later with the result that it hasn’t been seen or heard in our area for decades.
Horse-drawn machines were slower and less noisy than the ones that replaced them.

USUAL ROUTINES
After cutting the first ‘swath’, a person with a rake had to comb it into a narrow row, to enable the mower to return and cut the hay nearest the fence. This piece of action was referred to as ‘taking out the back raheen.’
When the hay was cut, it would be left for a few days before being turned or tossed. If the crop was heavy the hay would be scattered out as thinly as possible on the ground before being turned. (Crops were normally much lighter then because of late closure and because less fertiliser was being applied,)

When it had been cut for a few days, it was raked into rows. When it was well seasoned it was gathered and raised off the ground. Both tasks were slow and if the labourer was a novice, he or she was likely to end up with blistered hands.

Our family enjoyed meadow work when the weather was good. Of course, we youngsters enjoyed the breaks much better. Fortunately, some of our meadows were beside Daly’s River and we never missed an opportunity to splash and frolic in its waters during the intervals. Playtime ended quickly when our parents summoned us to work to complete the task in hand.

As children, we were fascinated by the ‘Sí Gaoithe’ (Fairy Winds). These were small wind eddies. On calm days we would gaze in wonder as they transported little bits of hay around the meadow on perfectly calm days. It was as if an invisible entity selected a tiny bit of hay and decided to take it on a meandering tour of the area, while leave the rest of the hay undisturbed.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own