Tay, dinner and toil: Reflecting on the heyday of haymaking

This week, Cork farmer John Arnold cut both silage and hay - here he reflects on how the tradition has changed down the decades
Tay, dinner and toil: Reflecting on the heyday of haymaking

TIME-HONOURED TRADITION: Making hay at Cape Clear Island, West Cork, 50 years ago this month, in July 1970

YEARS ago, a farmer’s son bought a bunch of cattle at Fermoy Fair. The trade was good that particular Fair Day in the town by the Blackwater and he paid a much higher price than he expected.

He had plenty grass on the farm at home so he reckoned he’d have plenty feeding to fatten the animals and sell them at a profit in the autumn.

Home he went with the dearly-bought livestock. At the end of the boreen he met his father. On enquiring what price he had paid for the animals, the son replied: “I paid more then they’re worth but shure we have heaps of grass” — to which the old man replied: “Grass broke no man.”

His acquired knowledge and wisdom was that a surplus of grass was better than a shortage of cash!

Grass is on my mind a lot these days as we cut both silage and hay last week.

Once upon a time in Ireland, and not so long ago, the month of July meant one thing in the countryside — hay. We all knew the terminology ‘well saved hay is better than money in the bank’, ‘Tipp bate and the hay saved’ and of course Bing singing;

Just to hear again the ripple of the trout stream

The women in the meadows making hay

And to sit beside a turf-fire in the cabin

And to watch the barefoot gossoons at their play

I suppose hay and its making is something associated forever with the days of our youth when ‘meitheails’ would just come together in a one-for-all and all-for-one tradition.

Of course there are other rural, rustic romantic images too. Milking the cows by hand, footing the turf and stooking sheaves at harvest time. They all reflect a time when the pace of life was slower, truly ‘the livin was aisy’.

Above and beyond all these jobs, ‘making the hay’ stands out. Is it because hay and the smell of it, the newness of freshly-made hay has connotations of youth and vibrancy, maybe even ‘a roll in the hay’ for couples so inclined? All that and more.

Long before tractors and mechanisation in general, the winter food of choice for animals was hay. When growth stopped in late autumn the pastures slept ‘til spring. The fields were bare and hungry as were the farm animals.

A good abundance of quality hay was like an insurance policy for those who lived off the land. Come rain or hail, sleet or snow, if the haggard was full the farmer could say: ‘Awful weather, but shure we never died a winter yet.’

The short, dark cold days of winter when the hay was fed were such a contrast with balmy July days in the meadows.

These modern, younger agriculturalists cannot truly fathom what good hay-making weather or lack of it meant in bygone days. The main reason is that in modern times the weather hasn’t the same bearing on the final result.

The ingredients for top class hay are grass, wind and sunshine. I can recall a summer over half a century ago when the hay was cut here on this farm but never saved. July would normally bring sunshine, not every day, but most of the time. It might take a week to dry out the grass and convert it into sweet smelling hay. If the weather ‘broke’ it could be the bones of a fortnight.

You’d have hay alright but ‘twould be nearly black. If the winter was bad enough animals would ate it but you’d see no fat on their rump after it.

In the modern era, if grass was cut a few days and the weather forecast came bad ‘twould be baled and covered with plastic.

The term haylage — a cross between hay and silage — has been invented for such a crop.

The year I recall in the 1960s, the ‘hay’ was shoved into the ditch and left there, about a month after the mowing machine had cut it. Stock had to sold because there was no flush of cash to ‘buy in’ fodder.

We had only a small meitheail last week, just four, because with big tractors and modern machinery, the time spent on ‘converting’ grass has been shortened considerably. Thank God we got fine weather for both the silage and the hay.

The silage was cut today, baled and wrapped in black plastic tomorrow and stacked in the yard.

The hay took longer. I still marvel at the ‘Trinity’ of Grass, Wind and Sunshine that transforms green foliage into a dry aromatic foodstuff.

We have one field, the Top Bog, that I never saw ploughed. The sward there is a rich symphony of grasses, flowers, herbs and plants that have ‘lived’ in that environment for more than 60 years. It produces the most beautiful hay ever.

You know the way you might take a bundle of it and let the aroma assault your nostrils — well, you’d nearly eat it yourself!

With years now I put very little of what they call ‘artificial’ fertilizer on this field. What grows takes time but the resultant crop is only gorgeous.

I took my grandchildren up the fields last week just to show them the way the hay was ‘made’. They turned up their eyes in disbelief when I recalled at their ages I helped turn the hay with a two-prong pike “Granda is telling his stories again!”

Of course, they regard as revolting and ‘yeoch’ the practise of nine or ten people sitting by small cocks of hay dipping their cups into a sweet-gallon full of tea, milk and sugar!

That’s the way it was long ago. I can just about remember seeing a horse-drawn ‘tumbling Paddy’ rake toss and turn the grass in the warm sunshine.

After that came the tractor, though we never had a tractor- powered hay turner. There were people in every parish who were ‘good at hay’. They knew when to turn it and when to leave it alone.

They used to say if hay was ‘fit’ to bale for example — then if you could leave it ‘another’ day ‘twould be ‘mad fit’ by then.

I suppose as we get older we do tend to look back the years through rose-tinted glasses and no doubt ‘making the hay’ long ago was back-breaking work for those who toiled in the fields.

The ‘tay’ in the field, however, was a welcome respite twice or three times a day. I think everyone ‘came in’ for the dinner. If the sun was up early in the sky and the dew burnt off you could be tossing the hay by eleven in the morning. As the Angelus bell rang out, the thirst-quenching tea was welcome. Again about half four of a broiling hot day a ‘tea-break’ was essential.

When I was just a child the hay was ‘made up’ in grass cocks, small cocks and wynds. Paddy Geary had the knack of making a ‘súgán’ rope from the hay itself. With his bare hands he’d pull out fists of the long hay and twist and wind them round and round in a manner that didn’t unravel.

If the wynds were being left out in the fields for a term, two of these ‘ropes’ would criss-cross the top of the hay-stack and four stones would be tied at the four ends. By weighing down the cocks or wynds it ensured sudden winds wouldn’t decapitate the hay structures.

I remember one blazing hot July day in the late 1960s. We were at the hay in the Path field, making it up in small cocks. All of a sudden a sí gaoithe came sweeping across from the west. ‘Twas for all the world like a mini whirlwind and it lifted two or three of the cocks of hay in its path right up in the sky, maybe 20ft or so. Over the ditch then and the hay was dropped half ways down the High field.

I remember Mam and Paddy genuflecting and blessing themselves. There was an old belief that the sí gaoithe could be carrying the spirit of some recently deceased person. Then the bringing in of the hay and putting it in ‘benches’ in the hayshed, ah yes great memories.

Oh, I recall the lovely smell of the hay. It wafted out onto the road for all to imbibe and be intoxicated by it.

In his poem Spraying The Potatoes, Patrick Kavanagh spoke of ‘An old man came through a corn-field’ to see how the spraying was going and to look at the potato-drills. He eyed them up and in an ancient prophecy declared ‘You are bound to have good ones there’.

Well, ‘twas the same with the hay. Everyone was happy when the sun shone and hay was saved well.

Those days are but a memory like the snow of yesteryear

And when evening shades are falling all alone I shed a tear

On my cheek I feel the soft touch of the winds that whisper low

When I mowed Pat Murphy’s meadow in the sunny long ago

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