Riches of Clare: Saving the Hay

Clare Champion, Friday, June 13, 2003

The Riches of Clare Exhibition at the local authority-run Clare Museum charts the county’s history. In this article, Fidelma Mc Donnell writes about farming times gone by.

In times gone by, from mid-March onwards, the farmers of Clare would set aside a field, usually referred to as “the Meadow”, for the summer crop of hay which would serve as essential animal fodder during the winter months. The same field was used each year for this purpose. Later in spring, farmers would carry out a process called top-dressing, which involved fertilising the field with farmyard manure. The field may also have been covered in burnt lime to improve the overall quality of the crop, but in more recent times the use of manufactured fertiliser, usually 10-10-20, became the norm.

From mid-Summer onwards the hay would be cut. A finger-bar mowing machine, single and double horse, was in use for much of the last century. Prior to that it was generally a scythe that would be used and it continued to be used thereafter where there was only a small area of grass to be cut.
A sharp blade was essential for this work. The blade of the hayknife and scythe would be sharpened with a honing stone called a strickle. While cutting the hay with the scythe the farmer would use the scythe-board attached to the handle to restore the edge, especially if he hit a stone or other obstacle.

When the meadow was cut it was necessary to save the hay. This was a laborious job that involved turning cut hay several times in the field, all very dependent on the rainfall at the time. Plenty of sunshine was necessary to dry out the crop and the grass would turn from green to golden yellow and become crispy. Smaller ‘dragon cocks’ were generally made first to protect the hay from the elements, as excess sun or rain would have a detrimental effect on the hay quality. Field trams were then made by bringing together several dragon cocks generally to a height of 8 feet, and were left dotted around the field. The side of the trams would be combed down with a rake and then the children’s job was generally to ‘pull the butt’, thus creating an edge all round the bottom for the rain to drain away. Sugans or hayropes would be twisted and drawn over the trams to secure them from the wind. In areas where stone was plentiful, a stone would be tied to each end of the hayrope a little way up off the ground and as the hay became compact, it weighed down the tram, securing it effectively. The field cocks/trams stood in the field for up to two months and they were then brought home to the hay haggard close to the farmyard. This was the traditional storing place for winter fodder. A large reek was made with the sides of the reek raked and then headed or capped. Sometimes rushes or straw were used to thatch the reek in order to form an effective rain barrier.

As time progressed, specially constructed haybarns came into use on farms. Often, the upright pillars of the haybarn were in fact old railway sleepers and the roof tended to be made of corrugated galvanises. The divisions of the haybarns were called columns and the basic size in use was a two-column. Sometimes the farmer would build a three-column haybarn and utilise any extra space for storing farm machinery or maybe turf.

The hayknife was one of the essential tools for the farmer at this time, used for cutting a bench of hay in the reek or in the haybarn during the winter-feeding of livestock. Applied with downward pressure on the handle, the farmer would cut a bench of hay in the reek or the haybarn and remove the hay from its storage area with a two-pronged pitchfork. Hayknives were also used by farmers for cutting the top off the bog and clearing the mossy bank down to the level of the turf clear, then the slane would be used to cut the turf. Most of the hayknives used in Ireland in the last century were manufactured by the Pierce foundry and many long established farms in Clare will still have farming implements stored somewhere with “Pierce Wexford” stamped on them. Pierces were the main suppliers of edged tools in Ireland for many years and exported many of their farm products all over the world.

The hayknife pictured is about 90 years old and was used by Christopher Kelly from Mullagh before it was donated to Clare Museum.

View the Hayknife from Mullagh

Press Cuttings