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Friday, 8 May 2015

Making hay

I’m afraid that while the Ryan women look great in the photobelow, they haven’t fooled many people into thinking that they are taking part in the harvest in such good ‘Sunday best’ clothes. But I’m sure making hay was no mystery to them either.

The Ryan ladies helping with the harvest near Thurles, Co. Tipperary.
2 September 1953
Back in the 1950s, farming in Ireland remained largely done by hand. Many of the large farms would have the resources to invest in machinery, and the necessity to have it, but tractors and the like were still a luxury for most small farmers. This was a combination of the scarcity of machinery and petrol after WWII, and the poverty that affected such a large section of the Irish population at the time.

Most hay was harvested by hand, with all the family and probably a good few of the neighbours helping out. The field was mown with a scythe, and anyone capable of cutting an acre field in a day was known as a ‘good cutter’. They would be in demand at harvest time.

After the grass was cut, it was left to dry for a few hours and was then turned to dry on the other side. This would also have been done by hand, or some lucky people had a horse-drawn hay-turner, like the one in this photo at Ben Bulben. Either way, it was a tedious, arduous task.

Saving the hay under the shadow of Ben Bulben
25 April 1957
The grass would then be gathered into sheaves and stacked in ‘crooks’, as you can see in the previous photo with the Ryan ladies. This would help the hay dry out further whilst protecting them from showers or rain, as it would allow the raindrops to roll down the sheaves instead of soaking all the hay on the ground.

Only when the hay was completely dry would it be gathered into hay stacks; the large mounds of hay you can see in the background behind the Ryans. These would often be built raised up from the ground on pikes to protect them from mice. But it didn’t always work. Often farmers would find their haystack that looked perfect from the outside had been completely hollowed out by mice.

If the haystack was not left in the field, it would have to be transported back to the farmyard. If the field was close to the farm, horses could drag the stack along the ground to the hayshed in the farmyard. Otherwise, a horse and cart was necessary to ‘bring in the hay’. This photofrom close to Roscrea, also in Tipperary, shows a load of hay on its way home from the field. Sitting on top of the load was always one of the perks for a farmer’s children, and gave them a different perspective of the neighbourhood that was so familiar to them from ground level.

Bringing home the hay near Roscrea, Co. Tipperary
30 March 1957
Once the hay was home, it had to be forked into the hayshed. This in itself was a skill, as the hay had to be stacked in a way that left plenty of ventilation in the crop. An incredible amount of heat could build up in a crop of hay, and it wasn’t unusual for a hayshed to go on fire by itself.

So, considering all the hard work, stress and worry that accompanied harvesting the hay, who can blame the Ryan ladies for taking advantage of a beautiful scene to capture themselves on film in their best outfits? I hope it was a good harvest for them that year.

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