Working The Land in Lislea (1)
Hugh A Murphy enjoyed the craic of the harvest
A great deal of the jobs on the small farms during my childhood and youth were communal affairs. This applied especially to the corn cutting and the threshing.
The only reapers that were available at that time were ‘drag reapers’. These were pulled behind the horse, or in our case after 1947, the tractor. The cutting knife was operated by the motion of the reaper’s wheels. After we acquired the tractor, my father adapted the horse reaper by cutting off the two long shafts and attaching a drawbar to the centre, so that it could be pulled by the tractor.
The only way of cutting the crops prior to the reaper was with the scythe. This was a much slower and more arduous method. However, the day of the scythe was by no means over. You could not just pull into a field with a drag reaper and start cutting. A pathway had to be made for it first. This was done by cutting a wide swathe with the scythe the whole way around the field and, in addition, large turning areas at the two bottom corners.
During the corn cutting, either my brother Joe or myself, as soon as my feet could reach the pedals, would drive the tractor while my father sat on the reaper seat ‘shaving’. The latter was quite a risky task as the nature of the ‘shaver’s’ job meant that he was always leaning over the track of the cutting knife.
For cutting any crop, either hay or corn, that required to be gathered up and tied in sheaves a wooden tailboard would be fitted to the back of the cutting bar which housed the knife. From this board a stirrup extended upwards on the left hand side in front of the reaper seat. When pressed forward by foot the back of the tailboard would rise up off the ground. When released the tailboard would fall back flat again.
The shaver had a special ‘shaving rake’. This was quite different to a normal rake. It consisted of a fairly thick base, slightly less in width than that of the tailboard, with a row of wooden teeth extending directly downwards. The handle was set at an angle so that when the rake was lowered it fell exactly level along the width of the tailboard.
When the reaper was in motion, the shaver would press the stirrup forward raising the back of the tailboard until he judged that sufficient corn, or hay, had gathered on the board to form a sheaf. He would then press the rake down firmly, release the stirrup, and slide the corn or hay off the tailboard. The board would be immediately raised again and the process repeated over and over. When there was a heavy crop the shaver’s job was by no means an enviable one, especially with the increased speed at which the tractor was moving in comparison to the horse.
At the end of the swathe a lever was pulled forward and the cutting bar would be raised approximately eighteen inches from the ground. The tractor, reaper, and shaver would then make their way around the field to the other side to be ready again for the next swathe. This journey would be made fairly carefully at first until a solid path had been laid.
From then on it was our delight to go as fast as the ground would allow, getting the tractor into top gear if possible. My father would be bouncing up and down on the hard iron seat of the reaper like a rubber ball. How he managed to stay on I do not know but he seldom, if ever, complained.
There would always be around 10 or 12 men spread out at equal distances along the length of the swathe tying the shaved bundles into sheaves. This was done by using a handful of the longest stalks of the crop itself, which were placed around the centre of the bundle and pulled tight, the two ends wrapped together and tucked securely beneath the band.
There would nearly always be time to spare before the reaper arrived back for a new swathe and the ongoing conversation and stories, which had been briefly interrupted, would continue as different pairs met, the last sheaf tucked under their arm. Looking back now it seems to have been more like a day out rather than the hard day’s work that it was.
The best part of the day was around noon when the food arrived. This would normally be signalled by the tinkling sound of the bar being slid open on the gate behind our house, one of the sweetest sounds one could ever imagine! My mother, together with a helper, would be seen coming with a number of large baskets covered with white sheets, and also the large kettle from the kitchen, now being used as a teapot, which was always carried separately.
When they arrived in the field all work stopped. The men would each take a sheaf and sit down in a circle. The linen sheets would be spread on the ground in the shade of the hedge, and the food laid out on them – home made bread and butter, ham, cheese, hard boiled eggs, cakes etc, together with the accompanying cutlery and cups.
There is no food ever tasted as nice as the food eaten out in a harvest field. It had a special taste all of its own that could never be replicated anywhere else. Even the tea tasted different. It was a combination, perhaps, of the open air, the scent of the newly mown crop, and the camaraderie of the gathering.
When the food was consumed the pipes would be lit and the next twenty minutes, and sometimes longer, would be filled with conversation and stories. These would deal with events of the day, the amount of harvesting various people had done, the price of cattle, and often feats of the past, especially the amount of corn that some men could cut in a day with a scythe in comparison to the reaper.
I still remember vividly a field across the valley from us being pointed out as one that Joey Hughes RIP had cut with a scythe in a day. This was an almost incredible feat, as the field was over an acre and a half, a good day’s work even for a reaper. A number present who had witnessed it, however, verified its truth. Others might raise the question if we would be able to get the ‘cailleh’ before nightfall, i.e. if we would manage to finish the harvesting.
The ‘cailleh’ was a corruption of the old Irish word ‘cailleach’, meaning a witch, or a woman from the other world. In this context it always referred to the goddess of the land who permanently watched over the crops. She would keep retreating as the crop was being cut until she was finally trapped in the last piece left standing. This piece was itself called the cailleach.
In the generation previous to ours, the cailleach was treated with great reverence. The final stalks of corn, for example, would be cut very carefully and woven into a plait. This would be fixed above the inside of the main door. In the following spring it would be taken down and the grain removed from it and mixed with the seed for the new spring sowing.
Often stories would be told that had a moral edge to them, which caused them to stick in my mind. I remember one occasion on the first day of harvesting when we were cutting corn in Molshey’s land, the fields that stretch up towards the mountain from the Crooked Road. Perhaps because it was the first day of the cutting, the help was fairly scarce.
One of the people there was Paddy Murphy, or 'Bugger Me' as he was always called. He acquired this nickname because he started every story, and very often every sentence, with the words 'bugger me'. At dinnertime when the sheet was spread in the shelter of Molshey’s old house I remarked on the fact that a number of neighbours who had promised to come hadn’t turned up and I wondered what had happened to them. Paddy lay back against the old wall and immediately started into a story.
'Well, bugger me', he said, 'It reminds me of the lark. One time there was a lark and her young ones who had their nest in a corn field. The young ones were old enough to spend most of their day out playing and often they would wander a good distance from the nest. One evening they came home in a terrible panic and said to their mother, "Hurry, hurry! We must get out of here straight away!” The mother asked them what was the cause of their great panic. The young ones replied that they had heard the farmer talking to the neighbours and making arrangements with them to come the following morning to start to cut the corn.
“Cease your panic,” said the mother lark, “ we are in no danger. Continue with your play and have no fear.”
The following day nothing happened. There was no corn cutting. A few days later the children came home again in an even greater state of agitation. “Quick, quick”! They said. “We must leave now for sure”.
“Why is that,” asked the mother lark?
“We heard the farmer talking to the neighbours after mass today,” said the children, “and they gave him their solemn promise that they would be here without fail tomorrow morning to start cutting the corn.”
“Have no fear”, said the mother lark. There is still no danger”.
'Another four or five days passed uneventfully. The children would come home every evening now quite happy and relaxed. When asked, they would say that there was nothing to report. On the fifth day the mother asked them as usual if they had seen the farmer. They told her that they had but that he wasn’t talking to any of the neighbours and that there was no danger. The mother asked them if they had heard him talking to anyone at all. They said that he had just been talking to his son.
“And what did he say?” the mother asked. “He said that he was fed up waiting on the neighbours and that he was going to start cutting the corn tomorrow himself”, said the children.
“Right! Said the mother lark. “Gather all your stuff together. It is time we were getting out of here!”
My father would normally be the first to get up after the meal as he headed off to change the knife in the reaper. He always carried two of these, which he sharpened meticulously every night during the harvest season. It was a very time consuming job as each of the small triangular blades which constituted the knife, twenty per knife, had to be sharpened individually with a three cornered file.
It would normally take him over two hours to complete the task. When he was finished the edges would be sparkling and razor sharp.
At the first sound of the reaper the rest would get up and head back to their positions along the swathe. The meal always seemed to have the effect of reviving spirits and the work in the evening, together with the ongoing conversation, would be even more vigorous than in the morning.
When the last swathe was cut and tied all the sheaves throughout the field were 'stooked'. This was done by standing four sheaves up together, two opposite two, and tying them with a band at the top. This allowed the wind to blow freely through them, drying them out and weathering them.
When the last sheaves were stooked the cutting bar would be raised from the ground for the last time and lifted vertically until it slotted into the iron bar which acted as its stabiliser, keeping it upright. Tractor and reaper would head off through the gap, followed by the working troop. It would not be long until many of them would be meeting again, perhaps even that night, in one of the céilí houses which were dotted throughout the area.
It is strange how things grow
Like seed in the soil
Of the mind to burst
Into grain with surprise
When their autumn arrives.
Small things we ignored,
Like a reaper coaxed out
From the chrysalis of winter,
The line of faces waiting
For the first swathe’s miracle,
And the idle chat, dogma of time,
Sheaf cradled on bent arm.
These are the sowings.
Disciples of the mind,
They preached a lesson to be known
Later when their words germinated,
Like old Paddy’s story on a bright
Harvest day to the faces reclining
Round the laden sheet spread
Of the wisdom of the lark
Knowing people’s ways,
Clear parable deeply inscribed.
Only now does his lark
Soar from that field
To encircle my brain,
Singing Paddy’s truth.
The seed is blown down
Through generations in the till
Awaiting the spawn.
Their crop now waves
In my mind, their autumn has come.
I look with wonder at the youth
In my field, playing on my
Headrig, unaware of my seed.