Working The Land in Lislea (2)

Hugh A Murphy explains 'reeking' and 'stacking'

In a couple of weeks when the stooks were well dried and weathered the reeking began. A reek was not unlike a small stack, of which many would be built throughout the field.

To build a reek,  you started with a number of stooks which were stacked tightly together until a sufficient width had been reached to form the base of the reek. Then the sheaves were reversed so that the base which had been on the ground was turned outwards. As a result of the way the sheaves had been set in the stook, together with the time spent on the ground, this base was always slightly oblong, with the top end now being slightly shorter than the bottom.

As the sheaves were built in their traditional rows clockwise around the top of the prepared base this had the effect of the width of the reek gradually narrowing until it would eventually reach a point, which was secured tightly with a hay, or straw, band.

The height of the reek was always determined by the height of the man building it. It was built from the ground, without use of ladders, rising to the height that the builder could reach. When finished, any loose straws that were lying on the ground were raked up and put over the top of it. It was then roped securely in circles from the tip to just above the base. Our job, as children, was to carry in the stooks for each new reek.

Reeking was quite often an urgent job, especially at a time of inclement weather. It was essential to work fast when the stooks were dry to get them built up into the larger units so that the sheaves would be safe from rain. This meant that the reeking would continue long into the evening, being done often by the light of the harvest moon.

Between the middle and the end of September the reeks were drawn by tractor and trailer into the haggard where they were built into large stacks. Each stack was built on a round high 'butt' consisting of bushes and whins which had been cut and arranged in the previous week.

The size of the stack was determined by the width of the butt. It was very important that no sheaves were laid on the bare ground as they would be destroyed by dampness. The builder laid the sheaves around in a circle with the short end of the tapering base placed at the bottom. This caused the width of the stack to taper gradually outwards during the first part of its construction.

Reeds, reproduced by kind permission of Muinterevelin Historical SocietyThe builder worked on his knees, building two rows at a time. The first was the outer row which had to be placed carefully in line with the upward gradient, the second was placed under his knees approximately eighteen inches back from the first so as to overlap and secure it towards the centre.

There always had to be at least one other person whose job it was to build up the 'heart' of the stack. This was a relatively unskilled, though important, job. The sheaves could be placed in any order, provided they kept overlapping the second row in. This was one of the first tasks delegated to us. My father would be reminding us constantly to 'keep the heart up!' We already knew the importance of this from the story often told around the hearth of the neighbouring man who was building a stack on his own. He built away and forgot about the heart until he stood up and took a step back and disappeared down through the centre of the stack.

When the stack had reached approximately eight feet high the 'ring' would be put on. This was the last row of sheaves where the short side of the base of the sheaves was pointing downwards. This was the widest part of the stack. From this point on, the sheaves would be reversed so that the short side pointed upwards.

Just as in the case of the reek, this had the effect of gradually drawing the width inwards until it eventually reached a point. When the base of this narrowing point became small enough for the builder to handle the heart on his own, the other builder, or builders, left. The last part of the stack was completed by the main builder from the ladder, until it had reached an exact point where the top sheaves were secured tightly with a band.

It required quite a degree of skill to build a stack. The builder was always working 'blind' in that he could only see the row he was building and the row below that. He had no way of knowing whether the stack was keeping a perfect gradient. If there was no one else on the ground he would have to go down the ladder and check to ensure that there were no bulges appearing.

Up until the ring of the stack, all such bulges, together with any sheaves that might be protruding farther than they should, were beaten back into place with the edge of a spade. The importance of this would become clear when the final part of the stack, the thatching, would be completed.

Rushes were used to thatch the stacks. These would have been cut with the scythe in the previous week down in the bog, where they were both plentiful and long. The method of thatching was quite simple. The first circle of thatch was placed above the ring at a position where the ends of the rushes came out over the ring by a couple of inches.

The rushes were pushed into the stack by hand, narrow end first. Each succeeding circular row overlapped the row below by six or seven inches. When the top of the stack was reached you had a structure which was not unlike a thatched house, and equally waterproof. The rain would run down the rushes to the ring where it would fall directly to the ground, well out from the base of the stack where it could do no harm, hence the importance of the 'spadework' mentioned above.

The completed stack was roped, again in circular fashion, starting from the top. A long pitchfork was used for this purpose, both to guide the rope and also to keep it tight.

A haggard full of finished stacks was something to be admired. It had in it a form of native art. Some people were better at building stacks than others and some were acknowledged masters. You would recognise anywhere, for example, a stack built by Pete Kearney. It always had a symmetry and balance that lent it a sense of poised elegance, which was in direct harmony with the landscape in which it was placed.

Hugh A Murphy, reproduced by kind permission of RoSA. All rights reserved.The Haggard

I can remember it now, an autumnal mirage,
Haystacks fattening in the haggard,
The thin glint of rushes
Running up from the hurricane lamp
To an attic of darkness
Where we had hidden the top sheaf,
Tucked tight
In the corner of a September day.

And the footsteps round the thatch
Speaking mysteries in the growing dark,
Stumbling on corners we had never known
In the new disorientation
Of stacks,
Fast to the haggard’s latch,

And the God of the harvest moving amongst them,
His hurricane lamp panning their mysteries
In its shallow light,
Faint glimmers speaking of caverns
That have devoured him
Round endless corners
On his exploration of satisfaction.

We stand waiting for his resurrection
Until his light nudges the darkness
Round some distant stack.
When the path is laid
We too will venture out,
Running hands on stubble
Laid flat against the night,
Headlong into mystery.
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation