Farming in South Mayo Long Ago - Kilmaine

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Hay-making, the harvest and threashing around Kilmaine

By Evelyn Keane

Before agriculture became a matter of filling in forms of headage payments, subsides and set-aside, there was farming.  The farmhouse, the yard and the outhouses formed the nucleus of the farm of long ago; with the land stretching away on all sides.  The farmyard was a centre of activity, where the horse was yoked, the hens fed, the foodstuffs prepared and the corn threshed.

The Spring

The seasonal life – cycle of the farmer began in spring. Springtime, the cultivation of land and the perennial sowing of crops, were labour intensive work.  All tasks were performed by the farmer and his horse, such as ploughing, tilling and planting. 

Under the Compulsory Tillage Scheme in the 1940’s the sowing of root and grain was a must, in proportion to the size of the farm.  The grain was usually sowed by hand.  The farmer working from a scooped up apron full of seed held before him, shook, and sowed the seed with knowledgeable expertise.  Once the seed was sown a second harrowing was advisable to roughen up the ground and bury at least half of the grains at a gentle depth below surface level.  The roller was then employed to smooth the ground and a scarecrow was then erected to keep the crows away.  Later this was replaced by the modern ‘banger’ as we know it locally. 


Preparation for the hay-making was made as early as February when the farmer set aside one or more fields for meadow. 

Later in the spring, he spread farmyard manure on the still pasture-quality grass. This spreading of manure was known as top-dressing.  The manure came straight from the dung heap in the yard and was spread with a pitchfork a little at a time. 

Once the meadow was tall enough usually in June the farmer arranged to have it cut.  When the hay was cut into swaths it was left to dry for a couple of days, then turned by hay rake for drying on the other side.  It was then shaken out and made into (cockeens) and unless very dry left to stand in the field for some days for further drying.  Once fully dry they were made into proper field cocks between seven and eight feet tall.  Súgáns or hayropes were then twisted and drawn over the cocks to secure them.  Heavy stone weights at the end of the ropes held them down in high wind. 

The farmer usually ‘headed’ the cocks at this stage, this was done by raking up the loose hay from the cock to tidy it, then replacing it on top with a hayfork.  The field cocks stood in the field for up to two months, then it had to be brought home to the haggard in a hay boggy drawn by the horse.  The hay was then made into a sheep cock, a very large cock or reek and secured with strong ropes from which rocks were suspended.  It was used as fodder when winter came, a vital source for the animals in the fields.

The Harvest

The harvest began in August when the ripe corn was golden yellow.  There were four main corn crops: wheat, oats, barley and rye. 

In South Mayo oats and barley were the main crop.  Oats was the most common crop, mainly because the damp climate suited it so well and the straw was extremely versatile.  However, with oats, the harvesting had to be well gauged because overripe crop invariably fell to earth and were lost during the cutting.  With crops like barley and oats ‘lodging’ was a risk in stormy weather, rendering impossible to cut.  The birds also had the same damaging effect. 

The corn was cut by scythe with sweeping movements towards the body; it automatically fell into a row.  It was important to cut ‘low and clean to the living earth’.  It was then bound into sheaves; a few more workers came behind and arranged the sheaves into stooks.  Wind and sun dried and seasoned the stooks for a few weeks.  Field stacks were then made which consisted of ten or twelve stooks with their butts out.  When the corn was dry it was transported to the haggard in large carts.  A large stack was made and left for threshing.

The Threshing

The day of the threshing was a big day for the farmer when the mill and its T.V.O. tractor were expected, because it meant that a whole host of helpers came along too and required feeding at the end of the day.  Once the pully belt was fixed and set into motion, the mill slowly rocked into a humming rhythm that sent the fowl scuttling all sides.  The work commenced, and as the sheaves were opened and turfed into the machine an odd rat escaped and caused a bit of panic and excitement amongst the men.  They pursued the animal relentlessly with a hayfork or whatever was at hand.  The grain was separated from the straw by the beaters of the threshing mill. The sieves in motion separated the seed from the chaff, coaxing the seed to flow into the awaiting bags.  The bag caretaker (man on the bags) arranged them in order of rotation, and the owner stored the grain in a bin.  The chaff and tailings were thrown to the fowl and the straw was cocked and used for bedding for the animals.

Further articles by Evelyn will be available in this category on:

  1. The lambing around Kilmaine
  2. Cutting turf in Kilmaine
  3. Women’s Work on the farm around Kilmaine
  4. Potatoes around Kilmaine
This page was added by Averil Staunton on 04/12/2011.