Making hay in the hills of Donegal


Michael McKelvie

“I LONG for the days when we worked at the hay.” These are the first lines of a poem I wrote several years ago and it came back to me while I was out on one of my recent long summer walks in the countryside.

Passing a field, a tractor with a rear attachment was raking the recently cut dry hay into rows. Then, following up was the hay baler driving forward, swallowing up the hay, discharging it tied and baled from the rear.

Watching this operation, how easily the hay was won and ready to be taken home, took me back to my youth in the late 1950s and our long summer holidays in Donegal spent at my uncle’s farm.

One of my dominant memories was of the long days spent in the meadow working at the hay along with my uncle, father, older brother and neighbours, and anyone else that was around also pitched in—pardon the pun!

We spent many a long day—weather permitting—in the freshly cut hay fields. This was not the easy task I’d observed in my recent country walk. Apart from the tractor and cutting bar, the cutting of the hay was dependant on the availability of brothers Sam and Johnny Woods—one of the few families that had the tractors and cutting bar at that time. All of the work thereafter was carried out manually and highly dependent on the weather.

I once saw an old farmer, Paddy Quinn, cutting a field of hay with a scythe. He must have been well into his 60s at the time. He was poetry in motion, moving forward swinging the scythe in a nice easy rhythm never faltering or missing a beat. The cut hay fell like frontline troops in the battlefield. This was the one and only time I saw anyone cutting a large field of hay with a scythe.

The following poem explains in a simplified way all the operations involved in winning and bringing the hay home.

Winning the Hay

I long for the days that we worked at the hay,
Dependent on weather for winning the day.

I long to return to that meadow by the burn
Where we worked and we laughed, in the hot summer sun.

We’d cut then we’d shake til our arms almost break,
Then leave it to dry before taking to the rake.

We’d stop at midday at the Angelus we’d pray,
Then have some soda bread washed down with strong tea.

We’d lap, tramp, and stack in those long summer days,
And tie it all down with ropes twisted from hay.

Then take it on home with the horse and the cart,
With tiredness of limb, but with lightness of heart.

Now those days are long gone, machine does it all,
No neighbours required to answer the call.

For with modern plant, one man does it all,
And what once took long weeks takes but no time at all.

If the weather was good, we’d stay on the field all day and my aunt and young sister would bring down bottles of tea, soda bread with homemade butter and jam, which we were all well ready for. There we’d sit with our backs against the earth wall of the sheugh (the drainage ditch along the perimeter of the field) hungrily devouring large cuts of soda bread washed down with the bottles of tea.

After the feast, my brother, sister and I would use the freshly cut, piled hay—which was ideal for what they would call now a days a soft play area—to perform cartwheels and handstands and generally throwing ourselves about, while the older ones sat around catching up with the neighbours or just resting and preparing for the long afternoon ahead.

Occasionally, you might see a rabbit or a hare bolting from the hay as we worked our way along the field. We also kept watch for the corncrake nests and fledglings that were quite common in those days, but now not so much due to the more intense farming methods. Frogs, unfortunately, were pretty common. I was not too keen on them and, as what usually happens when folk know your fears, they play on them. I was chased and teased relentlessly. I don’t suppose it was much fun for the poor frogs either!

Funnily enough I only recall the long hot sunny days, but I’m sure we must have been rained off many a time, because, as they say, ‘you don’t come to Ireland for the weather.’

You come for the people and the craic—good weather is just a bonus. I loved sitting around the table in the evenings, playing cards or listening to the radio, or sharing stories around the open fire.

I have always thought of myself as being very fortunate to have had an insight into this way of life, which is now long gone. The labour-intensive work of hay making, cutting turf, spraying the potatoes against blight is all so much easier now thanks to modern machinery.

In my later teens when my friends were heading for Blackpool or further afield, I was always adamant I was going to Ireland for the summer holidays. No rides at the Pleasure Beach at Blackpool could give me half the thrill of sailing into Derry and making my way to that little cottage in the hills of Donegal.