tubular-steel-mower jpg
Walter A. Wood: An Early Leader in Farm Equipment Manufacture. His tubular steel mower was introduced in 1890. Illustration courtesy of Sam Moore.

Old Hay is Old Gold….

 

By Frank Phelan

The following story is taken from the Journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society, No. 2, 1996.  The story is memorable for many reasons but particularly because of its importance as a window onto social history as the twentieth-century dawns but mainly it is notable because of the eloquence and storytelling ability of its author, the legendary Frank Phelan of Walshstown, Castlemahon.

*************

I used to like going to the calf mart in Rathkeale every Wednesday in the Springtime.  I would go down the shortcut over Knockaderry hill, through the flatlands of Ballyallinan and then join the road coming from Ballingarry into the verge of the town.  The first thing that met your eye was the long queue of trailers towed by cars and jeeps and tractors stretching away back as far as the eye could see.  Nearly everyone coming from our side double queued at the big wide spacious junction at Well Lane and waited for the friendly nod to pull in before your turn.

On this particular morning a few years back it was an elderly man who gave me the friendly nod and I gladly pulled into the vacant space in front of him.  I then went back to thank him and maybe have a short chat about the weather, the prospects for farming or anything topical etc.  He asked me where I came from and my name and then he asked if I was any relation to the owners of Phelan’s hardware which was just on the point of closing down at the time.  I told him that I was and that the man who started the hardware shop about a hundred years back was an uncle to my father and came out of our old place.

“I knew him”, he said, “I knew him, a grand old gentleman and a good businessman.  I was with my father in the shop a few times when he was alive and well and I was only a very small boy and even then you could see what a great character he must have been in his heyday”. [1]

“Did you ever hear the story”, he asked, “how he sold the first Woods Mowing Machine in West Limerick?”

“No”, I said, “I know a little about him but I’d like to know a lot more”.

“He was”, he said, “a man before his time, a great innovator and loved to see work made easier for everyone in town and country.  In the 1890’s all the meadows were still being cut with the scythe like they had been for generations before.  A good scythesman would cut an acre in the day and the top men at the job would travel the countryside in search of work.   They were known as spailpíns.  The clever farmer would have four scythesmen contracted, with the best cutter out in front setting the pace for the others.  It was a matter of pride that they all would have to keep up with him and so a big field of hay was cut in a day much to the farmer’s satisfaction”.

When the horse-drawn mowing machine started to come on the market hardly anyone was interested in it, in fact, most were hostile to it, especially the scythesmen, as it would be taking their livelihood away.  Nearly all the farmers were also reluctant to change and so it was a very hard job to convince any of them that this would be the greatest boon ever in Irish farming up until then.

Willie Phelan was tired of looking out at his new Woods Mowing Machines on display and no takers until one day his old friend Florry McCarthy from Ardagh was in the shop and they got to talking amongst other things about the harvest and the need for taking advantage of the fine weather.  It was July and the meadows were ready for the cutting.  “If only I could sell one Woods Mowing Machine my problems would be solved”, he said to Florry.

“Can I help you in any way”, asked Florry.

“You can indeed”, said the wily merchant, “you can indeed.  I have a suggestion for you.  Take away one of those new mowing machines outside and earn a bit of money for yourself.  When you’re into your stride at full throttle pay me back seven and six a month”.

“But I’ve only one horse “, said Florry.

“Can’t you get the loan of a horse from one of your neighbours, you’ve good ould neighbours back there, sure they’d give you the shirt of their back”, said my granduncle.

“I’ll see, I’ll see”, said Florry, needing time to think it over.

Going home that evening he thought to himself that it was a brilliant venture and that he was on the brink of making a historical landmark in the area.  He could picture himself being the focus of attention from farmers big and small over a vast sweep of countryside.

“I’ll go up to Din Connors this very evening”, he said to himself, “and ask him for the loan of his grand chestnut steed.  Then I’ll go into town in the morning with my common car,[2] hitch on the mowing machine with the long shafts resting on the body of the car and sail away home at my ease”.

There was a rare smile on the face of my granduncle next day as he helped Florry on the way to launch a new chapter to what was to revolutionise life in the countryside of West Limerick for generations into the future.  The hum of the mowing machine was a new sound that was to be added to that of the corncrakes and the cuckoo.

Next morning, Florry called on his old neighbour Din Connors for the big chestnut.  Din himself came on to do the edging of the blades and to take possession of the new carburundum edging stone and the new flintstone which were thrown in free with the mowing machine.  He also got a jampot full of water to dip the flintstone in.  They both tackled up in Florry’s yard leaving nothing to chance and drove onto the nearest pasture field.  Having cut a round or so without a hitch they were ready for Florry’s big meadow at the back of the house.

The hum of the mowing machine could be heard all day long and the edge was good as a new blade was put in every five or six rounds or so.  A few of the neighbours had gathered towards evening as the last of the swathes were flattened and quite a few corncrakes could be seen running or half flying towards the safety of the hedges.  There was shaking of hands and congratulations from all the neighbors to Florry and Dinny and a request from the said neighbours to cut their own meadows when time was available.

Dinny’s big roadside meadow was next on the list and the audience of neighbours became bigger including a couple of scythesmen on their own who by their looks did not approve of the new operation.  In fact, the only mishap suffered during that whole first season was in Dinny’s big meadow when an unseen stake planted by someone hostile to the revolutionary change brought the mowing to a temporary halt.  But Florry was equal to the occasion and using a couple of the spare sections and rivets also thrown in free and having his own hammer and punch he had the blade back as good as new in half an hour or so.

Gradually one by one the neighbours’ meadows were cut clean and white and the smell of new mown hay was like honey in the air.  At half a crown an acre charged by Florry everyone was happy with the outcome except Florry himself but he didn’t show one sign of that unhappiness only the reverse.  It sounds funny to say that everyone paid him in the same way – not with cash but with hay.  I suppose the ould money might be very scarce at the time but anyway what he got paid was two wynds [3] of hay for every acre he cut and as he had cut upwards of sixty acres that first year it was a mighty lot of hay.  All the neighbours whose hay he had cut that first year helped him with his own hay and also with the hay that they paid him with.  With his great sense of humour, he enjoyed immensely working with the huge meitheal[4] who came to build the three enormous shiegs[5] or ricks that stretched the length of the haggard which they also covered and thatched with rushes.

In the recesses of his mind, Florry was wondering what William Phelan, merchant, would have to say when he informed him of his financial position after all the meadows he had mown in record quick time.  He was therefore pleasantly surprised when at the first opportunity they met on a wet day after a spell of fine sunny weather that the reaction of the man was one of philosophical satisfaction.

“Florry”, he said, “you gave me the start I wanted, you broke the ice when no one else would take the risk and you’ll get your reward some fine day.  Pay me when you have it in your pocket”, he concluded.

Florry’s sense of humour was a wonderful asset to him in the fall of that year and also the following Winter and Spring.  Anywhere he went, to Mass, at the pub, at funerals or fairs or football matches he would be asked if he knew where there was any hay for sale.

“I do indeed”, he would say, “I actually have some myself to sell but I’m waiting for the price to rise”.

The second mowing season Florry cut almost as much again, even though there was a second mowing machine in the area.  And, strange to relate, the payment was exactly the same – two wynds of hay for every acre he cut.

The big problem for Florry was that he might run out of space in his haggard[6] for the enormous amount of hay that was headed in that direction.  It was a repeat again of the big meitheal, plenty of porter[7] and banter and craic and at the end of it all three more big shiegs reared their mighty forms into the western sky.  Their shadows darkened the narrow roadway into Florry’s house and they resembled a series of gigantic silent ships at anchor in a quiet bay.

Many people now regarded Florry as either a rural celebrity or an eccentric of some sort or a cross between both but that was only in their own minds because outwardly or inwardly it had changed him not one iota.  His sense of humour remained intact and his confidential belief that his day would come in some form or other remained unshaken.  Strangely he found it much easier to cope with the little arrows of jokery that were thrown at him from time to time whenever the occasion arose that he was amongst a crowd, which was often enough.

The fall of that second year was very wet and cold and cows had to be housed much earlier than usual.  There were a couple of big freeze-ups and plenty of snow that Winter.  There was no sign of the Spring right up to the end of April and even into May and a lot of farmyards had no fodder left.  Florry put an advertisement in the local paper early in April saying that he had an unlimited amount of the best saved hay for sale.  Almost immediately he was invaded by a convoy of long scotch cars,[8] with big coils of rope at each rear corner and drawn by a variety of animals, from big chestnut steeds to thick brown cobs and piebalds[9].  They were driven by big rough-looking weather-beaten mountainy men.

Florry went to summon all his neighbours and they arrived as a big meitheal, laden with hay knives and two prong pikes and in no time the cars were being loaded with the finest of hay and the mountainy men were rolling it and packing it in layers the way it should be done.  A big jar of porter arrived and they all drank their fill and took a good rest, exchanged a few jokes and yarns and then with renewed energy the mountainy men filled each load to the top like the specialists at the job that they were.  Then the ropes were slung across each load, two men on the ground pulled like supermen and firm as the jobs of hell the ropes were tied diagonally to the shafts in front.

The only problem now for Florry was that he might run out of hay such was the demand for it and almost every day he had new customers arriving and he was almost getting the asking price for it.  When at last the grass started growing as the sun grew warmer that historic year not a rib of hay was left in Florry’s haggard, only the pale outline of where once those mighty shiegs had been.  It was with a light heart that he made his way to town and then into the hardware shop to pay the proprietor in full and after a good chat those two men heartily agreed that old hay was indeed old gold if one only had the patience to wait and sit it out when skies were grey.

haymaking
Building a Shieg circa 1960. Photograph by Frank Tubridy

This blog post is dedicated to Peg Donoghue who was probably the first to see this article which had been submitted in Frank Phelan’s graceful longhand and who lovingly typed it for publication in the Journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society

 

[1] The old farmer is referring to Frank’s grand uncle, William Phelan. William managed what became known as Phelan’s  Mill and in 1910 he founded a hardware store and ironmongery in Bishop Street, Newcastle West.  In 1915 William set up the Newcastle West and District Power and Light Company and electricity was supplied to the town until the scheme was taken over in 1935 by the ESB.  In 1916 he opened the Palace Cinema in part of the mill and this continued up to 1926.   The business was later managed by his brother Jim and he expanded the business to include a sawmill and a corn mill.  His headed notepaper proclaimed that he was a Machine Implement Agent and Undertaker, a general ironmonger, funeral director, furniture dealer and haybarn erector!

[2] ‘A common car’ was the phrase used to describe a horse-drawn cart.

[3] A wynd was the name given to a cock of hay

[4] Meitheal is the Gaelic word for a group of neighbours who come together to help each other gather in the harvest.

[5] A shieg is a big rick of hay containing up to twenty or thirty wynds – it was very common to build these structures before the advent of the hay barn in the twentieth century (See photo above).

[6] A haggard was a small plot of land – a half-acre – near the family home.

[7] Stout  (probably Guinness)

[8] These again were horse-drawn carts specially made to carry wynds of hay – often also referred to as floats.

[9] Ponies

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