Read about traditional Irish farming methods, including rearing livestock, growing crops and using tools.
Black and white photo of Mary and Ellen McCaughey, Corleaghan, using a sickle to cut crops, Co. Tyrone. c. 1910
Potatoes were the main vegetable crop and they are easily grown even on poor soil. On small farms they were often grown in spade-made cultivation ridges, sometimes called ‘lazy beds’. The farmer turned the sod back over the grass, piling on earth and manure to make a raised bed.
Apart from potatoes the other main vegetables cultivated were cabbage, onions and carrots.
The small farmer in Ireland often possessed little in the way of farm machinery. The spade and one or two other hand tools were all that existed in the smallest of farms.
Nonetheless, spades existed in a large variety of shapes to suit local tastes and traditions. There were two main types: a northern type with two footrests and a traditional type, with one footrest, found in many places. The northern type was generally made in spade mills, while the traditional type was easily made by blacksmiths.
Block wheel cart in Donegal
Turf Cutting and Harvesting
Bogs are common in many parts of Ireland and every May or June people would cut turf to provide fuel for the year ahead. Using a specially shaped sleán or slane (a type of spade), hundreds of sods of turf were cut from the local bog. Slanes were of two main types: foot cutting slanes and breast cutting slanes, the latter type cut
horizontally into the turf bank. The cut sods were laid out to dry away from the turf bank, before being made into stacks or reeks.
Transporting turf away from the soft terrain of the bog meant that certain old types of transport survived relatively late in parts of Ireland. The donkey with side panniers (baskets) was favoured along the western seaboard. The wheel-less slide car and the block-wheel cart survived into the mid-twentieth century in certain hilly parts of
the eastern half of the country.
After ploughing which broke the sod, a harrow (a large rake-like device) was dragged along the ground to break up the clods of earth into finer soil. A heavy stone roller might then be pulled over the ground to break it up even more. The seed was then sown. The harrow was used again to mix the seed with the earth and the roller
used to help to cover the seed from birds and to press the seed into the earth.
Scythes and Mowing Crops
Before the age of mowing machines, a scythe was used to cut the crop. Normally swung by a man, scythes were used to cut hay – the largest crop and used mainly for animal feed. Scythes came into common use in Ireland from the early nineteenth century. Sickles or billhooks were used before the scythe and these continued to be preferred by some
harvesters, particularly women. Such hooks offered a careful cutting method that allowed the harvester to keep the precious seed from being shaken off the stalk and avoid cutting weeds.
Flailing and Winnowing Crops
Before the introduction of threshing machines, flailing was one of a variety of methods used to shake the grains of cereal free from the husks. Flails were simply made: the handle (generally of hazel) and the beater (of hollywood) were usually fastened by a loop of leather. This fastening varied in different regions of the country.
Two chief types of flail were found in Ireland: One type with a cap of leather on each stick connected by a thong. It is found in Leinster and north-east Ireland and probably was introduced from Britain. This type of flail is also found in Central Europe. In the second type the sticks were connected by a thong housed in a groove cut around the head of each stick. This type of flail is also found in southern Norway and in a few isolated areas in southern Europe.
Farming family, winnowing corn at Rosapenna, Co. Donegal, c. 1900
Winnowing was the process by which the wind was used to remove the lighter chaff, leaving just the grain. Using a winnowing basket, the farmer tossed the grain and chaff mixture, letting the wind carry the lighter chaff away as the heavier grain fell to the ground. Improvements included threshing machines that threshed and winnowed the grain and combine harvesters that also mowed it.
Most Irish farm families owned a few domestic animals each of which had their own unique function. Cows, pigs, sheep and fowl provided valuable food in what was often a very limited diet; horses and donkeys offered far greater power than human muscle and sheep could be shorn for their wool. Horses were essential for heavy farm work such as ploughing and they could pull heavily loaded carts long distances. The donkey, by contrast, was the ‘horse’ of the smaller farm and was more common in the west of Ireland. Equipped with a straddle and a pair of pannier baskets, a donkey could carry turf, manure and seaweed.
Sheep and goats were generally raised on land that was not particularly suitable for other grazing animals, while goats provided milk and were also useful in controlling wild vegetation.