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Irish harvest workers, 1920s. Photographer unknown

Two hundred years ago the cutting of the last sheaf of corn, or cailleach ‘old hag/witch/wife’*, as it was generally known in Ireland, was observed as a special rite on many farms throughout the country. The corn harvest was typically saved by late September or early October, on the final day a bunch of corn was left standing in the corner of the last field to be harvested, this sheaf would be plaited to symbolically represent an old woman, witch, or hag, who was generally blamed for any misfortune suffered by the people.

A contest of skill was then devised to dislodge this sheaf. In the north of Ireland, a century ago, they generally followed this pattern; labourers, standing at a distance of ten yards, or metres, took turns throwing hooks intending to fell the cailleach. Once the sheaf was felled it was brought triumphantly to the farmer’s wife and hung about her neck, the successful labourer would often take credit for removing misfortune from the mistress and her household, and was the labourer was generally rewarded for their skill with the first drink, a shilling, or some other small but significant prize. A feast was often provided by the farmer to celebrate the end of harvest, with all involved in the work drinking and dancing through the night.

After the day’s festivities the sheaf was hung in the kitchen, or other room of the farmhouse, and at the end of harvest the following year it was generally relegated to the byre, to make way for the next years’ sheaf, although in certain cases the sheaf was kept in the kitchen and displayed with the last sheaves of previous years.

The tradition seems to have remained strongest in the north of Ireland, with both Protestants and Catholics, where it was still practised, although sporadically well into the last century.

* also known in some parts as the ‘hare’ or the ‘churn’ with the latter  term sometimes used to describe the feast that followed.

 

Sources

Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. Dublin 1972.

Evans, E. Estyn. Irish Folk Ways. London, 1957.

Frazer, W and M’Cormick Mr H. M’Neili. ‘Harvest Rites in Ireland’. Folklore, 1914.

Lett, H.W. ‘Winning the Chrun’. Folklore, 1905.

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