The Last Sheaf – A Harvest Rite for the Old Hag

Irish harvest workers 1920s, Photographer unknown.

Traditionally the cutting of the last sheaf of corn is a special rite which, at one time, was observed on many farms throughout Ireland to mark the end of the harvest, which generally occurred between late September and early October each year. When the harvest was saved a lone sheaf of corn, wheat, or oats would be left standing in the last field to reaped. This sheaf would then be plaited into the shape of a woman to represent an old woman, a witch, or a hag,* generally known as the Cailleach in Ireland, who was generally blamed for any misfortune suffered by the people throughout the previous year.

A contest of skill between the labourers was then held with the aim of dislodging this lone-standing sheaf from the soil. In the north of Ireland during the early years of the twentieth century proceedings for the contest generally followed the following 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, 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 a prominent position in the kitchen, or another 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 the current year’s sheaf, although in certain cases the sheaf was kept in the kitchen, and would be displayed along with the sheaves from the years that followed.

The tradition seems to have remained strongest in the north of Ireland and was traditionally popular on both Catholics and Protestant farms, where it continued to be practiced as a harvest custom up to the middle 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.

Saint Ciarán & the Patron at Clonmacnoise

Last Circuit at the Patron at Clonmacnoise
– George Petrie, 1838

Located beside the River Shannon, in the centre of Ireland, stands the ruined sixth-century monastery of Clonmacnoise. Founded by Saint Ciarán the monastery survived for over a thousand years during which time Clonmacnoise was famed as one of Ireland’s great seats of learning, until it was eventually brought to ruin and looted under the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1552. The name Clonmacnoise, along with some ruins at the site, appear to predate the monastery’s religious associations; with Cluin Mac Nós translating from Irish to English as ‘Meadow of the Sons of Nós.’ Legend has it that the lands were given to Saint Ciarán by Diarmait Mac Cerbaill – who is traditionally held to be the last pagan High King of Ireland. Whether the legend is true or false it is well documented that the Kings of Connaught continued to patronise the monastery of Clonmacnoise until the thirteenth century. In spite the destruction of Clonmacnoise the picturesque ruins of the monastery, with its round tower, seven churches, and stone crosses, have continued to attract large crowds of pilgrims on many days throughout the year but, most particularly on the Feast Day of Saint Ciarán which falls on the ninth of September each year. In 1816 the Reverend Patrick Fitzgerald, who was then Vicar of the Parish Clonmacnoise, stated that on Saint Ciarán’s Day from ‘3000 to 4000 people assemble there to do penance from different parts of Ireland,” remarking that some had travelled from as far away as Donegal.

1860s engraving by H. Griffiths

In his book The Holy Wells of Ireland Patrick Logan explained that by 1980 the traditional longer station at Clonmacnoise had declined in recent decades and had been replaced by a significantly shorter station in more recent years. Each circuit of the old longer station was usually done three times. A person generally did the station barefoot in those days, and would start at Saint Ciarán’s Well, continuing through to the cloister, on to the stone crosses, and further on to the Nun’s church. At each place prayers were offered and decades of the rosary were recited. Logan estimated that to complete the ‘long station’ would take a person over four hours to complete. Although devotion was the primary objective of those who visited Clonmacnoise many devotees hoped to find cures for long lingering ailments. On a visit to the Clonmacnoise in his 1813 Tour of Ireland the Reverend James Hall noted that ‘thousands believe that the waters of the well, at the ruins, gives the blind their sight, and makes the lame walk.’ While a cure for toothache could be got by tying a rag to the hawthorn tree that stands beside according to a relative of Nora Killeen, who noted the traditional belief in the Schools’ Collection in the late nineteen-thirties.* If a pilgrim suffered from epilepsy they could find a cure by sitting on a stone on which, legend had it, Saint Ciarán had sat. Finally, according to Lady Jane Wilde, a woman can clasp her arms around Saint Ciarán’s Cross she ‘would never die in childbirth.

As the burial site of its founder Saint Ciarán, one of the most revered of the Irish saints, it is to be expected that the graveyard of Clonmacnoise remained a popular burial site in the centuries that followed the saint’s death. However, the thirteenth century ancient Registry of Clonmacnoise, which contains transcriptions from the Life of Saint Ciarán, noted another reason for the preference of being buried at Clonmacnoise. The entry explains that Saint Ciarán was granted a favour from God that no soul buried at Clonmacnoise should be deprived of salvation. While visiting Clonmacnoise in 1813 Reverend James Hall noted that this the above guarantee of salvation was still widely to be true, and that ‘those buried near the ruins have half their sins forgiven, and that the soul only remains half the time in purgatory it otherwise would.’ Those buried at Clonmacnoise did not even need to fear purgatory according to an account collected for the Schools’ Collection by a young school girl named Bridget Feehily, who noted that it is ‘believed that all persons who were interred in the Holy Grounds belonging to it insured to themselves a sure and immediate ascent to Heaven.’

* The Schools’ Collection was a project set up by the Irish Folklore Commission which asked young schoolchildren in the late 1930s to gather folklore from their older relations and neighbours.

Sources

Tales of the Elders of Ireland. Translated by Ann Dooley and Harry Roe. Oxford 1999.

Fitzgerald, Patrick, “Parish of Clonmacnoise”, Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburgh, 1816.

Hall, James (Rev).  Tour Through Ireland; Particularly the Interior and Least Known Parts. London, 1813.

Logan, Patrick. The Holy Wells of Ireland. Buckinghamshire, 1980.

O’Hanlon, John (Rev), Lives of the Irish Saints. New York, 1905.

Otway, Caesar. A Tour of Connaught. Dublin, 1839.

Wilde, Lady Jane, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. London, 1888.

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