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.

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