The Last Sheaf – A Harvest Rite for the Old Hag

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Irish harvest workers, 1920s. Photographer unknown

Traditionally 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 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, 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 next years’ sheaf, although in certain cases the sheaf was kept in the kitchen, to be displayed with the sheaves from previous years.

The tradition seems to have remained strongest in the north of Ireland and was traditionally popular on both Catholics and Protestant farms 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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Michaelmas in Irish Folklore

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Postcard uncredited

Michaelmas, the feast-day of the Archangel Michael, is traditionally observed throughout Ireland on the 29th September. A host of traditions and beliefs are associated with the day, for example, male children born on, or near, Michaelmas were often called Michael or Micheál in honour of the saint, while in Swinford, County Mayo,  Michaelmas had a special significance and was a time of celebration and reunion; as many locals returned to Swinford from working the harvest in England on, or before, the day of the feast, according to John Millington Synge the returned harvesters would be, ‘sitting around in each other’s houses playing cards through the night, and a barrel of ale set up among them.’

As with many Irish calendar customs food took a central role in the activities of the day. An animal – usually a goose, which was generally referred to as a Michaelmas Goose, was slaughtered and eaten in honour of the saint. John O’Hanlon in his 1870 book Irish Folklore maintained that a sheep used to be slaughtered by those who could afford it, while he also states that, on Michaelmas, it was ‘ordained by law that a part of the animal must be given to the poor. This is said to have been done, in order to perpetuate the memory of a miracle wrought by St Patrick, through the assistance of that Archangel.’

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uncredited

Michaelmas also acted as a marker for certain civic and domestic activities. In many Irish towns, including Drogheda, Dublin and Kilkenny, the Mayor took office on Michaelmas Day. As part of the celebrations in Kilkenny a bull was baited* at a bull-ring situated  near Saint Francis Abbey. In some areas Michaelmas was one of the two annual rent days, previously known in Ireland as Gale Days, (the other being the 25 March), in place of the more usual Gale Days of the first days of May and November. Domestically the woman of the house started slaughtering the fowl at Michaelmas, with the first goose slaughtered becoming the “Michaelmas Goose”, while for the men, the day marked the beginning of the fox and hare hunting seasons, and, in many parts of Ireland, the end of the fishing season.

Otherworldly creatures were active at Michaelmas, and children were warned not to eat blackberries after Michaelmas eve, as it was believed that the púca  flies through the county defiling the blackberries on that night.** Michaelmas was also a time for divination; a Michaelmas cake was baked on the night of Michaelmas with a ring mixed through the dough, exactly as is still done on Hallowe’en. Portions of the cake were then distributed amongst any unmarried persons who were present, with the belief that whomever discovered the ring was destined to be wed before next Michaelmas.

 

*Bull-baiting typically involved a bull being attacked by dogs, while trapped in an area, often a pit of some kind.

**The púca, sometimes spelled pooka, is a shape-shifting spirit that most commonly takes the form of a horse, but can also take the form of other animals, it was also said that the púca defiled blackberries on Hallowe’en.

 

Sources

Hannon, John (Lageniensis), Irish Folk Lore: Traditions and Superstitions of the Country; with Humouress Tales. London1870.

Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburgh, 1814-19.

Synge, J. M. In Connemara. Dublin, 1910/1979.

Various articles from the Folklore Journal, up until 1920, as well as Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, 1852 and the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1897.

“The sheaf that is bound in the Harvest will be opened in the Spring.”

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Harvest time

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‘September, in Irish Seacht mí, ie “the seventh month,” also, Mi Meadhin Fómhair, ie “the middle month of harvest,” No one will think of contracting marriage in harvest because of the old saying: “The sheaf that is bound in the Harvest will be opened in the Spring.” An Irish couplet also thus refers to the season thus:

“The raven croaks in the harvest,

And the scald crow in the spring.”

Especially at this time the lover of nature, while taking a ramble will note the large number of small spiders floating on the air. These are known as Damhán ealla in Irish, and are supposed to protend that (like another Santa Claus) whoever they alight on will receive a new article of apparel, hat, coat, cloak, shawl or other garment, as the case may be. Consequent on being “lucky messangers” they are not interfered with.’

Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1897.