Robbing the Wild Bees' Nests

Vol. 6 No. 2 - 1991

Robbing the wild bees' nests

by Alfie Tallon

What have the new-fangled methods of harvesting grass done to our fields and haggards?

The stink of silage has replaced the scent of hay, and the corncrake, with its harsh crake, regular as the beat of a metronome, has gone; and with it the fun of trying to spot that elusive Pimpernel. As soon as he says his piece, he darts off like crazy, with his head well down, only to open up with a fresh crake, fifty yards away, head up. So clever was he that, in child-hood, we never knew whether there were two corncrakes, or four, in the field of long grass. After sunset, of a May evening, the countryside would have been loud with the monotonous cries of the corncrake, answering each other from one field to another, and echoing in the stillness.

Then there was the white frothy "cuckoo spit", on the hedgerows. Are they still there, I wonder? We really blamed the cuckoo in our innocence. And what have they done to the clear crystal streams that we drank out of and fished in, as children? They stink now.

Many a happy hour we idled away, lying on our bellies, peering at the spricks in the river between Aghadrumglasny and Ballykeel townlands. There was a disused flax hole at the south-west corner of the meadow bounded by that stream, but I do not remember any flax being grown locally. There was talk of its having been recently abandoned, because it had taken too much good out of the soil, and was too hard to pull.

Happy days and pests of clegs

My memories of that little meadow, the one at the bottom of the sand field, are all happy ones. When I was very young, I trotted along behind the horse-drawn mower, from the moment my father first entered by the gap to cut the first swathe around the perimeter. The weather was usually sultry and the sky overcast, and the clegs would have been driving the horses mad. Every now and then Dad would stop and bash them with his palm, as they crawled over the sweaty necks and flanks of the horses.

The cattle in the sand field went charging around, like demented things, with their tails up, boring their way through thickets of bramble, whin, and sally, around the hedges, in an effort to shake off their torturers. The cheeks and necks of the horses became stained red with blood drawn by the clegs, and spread when the insects were squashed. The blood mingled with the sweat, and hairs, and the animals flicked their muscles to dislodge the attacker, jerked their heads, and restlessly pawed the ground. Only years of discipline and schooling prevented them from obeying their natural instincts to take off, like the cattle in the field beside them. Sometimes Dad encouraged us to get a light leafy bough from a sally bush and beat off the insects, as they homed in on the tortured steeds. We got bitten ourselves, in the process, and so did Dad, but retribution was swift. The cleg which dared to attack seldom survived to bite again.

Older members of the family joined us in the hay meadow, when they came from school, and started hunting on the stubble for wild bees' nests. When they found one, they yanked the top off it with a rake and ran like the wind, pursued by the angry bees. Before attacking the nests, they armed themselves with leafy branches and worked in twos or threes so as to be able to protect one another by beating off the pursuing bees. The aim was to snatch a honeycomb full of honey. More often than not, there was no honey, only maggots in the comb, but occasionally honey was found, and eagerly sucked by the lucky finder. Anyone who ever robbed the wild bees' nests in a hay meadow will appreciate Yeats' reference to "the bee loud glade".

Turning the hay

As I grew older, and had to take my place on the work team sent to turn the hay in the meadow with wooden hay rakes; life was no longer all fun. The leader, who was older, set a cracking pace, as he skilfully tipped the swathes over with a well-practised jerk of the rank head, always working with the swathe, in the direction in which it had fallen when mowed. That way, the swathe retained its cohesion. Any attempt to work in the opposite direction resulted in the swathe becoming completely fragmented, and unmanageable.

Sometimes when the hay had been turned, and the weather was poor, we had to set to work with pitch forks and tease it all up to dry. This was called "shaking it. Given fine weather, the crop would have been ready for putting up (into cocks) before the end of the day, after turning. The horse-drawn rake would have been brought in, and the hay would have been pulled into ridges across the meadow. Each time the rake filled, a lever was pulled to off-load, then the teeth of the rake were quickly set down again, to repeat the filling process. When all the crop had been ridged, the tumbling Paddy was used to collect the ridges into heaps, at a spot selected as the site for each hay cock. The operator guessed exactly how much hay to assemble for each cock and, remarkably, he was seldom very far out.

As soon as the hay had been collected the building of the cock was commenced. That was not a job for a lad, but we were given hand rakes and kept busy. When the stack was half completed, we had to crawl in on all fours to trim the base, using our bare hands. That was NOT a pleasure. Work went on in raising the stack, and we had to remain on our knees, and pull out all the loose hay around the perimeter of the stack, otherwise, when the stack settled, a lot of hay would have been in contact with the ground, needlessly, and deteriorated in quality as a result. As we worked, hay and hay-seed rained down on us from the pitch forks of the workers who were throwing hay up to the man standing on the stack, building it.

Trampled stacks were the norm in our particular district. After the stacks were finished, cleaned up, roped, etc, the whole meadow was raked clean with the horse rake and the rakings were added to the final stack, or put in a mini-stack, separate.

The ruck-shifter

As lads, we got more crack when the ruck-shifter was brought out, to shift the hay stacks from the meadow to the haggard, where maybe eight of them would have been incorporated in a larger stack, which might have been 25 feet high and nearly as many feet across. These were called packs, locally, and it took a highly skilled man to build them. He walked around on top of the pile of hay forming it into a cone, always keeping the heart well packed, and higher than the edges, so as to throw off the wet.

Packs had to weather all the winter storms and in addition to being upright, with raised cores, they had to be particularly skilfully headed that is to say, rounded off at the apex, which would have been no larger than the area covered by the soles of the boots of the man who built them. He had to balance there precariously while hay ropes twisted on the spot, were slung over the pack and weighted down at the base with lumps of scrap iron. These dangled about four feet from the ground and later, as we played tig around the finished stacks in the haggard, many a bruise we suffered. The only sympathy we ever got was - "You ought to have watched where you were going".

When the time came to break into a pack of hay, it was customary to take a slice off it, vertically, with a hay knife, as a shopkeeper might carve a round of cheese. The roof of the pack was not taken off until room had been found for all the hay in some of the sheds. The hay knife was a wide-bladed instrument with a kind of a T handle.

"It's going to split"

Once, when my older brother and I had been helping the men to draw in cocks of hay with a ruck-shifter, he wakened up in the middle of the night yelling, "It's going to split". My father had dashed into the room roused by the commotion, and he immediately responded - "Get the rope over it, quick". At that, my sleep-walking brother dived under the bed groping for a rope! He evidently thought he was still out in the meadow, alongside the ruck- shifter. (Hay cocks tended to split horizontally when they were being windlassed on to the steeply inclined ruck-shifter).

Complimentary unpublished material.
Copyright © "Alfie Tallon", June 1989