The harvest comes as a time of abundance and fruition, with crops that grew in unhurried determination through the wind and rain of spring now standing ripened and ready for gathering. For our forebears, this was a time of great celebration, as it marked the point at which the lean months of June and ‘Hungry July’ (where the year’s stores were at their lowest) gave way again to profusion and plenty.
Despite the autumn traditionally beginning on the 1st of August, celebrations welcoming it typically commenced across the island of Ireland on the last Sunday in July, on what was commonly known as ‘Garland Sunday’ (a garland being a term to describe a decorative wreath of flowers, as well as more generally referring to a party). Other English language names for this day were ‘Big Sunday’, ‘Height Sunday’, ‘Mountain Sunday’, ‘Rock Sunday’, and ‘Bilberry Sunday’ (to name a few). Despite the variety of names, these celebrations had a common theme; the tendency on this day was for groups of young people to remove to hills and heights in their local districts, ascending to their summits and gathering there to sport and play. In some parts of the country wreaths of flowers were woven and scattered across hilltops or left at sites of worship and devotion, berries were picked and eaten in their droves, and there was music, dancing, courtship, and the consumption of intoxicating liquors. In some instances, with young men having retired to the public house for the day (and duly indulging in the refreshments offered therein) faction fights broke out (sometimes even being arranged to take place among neighbouring parties at this time).
With the passing of Garland Sunday, and with celebrations duly having ceased, the heavy work of the harvest commenced. Crops of corn (namely rye, oats, barley, flax and wheat) were now taken in from the fields, and men and women (along with their children) would travel in their droves to begin the heavy work of reaping with scythes and sickles.
Harvesting involved laborious effort, though certain individuals were credited in folk tradition as possessing an otherworldly ability to cut enormous amounts of corn with little exertion, owing to their possessing a magical charm which guaranteed that their reaping hook always had the sharpest of edges. The one who had ortha an fhaoir or ‘edge charm’ so called, would write it on a piece of paper before sewing it into their clothes, so that mowing would no more prove a hardship to them. Others with ‘edge charm’ who might take pity on a mower struggling with a poor scythe, were able to share their gift simply by taking the blighted implement from its owner, rubbing their hand along the blade, and returning it. Their companions working alongside them without the benefit of this charm however, were doomed to struggle; stopping to sharpen their blunted blades again and again before continuing on in the heat and sweat of the long summer evenings.
All was not struggle and misery however, as the harvest (in bringing together men and women from across the community) served as a time in which symbols and tokens of affection and fancy were passed to and fro among individuals. These find their most beautiful expression in the ‘harvest knot’; a small and delicately plaited wisp of straw given by men and women to one another as a symbol of affection, a custom introduced here from our sister island of Britain. These items were often woven from grass, as well as flax, oats and wheat, and were constructed by taking straws of equal length and fastening the ends, before delicately turning one straw over the next, rotating them in a delicate weave which was tied off at the ends. Harvest knots worn by women had the seeds of grain still attached, while these were cut away in the knots worn by men.
By the end of September, the work of reaping the grain was nearly finished, although no harvest was complete until the cutting of ‘the last sheaf’ (or bundle of corn in the field), had taken place. In a moment that was treated with a certain symbolism and joviality, this final bundle of grain left standing in the field was ceremoniously plaited from bottom to top before being cut. Reapers would at times stand back and throw their hooks at it to cut it, sometimes being blindfolded and spun around before doing so, to ‘add to the hilarity’.
The cutting of the last sheaf was met with great jubilation and cheering, and the lucky reaper who managed to cut it was often showered with drops of whiskey or water, before hosting a clousúr (‘closure’) or ‘harvest home’; a celebratory feast which marked the end of the harvest, to which all were invited, and which had the last sheaf as its ceremonial centrepiece. This feast would feature an abundance of freshly home-brewed beer, as well as sides of bacon, rounds of ribs and new potatoes. Food and drink was consumed in earnest at such a gathering, healths were drunk and there was music and dancing until late into the night, and the harvest season has even lent itself to traditional tunes and dances to accompany them, namely An Staicín Eorna (The Little Stack of Wheat) and Baint an Fhéir (The Haymaker’s Jig).
The last sheaf was hung up in the house until the next harvest, and was held to bestow good luck and plenty upon its possessor. It was also understood to have certain curative powers, and grain taken from it and fed to animals would ensure their robust strength and good health throughout the year. With the gloomy weather of October fast approaching, and the last sheaf hanging securely above the door, life turned inwards again in advance of the long nights of winter; the earth now lying fallow and bare.
To learn more about the harvest, listen back to episode five of the National Folklore Collections’ podcast ‘Blúiríní Béaloidis’, which explores Harvest Customs in Folk Tradition.