West's Awake: The joys of a May day
Huge fields which once took families and their neighbors maybe more than a week or 10 days to convert into cocks of hay are now shorn to the stubble in a matter of hours. Times have changed.
The inside of my left thumb begins to throb. It is back in the meadows of youth in the madness of those golden haymaking seasons of old.
Everybody pitched in to help. Those of you who were born here back then will never forget it.
If you were born on a farm you were better equipped to deal with the work than neighbors' children like us with soft hands and neither the forklore nor rakelore that came naturally to the farm children.
With either the rake or the fork, gathering in every last strand of hay, the first place we felt it was inside the left thumb. A great white fluid-filled blister developed there in a couple of hours, and when it burst there soon developed a red flesh hurting zone which you had to cover pronto, usually with a handkerchief because there never seemed to be plasters available. No plasters nor ointments and no sympathy.
The old ones, one eye on the weather, went into a frenzy to get the hay "saved" before the rains came. And the rains were never far away.
Ye of the soil will recall when the hay was just ready for cocking, and there would be a quick shower and then you would have to start all over again, turning the swathes manually with forks, shaking it out to dry, getting bitten on your arms and legs by "clegs" or horse flies, thirsty all the time.
And were those old ones so wrong in their way of working? The hay had to be whispering with dryness before they would cock it.
All or most of the nutrients were surely burned away by the time it eventually reached the wintering cows. I suppose they had no choice in those days before silage was even heard of, and that was the way it was always done.
When Bob Armstrong, our next door neighbor, introduced silage making to our parish back in the fifties everyone thought the decent man had gone stone mad.
Bob had an old quarry with high walls. He fired the mowings of one big meadow into it, soaked the hot grass with treacle (molasses) and then covered it with "scraws" of topsods and, to the neighbors' amazement drove his tractor back and forth across the whole pile to roll it flatter.
The subsequent smell across the parish was awful, sweetly sickly. People expected Bob to be transported to the mental hospital in Omagh any day now.
But come the feeding weeks of the winter when he was drawing home the brown silage from the quarry to his bred Ayrshires it was not long before the neighbors noted that their own cattle went stone mad for the bits of silage that fell on the road.
And Bob's herd of Ayrshires were thrivingly glossy when all the other cows were simply being "held" on the subsistence rations of hay all winter. In two seasons everyone was at it, and children like me were glad the days of the left thumb blister were over.