#Ploughing16: Spade work of a forgotten era

The ancient art of turning taobhfhóds will be exhibited at the three-day National Ploughing Championships which begin at Scraggan, Tullamore, tomorrow.
#Ploughing16: Spade work of a forgotten era

It involves using a Loy spade to manually break ground and turn the soil to the sky for the planting of crops.

Taobhfhód is a lovely Irish word often used in remote parts of rural Ireland to describe the upturned sod at the side of a potato ridge during planting.

It has a heritage that goes back to the first farmers who tilled the fields with timber spades and it is a cherished part of what “The Ploughing” is all about.

The Loy (Irish for spade) helped to produce food that fed a nation long before the metal age when horse-drawn and tractor-pulled ploughs helped to cultivate the fields.

Digging with a Loy was hard work, but those who had no other way to plant their crops took great satisfaction in how they did it. They were “sculptors of the soil”.

Sometimes they took a rest, leaned on the timber spade to admire their work, smoked a pipe or even spent a few minutes observing the antics of a wriggling worm on the upturned earth.

The Loy is no longer used for tillage work, but the skill to handle it has been preserved in a number of counties as part of rural heritage and as a reminder of how the country’s multi-billon euro farming and food industries had such humble beginnings.

This will be evident at Screggan on Thursday when competitors take part in the National Loy Digging competitions. Crowds will again watch how people turned the ridges long before spade factories were set up in Cork, Dublin, and Belfast over 260 years ago.

The Loy is a simple but unusual looking implement with a sharp iron head, a wooden handle and a single footrest. It is much heavier and stronger than the ordinary spade and was originally made entirely from wood, mostly ash.

Using it properly requires a certain skill that was often handed down from fathers to sons but those who did it well left a legacy of neat and well-shaped tracks and ridges that are still evident in many places.

The Ceide Fields in Mayo, with a history going back over 5,000 years, when early farmers tilled the soil of Ireland, have reminders of those days.

Fostering this ancient craft, which had become almost extinct, is the aim of the Loy Association of Ireland, founded in Carrick-On-Shannon, Co Leitrim, in 1992, by Eamon Egan, Co Longford. He convinced the National Ploughing Association to hold a Loy digging contest at the championships in Carrigtwohill, Co Cork, later that year.

Now one of the many attractions at the annual event, as many as 42 competitors from 16 counties took part in New Ross in 2012. Yet, it was hard enough to locate old irons or heads when the Loy Association was formed. Parts of them might turn up in outhouses or discarded on ditches.

They were deemed to be of no obvious use in the age of modern spades and machines. Yet, they sometimes set people off on voyages of hopeful discovery.

New Ross man Joe Kilbride was looking at some young ash trees growing on a fence one day when he spotted the head of a Loy on the ground. It had been dumped and was in a worn state.

Joe, with Longford origins, where there is a tradition of Loy digging, recognised what it was, brought it home, and kept it in his shed until the year 2000, when he put an ash handle on to it, wondering about where it was made.

Loy Association chairman Thomas Egan, writing in the 2013 ploughing championship catalogue, estimated there were about 70 top Loy diggers in the country. He concluded that there must be something very attractive about Loy digging, despite the heavy appearance of the spade and the tough soil on which it was used.

“Men, women and children travel long journeys to compete, sometimes in cold wet weather. At most venues there can be 10 to 20 competitors,” he said.

Thomas Egan claimed the art of making a ridge by hand and doing it properly was most important for producing fresh vegetables for the kitchen.

He stated the Loy is the most suitable implement for turning the green sod, which is more fertile, pest free and weed free, and can be more organic.

Planting a garden on the green sod works well and has many benefits, including neatness.

Last year, the Loy Association’s current chairman, Patrick Boyhan, had advice for people on how a small plot of land can do more than produce vegetables and potatoes for the household.

Using a Loy that produces food is good physical exercise and it is also good for mental wellbeing, he stated.

President Michael D Higgins, officially opening the 2013 Ploughing Championships in Ratheniska, Co Laois, said mechanisation and technological innovation have played a decisive role in the modernisation of Irish farming.

“Over the last half century, tractors have gradually displaced the age-old combination of horse and plough.

“The ploughs used nowadays on Irish farms bear little resemblance to those of the 1950s, and some of the tractors on display in these championships are mighty machines indeed.

“Yet, some of the ploughmen continue to cherish their horses, as the staging of three horse plough classes show.

They do so,” he said, “out of love for that beautiful animal, the horse, but also because they — and our Loy diggers alike — take pride and pleasure in keeping alive, and even perfecting, an ancient human skill.”

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