An Irishman's Diary: the longest hay-day
An Irishman’s Diary about a mission to save the harvest
I’ll never forget the dawn of that great day. It was like the Normandy landings, as a never-before-seen force of seven tractors and trailers, driven by uncles and friends, departed our yard. I don’t remember us calling the Belmullet weather station the night before to get a forecast for the operation. But apart from that, nothing had been left to chance. Photograph: Eric Luke
The summer I was 10, my father fell ill and spent three months in hospital. There was never a good time then for a farmer to be sick, but hay-making season was the worst. So we had to throw ourselves on the mercy of relatives and friends that year.
Happily, the weather proved merciful too. The hay was cut, dried, and baled, in quick order. And it only remained then for it to be drawn in. But that was the problem.
There were two routes to the fields where the hay was. One was a long, winding lane – the official right-of-way that had come with the 30-acre farm my father bought just before I was born.
Unfortunately, the residents of that lane included a man, long dead now, who had retrospectively objected to the purchase. Having hoped that, unsold, the farm might be acquired by the Land Commission and redistributed, he had ever since been on a revenge mission.
There were many guerrilla tactics in his campaign book. But one of the most effective involved planting six-inch nails in the lane, under camouflage, in such a way as to pierce any tractor tyre that crossed them.
He was so adept at this that my father quickly abandoned the right-of-way, in favour of the other route, which involved a diagonal crossing of the steep hill behind our house. The hill would be nothing to today’s tractors, but it was dangerous then, especially if you had a heavily laden trailer behind.
Even so, my father became skilled at negotiating this northwest passage safely, using low second gear and with the added assistance of the Rosaries my mother was always saying at the time. Somehow, he never overturned.
My mother’s confidence in the power of prayer did not, however, extend to third parties. There could be no question of us asking strangers to risk the hill. So an emergency summit was held, and a fateful decision taken. We would mount a mass assault on the lane.
I’ll never forget the dawn of that great day. It was like the Normandy landings, as a never-before-seen force of seven tractors and trailers, driven by uncles and friends, departed our yard. I don’t remember us calling the Belmullet weather station the night before to get a forecast for the operation. But apart from that, nothing had been left to chance.
The most poignant part of the plan was that my father’s tractor, an old Fordson Dexter, was to be sacrificed. My Uncle Jamesie would drive it up the lane ahead of the flotilla – thereby, it was hoped, flushing out all the nails.
Being 10, I was too young to drive a tractor myself. Under the health and safety regulations of the time, you had to be at least 11 before they’d let you do that. Instead, as acting man of the house, I was posted on sentry duty outside the nail-layer’s den, lest he emerge during lulls in traffic to strike again.
I was of course petrified. Even with so many tractors, there were long gaps between hay-loads when the loneliness of a dark country lane was unnerving. I had no idea what I’d do if the enemy appeared – was I supposed to fight him?
He was about 60 by that time. And God love him, he was probably even more petrified at the events unfolding. In any case, he didn’t stir. Looking back, I have only pity for him now. He was a product of his time and circumstances, when one man’s victory in land, however small, was another’s defeat.
By a sad coincidence, many years later, when my father was dying, they found themselves in the same hospital, simultaneously. The nail-man was in the marginally better condition of the two. So before he was released, my mother sought him out and suggested he pay a final visit to his neighbour and make peace. Sure enough, he did. They were both dead by autumn.
Anyway, all those years earlier, Operation Haymaker proved a huge success. There was a cost, of course. By nightfall we were mourning the poor Fordson, which lay grievously wounded, with four flat tyres. It had done its job well. Only one of our neighbours suffered a puncture. There were no other casualties.
The Fordson was succeeded a year or two later by a Massey Ferguson 165. I don’t know what happened it after that. Perhaps its remains are still mouldering somewhere, in a Tomb of the Unknown Tractor. One of these years, I must put up a commemorative plaque.