Frank McNally: how the heatwave has caused a revival of retro hay-making

An Irishman’s Diary: Square bales in a round hole

Visiting Carrick-on-Shannon last weekend, I was charmed by the sight of old-style small square hay bales in a field. When I say “square”, I mean “rectangular”, although nobody ever called them that. In any case, you rarely see them anymore, because they have long been supplanted by large, round bales, which require no manual work.

At first I thought the spectacle was just a Leitrim thing. But I see from the latest Farmers Journal that along with other relics of my childhood, including vinyl records and scare stories about Russia, square bales are making a comeback. This is a side-effect of the recent revival of yet another nostalgic phenomenon: long hot summers.

Thus, according to "The Dealer", an FJ columnist, old baling machines "have been pulled out of sheds, had their wheels pumped and were seen thumping their way around small fields in the west over the last week during the dry spell". He goes on: "A whole new generation of children learned about knots down and out, blisters on hands and the original Irish sauna – a round roof hayshed when the last bales are being squeezed in".

Of course, as with most things in farming, the retro baling trend has less to do with romance than economics. The time-saving element of the round “4 (feet) x 4” bales has been made temporarily redundant this year because, for once, hay-makers are not in a race against the next Atlantic depression.


This also means they can avoid paying contractors with round-bale machines, in favour their own museum pieces performing the job in twice the time but cheaper.

“Also,” as the Dealer explains, “they’ve done the maths. There are typically 12 small squares in a round 4X4. The asking price for them out of the field is now €2.50 to €3.50. The asking price for 4x4s is €24 to €30.”

Nostalgia is never what it used to be, I know. But it’s funny that vintage Welger and New Holland baling machines should be considered quaint now because, when they first arrived on Irish farms, they were visions of a fearsome future.

There was something monstrous about the way they gobbled up a row of hay with their rotary prongs, then forked it sideways into the path of a jack-hammer guillotine, before condensing the remains and spewing them out in bondaged rectangles.

As a child, you could all-too-easily imagine yourself being baled. So you stayed safely to the monster’s rear, collecting the victims. And when standing these in “stooks”, you did indeed learn to have the twine knots on the bottom, facing out. That meant the grain of the bale was downwards, so that while it aired, any rain showers would run off.

I well remember the blisters too. But – a thing The Dealer doesn’t mention – I also recall the hard-won lesson of wearing long-sleeve shirts. If you didn’t, your soft inner arms would be treated to a thousand pinpricks from the guillotined hay. That always added to the joy of sunburn.

It's so long since I used the word "stook" I had to look it up there now to see if it ever really existed. It did and does, partly thanks to WB Yeats, who (albeit talking about sheaves) also helpfully mentioned the next biggest storage unit. In one of his plays, he describes a would-be patriot's ambition to "have freed all Ireland before the stooks will be in stacks".

At the South Monaghan University of Hay-Making, where I studied, we didn’t do stacks. The bales went straight from stook to hayshed/sauna, via trailer. And that involved another skill they may be reviving in the west – hay-bale architecture, building a seven-storey load so that it wouldn’t fall apart on the way home.

The key was a good foundation. Your bottom row was placed sideways, on edge, for maximum density, and wider than any row above. Thereafter bales were flat but interlinked, with each tier tapering slightly. Tightropes did the rest. I don’t recall us ever having a load fall apart. But at least once, the combination of steep hillsides and a heavy cargo proved too much for a trailer’s tow-bar.

We found this out while sitting on top of the load, where the more usual hazards were tree branches.

Health-and-safety had not quite arrived yet. Fortunately, for the same reason, we didn’t have any harnesses to unfasten.

It was a simple if thrilling operation, just before the load tipped over, to clamber onto the high side.