Analysis: there were many unique rituals and traditions associated with the harvesting of crops in Ireland

Autumnal harvesting of crops is an important annual event in all farmers' calendars. This was especially so in the past when harvesting, done by hand, was a race against the weather, time and nature. To have your crops saved for winter was important for survival and there were many beliefs, customs and rituals linked to the harvest time.

Ireland has its own unique old harvest customs, with various regional variations. The connection to agriculture and nature meant that harvest traditions were similar on Catholic and Protestant farms. Harvesting officially began at Lughnasa, or into modern times on Garland Sunday, and harvest rituals were observed throughout July, August and September.

Gleaning Sunday

The first Sunday after 15th August was Gleaning Sunday or Domhnach Deascán, marking the final gathering of the crops. On that day, stray straws were removed from fields where corn crops were grown, 'corn’ referring to grain crops such as oats, barley or wheat . This was followed by picnics, outdoor gatherings and the weaving of 'harvest knots' from the remnant straw. These were ornaments made from straw plaits and twists and would be worn during the final work and at the festivities that marked the end of the harvest.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke show in 2018, Michael Fortune on traditions around harvest time in Ireland

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From RTÉ Archives, episode of On the Land from 1963 on that year's harvest

By the time of the Feast of St Bartholomew the Apostle on August 24th, the flailing or threshing of the corn was to be well underway. If it was unripe, then farmers prepared their equipment. If the day was windy, St Bartholomew himself was blamed for flattening the crops.

It was hoped that most crops would have been saved and harvested by the last Sunday of August. In some areas, a small portion of the corn harvest was left out for the fairies, to appease these nature spirits and to ensure good luck for the year ahead. The end of the harvest was known as ‘the closure’ in some regions.

The last sheaf

The cutting of the last sheaf of corn at the very last of the harvest was an important ritual. Traditions relating to the last sheaf – that is, the last sheaf standing after the corn was harvested – are known in European harvest customs.

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It was known as the cutting of the cailleach in Ireland, the Irish word for ‘hag’ or ‘witch’, and the spirit of the cailleach was said to be in the last sheaf. If she was not slain, it was believed that there would be a danger of hunger for the year ahead. Harvesters symbolically flung their reaping hooks at the last patch of standing corn. Often, a contest was held between them to do so. It was brought to the ‘harvest home’ feast by the labourer who had cut it to be preserved for the year to come.

The last sheaf took various forms: it could be a plait of straws, an actual sheaf or straws tied together. The sheaf might be more elaborately plaited or even clothed. However it looked, rural people believed it was very powerful and good for the health of livestock, the luck of the household and safety of the people. If the last sheaf was stolen it could be used for nefarious purposes by one’s enemies so, after the harvest home feast, the sheaf was taken and stored carefully in the roof rafters or above the fireplace.

The 'harvest home' feast

The harvest was a very busy time in the farming year. It involved whole communities working in the fields alongside each other, usually including women and children. In times past, it was backbreaking work with people using hand tools and racing against the weather.

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From Videos of Irish Farming Life, threshing day in old Ireland (as flled at Muckross Traditional Farm, Co Kerry)

As a reward, the ‘harvest home’ was a feast given by farmers to their workers at the end of the harvest. It was also known in some places as the ‘reaping dance’ or ‘the head’. It was held in the kitchen of smaller homes and in larger ones, a barn was co-opted as a party space.

The usual tradition was that the cailleach was ceremonially presented to the woman of the house and hung above the table for the duration of the celebratory harvest meal. This usually comprised of bacon, cabbage and potatoes with local specialty foods and seasonal goodies, such as apples and bilberries. Alcohol would be served alongside music, dancing and much gaiety. In some areas, the girl who had tied the last sheaf was the first to be led out to dance by the farmer himself or his eldest son.

The aforementioned harvest knots were worn at this feast in the hair of females or on the lapels of males. They may have been an imported custom and there may or may not have been romantic associations of young farm workers, male and female, making them to present to each other.

Today the harvest is mechanised and many of the traditions have fallen away, along with the fear of hunger, the cailleach and the fairies. The Harvest Thanksgiving is continued mostly by the Protestant community, where it is a highlight of the church calendar and notable for beautiful displays of fruits and vegetables on church altars.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ