In the west of Ireland furrowed fields hug the coastline. Many a passer-by pays little to no attention to this ridged farmland, totally unaware these markings are the remnants of our ancestors’ toil.
Referred to as lazy beds, these scars on the Irish countryside are evidence of an abandoned system of potato cultivation that once supported generations of Irish people, before the devastation of the Great Irish Famine.
As I researched photographs and information for my series of potato posts, the Spud Saga, I came across a collection of images of these distinctively furrowed fields.
I knew I just had to share them here on my blog, and let readers and Irish tourists know what exactly they are observing when they travel the highways and byways of my homeland.
“Lazy beds” is the term for these ridge and furrow patterns. The term was first used by the British as a derogatory term for this ancient system of agriculture utilized in Ireland and Scotland. The British bone of contention was that all the Irish ever did was grow potatoes in their lazy beds.
But truth be told, there was nothing lazy about the back-breaking slog of our forefathers, who worked tirelessly to create arable land in an area full of rocks covered with a thin layer of top soil or ancient peat bog.
Here’s how lazy beds worked. Farmers would carry seaweed, sand and crushed shells up from the shore and pile it in parallel ridges in their fields. Seed potatoes were planted on the high ridges, then covered with earth scooped up from the sides.
The seaweed and sand mixed into the clay of the ridges nourished the growing tubers, ensuring they had a high level of iodine. The channels between the ridges followed the slope of the hills or the land, acting as drainage ditches.
Over the years the ridges grew higher and the furrowed ditches deeper.
By using this method, poor land which might grow little else, supported flourishing potato crops and sustained millions of Irish people, until the arrival of the dreaded potato blight in 1845.
Despite not being used for many years, these lazy beds remain untouched in parts of Ireland. They have withstood the winds and rains over a century and a half, to mark these fields as memorials to their makers.
These ridged, hilly fields remind me of the lines from the poem, The Wayfarer, by Patrick Pearse.
“Or some green hill where shadows drifted by,
Some quiet hill where mountainy man hath sown
And soon would reap; near to the gate of Heaven;”
~ Excerpt from The Wayfarer, by Patrick Pearse.
And over a million “mountainy” men and their families perished during the years of the Great Hunger (1845 to 1850), and now reap on the far side of the “gate of Heaven,” which I know was opened wide during those dreadful years.
Many of these photographs are from the counties of Galway and Mayo in the west of Ireland.
The photo above shows the tiny island of Braadillaun, off the Connemara coast in County Galway. If you examine the closest side of the island, and the adjacent mainland field, the remains of furrowed lazy beds can be seen.
Every square inch of inhospitable and barren land was utilized to feed the growing Irish population, prior to the Great Famine.
For anyone interested in seeing the remains of these lazy beds I recommend visiting The Deserted Village on Achill Island, County Mayo. Located on the southern slopes of Slievemore, this abandoned village stretches from west to east for over 1.5 kilometres.
Dating from about 1750, there originally were 137 houses in the village, clustered together in three settlements.
Today, 84 ruined homes remain. One-roomed cabins, or two-chambered dwellings, some had an outhouse, and some had a stable or shed for animals.
Surrounding the village is an extensive system of lazy beds. The village was abandoned in the 1850’s, but some cabins were used during the summer months up until the 1940’s
The tradition of taking cattle and sheep to the hills for summer grazing is known as ‘booleying.’ The cabins were occupied during the summer months, but residents of nearby villages would return to their homes from the mountainside to pass the winter months. Slievemore Mountain on Achill Island is one of the last places in Europe where ‘booley’ houses were used.
The abandoned stone cottages of Achill Island, with their surrounding fields furrowed with potato ridges, are an excellent way for tourists to envisage what life was like in Ireland, many years ago.
The Irish, became a ‘silent people’ after the anguish and heartbreak of the Great Hunger.
Perhaps these mute ridges now speak for our ancestors, reminders of who they were, and their endless struggle to survive.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
P.S. A big thank you to all the wonderful photographers who shared their work under a Creative Commons License, allowing me to use their images to illustrate this post. I truly appreciate your generosity.