The first time I ever heard of a loy was when Christy Mahon, in Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, boasted how he, avoiding his father who was coming at him with a scythe, took up the heavy loy and hit him over the head.

The physical feat of lifting such a heavy implement and in turn being able to swing it to attack one’s opponent really impressed Pegeen Mike and all who would listen to the playboy’s account. Synge wrote his play in 1907 and the loy as a farming implement was, even then, well on the edge of obscurity.

The first time that I ever saw a loy, some 40 years ago, was in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, where Mervyn Watson and the late Jonathan Bell had collected and curated the national spade collection. Jonathan and Mervyn spent their lifetimes dedicated to the history and folklore of farming and I can remember Mervyn dragging out this extraordinary beast of a spade and his description of it, ‘half a plough and half a spade’ has stayed with me since.

Ancient nature

The ancient nature of the loy (láigh in Irish) is marked by the fact that it was not mass-produced but it was made by the local blacksmith in the forge. The skill and knowledge and the raw materials necessary for its manufacture have in the present day all but disappeared.

In the past, if someone needed a loy, they began by purchasing a rough ‘pattern’ of ‘raw’ iron, measuring 1.5 ft by six inches and weighing about three pounds. They also bought a piece of steel, about one pound in weight, as this was vital to create the strong cutting edge.

It sometimes happened that a skilled blacksmith would take two well-worn loys and rework them to produce a new specimen. The metal was well-reddened in the forge fire and heavily sledged on the anvil and this process was repeated until the smith was happy that the iron was toughened and robust.

The loy is an historic digging tool used to till soil. \ National Loy Association

The most admired feature of the blacksmiths’ skill was their expertise in sledging and hammering the red-hot steel tip to meld it to the iron and make the two parts one piece. Some particularly skilled blacksmiths took great pride in fashioning a long, slightly raised ridge down the back of the loy blade, known in Munster as the ‘burdan’ or salmon which greatly

reinforced the elongated slender blade.

This sophisticated feat of forging the ‘iron’ was only one half of the loy story and it was its somewhat oversized and bulky shaft or handle that gave the implement its full character. This large shaft was aptly termed a ‘tree’ and was made from ash.

Each locality had their own carpenter who made everything in wood from cradles to coffins, and settle beds to turf barrows. For the loy shafts, they would fell an ash tree and cut it into planks. Before the advent of sawmills, this was a laborious task that involved a sawpit, with a man in a deep pit pulling down on a long saw, assisted by another pulling upwards while standing overhead on the timber being cut.

Anyone who wished to judge the quality of a handle of any implement would always look for it to have weight. It should be heavy and not light indicating that it came from the heart of the wood and was not a branch that would easily break.

Loy tree

The ‘loy tree’ was shaped with a spokeshave and the long handle was made nice and round, while its end terminated in a rounded baulk of wood, called the ‘heel’. On to this was fixed another piece of wood to form a step, known in different parts of the country as a ‘preab’, ‘eiric’ or ‘foot’ and this was where the digger placed their foot when needed. The side to which this step was fixed was a matter of personal preference, but many made distinct cultural associations with those who were left-footed and those who were right-footed.

When the tree was ready, it was brought to the blacksmith who had the job of ‘laying the loy’. The two sides of the iron had been hammered at right-angles into wings and after heating they were clinched tightly around the tree, so the whole unit was solid and well-made.

The long handle and heel of the loy made it an effective implement for digging lazy beds. The loy was turned backwards in a vertical position and its sharp steel blade was ideal for cutting directly downwards through the fibrous sod. Turning it the right way round and now in its natural horizontal position, it was easily slotted in under the cut, the digger pushing the blade in with their foot under the roots.

The heavy, rounded heel was in position and with one downward shot of the handle the heavy sod was dislodged and easily turned. Row upon row of elevated cultivation ridges for potatoes and all crops, complemented by the deep drainage furrows at their sides was the general method of cultivation all over Ireland.

It was the difficulty of working the wet drumlin soils of the hinterlands of Roscommon, Leitrim, Longford and Cavan that prompted the loy to be the spade of choice up to the 1950s and early 60s. In that part of the world, they sometimes yoked the loy to a donkey, using the heavy loy as a plough to break up the soil in the furrows.

We can thank the late Eamon Egan from Longford who encouraged the first loy digging matches that drew attention to the use of this primitive agricultural tool that links us back to our medieval and prehistoric past. He founded the Loy Association of Ireland in 1992 and ever since teams of men and women continue to celebrate and maintain the traditional usage of this ancient spade.

Shane Lehane is a folklorist who works in UCC and Cork College of FET, Tramore Road Campus.Contact:

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