The high point of the agricultural year was the harvest, the gathering of mature crops from the fields. In Ireland, the crops were usually cereal grains such as barley and oats. The cutting of the grain at harvest is known as ‘reaping’ which in pre-mechanisation times was undertaken using a hand sickle, scythe or horse-drawn reaper. The harvest marked the end of the growing season for grain. It was the most labour intensive aspect of farming and involved all the family members. Furthermore, neighbours would in turns help each other take in the harvest on each individual farm. This community interaction was known in Ireland by the Irish word ‘Meitheal’.
It was the time of the year when those family members that had emigrated to the cities, to England or elsewhere for work, would take their annual holidays in order to return home to help in the cutting and gathering of the crops.
Traditionally, the men and children would work in the fields whilst the women would prepare the food of home made breads, butters and meats laid out on large tables in the farmyards for the workers to enjoy. Beverages mainly of tea would be kept in large pots and drunk from big mugs. If the field was too far from the farm house, the food and drinks would be brought to them in containers such as wicker baskets. During the 20th century the crockery would often be made of durable enamel.
The end of the harvest would be celebrated by hosting an activity such as a ceili dance in a barn or farm house and represented one of the main annual social events in rural Ireland.