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The Loy Spade: An Ancient Irish Tool

Photo by Adobe Stock/Gregory

Use of the Irish foot plough called a loy nearly died out in the 1980s, after centuries of farmers and gardeners using it to dig neat furrows all over the island. From the Irish laí, meaning “spade,” the loy’s fall from grace had been a long time coming: In the mid-18th century, the familiar broad-bladed spade you can find today in every hardware store — and nearly every garage and garden shed in the U.S. — began to take over the loy’s traditional position as the main tool for hand tillage in Ireland. Many years later, farmers adopted tractors as the most efficient way to work large areas of land with few laborers. Increased urbanization saw fewer and fewer market gardens and kitchen plots planted.

Ploughing a New Furrow

Eamon Egan watched a lone man turn a furrow with a loy at a County Leitrim ploughing competition in the mid-1980s. As a ploughman judge and then-secretary of the Longford Ploughing Association, he wondered if the next year would mark the end of loy digging in Ireland. He decided to put a hand to the course of history, and arranged a competition for the following year. Only three men participated in that first competition; as loy digging lost prominence, the practice became representative of the hard labor that was demanded of the Irish for much of recorded history.

Photo by Loy Association of Ireland

Despite its association with toil and economic hardship, within a few years, the loy competition sprouted not only more contestants, but its own organization devoted to continuing the practice of loy digging in Ireland. Egan founded the Loy Association of Ireland in 1992, and the first competition it hosted drew participants from five counties. Nowadays, loy competitions tend to draw nearly 50 participants and are divided by age range, including categories for under-18-year-olds and under-25-year-olds.

A Spade for Heavy Going

Although ancient Ireland was heavily forested, clearing land for cultivation and cutting down trees for building gradually left farmers no choice but to move onto more marginal land, whether boggy, stony, or simply rough and rugged. Much of the cultivated land in present-day Ireland was bogland once, and much of the rest is “drumlin” land, or land that was probably formed by retreating glaciers. The soil in these places tends to be rich, clay-heavy, and sometimes waterlogged, and large flat expanses are rare. Farmers working with early human- or animal-driven ploughs would’ve struggled to make neat furrows, even with the benefit of draft animals, which were costly to train and maintain.

 

Photo by Loy Association of Ireland

The solution — as in the Andes, where the Inca made a science of potato cultivation — was to use foot ploughs. Narrow, short-edged spades, Irish loys have a long, curving, wedge-shaped head that makes cutting into dense soil easier, and also offers the digger excellent leverage when they press down on the handle to turn the sod. There’s only one footrest on a loy, making each tool right- or left-footed. Ancient loys would’ve been carved from a single piece of wood, for strength, but a sharp metal blade was soon added to increase the tool’s effectiveness through turf and other subterranean obstacles.

 

Photo by Loy Association of Ireland

Early loy blades were made of iron, making the tool very heavy; steel blades are more common now. Otherwise, the loy looks much the same today as it must have in antiquity. Old blades can still be found in hedgerows and old middens, though they’re generally in no shape for returning to use.

Fine Furrows

The art of digging a clean, straight furrow with a loy was traditionally passed down from father to son. For someone used to working with a broad-bladed spade, digging with a loy is sure to be a learning experience. Furrows are started by “nicking” a line, or using the blade of the loy to cut a straight line the length of the planned furrow. This keeps the digger working accurately as they turn the sods. Next, the digger will make perpendicular cuts extending out from the nicked line, separating the strip of sod into pieces that can then be lifted and turned to create the furrow. Finally, the digger will travel back down the nicked line, cutting deeply under the sod and levering each piece up until it hinges over and lands grassy-side-down next to the furrow. That’s only half the job done, though; the digger must complete the furrow by nicking a new line on the far side of the turned sods, and turning the second set of sods toward the center.

Photo by Loy Association of Ireland

The beds created by working with a loy (or those created in a similar fashion with other tools, such as a modern garden spade) are often called “lazy beds” or “ridges,” and they’re ideal for planting potatoes.

Traditionally, seed potatoes would be sprouted (a process that takes 4 to 6 weeks), set on the close-trimmed grass of the future bed, and the sods would be flipped onto them to cover them. Potatoes would grow under the dense mat of the sod, protected from sunlight, and the farmer wouldn’t need to return to hill them, as is required to grow potatoes in looser soil. Nowadays, it’s popular to plant on top of the flipped sods and add a thick layer of straw or mulch to cover the potatoes, applying more as necessary throughout the growing season.

Loy Spade Look-Alikes

Growing plants in difficult conditions is practically a hallmark of being human — just ask my lemon tree, which spends every winter cuddled in a south-facing window, looking at the snow outside. The loy is one of a host of similar tools meant to break up difficult ground and multiply the power of a single person working the earth.

 

Photo by Wikimedia Commons/ Spedona; translated by Macuser

The most similar-looking tool I’ve come across is the Andean taclla, another wedge-like spade meant to break up ground that would be hard going for potatoes. Unlike the dense, often soggy soil of Ireland, the soil in the Andes tends to be dry and hard. Farmers would break up plots before planting seed potatoes, and the potatoes would then spread into the loosened soil and make it even more friable and useful to stationary communities.

In Ireland, tools for cutting sod and peat also resemble loys. Where a loy is meant to help cut a straight line for edging a garden plot and flip over panels of sod, peat and turf spades are designed to lift uniform blocks of material out of the earth. After many waves of immigrants to Ireland cleared the old-growth forests, peat became a widely used fuel, and an industry grew up around harvesting and preparing it for use. Although peat bogs are saturated with water, when cut blocks of peat are dried, the densely packed organic material offers a slow, smoldering burn with nearly 100 percent combustion and relatively little smoke compared with wood or coal fires. To supply the vast quantities of peat needed to warm and feed the country, peat-diggers developed a variety of tools with offset blades and unusual handles for different steps of the process of cutting into a bog. From marking the profiles of the blocks to levering them out of the sheer face of the bog (once enough peat has been removed to create an artificial cliff), there’s a particular turf or peat spade for each task. None of them, however, are as well-suited to making potato beds as a loy.

 

Photo by Old Garden Tools Virtual Museum

Gardeners know that an hour with a good tool is worth many more with the wrong one. If you’re interested in lazy-bed gardening, or curious about a new tool that might simplify your garden prep, see if you can hunt down a loy, or fabricate one yourself.


Caitlin Wilson is a Mother Earth Gardener editor and lifelong textile and plant enthusiast. You can find her projects, successes, and failures here.

Published on May 27, 2020

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