The Loy Spade: An Ancient Irish Tool

When it comes to the art of cultivation in Ireland, you can’t simply call a spade a spade.

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.



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