The Nire Valley

The Nire Valley
The Heart of the Comeragh Mountains.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Shearing sheep.

Hand shears

Woolly black-faced sheep munch heather and grasses on the slopes of the Nire Valley. They are herded in during summer for shearing; contractors with electric shears make short work of it. This wasn't always the case however, as up until the 1980’s they were all shorn by hand! It was a unique system of shared labour, and a reflection of the spirit of the Nire people.

It was a community endeavour; farmers consulted Old Moore’s Almanac for long range forecasts, and listened anxiously to the Wireless for the weatherman to ‘give a few fine days’. By some mysterious decree it was decided that, for example, the shearing would  begin in Lyre or Knocknaree, and all of the sheep-men would turn up there, before moving to the next farmer and so on and so forth.

Neighbours with Collie dogs rounded up the sheep and brought them in from the hill.  Each farmer had a distinct mark on his sheep, e.g. blue on the ‘poll’ or head and red across the back. They would be penned in ‘terrots’ or fields surrounded by stone walls lower on Croughdubh and separated out into rams, ewes, weathers and hoggots and shorn accordingly. The Shearing usually took place in the ‘haggard’ beside the house. 

Every shearer brought their own shears, two very sharp blades arranged similarly to scissors, the hinge being at the end farthest from the point and bound securely by leather twine.  It was a specialist skill honed to perfection over time. The shearer worked on one knee and had his own way of holding the sheep, using his ‘good’ hand to clip away the wool.

The fleece was wrapped into a special fold, the cleaner woollier side turned inside and packed for collection by O’Donnell’s Wool Merchants. They worked heads bowed, to a rhythm of clipping sounds and bleating sheep. The smell of greasy wool carried on the breeze. Children usually ‘raddled’ the sheep. A stick was dipped into a can of paint and the sheep then marked on the head or the rump or across the back in the right colours and woe betide you if you got this process wrong.  The women were relegated to the kitchen and worked as hard inside the house as the men did outside.

The shearers retired to the farmhouse for ‘the feed’, usually bacon and cabbage with a ‘hape of spuds’ washed down by the "tae" before the ‘Session’ started. Porter was served as was the ‘Uisce Beatha.’ Everyone had a party piece, a favourite being a resonation of the match from the previous Sunday … ‘Hello and welcome to Fraher Field, it’s a great day here, the first-half was even, the second-half was even worse ...’  ‘Courting’ was a feature of the Shearings and matches were made. Waltzes and quick steps were common, and the night was never complete without the ‘Sliabh Gua Set'. Though this tradition has past, the sense of community remains steadfast and strong in the beautiful Nire valley.

by Maura Barrett.

Sheep Pen in the Nire

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