For five weeks in the spring of 2020 residents of Ireland were instructed to stay within two kilometres of their homes – an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. I took a pencil and drew a circle with a two-kilometre radius on Ordnance Survey Ireland sheet 46, centred on our home in Athenry, a small town just off the M6 motorway in County Galway. Beyond the town and its radial roads, the land within that circle was mostly unfamiliar to me – for in Ireland, unlike England and Wales, there are no public footpaths through the cultivated countryside. Over the coming weeks I set out walking, trying to find ways through the 12.5 square kilometres enclosed by the circle on the map. This is one of the things I found along the way.
The horse rake sits right on the two-kilometre limit, not far from its northernmost pole, in the townland of Ballydavid South where the ground rises above the fifty-metre contour line. Two fields to the west, the old railway line to Tuam – closed to commercial passenger traffic in 1976 and shut for good in 1993 – streaks like a contrail through yellow clouds of gorse. A hundred metres east, a little further up the slope, is a ruined church with a crooked sycamore at its eastern gable; an ancient place, already a ruin two centuries ago. Halfway between the church and the railway: the horse rake, parked at right-angles to a stone wall in a field as close-cropped as a golf course.
The tines have come loose. They look like the ribs of a huge, iron-boned bird. But the rest of the thing is perfectly intact. The ground has risen up a little – or has the rake settled down? The bottoms of the wheels are buried in the hard clay, but a strong horse could probably still haul the whole thing clear. The seat, fretted like the leaf of a cheese plant, tilts at a forty-five-degree angle. Affixed to it at the back is a plaque: “BAMFORDS ‘LION’ HORSE RAKE”; and above the words, a rampant lion.
How long has it been here?
The Bamfords ironworks were established in second half of the nineteenth century in the Staffordshire town of Uttoxeter – biscuits, red brick, horse races. The Bamfords were an old local family of recusant Catholics. They produced agricultural machinery of all sorts. In later years, one scion of the dynasty, Joseph Cyril Bamford, would begin making gorse-yellow excavators branded with his own initials.
Horse rakes were part of the Bamfords output from the early days. Spindly, iron-framed things, pulled by a single horse. The tines could be raised or lowered via a lever at the driver’s side. With a horse rake you could ruffle the cut grass of a meadow to aid its drying, or scrape it into ready piles for collection. In 1919, the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society declared approvingly that “Messrs. Bamfords’ Horse Rake leaves nothing to be desired in a strong, well made, and at the same time, simple rake.”
A hundred and one years later, you can confirm that judgement in the discarded model by the wall in the Ballydavid South townland in Athenry. The mechanism of the thing is obvious: a lever and a lifting bar. The tines haven’t broken; they’ve simply come loose. They could be fixed readily enough. Every inch of the surface has oxidised squirrel-red, but the metal is hard, smooth, with none of the flaking fragility of an old car. And that lion, that absurdly prancing lion, flipped here from dexter to sinister pose, heraldic charge of a country where no lions ever roamed: it may be angled to face the worst of the Irish weather, but the contours of its ribs, the bouffant curls of its mane, the slender tongue projecting between bared fangs and the angry staring eye – all are perfectly clear.
When was this horse rake imported? They were listed in the Bamfords catalogues from the 1880s to the 1930s – so it may have been shipped to a colonial possession or an independent republic. And how did you transport a horse rake overland? The train, most probably, loaded up onto the North Staffordshire Railway alongside the Uttoxeter foundry then run out to the docks – where? Liverpool? But it would have been like loading an okapi skeleton into a freight waggon.
The rake had moved, 460 kilometres from Uttoxeter to Athenry, by rail and by ship, then by rail again, and then at the last towed home to a farmyard by the horse it was built for. For however-many subsequent summers it clawed its way back and forth over the fields, bundling the yellowed stalks beneath it.
And then, one day, it stopped.
The neat positioning – tight to the wall, midway between field corners – does not suggest an intention of permanent abandonment. Perhaps a single tine came loose, or something in the lifting mechanism jammed. The rake was manhandled to the edge of the field and the driver walked home with the unhitched horse, meaning to come back with tools later, or to send a message for the blacksmith in the town. But somehow there were always other jobs, and the days and months slipped by. Next summer the horse rake was still out in the field. Maybe there was already a new machine for raking hay to be borrowed from the neighbouring farm – one of those tractor-towed contraptions with vertical turners like skeletal sunflowers, the ones that were still the norm on farms in Cornwall in the 1980s. An honest intention to fix up and bring home the horse rake remained, for sure, but it was less pressing now, and the following year there was a tractor and a mechanical turner permanently resident on the farm. The halting of the horse rake by the wall – expected to be temporary, perhaps no longer than a few hours or days – had become a permanency.
Something like that, anyway.
The Tuam railway line was surely still in use when the rake was left by the wall. Maybe a passenger, sitting on the left side of the carriage, looked up as the train approached Athenry and saw a man, two fields off, reining back a labouring horse and glancing over his shoulder from the high seat to identify the breakage.
Today the rake sits in the landscape, as immobile as the ruined church and the abandoned railway. The iron forged in Uttoxeter is strong, fit to see out many more winters. In another hundred years the rake may still be here, settled a few centimetres deeper into the clay. Or maybe the field will have been rezoned for housing, and someone will have dragged it away with a JCB.
The right wheel is bogged in the blue shadow of the wall, but the left sits in sunlight. The eight spokes are like radial roads, running out from a solid centre to a fixed perimeter, portioning a confined vista of grass and sky.
Tim Hannigan is a writer and academic, originally from the far west of Cornwall but now based in Ireland. He is the author of several books, including Murder in the Hindu Kush (The History Press, 2011) and A Brief History of Indonesia (Tuttle, 2016). His next book, The Travel Writing Tribe, will be published by Hurst in 2021. You can read more about his writing here.
Photographs by the author.