• Corn stands of south Leinster

    I have always loved standing stones, but some of the most intriguing standing stone monuments are in fact also the most recent. Here I want to explore corn stands that were used in the 18th and 19th centuries for keeping unthreshed corn over the winter months.

    Corn stands are a real south Leinster phenomenon, and are still found in many parts of Wicklow where they a common feature in the haggards of abandoned farmhouses. They were formerly common in Carlow and Wexford also, but survive here in smaller numbers.

    Today corn stands survive as a collection of small standing stones. These in fact are simply the legs of what were originally larger structures. In west Wicklow the legs are usually arranged in a circle, but in southern and eastern parts of the county they can form a square or a rectangle. In the upland areas of central Wicklow, these are commonly four posters forming a small square. Each leg supported a capstone, and each capstone supported one end of a stretcher. The stretchers were very often stone, but in some areas timber poles were more commonly used. These stretchers then supported a wooden frame on which to build a stack of corn. The stack was then weather-proofed with straw thatch, so that from the outside it would look like a haystack on legs. But these were not haystacks, and were a clever way of storing unthreshed oats over the winter months as seed for the coming spring.

    After the harvest the corn was stacked on the ground in the haggard until it was ready for the autumn threshing. On the lower lands the corn might be wheat, but on the higher ground it was invariably oats. During the autumn a large amount of the corn would be threshed and either sold on or kept as food on the farm over the winter. However, a certain amount was left unthreshed and would be kept in case of a food shortage and in particular as seed for the following spring.

    Storing corn on the ground might do for a short while after the harvest, but not over the winter. Farm buildings on small farms were not designed to store large quantities of corn. Even the larger farms that had suitable barns had difficulty in preventing infestation of rodents, as well as weevils and beetles. They found that the quality of the seed for spring sowing was better when stored in stacks suspended above the ground. On the one hand this kept out the rats from the stack of corn. On the other hand, it also allowed better circulartion of air under the stack that helped to keep the corn dry and prevented the seed from overheating and sprouting.

    Michael Conry has studied these corn stands and recorded a lot of stories from farmers in Carlow and Wicklow about how they were used. His book Corn Stacks on Stilts is a little gem packed full of information. Michael argues that the adoption of the corn stand was linked to the arrival of the brown rat in Ireland in 1722, quickly displacing the native black rat and reaching epidemic proportions, causing extensive damage to crops and grain stores. However, I see no reason why corn stands or similar structures couldn’t have been in use in much earlier times. According Radcliffe’s A report of the agriculture and live stock of the County of Wicklow (1812) corn stands were in common use in Wicklow in the early 19th century, but not among the small farmers who couldn’t afford them. It is certainly tempting to suggest that they became much more widespread after the Great Famine of the 1840s, when the potato was abandoned in favour of cereals such as oats, and today they are commonly found in the abandoned haggards of small farms across Wicklow uplands. Indeed, we know that in some areas of Wicklow they continued to be used well into the 20th century.

    Today, the cultivation of cereal crops on the lowlands of east and south Wicklow is still commonplace, however, the cultivation of oats in upland areas has completely disappeared. The grassy mountainsides that provide grazing for cattle and in particular sheep hardly betray the fact that cultivation was once an important part of farming in the Wicklow uplands. Therefore, corn stands provide one of a number important archaeological clues as to how farmland in the county was used in more recent centuries.

    1 Comment

    • 1. Dec 14 2013 3:56PM by Anne Given

      I went top school in Herefordshich was my father's home, where the stones are called staddle stones. They are treasured as garden ornaments and old ones are hard to come by. I looked on the web for spelling etc and found this

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Staddle_stones

      It would be nice if the suggested derivation was for real.

      I also discovered an amazing on-line trade in modern copies.....

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