If you travel up the Glenmore Valley you’ll notice long parallel lines carved into the sides of the mountains here and there. Like scars in the land, these lines are the traces of cultivation ridges made by small holders forced into marginal uplands during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They are a poignant testimony to the tenacity and ingenuity of farmers forced to the edge of subsistence. Growing crops on mountainous, marginal land was not easy. Ridges, sometimes called ‘lazy beds’, were a specially adapted growing method that was especially suited to land that was thin or poorly drained. Although types of ridge cultivation was used on bigger holdings for arable crops, they were firmly connected with small holdings. In particular they were associated with the potato, which served as the staple food for the bulk of the population in early nineteenth-century Ireland.
These ridges were called ‘lazy beds’ by contemporary writers because they were seen as a lazy method of farming. This was far from true. Each ridge had to be hand dug, using spades to turn over the heavy sods, and fertilizer in the form of manure or seaweed had to be gathered and then transported up to the mountain fields. There was much regional variation in the way that ridges were made. They were tailored to suit the exact soil quality, drainage, slope and aspect of the plots, as well as the crops to be planted and the time of year. Some ridges were even built asymmetrically to protect young crops against the prevailing wind. While very wide ridges were sometimes used for certain types of grain crops, mainly oats, ‘lazy beds’ were typically about 3-5 feet wide with a furrow of about half the width either side (Bell 1984, 80).
‘Lazy beds’ were made by turning over sods of earth to create a long raised ridge with a drainage channel at either side. Manure consisting of animal dung or seaweed was added to the top of the ridge and the loose soil from the furrow was piled on top (Bell & Watson 2009, 88). On sloping ground the furrow always ran across the gradient, allowing water to run off, and preventing waterlogging. The ridges were usually re-dug every year with one year’s ridge becoming the next year’s furrow (Bell 1984, 93).
‘Lazy beds’ can be found all over the Cooley peninsula. They survive largely on the lower mountain slopes, just above the modern line of cultivation. They are most frequently found in association with series of long narrow rectangular fields running down the mountain slope. In Castletowncooley, just above Rourkestown, ‘lazy beds’ cover just over 24 acres of mountain slope, between 140 and 220m OD. The area is divided into narrow strips between c.20 and 40m by 180m running down the side of the mountain. Low earth and stone banks divide the strips from one another. This whole area is known as ‘the Grazing’ and it is now used to pasture sheep. Similarly, in Ardaghy an area of about 23 acres called Páirc na Sléibhe sits at between 200m and 270m OD. The area is divided into long narrow strips (c.30m wide) separated by low stone and earth banks. Both cases are likely to be examples of outfield taken into cultivation under the rundale system. The expansion of cultivation onto common grazing land can also be seen at Doolargy. In the south of the townland ‘lazy beds’ cover some 18 acres of ground between 200-50m OD. The ridges sit within a semi-regular series of fields. Ridges even cover the Doonan, a distinct semi-natural mound at the mouth of the valley. In 1854, this was mountain land held in common by 32 people from Lord Clermont (Griffith 1854, 157-8).
There is another extensive area of ridges at Edentober on the Armagh border. Here ridges extend over 22.5 acres at a height of 210-60m OD. The ridges are within a series of irregular fields parcelled off from the surrounding marshy and rocky ground. The fields vary in size from 1.33m to 0.18 acres and are demarcated by dry stone walls. The ridges in Edentober are associated with three small abandoned dwellings. The dwellings are not marked on the first edition OS map (1835). In Griffith’s Valuation this area was mountain grazing. The ridges at Edentober vary in width between 3m and 0.90m. This could indicate that they were used for different crops.
At Tullaghomeath a small plot of unenclosed ridges (about one acre) sits in a sheltered spot at between 180 and 210m OD. The ridges are beside a ‘mari’ or sheep fold. Similarly, at Ananvera there is a plot of just over half an acre of unenclosed ridges associated with two hut sites at 230m OD. In Glenmore, a half-acre plot of open ridges is again associated with a ‘mari’ at 210m OD.