...there's both eatin' and drinkin' in it

Spud Sunday: The Loy Of The Land

Bord Bia Potato Champion 2013

Champion Spuds:
Bord Bia Potato Champion 2013, David Curran, from Fethard, Co. Tipperary (centre) with John Donohue, Tullamore Show Horticulture Organiser (left) and Lorcan Bourke of Bord Bia (right)

As far as one day agricultural events go in Ireland, the Tullamore Show, which had a hefty 61,000 visitors yesterday, is about as big as it gets. It’s host to a bewildering array of farming demonstrations and competitions, from sheep shearing to show jumping, and there was plenty to interest your resident potato anorak, from Bord Bia’s All Ireland Potato Championships (a growers’ competition, where potatoes are judged according to interior and exterior appearance – kind of like the lovely girls’ competition, except for spuds) to the mammoth potato sack race organised by Sam’s Potatoes in advance of National Potato Day on August 23rd (which, while it didn’t break any world records for numbers competing, was still a great deal of fun).

Potato sack race

Sam’s Potatoes sack race

But though they may have come to the Tullamore Show in their thousands, one of the main things of interest for me turned out to be much more of a minority concern, as I discovered when I fell into conversation with Tom Egan, chairman of the Loy Association of Ireland, about the revival of interest in the craft of loy digging.

The loy

Getting close up to the loy

The loy is an old-style Irish spade, with a long, narrow blade and a single footrest. It is associated with making so-called lazy beds, where sods of grass are sliced on three sides and hinged over to make a ridge for planting (commonly potatoes, but may equally be used for planting other crops too – the loy itself is thought to long pre-date the arrival of potatoes in Ireland). Regardless of your intended crop, the heel on the loy, as Tom described it, gave you huge leverage and you prized the sod over with it.

Digging with the loy

Digging with the loy

It was much used in centuries past, but less so, both after the two-sided modern spade came in, sometime around the 1750s according to Tom, and later, when land improvements enabled the use of horse and plough. The loy did persist in certain areas where land was wet and difficult to work, mainly around Longford, Cavan and Leitrim: “That’s where it hung on,” said Tom. “The farms were very wet and rushy, and a lot of them would have been very small – there would have been no trouble finding 5 or 6 loys in a farmyard.”


A Peruvian taclla or huiri
(photo H. H. Iltis, 1971
from http://www.mot.be/)

In its description, use and history, the loy is reminiscent of the South American taclla or Andean footplough, a digging stick with metal blade, curved handle, and footrest, developed by the Incas and suited to digging up the tough sod of the mountainous Andean regions, often, too, for the cultivation of potatoes. Though it was also displaced over the years by other technologies, it remains in use by peasant farmers on steep and marginal land in the high Andes. Use of the loy here, however, had all but died out when, in the late ’80s, seeing a lone entrant make use of the loy at a ploughing match, one of the judges, Eamon Egan, decided to do something, rather than let the practice die out.

Loy digging at the Tullamore Show

Embracing a new generation of loy diggers at the Tullamore Show

His suggestion to have a loy competition at a ploughing match was, at first, laughed at. “The loy, that’s a stigma of slavery,” said one. “A loy is for a person with a strong back and a weak mind,” said another. Initially he could only get three people to compete, but interest grew gradually and he set up the Loy Association of Ireland in 1992, together with an annual competition associated with the National Ploughing Championships. From an entry field of 14 diggers from 5 counties in 1992, this year’s competition at the Ploughing Championships in Portlaoise on 26th September next will see 43 competitors from 17 counties participate in 4 different loy digging classes (Senior, Junior, Under 21 and Ladies).

Best loy digging sign

Not just for old fogies: the Tullamore Show plays host to an underage Loy Digging Championship

And though the early days of the revival might have been the preserve of old timers – in 1992, most loy diggers were in the fifty-to-seventy age bracket – an underage Loy Championships for boys and girls under 14 and 16 is now held at the annual Tullamore Show. While I was there, Tom Egan pointed to last year’s Senior Loy Champion, Pat Murphy from Wexford, as someone who started his loy digging career by competing and winning in the underage classes.

Champion loy digging

Measuring up – a champion loy digger shows how it’s done:
the rules for national competition require
precision spacing, depth and alignment.

While it’s still clearly a minority interest, loy digging, thanks to the efforts of the Loy Association, is not now the dodo it might easily have become. “We have vets and schoolteachers and forestry officials, and they’re all coming out and competing,” said Tom. “I don’t know what there is about the clay, but people are gone very fond of it again.”


  1. brian@irelandfavorites

    Hi Spud, I have a soft spot in my heart for Tullamore having attended the Flead Cheoils held there, I tell people if Ireland were a dart board Tullamore would be the bullseye. Keeping alive the past, realizing the effort and struggle it was to till the soil and bring sustenance from the same is an amazing thing. Though I read your posts for potato lore or perhaps to have a bit of fun, this post is among my favorites, The humble loy is now part of my vocabulary, just loved the story and the continuation of what once was cutting edge technology, Thanks again,

  2. Daily Spud

    And thank you Brian for reading & appreciating, glad I could introduce the loy to your good self and to whomsoever else cares to read and learn about it.

  3. Janet

    I am curious about the placement of the seed potatoes. Do you push them as deeply as possible into the ridge, possibly in the cut between two turns of the sod? Allowing for “hilling” to prevent exposure of the growing spuds to sunlight, how far apart do you space the seed potatoes?

  4. Daily Spud

    Hi Janet. Good questions! I think typically the seed potatoes would have been laid under the upturned sod and additional soil would have been dug from the trench for earthing up the ridge during the growing season. As for the spacing between the seed potatoes within a given ridge, I’d imagine, as with any potato drill, that it would depend on the type of potato you’re planting (you might place early potatoes around 12 inches apart and maincrop potatoes perhaps 18 inches) with around 24 to 30 inches between ridges.

  5. Bintu @ Recipes From A Pantry

    The potato sack race seems like fun.

  6. Daily Spud

    It was certainly fun to watch Bintu, and greatly enjoyed by the participants from what I could see

  7. Kathryn

    Lovely post. Dermot Carey is the man to ask about building lazy beds – he whips them together really efficiently. As you say, spacing depends on variety but when I’ve made them I just space all varieties at a foot apart. Since you are taking the sod from both sides there is a natural line down the middle to put the seed potatoes in. Putting down seaweed along the line of the drill before you turn the sod over gets them off to a lovely start, but since I don’t have seaweed handy I tend to use lawn mowings – cultural change in action.
    You clan take earth from the side for later, but if you are lucky enough to have a loy the soil on top is deep enough that you don’t need to earth them up – though if you don’t you’ll need to weed.
    Is anyone actually making loys these days? I’ve been trying to get one for years

  8. Daily Spud

    Indeed, Kathy – I’ve seen Dermot turn out lazy beds on a number of occasions, and great to get your take on spacing and tending of same. Re: loys, I guess somebody must be making them – at least those people competing in the loy championships would probably have need of a source unless they’re making their own at home. No doubt the folks at the Loy Association would be in the know on that score.

© 2024 The Daily Spud

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑