The Spade in Ireland


"...the spade remains an index of regionalism, a tool of sociological research as well as an instrument of labour" E. Estyn Evans, 1957



Much of what is known about the spade in Ireland refers to the ‘traditional’ spades that span the period from blacksmith to mill production from the 18th to the early 20th centuries. While these spades differ considerably from the spades under investigation in the current research, the design and distribution of  traditional spades may provide some useful guidance as to the antiquity of the iron shod spades that form part of the current study. 

The spade appears to have a long history in Ireland. For areas of rocky and marginal ground, the spade not only provides better access, but is better suited to careful manipulation of ground that might otherwise damage a horse drawn plough, or injury the horse pulling it.  While the historical use of the plough is evidenced in Irish Law texts, and from archaeological remains, Evans (1957: 128,129) considered it unlikely that the plough was used historically outside of the fertile ‘infield’ areas of land associated with rundale agriculture.

The association with manual labour on poor or marginal land, has painted the spade as a low status object, such that we have the saying in Irish, “trí glúine ó righ go ramhainn” which translates as ‘three generations from the king to the spade’. (Ó Danachair 1963: 99)

Spade terminology

The three main elements of the traditional mass produced Irish spade as described by O’Danachair (1963) are the blade, shaft, and step, and are indicated in the model below. While the blade and shaft of the spades included in this research are each carved from a single piece of wood, the spades that were mass produced in spade mills with water driven hammers, from the 1760’s onward, and predominantly in the north of Ireland, had an iron blade with integrated steps, that was fixed to a wooden shaft, by means of metal straps that continued someway up the side of the shaft, as in the spades that form part of this research. The continuation of the strap up the sides of the shaft is a distinctly Irish feature, which is not present in English or Scottish traditionally produced spades. As such, the inclusion of the strap may indicate a design continuity, with what appear to be older, iron shod wooden spades (Gailey 1968: 85; Evans 1957: 137). Whereas the shaft on English spades is curved, on Irish spades the shafts are typically straight, with the digging power derived by means of a slight bend across the metal blade (Evans 1957: 137).

Perhaps the primary distinguishing feature to note with Irish spades relates to the ‘step’, the place where the user places their foot to drive the spade into the ground. On a one-sided spade, there is one ‘step’ only, on either the left or right of the shaft as per the users preference, while on the two-sided variety there are steps on either side of the shaft, enabling the user to choose which foot they prefer to dig with. The blade on two-sided spades is typically correspondingly wider than on one-sided spades, and such spades are considered better suited than the narrower one-sided spade for specific tasks, such as turning sod for the cultivation of fields (Evans 1957: 137). The shafts of one-sided, and longer two-sided spades tend not to have a handle on the end of the shaft. Where a handle is present on shorter two-sided spades, it is typically of a “T” shaped design, and fixed to the end of the shaft with a mortise and tenon joint (Ó Danachair 1963: 102; Gailey 1970: 35). 

The spade is known as the ‘spad’ or ‘spaid’ in Ulster Gaelic, with the handle on shorter  two-sided spades known by many local names including ‘halt’ or ‘hilt’ in Antrim, ‘head’ in parts of Fermanagh, Leitrim, Cavan, Down, and Donegal, and ‘dorn’ or ‘croisin’ in Donegal (O Danachair 1963: 113, 114).


The spade is a curiously localised object in Ireland with the variation in spade types following clearly defined geographical patterns (Gailey 1970: 35). Distribution maps of traditional spade types in Ireland, compiled in the second half of the 20th century (Evans 1957: 136; Ó Danachair 1963: 103; Gailey 1970: 36, 42;) demonstrate a distribution of one-sided spades in the southern portion of Ireland, and two-sided spades in the north. 

There are a number of explanations offered for the geographical distribution of specific spade types. O Danachair (1963: 111), suggests that the blade shape relates to local soil conditions, where ‘a narrowing blade is useful in stony ground, while clayey or boggy soil is more easily worked by an expanding blade’. This idea is supported by Evans (1957: 136,137) who quotes the highly specified regional measurements  preserved in the ‘spade gauge book’ of a traditional spade mill at Coalisland in County Tyrone by way of example. 



“Armagh, 18 in. x 5 13/16 x 6 11/16 

Omagh 17 ½ x 5 ½ x 6 ¼

Dungannon, 17 ½ x 5 ⅞ x 5 ⅞ 

Portrush 16 x 6 ¾ x 6 ½ 

Kilkeel, 15 x 6 ¼ x 4 ½ 

Monaghan, 20 x 4 ⅞ x 6”

Spade distribution in Ireland, O'Dannachair 1963, p.103, Figure 1

Spade distribution in Ireland, O'Dannachair 1963, p.103, Figure 1


Evans elaborates that the methods of digging, types of crops, the length of the arm and leg of the user, and even the season of the year impacted the design of the spade and its distribution from the regional down to the personal level (1957: 136,137). As a tool that each worker would have been intimately acquainted with, it is perhaps not surprising that the dimensions and handling were so personalised. This was a tool with which the user would spend many long hours, and as such, the ergonomics could mean the difference between fatigue and discomfort at the end of a long day of hard work. Such was the importance of the spade to some that a good spade maker could occasionally develop a reputation that, according to Evans (1957:134), might be compared to that of a medieval sword-forger.

The maps described above indicate a mixed distribution of spade types in a band stretching from north Connaught diagonally across the country to south Leinster, where it is believed that the two-sided spade had replaced a predominantly one-sided distribution from the early nineteenth century onwards (Ó Danachair 1963: 103). While it is suggested that the spread of two-sided spades southwards from Ulster may have been related to the concentration of spade mill manufacturing in the the north of Ireland from the 1760s onward (O Danachair 1963: 102; Gailey 1982: vi), O Danachair (1963: 104) cautions that this may be an oversimplification, with many specialist spade mills producing a wide variety of spade types for a time after mechanisation. More satisfactory perhaps, is Evans explanation (1957: 137) that the two-sided spade was the more suitable for turning of the sod, and therefore for the potato cultivation that rapidly expanded in Ireland throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Iron-shod wooden spades

There is some general agreement that the two-sided spade expanded its traditional northern range southward out of Ulster from the 18th century onwards, but the antiquity of the two-sided spade in the region is currently poorly understood. The three spades selected for further study in this research were included in a paper by Gailey (1968). All were chance finds from wetland or ‘bog’ sites in Ulster, and share much in common with ‘traditional’ mass produced two-sided northern spades. 

Only one of the spades included in this study, 287.1967, could be described as complete, with the iron shoe that formed the cutting edge of the spade intact. In this spade, the iron shoe is fixed to the wooden blade and shaft, by means of a depression on the inside of the shoe in which the carved wooden blade is seated, and by iron ‘straps’ that continue up the sides of the blade, across the ‘step’, and partway up the sides of the shaft. The straps are fixed to the sides of the blade, the step, and the sides of the shaft with iron nails. While the metal shoe on spade 1969.678 is only partially complete, and the shoe on spade 284.1967 is absent, nail holes along the sides and steps of the blades, and sides of the shafts indicate that a shoe would have at one time been fixed by means of metal straps as in spade 287.1967. The straps are a feature of two-sided mill produced Irish spades from the the mid-eighteenth century onward, and may represent a stylistic continuity between presumably earlier spades produced by Irish blacksmiths, and mass produced spades of later vintage (Gailey 1968: 85).   

Research into the antiquity of iron-shod wooden spades in Ireland has focussed on comparisons with contextualised spades of similar type. Gailey (1968: 84) references contextualised iron shod wooden spades to convincingly demonstrate that some iron shod wooden spades recovered from bogs in Ulster (including the three spades that form part of this research) are stylistically comparable with examples from 3rd and 4th century contexts on the northern and western peripheries of the Roman Empire. Depictions of Roman period  iron shoe components with straps in Manning (1970: 23, Fig.3) and Corder (193:225-228, Figs.1-3)bear a strong resemblance to the those found on two of the spades included in this research. The antiquity of the iron shod wooden spade is further demonstrated by Hassall (1970), where depictions of iron shod wooden spades in medieval English and French illuminated manuscripts indicate that spades of this type were in use in other parts of Europe throughout the high medieval period. The display of an iron shod wooden spade in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, is similarly compared with a depiction of a iron shod wooden spade in a medieval Czech manuscript.

While stylistic comparison indicates a potentially early date for the spades included in this research, iron-shod spades are also reported to have been in use in Ulster until relatively recent times. Iron-shod spades are reported through the archives of the Irish folklore commission as having been in use in counties Tyrone, Fermanagh, and Donegal until the mid-nineteenth century (Gailey 1968: 84). The author reports anecdotal information from Arnold Patterson, the spade maker at the Ulster Folk Museum (now the Ulster folk and Transport Museum), that his grand-father, a spade maker in Coalisland Co. Tyrone, had continued to manufacture a variant of the iron shod wooden spade well into the twentieth century. The date ranges implied from the archaeological and folk record appear to indicate an extreme archaism in relation to spade design in Ulster, and in the context of the current research it is tempting to speculate that this may be the result of a lack of specialisation associated with lingering Gaelic rural settlement traditions in this region. 


The range of potential production dates for the spades included in this study is indicated, to some extent, by the types of museum in which these objects are to be found. Iron-shod wooden spades form part of both archaeological and folk collections in Ireland, and while this initially appears to be a curious, curatorial oversight, the documentary evidence suggests that spades of this type may have been in use from antiquity through to relevantly recent times. 

In his work on iron-shod wooden spades, Gailey (1968) concedes that “any argument as to the antiquity of the two-sided wooden spade in Ireland rests on the unsatisfactory basis of typological parallels”. O’Sullivan (1972: 246) agrees that “due to the absence of dated specimens, the antiquity of this type of spade in Ireland is uncertain and consideration of it rests on the basis of foreign parallels”. Both authors site dates for iron-shod wooden spades in Ireland anywhere from the Early Christian through to the Medieval period (Gailey 1968: 84, 85; O'Sullivan 1972: 246), a potential date range of 1200 years. These estimations exclude the possibility that iron-shod wooden spades may have been in use in Ulster until the 20th century, thereby expanding the range of production date for these objects to some 1500 years. The majority of the research into Irish spades was completed int he 1960s and 1970s, and while radiocarbon dating analysis was available at this time, the technique may not have been as accessible as it is now. Radio-carbon dating of these objects will bring an enhanced clarity to our understanding of the antiquity of the iron-shod wooden spade in Ireland.


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  2. Evans, E. E. (1957) Irish Folk Ways. Routledge & Paul..
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  7. Manning, W. H. (1970) Mattocks, hoes, spades and related tools in Roman Britain. In Fenton, A. and Gailey, A. (editors) The Spade in Northern and Atlantic Europe.    Ulster Folk Museum Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University. 18-29.
  8. Ó Danachair, C. (1963) The Spade in Ireland. Bealoideas 31, 98-114.
  9. O'Sullivan, J. C. (1972) Iron-Shod Wooden Spade from Ballynakillew Mountain, Co. Donegal. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 102 (2), 244-246.