While hiking with my American-born kids I found myself repeating the words “hay foot, straw foot” trying to motivate them to keep going as they were getting tired. I reflected on how I first learned the phrase from my West Cork granny, and decided to investigate the term a little further.  I grew intrigued to learn this phrase is shared between Ireland and America.

“Hay-foot, straw-foot” was a term my late granny loved to use as we marched around her West Cork farm.

“Let’s go east for the pigs. Come on now. Hay foot, straw foot.”

I remember asking granny why she said “hay-foot, straw-foot”, and she explained that years ago in Ireland hay and straw were used to teach Irish dancing.

In eighteenth-century Ireland wandering dance masters traveled from village to village, spreading their love of step dancing wherever they roamed.   Teaching intricate Irish dance steps is no easy feat when your pupils can’t tell their right foot from their left foot.

To solve the problem these flamboyant dance teachers would tie hay to one foot, and straw to another.  Then they simply issued instructions to “lift hay foot” or “lift straw foot” to get dancing prodigies frolicking around the dance floors with flying feet.

Being Irish born I assumed this phrase to be exclusively Irish, but as I investigated further I discovered the phrase was used extensively in the United States.

At the time of the Civil War teaching new recruits to march was as difficult as teaching Irish peasants to dance.  Wisps of hay and straw once again came to the rescue – hay on the left and straw on the right. By chanting “hay-foot, straw-foot, hay-foot, straw-foot” the squad learned to step off on the left foot as all soldiers are required to do.

You can check out more of my research on my website: Irish American Mom

Views: 1172

Tags: America's Civil War, Diaspora History, Irish, Irishisms, phrases, war

Comment by Gerry Regan on July 30, 2015 at 8:44am

Thanks for highlighting the Irish etymology of that expression, Mairead. I was only familiar with the term as a device to teach illiterate soldiers during America's Civil War how to properly march. As always, it seems either great minds think alike or, more likely, that this is ever-more evidence of the Irish culture's vast influence on America. 

Comment by Claire Fullerton on July 30, 2015 at 9:08am

I agree with Ger! My feeling is the term originated in rural Ireland! Wonderful subject matter, Mairead!

Comment by Mairead Geary on July 30, 2015 at 10:29am

Hi Ger and Claire - This simple phrase from my rural Irish grandmother was always part of my family's Irish vernacular. It amazed me to find this term was used in America too. I like to think too, Ger, that it is evidence of the "Irish culture's vast influence on America."


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