Today many farmers call them a weed and a nuisance but up to a hundred years ago the rush was used as a very versatile plant. It was used in the making of mats, seats of chairs and candles. In medieval Europe, loose fresh rushes were strewn on earthen floors in dwellings for cleanliness and insulation. In Ireland it was used to make St Brigid’s crosses on the 1st Feb, the feast of St Brigid. However before oil lamps became common, candles were the only means of providing light during the long dark evenings. The well off used bees wax candles with a cotton wick but these tended to be very expensive. The poorer people especially in rural areas used candles made of suet with rushes as wicks. There were various methods of making rush candles, some used 3 rushes twisted together per candle, and others used just the one.
The rushes were cut during the summer months and the outer skin peeled off the pith except for a strip to hold the rush together.
Mostly mutton suet which could be bought cheaply, was used but sometimes the fat from bacon (lard) , which was collected over several weeks or months was used. The difference between suet and lard was that suet was harder at room temperature. It was simmered in a metal pot and then strained and left to cool. By simmering, straining it and cooling it a second time tallow was made (tallow was the main ingredient of candles and soap)
When the rushes were ready the tallow was heated in a metal pan and the rushes were dipped in it, and then left outside to harden. This process was repeated several times to build up the thickness of the candle. The colder the temperature was, the whiter the candle. The candle was now ready for use. It was placed in a holder or even a large potato or turnip with a hole in it and pulled through every few minutes. It was the children job to look after the light as it was a messy job and their mother didn’t need greasy fingers if she was knitting or sewing. Most of the candles which were approx. 15 inches long lasted only for a half an hour so several candles were used over an evening.
Today people are again looking at the potential of the common rush, as bedding for animals to replace straw, and maybe as a biofuel. But for most farmers they will still continue to be an invasive species taking the place of grass in the poorer sections of their land