Wednesday 18 October 2017

A farewell to the old sod

As an EU directive brings traditional turf-cutting to an end, Liam Collins remembers long days in the bog

CUTTING turf was more than a country pastime; it was a way of life. The cutting of the turf, the footing (stacking) of the turf and getting it home and into the shed were the mark of a true countryman.

Around the turf fire on a long winter's night, before television ruined it all, there would be endless discussion about the methods of cutting turf, and about who kept a good bog and who did not. Timing was everything, because if you cut the turf but did not stack it up to dry, it could become pitted and ruined by heavy rain. A good farmer always had his turf 'saved' early in the season.

It was such an important activity that in 1810, the House of Commons commissioned Richard Lowell Edgeworth to survey the bogs of Ireland for a parliamentary report, and he drew a series of detailed maps -- some of which I have at home.

My own first unpleasant experience of turf-cutting was in Derrymore when my grandfather saddled up the ass one summer holiday and we set off for the bog. 'A Day in the Bog' -- the subject of a million schoolboy essays which began La brea bhrollach a bhi am -- started pleasantly enough as we left Graffogue on the donkey and cart with the slean (a long, thin spade), the graipe (fork), thick slices of brown bread and a bottle of tea.

People will always tell you that the tea drunk in the bog was the best tea that you ever tasted, but to a townie like me, this lukewarm milky liquid was little short of vile.

I remember a long hot day of back-breaking work and the skin on my soft, gloveless hands was soon in ribbons, gathering up the cracked, black, bone-dry turf to stack on bogies (barrows with wide wooden wheels) which we

pushed over the soft heather to where the donkey stood waiting patiently. The creels (wooden frames) were raised on the cart and we fired up the turf and then trudged what seemed like a long way back to the barn. There the process was reversed and the turf was thrown into the barn before we set off again for the bog.

Years later, my friend Ned found an old slean that his father had cut turf with in the Wicklow mountains during the war years (The Emergency) and we decided to become gentlemen turf-cutters. Unlike our grandparents, who needed turf to survive, we did it as much for the enjoyment of the mountain air as for the fuel that we gathered.

At the time, if you crossed the Featherbeds and on up to the Sally Gap, the summer months were a hive of activity with suburbanites like ourselves out cutting the turf.

Unlike my grandfather who had 'turbury rights' -- the right to work a piece of bog -- to his section of bog in Longford, we acquired a plot of bog from the Powerscourt estate and after paying the initial £15, spent years dodging the bailiff whose job it was to collect the yearly fee.

Cutting turf in the harsh weather of the Wicklow mountains was a different game to cutting in the Midlands. The weather could change dramatically over Kippure and a day could go from sunshine to driving rain in minutes. After you stripped away the sod and the first layer of soft brown turf, what came out was oil black and in a good summer, turned diamond hard.

When it was good, it was very, very good, with the weather, the scenery, the growl of the ravens and the occasional chuckle of a partridge in the undergrowth. Ned would cut and I'd spread it out on the heather.

every so often, a passing German would stop the car and as they made their way through the springy soft heather, Ned would say "don't mention the war" and then when they'd ask about the origins of turf-cutting, one of us would inevitably tell them that turf cutting started in the mountains "during the war" when there was no coal from England and thousands of tons of wet turf was piled high in the Phoenix Park.

We had great days cutting turf and comparing our style with the others around us. There was a group of teachers who had the time to cut, foot and save their turf meticulously. There was Kirby, a loner, on the other side, who cut enormous standard-sized sods and then there was us, struggling to cut a decent sod as the peak crumbled and black bog water drained from fissures in our bank.

And, of course, our good intentions to start a day in the bog early inevitably foundered in O'Dwyer's pub the night before. Once my Uncle Tim, a born turf-cutter from Killanure, in the Slieve Bloom Mountains, dragged me out of bed at 7am to go cutting turf and by 11am, when reinforcements arrived, I was lying exhausted and hung- over, curled up in a clump of heather.

Sometimes we'd be there in the dark and I remember carting out the fertiliser bags of turf when the ground was icy and winter was taking hold.

Turf-cutting was unique, it was hard, back-breaking work but there was also a perverse pleasure in the simple rituals and the satisfaction of 'saving' the turf despite the hardship and difficulties involved. And there was also the pleasure of a roaring turf fire on a winter's night and the satisfaction of knowing it came from your own hard work.

Now it seems it's about to go the way of most of life's simple pleasures.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News