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Thursday 18 September 2014

The common fate of turf and man

It only takes a wet summer for the best laid scheme to sink

Con Houlihan

Published 02/10/2008 | 07:00

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Con Houlihan

I looked forward to the summer after my first year at Cork University -- even though it wouldn't be a holiday. Three of us had cut a fair amount of turf at Easter and hoped to make a modest bundle of money. Alas, we experienced the truth of Robert Burns's lines about the best laid plans of mice and men. It turned out to be the wettest summer in living memory -- whatever that means.

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There were no deluges or monsoons; rain fell persistently day after day. The water in the river was consistently high, even though hardly ever in full flood. You couldn't even think of working in the bog; the turf was lying in a sad state. For once I could go fishing with a clear conscience: no work was being neglected. I didn't feel guilty -- unlike Bing and Satchmo who, as you will remember, left their hoes lying in the sun. Even though the water was high, the fishing wasn't great: much of the time the fish were sated. There were good days too -- even the quiet days had their compensations. By the side of a river is a great place for thinking: I used to imagine that I was a philosopher trying to solve the problems of the universe -- though I was really more concerned with the problems of the turf.

Every morning I used to look up the hillside a few miles north of us, to see if the cows had gone there. Morning after morning after morning they were still grazing in the fields down below. A host of stories grew out of that rain-ruined summer. I might as well tell you one that is part of folklore. The hero, God rest him, was a veteran bogman who depended on turf for his living. Like the rest of us he kept looking forward to an improvement in the weather. One Sunday morning in September as he went in to Mass in Scartaglen, he got hope. The sky was blue with a few light clouds; the air was light.

The veteran sat himself down in a corner at the back of the church and fell into a quiet sleep. The priest saying the Mass was a decent scholarly man who loved to give long sermons on the history of The Church. He had a habit of stopping midway through his sermon for dramatic effect. When he stopped on that Sunday long ago, the sudden silence caused the veteran to wake up. And as he heard the rain drumming on the roof over his head, he said very loudly: "Holy God -- bogs are finished." That simple sentence became embodied in common speech. It was invoked when things were going very badly. You can be sure that it was uttered in Croke Park on a recent Sunday as Kerry began to slide to defeat at the hands and feet and heads of Tyrone.

The summer of my third year in college could hardly have been more different from that summer when the sky seemed to have lost its skin. The sun shone day after day. My elders said that they were reminded of 1921, the year of The Truce. In that year the summer was made up of bright warm days. A heavy dew fell every night -- there was wonderful growth. The people believed that it was a sign from God: He was giving The Truce his blessing.

I felt that I could do with His blessing too -- it was my year of trial. Classes had ended in the last weeks in May. The examinations started about the tenth of September. Even though I had worked fairly well at college that academic year, there was still a mountain of study ahead. The fine weather was a help. We had our few acres of hay saved and our turf out of the bog by the middle of June. The hard work of the year was over. There was of course the garden: we had almost an acre of potatoes and vegetables.

We tried to be self-sufficient. My father used to say that if we lived in China, we needn't buy even the tea. The garden was little bother. The potatoes needed to be sprayed every fortnight in midsummer -- that didn't take long.

There was another factor in my favour: my neighbours -- without being formally told -- knew that I wouldn't be available that summer. They would have to bring home their turf and draw in their hay and load their pigs without me, not to mention the other jobs that are part of rural life. I was free, free to think about my own private Everest.

Our house was about three steps off the high road to Dublin and was hardly conducive to serious study -- or even comical study. People were always calling in: the men came to talk about football and politics and the weather; the women came to talk about hatching hens, the neighbours and the weather. The teapot was always on the hob and there was an apple cake lurking in the background.

And so with a few sandwiches and a bottle of milk and a few books, not to mention three crazy terriers, I used to go to a favourite place. It was about two miles from the house and about 700 feet above the Atlantic -- which I could see on both sides of Slemish Mountain. Usually I brought enough scraps to keep the terriers happy -- but that wasn't always so. Some days at about 12 o'clock they would suddenly jump up and go off as if devils were chasing them.

My mother was preparing rabbit or fish and my three unfaithful friends were determined to get their share. They usually came back about an hour later, looking very pleased with themselves.

Some days the four of us would go a few miles further away -- to the summit of the road at Gleannsharoon -- about a thousand feet above the ocean. From there you are looking at The Heart Of The Kingdom. Bertie Ahern once said to me that it was his favourite view, next of course to the sight of Fine Gael and Labour on the opposition benches.

We enjoyed that view too, but I went up there in pursuit of higher studies.

Fogra: Congratulations go to Cork's Football Girls on bringing off the marvellous four in a row

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