Tuesday 25 October 2016

Turf matters - and so do promises made to voters

Graham Clifford

Published 07/05/2016 | 02:30

Michael Fitzmaurice, Independent TD for Roscommon-Galway Photo: Tom Burke
Michael Fitzmaurice, Independent TD for Roscommon-Galway Photo: Tom Burke

It was the whiskey bottles of sweet tea wrapped in tea towels and hand-delivered by my mother that sticks in my memory most. Under cloudless skies, the sun glistened off the sweaty skin of my grandfather while my father, alongside neighbours, sat on the banks of the bog, wellies dangling over the edge.

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Behind them, slices of freshly cut turf rested one on top of the other while ham sandwiches were consumed with relish.

Those work breaks were perfect in every way. There was nothing like a day in the bog. Though the slan has now been replaced by modern technology in many areas, there's still nothing quite like it. There's magic among the bog cotton.

But the tradition is dying out fast, EU directives driving farmers off the bogs, redefining their existence.

Turf-cutters have been crying out for someone to hear their voice. If he couldn't beat them, Michael Fitzmaurice decided he'd join them and yesterday the Roscommon-Galway TD threatened to derail Enda Kenny's plan for a second term as Taoiseach - all because of turf.

He wanted a commitment from the Government that it would do all it could to protect the tradition that he holds so dear and recognise a "traditional right to cut turf".

But urban Ireland laughed.

One reporter on RTÉ Radio 1 told the 'News at One': "Turf is a sticking point. Yes, you heard that right, turf." For the first time ever, #turf trended on Twitter.

Many dismissed the issue of turf-cutting as a minor and inconvenient distraction. To do so is to totally misunderstand its relevance to those who have cut turf for generations.

Michael Fitzmaurice took a stand on a matter of principle and what did the majority of pundits do? They slated him for it.

How very Irish. We complain for five years that pre-election pledges have been broken and then criticise a politician who actually stands up for one.

Turf-cutting is not only about the harvesting of a fossil fuel so as to save money on purchasing alternatives. If it was, then turf-cutters would happily accept compensation for not being allowed cut their bogs and sit at home in front of their bio-fuel briquettes. It's so much more complex than that. It's about a way of life.

In the Corrin Mart and Event Centre in Fermoy last Wednesday, 300 farmers turned out to speak about mental health and isolation in rural communities.

They told of how modern technology and changes in working practices meant farmers today see less and less of their neighbours and peers. The impact to their mental health can be severe.

In generations past, the bank of the bog was a place where neighbours helped each other out, where stories and jokes were shared. I often watched the men, after a 12-hour-day, walk away through the Kerry commonage with their pikes over their shoulders and a smile stretching across their blackened faces.

Of course, it is right to consider the importance of natural habitats and the effects of turf-cutting on the environment. But what of that positive impact on mental health? How can the former outweigh the latter?

Is a Roscommon turf-cutter's trade any less worthy than that of a fund-accountant in the IFSC or a software developer in Cork? Surely a compromise can be reached whereby turf-cutters in rural Ireland can cut their bogs while committing to peatland conservation. There must be more give and take because turf-cutters matter. Turf matters. Standing up for the principles you were elected on matter.

Whether you support his viewpoint or not, Michael Fitzmaurice didn't forget that.

Irish Independent

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