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'People are willing to go to jail for the right to cut turf'

At 93 years of age, Paddy Concannon is the first president of the Irish Turfcutters and Contractors Association. The Roscommon man has spent a lifetime in public life and has been one of the driving forces behind the opposition to the restrictions on turf cutting, resulting from the implementation of an EU Habitats Directive.

While a deal to resolve the issue has been agreed by many involved, in certain parts of Roscommon contractors and turfcutters have not signed up to any agreement.

"There will be trouble next spring when people go to cut their turf," Paddy predicts.

"People are prepared and willing to go to jail for the right to cut their turf. I am willing to go to jail for that right."

Paddy is eating his dinner by the fire at his daughter's house near Donamon, in Co Roscommon. He glances over his shoulder as I am shown in; a pair of bright eyes, clear windows to a sharp mind, settle on me.

"If God extends the lease, I'll celebrate my 94th birthday on the second of April next," says Paddy. He was born in 1918 and has lived all his life on the family farm at Kilmurry, Castlerea. His mother, who had returned from America, married and set up with her husband on an 11ac holding.


The sweep of 20th-century Irish and European history is a backdrop to Paddy's life. In April 1918, his parents were delighted at his arrival as it meant an additional voucher in the family ration card. World War One was in its final months and rationing was part of everyday life.

In his early childhood years, the War of Independence and the Civil War were fought and won and lost. He has a memory of two visits of the Black and Tans to his locality. On the first occasion, a detachment arrived in the area and shot all the fowl, destroying the primary cash earner for households. On their second visit, they singled out and shot dead a Protestant farmer who had written to their commanding officer to complain about their previous raid.

Paddy went to the local national school at Kilmurry, where he completed an extra year known as the Seventh Standard studying algebra, geometry and Euclid.

Paddy's attachment to the bog and turfcutting goes back to his youth. When he returned to the farm after school, he supplemented his income with work on the bog. The early 1930s was a good time for such work thanks to De Valera's Economic War, which encouraged the people in town and country to "burn everything British except their coal".

"Turf was making 10s and 6d per tonne and there was 24 shillings per week to be made for a five-day week on the bog," recalls Paddy.

"This income could see a family living in frugal comfort."

With the outbreak of World War Two, the price of turf went from 10s and 6d per tonne to £1 per tonne. Turf was brought from all corners of the country and piled in huge reeks in the Phoenix Park.

"The reeks were too wide and took in water," says Paddy. "I had pity on the people of Dublin who were expected to heat their houses with that damp turf."

In 1945, Paddy, who claims he was more interested in football and cross-country running than politics, was elected to Roscommon County Council on a Clann na Talmhan ticket. He later joined Fine Gael and held a council seat until his retirement in 1991 at times with Fine Gael and at other times as an independent. He recalls the days when political involvement had more to do with principle than profit.


"I remember one colleague who had to travel 38 miles on a horse and cart to get to meetings and all he had was a bottle of cold tea and a few sandwiches to sustain him," recalls Paddy.

He took over the farm in 1960 and married in 1966, rearing two daughters and a son on the family farm that had now expanded to 50ac.

Paddy maintained a lifelong interest in issues beyond his own farm gate. His most recent involvement has seen him at the forefront of the opposition to the blanket restrictions on turf cutting prescribed in the implementation of the EU Habitats Directive. Paddy believes Ireland has simply submitted to the EU's demands.

"The Greeks and Italians were able to get derogations from similar EU legislation in relation to tobacco growing, but our State accepted the whole lot, willy nilly," he says.

He claims that the directive impinges unfairly on the 8pc of bog in private ownership, while the 92pc in State ownership is unaffected.

"What's more, of the 8pc of bogs affected, most of it is in Roscommon and Galway," Paddy adds.

He casts doubt on the ecological basis for the directive, pointing out that the two feet of vegetation and soil at the top of the bog containing all the flora and fauna are not lost in the turf-cutting process. This becomes low bank capable of supporting the same plant and animal life.

He is dismissive of the current resolution's terms, which include €1,000/year compensation for 15 years and replacement turf for those affected.

"It is nonsensical to pay money to people to stop them cutting their own turf," says Paddy. "And it is equally nonsensical to use taxpayers money to have turf brought to people who live in a bog."

He finds it hard to believe that this policy will result in rangers patrolling the bog who can have people prosecuted if they are found carrying an implement or tool that could be used to cut turf.

"All my life, it was national policy to cut turf and now it's a crime. Maybe I'll be spending my 94th birthday in prison," says Paddy, as he stares at the turf glowing red in his daughter's fireplace.

Indo Farming