Turf-cutters vent their anger and frustration at government decisions that are ‘out of touch’
Turf contractor Mick Maher thought long and hard before making an offer on the new digger he had found on Done Deal, part of a sell-off by an engineering firm that was closing down.
At €100,000, it was a significant investment – but he was heading into prime turf-cutting season when they would be working flat out from first light for the next eight weeks solid, and he was afraid his old, unreliable machine might let them down.
It was available right then, with no lead-in time, and Mick decided that the digger was too good a deal to turn down. And though the 72-year-old contractor had no plans to drive it himself – he “didn’t want to be greedy” – it was set to become an invaluable addition.
The new bog excavator arrived on the back of a truck at Maher’s yard in the picturesquely named townland of Wood-Of-O (coming from the old word for yew trees) outside Tullamore, Co Offaly, late on Friday evening last.
Within three days, clear plastic wrap still enrobed its seat as Mick’s livelihood, and that of every turf contractor in the country, lay perilously suspended on a cliff-edge amid news that the sale and distribution of sod peat was to be prohibited from September.
“We realised the industry was going about five or six years ago but we never thought it would come overnight in the end. We thought we’d have time,” he said.
He does a rough calculation, reckoning he has 500 customers – all heavily dependent on turf, and deeply worried now about what they may face next winter.
“The phone is hopping, so it is – hopping with people asking if we will have turf for them. All I can say to them is, ‘We don’t know’.”
At a Zoom meeting on Tuesday night, county chairs of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA) vented their universal “anger and frustration” at the decision and at what they see as a government “totally out of touch”.
“We can’t take any more of it,” said a source. “It’s kind of a feeling, with the whole climate debate, that farmers are being blamed and it’s coming from all angles.”
“There are people in rural Ireland who would gladly convert to green energy if they could afford to and if the correct incentives were there,” said Tim Farrell, ICSA Rural Development chair.
“Vilifying any individual for helping family members, neighbours and friends keep their homes warm is a step too far especially amid spiralling energy costs.”
By Wednesday evening, a heated Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting ended with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar reassuring members that the ban would be “parked for now” and that telling those who cut and sell turf that they can no longer do so “would be like telling the French they can’t drink wine or the Italians they can’t eat pasta”.
On Thursday, Eamon Ryan remained adamant that the ban would go ahead.
This was strongly welcomed by the Climate and Health Alliance yesterday – a group that is made up of public health organisations and advocacy groups from around the island. Spokesperson Dr Colm Byrne said the burning of smoky fuels in the home is the leading source of air pollution, responsible for the majority of more than 1,400 from air pollution deaths in Ireland every year.
“Banning the sale of turf, as proposed by the minister in the forthcoming solid fuels legislation, is certainly a step in the right direction,” Dr Byrne said.
“Home fuel burning has a hugely detrimental impact on the nation’s health – with children, older people and those living with chronic diseases the worst affected.
“The fact is that when you sit in front of an open fire, you are exposed to similar levels of toxic fumes found in traffic blackspots at rush hour.”
But it is clear this debacle is far from over.
“As far as I’m concerned it’s not in the programme for government,” said Longford Fine Gael senator Micheál Carrigy. “We haven’t as a party agreed to it and I know personally I won’t be agreeing to it. It’s a step too far and it’s an attack on the rural heritage. We’re in the middle of an energy crisis and we have to be realistic about things. There would be a lot of cold houses next winter if this goes ahead.”
The cherry-red Stanley range cooker in Mick Maher’s kitchen radiates a steady, reassuring heat. Over tea and apple tart with local customers Ollie Larkin and John Larkin and retired Bord na Móna man Seamus Behan, from Daingean, the men discussed the inevitability of protests.
“I’d love to get Eamon Ryan footing turf,” declared Seamus. “I don’t think he appreciates the situation.
“He thinks people are burning turf because they like burning turf – if I had the choice I’d burn oil because it’s easier.
“If there was an alternative you could talk a different language. But it’s all down to finances – people wouldn’t burn turf if they didn’t need it. And a lot of houses aren’t designed to be retrofitted.”
He knows of a neighbour who put in a new wood pellet stove six weeks ago but hasn’t been able to source the pellets.
Mick told how he developed his bog on the back of a grant given out by Charlie Haughey during the oil crisis of the 1980s. Minister for Energy George Colley told the Dáil in 1981, “The increasing scarcity and cost of imported energy makes it imperative that our indigenous energy resources be exploited as fully and effectively as possible.”
Shaking his head, Mick says: “There’s another oil crisis now and they’re doing the opposite.”
Most of his customers order a load of 15 tonnes of turf, which comes in at a cost of around €2,200 – almost half of which is made up of taxes, including the carbon tax. But the security of having the shed stocked up to see out the winter cannot be underestimated.
For the contractor a ban in September would mean “four full time jobs gone and eight part-time at the height of the season. I’d retire and my son Nigel would have to start from scratch doing something else.” The €1m worth of machinery would have to be dealt with, the diggers sold but the old Irish-made Teva hoppers which shape the turf into sods would be instantly redundant.
For Ollie and John Larkin, it might mean having to go back to cutting on their own bog themselves “with the slane” if they were no longer permitted to rely on the ease of Mick’s machine to do it for them.
“I can’t see myself retrofitting at this stage,” said Ollie.
Both brothers think the turf-burning generation should be allowed to phase out gradually. “The younger people aren’t burning turf – you can’t even get planning permission to put in a chimney in a lot of counties,” he said.
Timber is not the answer either, says Seamus, telling of the difficulty in getting felling rights in his 60 acres of forest, adding that supply would also be a problem.
Out in the yard, fitters Pat McEvoy from Portlaoise, his son Pat Jr and grandson Ciaran (15) are hard at work preparing for the turf-cutting season which starts on Monday. A quarter of their business in the year is in the turf industry.
Amid the uncertainty, Mick and his team prepare to break the silence of the bog once again, perhaps even for the last time.