Monday 19 August 2019

John Meagher: 'An afternoon in the bog gets the memory banks fired up again... It was the silence I loved most'

Climate concerns mean turf-cutting is not what it used to be, but John Meagher finds his sod skills return to him on a quiet treeless plain in north-east Galway

Odds and sods: John Meagher on Clooncullaun Bog, Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes, xposure.
Odds and sods: John Meagher on Clooncullaun Bog, Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes, xposure.
Bog standard: John driving an old Massey Ferguson tractor in Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes
John loading an old Massey Ferguson tractor in Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes
Odds and sods: John Meagher building a teepee of turf on the Clooncullaun Bog, Galway. Photos: Andrew Downes

It is not easy to find Clooncullaun Bog. You leave the pretty village of Creggs on the Galway side of the Galway-Roscommon border and venture a few kilometres over narrow, undulating roads. Then you stop at a field where a herd of Friesian cattle are contentedly eating the bountiful grass. You drive in and trundle up the field alongside the hedge and then through a gap in the ditch at the far side. You've arrived.

It's one of four bogs in this patch of north-east Co Galway and its yield is small. Only a handful of families still save turf here - and they've been busy over the past few weeks as largely fine weather has made for optimal turf conditions.

Mary Devaney has been saving turf here for years and she knows every inch of Clooncullaun Bog. Right now, it's footing time - that key period where sods that have been turned to face the sun are arranged upright in little heaps. It ensures more drying time, allows any breezes to circulate among them and - if done correctly - will ensure that any rain flows off without harming the integrity of the product.

Last year's summer may have been the hottest and driest in many years, but it was far from ideal for turf-cutters like Mary. The long days of sunshine meant turf dried out too quickly and simply broke up in the bog. Rather than long 'loafs' of turf, they were reduced to little bits, which my now deceased grandmother from Laois used to call 'ciaráns'. It's a word that's used here, too, and those, Mary tells me, aren't much good at all.

Bog standard: John driving an old Massey Ferguson tractor in Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes
Bog standard: John driving an old Massey Ferguson tractor in Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes

I've ventured west of the Shannon to relive something I did every summer during my teenage years in the midlands - saving turf. The bog I worked in then is no longer in use - and it's become increasingly difficult to find bogs that are still being used for turf-cutting.

When I worked in the southern fringes of the Bog of Allen in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there wasn't much talk about the environmental damage being caused by relentless turf-cutting. Or, if there was, it didn't enter my consciousness. Now, it's all so different. Large, commercial peat production has been wound down for years and there's increasing pressure to stop turf-cutting everywhere, irrespective of how modest the bogs might be.

There has been some resistance, not least here in east Galway and the adjoining Roscommon. Local independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice is chairperson of the Irish Turf Cutters and Contractors Association and has succeeded in keeping some of the bogs open. It allows people like Mary Devaney and her neighbours to save turf much like their forebears did. "It's part of the tradition, here," she says, proudly. And she's right.

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Sun-kissed ground

I hadn't stepped in a bog since 1993, the year of my Leaving Cert, but as soon as I walk on the soft, sun-kissed ground here, I feel as though I have been transported in time. And, weirdly for someone who has embraced city life so thoroughly that I sometimes have to remind myself there is an Ireland beyond the M50, I find myself at home.

It all comes flooding back: that lovely, peaty smell, the way the sun's heat seems much more intense in a treeless plain, the comforting, but rough feel of a sod of turf in your hand, the multitudes of insect life once your eyes have adjusted. And as soon as I bend over the work, it too comes back - the quick but careful selection of longer sods to build a teepee, damp sides, if any, to face outwards, smaller sods to stack the mound higher, flat ones to make a Jenga-style pattern on top.

Odds and sods: John Meagher building a teepee of turf on the Clooncullaun Bog, Galway. Photos: Andrew Downes
Odds and sods: John Meagher building a teepee of turf on the Clooncullaun Bog, Galway. Photos: Andrew Downes

Even the stance I used to foot turf 30-odd years ago comes back like a trained memory. Feet planted far apart, torso bent at the hips, hands searching for suitable sods. A couple of minutes to build each mound of turf, and then on to form the next. It's a rhythm that has been known for generations.

My memories are jogged to by the steady purring of an old Massey Ferguson that pulls a trailer in a nearby plot. Their turf is dried enough and they want to get it home. I used to drive tractors like this one as a boy. There's no cabin, or widescreen, just a simple steel horseshoe bar to provide some protection in the very unlikely event of an overturn. You're guaranteed a lung-full of diesel smoke when it moves, but I never knew anyone who didn't secretly love its aroma. It's got twin tyres on both sides of the back to aid mobility in boggy, damp, unforgiving ground.

Another memory is of a half submerged tractor during an especially wet summer - someone had driven it into the bog, but failed to recognise how wet it was. Just single tyres on the back, and it had got stuck. Eventually, days later, a JCB was found to tow it back to life.

I think I was 14 when I first started working for money in the bog, as distinct from a bit of half-hearted getting-in-the-way family 'work' I had done before. It was a three to four-mile cycle from where I grew up. Nobody talked about kilometres then. You had to be careful to leave the bike in shade - otherwise the summer sun could get to work and ensure you returned in the evening to flat tyres.

The season would begin a few days after the hopper had done its work. This is a self-propelled machine that essentially cultivates the ground and lays sods out in long lines and cut up like link sausages. Once the sun had done its work and the tops of the sods were dry, it was time to turn them over.

That meant spending your day bent over, head downwards, turning sod after sod. You found a natural rhythm: tempting as it was to furiously turn them as fast as you could, you'd know you'd be burnt out quickly. Much better to think of it as a marathon and pace yourself, finding a groove that worked for you.

After that, it was footing time - my favourite turf-saving task. Others may have delighted in the more elaborate mounds they created, but mine rarely rose above two feet, but they did their job and, crucially, you got more done. And getting more done was key because, in delightful, unarguable simplicity, the more turf you saved each week, the more money you got at the end of it.

And that's what made up for sore backs and thighs. On Fridays, the owner of the bog would produce a wad of notes and carefully peel off blue ones with WB Yeats scowling on the front and purple ones with Jonathan Swift looking imperious, and hand them to you.

Unusually, there would be plenty of other people working, including teenagers trying to make some money over the summer. Some of them had a Stakhanovite appetite for the job in hand; others tried everything they could to wriggle out of the task. I liked seeing some of them, loathed others, and rarely missed any of them when they would loudly announce they had had enough and left for the day.

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Solitary work

There were times where I felt like doing anything other than bog work - and on some days, I'd venture down to the barely used tennis court in the local village and play with whomever showed up.

But when I wasn't imagining I was Boris Becker or Andre Agassi, I'd think of the money I could make - and the books and music I could buy with messrs Yeats and Swift - and I'd jump on the bike. And an afternoon in Clooncullaun Bog gets the memory banks fired up again. In my first summer, I'd go down in mid-morning and risk sunburn and heatstroke. I went through a lot of Sudocrem that year. But, in subsequent years, I realised I could do more when the sun was lower in the sky and when many of the others had finished. And I found I loved going down on my own - something that has characterised the way I have preferred working ever since.

It was the silence I loved most. Maybe I should qualify that. It was the absence of any man-made noise. No cars whizzing by or horns blaring or music wafting from somewhere or people chatting. The vast expanse of the bog would dampen that sound. And while, at first, it seemed deathly quiet, you would soon hear the music of the natural world - frogs croaking, flies buzzing, birds calling.

'King of banks'

And you'd be aware of the extraordinary biodiversity all around you - dragonflies, beetles big and small, butterflies, bog cotton, gorgeous wild flowers and, on occasion, big raft spiders to put your heart crossways. Having become enraptured by the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh in my middle-teen years, the final line of 'Inniskeen Road' would sometimes come to mind: "I am king of banks and stones and every blooming thing."

Of course, there was a hint of bitterness in the Kavanagh's 'blooming' but I didn't feel trapped here. I knew - barring a disastrous Leaving Cert - that I would be leaving all this behind for college and a new life in Dublin.

And in my final summer working on the bog, I had moments of rare clarity where I drank in as much detail of my surrounds as I could, knowing that there would be times in the future where I'd want to return, momentarily, to this quiet place with its spongy floor and seemingly cloudless skies. And, sure enough, for years after there were occasions where I wanted to swap a deadline, or a needless bit of stress, or a deathly dull afternoon staring at a computer screen, for a few hours of footing turf.

Looking back, I can see how great boredom can be. Back then, mobile phones were toys sported by only the wealthiest businessmen. The internet didn't exist in any meaningful way. Google was still years off. There were precious few distractions and the imagination was allowed to do its thing.

And there were times where the mind was completely at rest while turning sods or loading a trailer. It was as close as I got to mediation until I took up running years later. At the time, I didn't realise it but those moments of quiet contemplation fall into something we now refer to as 'mindfulness'.

And, despite the intensity of the sun, I find myself once more settling into a quiet, mindful pattern of work in this small Galway bog this week. I'm almost disappointed when Mary suggests we've done enough for the day.

And then, as we're walking back to our cars, I remember something else: that feeling of being utterly famished. I'm so disused to physical outdoor work now, but the feeling of needing to eat at 44 had the same primal urge as it did when I was 16.

I bought a service station sandwich and a cup of tea shortly after turning the car back to Dublin, but it was bland and tasteless. What I would have given, at that moment, to sample again my mother's home-made grub to take to the bog - white sliced pan, generously filled with butter and ham, a flask of tea and one of those macaroon-flavoured chocolate bars I haven't seen since.

And when I got home I noticed something else - tiny little tears in the skin of my hands where the sharp, splintery bits of the sods had shown up my hands for what they are today: soft, preened things who spend their days tapping on laptop keyboards.

Next week in our Summer Jobs series: Kathy Donaghy heads to Ireland's most northerly point for a barista lesson

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