Monday 15 October 2018

Sunshine days in the Stormanstown bog...

Jim Commins looks back on some glorious moments cutting turf

Cutting turf was a tough and warm job in years gone by
Cutting turf was a tough and warm job in years gone by

Some 70 years ago, long before the invasion of the bogs by the voracious sausage machines, turf was cut with a slean. During and after the war years when it was practically impossible to obtain coal, the County Council sold small banks of turf (seven yards by three and a half yards in area) in Stormanstown bog for a nominal sum.

The task of cutting and saving the turf from one such bank was carried out by my two elder teen-age brothers and yours truly. Before even a sod was cut, a layer of heather and its roots had to be sliced off and discarded into an adjacent bog hole. Tommy, my eldest brother usually done the cutting.

The cut sodden sods would be pitched either to myself or my other brother who took turns in catching and wheeling them on specially designed wooden barrows to an area where they were laid out to dry.

The bank was cut down in tiers until the bed of the bog was reached where small white shells were often found. As the bog was a "raised bog" this could be up to a depth of eight feet and more. Whereas the top brown sods, when dried, had limited fuel value, those extracted from the bottom would be as black and equally as good as coal. Sometimes a hole could be so deep that a ladder would have to be used to enable the cutter to emerge.

Bringing a ladder on a bike to the bog, some three miles distant from Mullenstown, just outside Ardee, was not an easy task. It had to be tied on to the crossbar with binder twine. As it protruded over the handlebars and carrier it made steering quite difficult.

Extreme care had to be taken especially when approaching Englishby's shop at Glack Cross. There, extra precautions had to be taken as donkeys with their carts tended to wander on the roads to graze on the grass verges whilst their owners done some shopping. Moreover, two mongrel dogs who dozed at the door and at times had to be toed out of the way came fully awake and became a "heart's scald" to any cyclist who happened to be passing by.

I will never forget the day when my brother was trying to extract the last of the peat noticed water dribbling through a bulge in the bank that separated the new bog hole from an old adjacent one that was filled with water. Sensing imminent danger, with the help of the ladder he speedily scampered out. Soon afterwards the dividing wall collapsed and a torrent of filthy water burst through. A mud bath, he would not have appreciated!

An old uncle of my mother lived in Coolnamoney (back-of-the-bog) and to him we went for our midday break. As we would arrive without any warning he would naturally never have enough food in the house. Whilst my brothers tidied up his garden, I was dispatched to Biddy Farquharson's " shop" which was in a small thatched house, the thatch was covered with sheets of tin, for bread, butter, jam and eggs. Purchases were made through a window-like opening with shutters in the front wall. At times, in order to get attention , they had to be loudly rapped on.

The eggs were usually large green duck eggs and when boiled had a stronger texture and taste than hen eggs. For my next task I was given a porringer and told to "run down" to Mickseys for a sup of milk. He lived just beyond the schoolhouse, the domain of Master and Mistress Kelly. He invariably knew what I wanted and went to a lean-to donkey shed at the rear of his house. The milk would have been somewhat darker but creamier than cows' milk. Did Cleopatra really bathe in asses' milk?.

Bog oak when found was thrown to one side as it was regarded as a nuisance. When dried it was use as firewood. Its value was only appreciated when an artisan visiting the locality some years later paid "good money" for the once discarded timber.

On calm days workers from some distance away could be heard chatting and gossiping. Occasionally they shouted to my brother looking for the time as he seemed to be the only person to have a watch. Without fail the next question would be "Is that auld time or new time". Neither farmers nor country people in general bothered putting their clocks forward or back when the times officially changed.

Everyone, even those working in the neighbouring Cortown bog, knew when it was four o'clock. Whistles were blown by attendants overseeing the work of inmates of Ardee mental hospital to cease work. On the whole the group of about twenty seemed to be a happy bunch.

Whilst some of them actually worked, others just watched bees collecting nectar, skylarks high in the sky and six-winged dragon flies hovering over bog holes. When going to and coming from work they could be heard singing "Hi ho, hi ho, its off to work we go" with variations. At times, one could not be but envious of them. On occasions the attendants seemed to be doing more work than those in their care.

During the hot summer days some workers discarded their shirts to get a sun tan. Vests were not worn then. If sun-tan lotion was available at that time it definitely was not used as most workers got sun burned and blisters. Using cooking oil as a barrier was not always successful.

The cutting and laying out of the wet sods was but one part of the saving process, when dry they were "footed" and later "clamped". Many, many years later when a condition diagnosed as carcinoma, thankfully benign, (buiochas le Dia ) was found, it was suggested that it could have been a legacy of being over exposed to the sun in Stormanstown and/or Sharjah in the Persian Gulf where I worked for some time.

At fourteen, working in the balmy bog breeze in glorious weather was not "all sunshine"!!!

Drogheda Independent