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Con Houlihan: Brown gold started a rush to the hills

When the Germans invaded Poland in the autumn of 1939, the townspeople of this country suddenly became aware of turf -- and it wasn't the kind we associate with racehorses.

Most of them had used coal as their only fuel. Turf would become almost the only fuel. Public bodies would do their best to supply turf for the cities and bigger towns but individual families would have to supply their own. This is true even of Kerry. And so many people hastened to rent plots of turf, mostly up in the mountains that almost ring the territory called The Heart of the Kingdom.

In the spring of 1940 there was a great movement that resembled the gold rush in Alaska in 1898 and Castle Island was the equivalent of Dawson City.

Most of the townspeople had little experience of the bog. In that spring and summer they had to employ men from the mountain to teach them the skills and impart the knowledge. Some people loved the bog and took to it immediately. Others hated the bog, so much so that they wouldn't even listen to talk about it. They looked upon it as hostile territory.

Territory

And indeed, though it may not have been hostile, it was strange. From the moment you left green land and walked upon the heather, you felt the difference. The bog had its own smell and the light was different there. And up there you saw and heard birds that you had never known before, especially the grouse and the curlew and the boglark. And the hares up there were different. The inland hares were shy and kept away from people -- the mountain hares were longer and leaner and were very bold as they seemed to think that you were encroaching on their territory. All these things were soon accepted but the skills and the wisdom took time to acquire.

A dear departed friend of mine used to say: "You must fight the bog because it fights you." It was typical of this attitude that the implements used in the cutting of turf were called the weapons.

The weapons were the slean and the pikes, otherwise called forks in part of the country. The man who worked the slean needed the most skill and some people never acquired it. There was skill too in taking the turf from the slean with the pike and sending it out to the man on the bank who spread it -- he should be like a good sub-editor as he made use of space.

Not everybody immediately became good at taking the turf from the slean or in spreading it but those who were committed acquired the skills in time. People made allowance for slow learners. You were reminded of a sign that was common in saloon bars in the Wild West: "Don't shoot the man at the piano -- the poor divil is doing his best."

When the turf was cut, the next job was to foot it. This meant that after about 10 fine days you arranged perhaps six or eight or 10 sods in the shape of a stook. If the weather remained fine, you came back after about a fortnight and you gathered the foots together into the shape of a beehive. By then the turf was almost ready to be drawn to the roadside. The weather, of course, was a very important factor and that was why my friend used to say: "You must fight the bog."

I loved the bog from the first day and by 14 years of age was a sleansman. If you love something, you will become good at it -- and the more you practise it, the more you love it.

I could fill books about the bog but will confine myself to a few little stories. There was a morning when my father and I went to the bog early to make the stooks and have the turf fairly safe before the weather broke. We made a fire at six o clock and put the kettle on. My father said: "Six o clock is only five o clock God's time and then that's only half past four in Greenwich time."

That was all right but a neighbour across the glen, a modest farmer called Dinny Fleming, suddenly got a fright when he saw the smoke from our fire as he was bringing in the cows. He knew that normally we wouldn't make a fire until about eight o clock and he was worried because he had two sons for Confirmation in Knocknagoshel that day. He thought that his clock had gone slow as spring clocks do unless they are regularly wound. And so he left the cows to his wife and got his sons out of bed and tackled up his horse and was in that famous mountain village by seven o clock.

Holidays

Knocknagoshel has many assets but it hasn't got an early morning pub or a late night cafe and so Dinny and his sons were four hours too early for the Mass. Anyway things worked out and the two boys became strong and perfect Christians.

Especially memorable was the spring, if you could call it that, of 1953. My father worked in the creamery and could take holidays only when the supply of milk was very low. That meant one week in spring and about one week in winter. That year he took his first week in early April and because the weather was so inclement, we didn't take a third man to the bog with us.

The first four days of the week were bitterly cold and you could hear the hailstone coming from the North-West as it met the corrugated iron roofs that were common in the mountain then. As we left home on the Friday morning, the snow was falling lightly. After about an hour a blizzard began to blow and by 11 we could not see what we were doing. We took shelter under the nearby bridge and our three dogs were looking at us as if to say we were mad. I couldn't help thinking that my father was on holidays but it wasn't quite like Gran Canaria or Tenerife or even Lanzarote itself.

Fogra Congratulations go to Tom O'Riordan, my Kerry neighbour, greatly respected as athlete and sportswriter, who still cuts turf in the Dublin Mountains. You can take the man from the bog but you can't take the bog from the man


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