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Con Houlihan: Improving on bog standard

The bogs are quiet now. There were years, however, when the bog was very busy in September. The summer might have been broken and there was no drying until August, and then the turf was ready to be drawn out early in September.

You might think that drawing out was an easy process, but it wasn't that way at all. Drawing out was fraught: it was a cause of worry and fear.

The bog is like the sea -- you should never take it for granted. A stretch of bog may appear to be hard, but the water is never far beneath. And it may look level, but there are little rises and undulations that then cause trouble. You can be capsized or your horse may go bogging. Even today, when tractors do most of the drawing out, capsizing can cause a fatal accident.

All or most of the drawing out in my young days was done by horse and car. I had the name of being good with horses and was in great demand by my neighbours for drawing out. People who were good at the drawing out were called guides. It was a proud profession, but I didn't much enjoy it. There was always worry and always a certain amount of fear.

To see a horse with a broken leg was an experience that would stay with you forever. When a horse breaks a leg on the racecourse, he is soon covered by screens and his suffering is quickly ended. His body is carried away in the Blue Cross ambulance and the whole sad business is over in a quarter of an hour.

When a horse breaks a leg in the bog, somebody has to go for a shotgun and that can take a long time. Eventually, you have to dig a grave and it is not a pleasant process: you are burying an old friend.

A few friends and myself belonged to a young generation who believed that we had better ideas than those who came before us. We thought we were better at saving hay and better at fishing and better at growing things and, above all, we were better in the bog.

And we decided when we were drawing out our own turf, we would never use a wheeled vehicle. We made a kind of sleigh, or, if you like, a sled. With this, a horse couldn't go bogging and if we did capsize, the horse was still on his four feet and it was very easy to put the sled back as it had been.


The bog is dangerous for wheeled vehicles because there are hidden knolls under the heather, and little hollows. In our revolution, we didn't fear those. The guide kept well back from the horse's head. He used long reins and he was as far back as the sleigh, so that the horse was free to do his own thinking. Horses have a great sense of self-protection and when he comes to a patch of ground that may be soft, he sniffs and looks back at you. With our sleigh, there was no danger at all.

We also created a quiet revolution: we drew out the turf in bags. It saved the world of labour. When you threw turf into a rail, you had to handle it again at the roadside. Then you had to throw it into a lorry or into a trailer and then empty it out at home. The turf had to be handled four times. This was a complete waste of energy. With the bags or sacks, the turf was handled only once, and a small boy or a small girl could fill the bags. It was easy work and the drawing out was very pleasant because you had no worry or no fear.

We had a half-bred mare called Noreen. She was a celebrity and was in great demand by our neighbours. When accompanied by our trap, she had a fairly long journey. If a common horse had to go a round journey of 40 miles, he would be exhausted, but a fully bred horse or a half-bred horse at a fair speed had no bother.

When the Irish team were in training for the Olympic Games in 1932, they spent the last month in Ballybunion and our mare was in demand almost every day of that month. I was determined that she would never be put under a wheeled cart in the bog for anybody, because, if she had broken her leg, it would be almost more than a death in the family. About 28 is the average age for a horse. Our mare lived to be 39 and she worked her last year. And so some stories have a happy ending.

One of our little group was a man of adventurous ideas, far above the average, and one time he got what a neighbour called a "wainbrave". He decided that cutting turf in the old way was a waste of time and energy. And so he employed a man with a mechanical digger to cut the turf.

The digger would throw it out in big slabs and men on the bank with sleans would mould it into sods, and in that way you would cut enough turf for a household for a year in a day, whereas in the old-fashioned way it would take four days. It was a noble experiment and several people came to watch on the first morning.

I was there, of course. It reminded me of Wilbur and Orville Wright on their first day long ago when they essayed their first flight on the sand dunes somewhere in North Carolina.

The "wainbrave" went very well for about an hour and we were all delighted. Then, gently, the machine began to subside until it was covered in the bog. It needed a crane to take it out and when the crane began subsiding we had to put planks underneath it. And so the experiment failed -- of course, only for the time being. Machine-cut turf has long since been taken for granted. My friend was before his time.

It is one of life's great ironies that some people are born too late and some people are born too soon.

Fogra: Lovers of hurling were glad to hear that Tony Browne has decided to keep on going for another year. He exemplifies all that the game stands for -- we would miss him