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Turf tales

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News Features For centuries Ireland’s boglands have been an intrinsic part of the narrative of rural Ireland.
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Turf tales

For centuries Ireland’s boglands have been an intrinsic part of the multi-layered narrative of rural Ireland

News Feature
Áine Ryan

IT is a scene that the mists of memory fail to fade. Spring morning. A man is bent over in a cavernous earth. The rhythm of his movements uncovers a definitive poetry. Slice, lop … thud. Slice, lop … thud.  From a distance, the sequence ais splintered by the blade of his instrument: a weaving prism for the reincarnated sun.
The laughter of children suddenly breaks the vast silence. It echoes through the wakening heathers as their small heads bob out from one hollow, then another. Further shrieks of playful mirth follow.
Minutes later, the virgin smoke from a crackling fire rises tentatively into the still air. It stalls momentarily, awaiting the encouragement of a gentle puff of lazy wind to propel it west, towards the cliff and the ocean.
By mid-morning the tableau has filled. Other motley caravans have set up camp. Two pairs of donkeys out-stare each other across a gurgling streamlet. A blackened kettle sings on a sprawling fire. In the shadow of his peaked cap, an old man cleans the dottle from his pipe. A blond woman unturns a rickety wheelbarrow from its overnight position.
A snoozing sheepdog raises one eye curiously as an enthusiastic pup challenges a disinterested sheep. A gull screeches in a mountain recess. Slice, lop …. thud. The thick wedges of trembling, black, blancmange slide through the air, onto the platform of the raised bog. The sléan lances the earth with the precision of an expert oarsman.
For hundreds of years Ireland’s boglands have been an intrinsic part of the multi-layered narrative of rural Ireland. Primarily, the dividends of these tracts contributed the fuel that illuminated the hearth of the peasant cottage – the busy hub of rural Ireland. It was here that the soda bread was baked; the praties (potatoes) were boiled; it was here too that the rising porter cake for the Station Mass was closely monitored; that onions and crab-claws were roasted in the dying embers. Overnight these embers would dry and air the homespun vests and socks, trousers and geansaís (jumpers). These pungent embers would ensure the cosy comfort of the old person – grandmother or bachelor uncle – in the cosy nook of the adjacent out-chat (fireside alcove). 
It was also in the shadows of these high, stone ingles that revolution and rebellion was plotted; the secret origins of numerous and heroic folk tales were hatched; the poetic lines that would later inspire William Butler Yeats and John Millington Synge first conceived.
Unsurprisingly, the symbolism of the turf fire subtly suffuses that famous speech – the ‘Dream Speech’ – by former, long-time Uachtarán and founding father, Éamon de Valera. Delivered over the airwaves of Raidió Éireann on St Patrick’s Day 1943, it painted a picture of the country as a rustic idyll. “The Ireland which we dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis of right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their lives to things of the spirit; a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age.”
It was during the economic decline of the Second World War years that our fledgling government established one of the most successful semi-state bodies – Bord na Móna. It was at a time where the exploitation of local resources was strongly espoused.  
By 1960, turf-cutting was firmly established as a mechanised native industry, with two new factories built in Derrinlough and Croghan, County Offaly.
On October 15 last, the iconic Bellacorick tower – the gateway to Erris – was demolished in a huge explosion that attracted interest across the entire country. The landmark cooling tower had been built almost 50 years earlier and, at its peak, in turf-fueled electricity generation had the capacity to power around 300,000 thousand homes.
Despite the fact that the hand-cutting of turf for domestic use was superseded by the machine cutting of vast tracts, the continuation of the former practice in more remote and accessible areas pervades to this day.
Unlike the scythe and the hook – which have been replaced for the cutting of hay and oats by the tractor and silage-maker – the sléan, loy and graipe continue to be used to unearth and produce a native resource. 
For centuries, this practice has been an integral part of the seasonal rhythm which defined rural Ireland as a largely self-sufficient economy. Paradoxically, back then (mere decades ago), the majority of holdings in rural Mayo produced its own meat and vegetables, eggs and butter, milk and, in some cases, alcoholic beverage, poitín! And, of course, its own fuel.
Like all the seasonal rituals, the annual custom of saving the turf was composed of a series of unwritten rules. Ideally, the sun shone, but with a welcome light breeze to banish the terrible torture of the midges, biting insects – the scourge of both turf and hay-savers. Saving the turf was also a family affair and, in the case of an elderly bachelor or widow, a meitheal (voluntary group) of neighbours and relatives would gather.
There was an air of festivity about the ritual, albeit underpinned by back-breaking work, from early morning to late light. Cutting the wedges of peat from the dank, ancient bed of bog was but the first step. It must then be spread, footed (stood on end in circular arches), sometimes wheel-barrowed to a more appropriate location for the drying process and, penultimately, built and crafted – sod by sod – into a cottage-like clamp.
Finally, it was carted home by donkey or horse, laden down and precariously balancing two homemade creels (baskets made from rushes).
In Seamus Heaney’s Bog Poem, ‘Digging’, the poet uses his ‘squat pen’ to hew a memory that, for a disappearing generation, remains a reality in the country’s most remote outposts.
“My grandfather could cut more turf in a day/ Than any other man on Toner’s bog./ Once I carried him milk in a bottle/ Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up/ To drink it, then fell to right away/ Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods/ Over his shoulder, digging down and down/ For the good turf./ Digging.”

Compensation for Cessation of Turf Cutting

Raised Bogs
The Department of the Environment will purchase raised bogs at the rate of: Freehold €3,500 for the first acre and €3,000 for each subsequent acre.Turbary rights will be purchased for €2,975 for the first acre and €2,550 for each subsequent acre.

Blanket Bogs
In exceptional circumstances, where it is necessary to prohibit turf-cutting, the department will purchase blanket bog at the rate of €1,000 per acre.
 
No further derogation
The Department of the Environment says it cannot consider a request from Connacht IFA Vice-President, Mr Michael Silke, to extend the existing derogation and continue to allow turf-cutting for domestic purposes. Mr Silke made the proposal due to fears there will be an all-out ban imposed on turf-cutting in the future. However, the Department states though that there has been no decision made yet regarding the cessation of turf-cutting in other SACs or NHA designated bogs.


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