Peatlands and the pandemic

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GETTING THE TURF HOME Kesaia Toganivalu pictured taking a break from working on the peatlands of Achill.

Kesaia Toganivalu

“You’re the first black person I’ve seen on the island.”
Aye, and I’m probably one of the only people, black or otherwise, that will have been on the bog this morning, waitressing this afternoon, and down the pub this evening. I wanted to say all those things to the young male tourist from Dublin who had come up to me at the pub, but I held my tongue.
Bogs, or peatlands, are part and parcel of living on Achill Island. Known for its beautiful beaches and the fabled Achill Mission, or ‘Colony’, in Dugort, the island has strange scars in its earth and up the hillside. These scars, some hundreds of years old, and others cut only yesterday, are symptoms of an Irish tradition still going strong in the pocket of the world far out to the west.
Fresh out of my first year of English university, I had arrived on Achill ignorant of its history. It was beautiful, and I had passed through during various holidays, but I had never actually lived on it. That all changed when Covid happened.
I had spent all of the last summer lockdown living in Dookinella, footing and bagging sods of turf in the day and serving pizzas at a local restaurant at night. My older regulars would regale me with tales of being dragged up to ‘the bog’ 50 years ago, slaving away for hours, and being given an ice cold mug of tea as payment. For me, it was a chilled can of Club Orange.
This summer, returning to work on the bog was like greeting an old and grubby friend. But that’s something other members of the island will not have had the chance to do.
Last summer, Covid was a stranger to Achill. We would wash our hands, keep our distance, drop off things to cocooning members of the community but as for direct contact with the virus this was a foreign concept. Whilst I had been away studying, death had come to Mayo, and this time it had crossed the bridge into the Achill Sound.

The sanctity of someone’s turf
The timelessness of the bog is countered by the way time moves on for the island’s inhabitants.
“What’s wrong with that turf?” I ask the owner of the bog I’m working on.
The turf I point to is just a bit ahead of us. It is part of another bog. It isn’t at the stage ours is at: machine-cut into long lines like play-dough. This turf is sad and grey, and I can see it has started to crumble like sand. But it has been footed.
Someone had spent hours, and days, hand turning each individual brick of turf and piling them into small structures for them to dry, like small earthy teepees. Someone had bent their back, gotten their knees soaked with the saturated ground, harvesting fuel for the winter.
That someone was now dead.
He had not died of the virus, but many years earlier, and his turf was beginning to decompose and rot. Years before, as I had been driven around the island and asked what the piles of bagged up turf were, I was shocked to find that valuable piles of fuel were just being left as a free for all. I could not understand why people didn’t just steal the clearly visible bags of turf.
Now, looking at the decomposing turf I had an appreciation for what they represented. Yes, rudimental fuel, but also hard, unpleasant, labour. This turf was somebody’s. Even in death.
Whilst cutting turf is a cultural and largely environmental point of contention for the country, on Achill it is something that has been done for thousands of years, as it is for many other rural areas. With Achill’s elderly community being the most susceptible to the virus and the most connected to the peatland’s heritage, it is hard to say what will become of the bogs. Whether they will continue to stand the test of time, or suffer just as everything else has done, under the weight of the pandemic.