Documentary showcases the art of turf-cutting

THEIR last film, about old Irish telephone boxes, won a string of international awards — now two Dublin-based film-makers are making a movie about Kerry turf-cutters.

Aideen O’Sullivan from Dingle and Ross Whitaker from Dublin have spent days filming a group of old-style turf-cutters on Killarda bog between Listowel and Ballyduff in north Kerry.

The work is expected to finish at the end of the month and the film, being produced with the support of the Irish Film Board under its Reality Bites scheme, will premiere at the Cork International Film Festival in November.

And if it is anything like their last film, Bye Bye Now — a nostalgic look at the role of the humble telephone box, which garnered accolades all over the world — the documentary, whose working title is Home Turf can expect positive feedback from audiences.

“I’d always heard about the turf-cutters in north Kerry and was interested in finding out more about their work,” says producer Aideen O’Sullivan, whose parents are from Ballyduff, and whose father learned to cut turf as a child.

She and her colleague, director Ross Whitaker, got the idea for this latest project while shooting their previous film: “We travelled a lot while we were making Bye Bye Now. We saw a lot of the land and we got the idea that the old tradition of cutting turf by hand seems to be dying out and we wanted to showcase how it was done.”

The group of 12 men at the centre of the 12-minute documentary — mostly people from farming and fishing backgrounds in Lixnaw, Listowel, Lisselton and Ballyduff — believe they are probably the last generation to do such work, says Ms O’Sullivan, who spent five days filming.

“I made contact with them through my father — he grew up on a farm and would have participated in turf-cutting,” she said.

“This film is very picture-driven. It’s a very visual piece, which we hope will display the tradition without the interference of too much dialogue.”

Although one of the turf-cutters’ sons — in his 30s — turned up to help out on the first day of filming, the majority of the turf-cutters in the documentary are in their 60s and 70s.

“It is mostly the older generation who are doing the work now,” says Ms O’Sullivan. “It’s quite rare that somebody young would be out cutting turf. The men said it’s a skill that is dying out, and they speak fondly of learning how to do it as young lads. They feel it’s a dying tradition.”

Although many of them would accept that cutting turf by hand is probably less efficient and less economical than by machine, the social and traditional aspects of the work draws them to do it, she says. “There is great camaraderie between the men. They work as part of a ‘meitheal’— in other words, they each help the other out with the turf- cutting.

“Their families would have traditionally worked the bogs and they would have learned the craft from their fathers.

The work begins in late spring, with the cleaning of the bog, in which the land is prepared for turf-cutting by removing the top layer of bog. It goes on until the end of August or early September, when the turf is drawn home.

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