The dying art of the turf-cutter

The dying art of the turf-cutter

If you’re travelling country roads from West Cork to Co Donegal these days, you will almost certainly meet tractor trailers clamped high with black turf for home fires. 

The weather has been perfect for drying turf. 

Despite calls from environmentalists for a complete ban on turf-cutting, the age-old custom is still alive in some rural areas, though greatly reduced in recent decades as many people opt for other forms of energy.

Virtually all turf for domestic use is now cut by machine and traditional sleansmen (hardly ever women) — lyrically called ‘peatbog soldiers’ — are a truly threatened species like the Indian tribe of the Pardo River, in Brazil, and the curlew we remember as being prolific in the bog, long ago.

I recently received a report from the Cork/Kerry border area of a sighting of a man wielding a slean in the parish of Rathmore. 

He disappeared again into the moorland but, like the mysterious Abominable Snowman, left footprints behind — in the form of sods of turf.

So rare are sleansmen now that any of those still marching to the peatlands with the spade-like weapons slung over their shoulders are likely to be the holders of free travel passes. 

You’ll know their unmistakeable work — neatly-cuts sods, all the same size like pounds of butter, spread out in uniform rows along the turf bank.

Such men are heirs to long tradition. 

In his history of Bord na Mona, titled Brown Gold, Donal Clarke notes evidence from the seventh and eighth centuries of the widespread use of turf as a fuel regulated by law. 

The cutting down of Ireland’s forests in the 17th century gave a major boost to turf as fuel. 

“Harvesting methods were much the same as in other European countries and involved the use of turf spades, or sleans,” writes Clarke.

The dying art of the turf-cutter

While Bord na Mona has been involved in industrial-scale turf-harvesting since 1934, cutting away most of the Midland bogs, about 40% of bogland has been lost to people cutting for their own use, according to the Irish

Peatland Conservation Council.

Bogs are up to 10,000 years old and, in the climate change action era, are seen as important carbon stores.

Regarded in the past as wastelands, they are much more valued today as wild places to be cherished for their plant and animal life. 

Upwards of 20% of bogs are being protected by state and private interests for future generations.

Which brings us to a reminder from the council’s Nuala Madigan that next Sunday, July 28, is International Bog Day. 

People are invited to the Bog of Allen Nature Centre, Co Kildare, from 1pm to 5pm to celebrate Irish peatlands for their unique biodiversity.

  • Further information at www.ipcc.ie
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