Cormac MacConnell: Stoking the embers of our turf-burning past

It was both a historic and lonesome half-hour that I sat before my own hearth in Killaloe a few mornings ago with my neighbour and friend Kieran Yelverton from Clonlara.
Cormac MacConnell: Stoking the embers of our turf-burning past

I’d raked up the ashes of last night’s fire before we drank our coffees in front of the glowing coals and talked generally about the hearths and homes of our lifetimes in Clare and my own Erne country.

Both grew up in traditional country houses where the hearth was the heart of the home. And the old-style hand cut turf sods were always at the core of the fires, heating the kitchens but also spreading that special herbal aroma through the room.

That breed of turf, we agreed, is getting almost impossible to find today in many parts of the country because of the different attitudes and rules of this New Ireland.

We remembered that there was a fireplace in almost every room of our childhood homes, lit up when necessary when the winters began to bite.

Times have sharply changed and that — for sure — is the truth in relation to old hearths and about everything else.

The dying coals on my hearth the other morning were from what is really Government turf though better known as Bord na Móna briquettes.

Good enough solid fuel, we agreed, as we talked about all the different turf types that had powered our home hearths long ago. With us it was light brown turf, great for lighting up quickly but poor enough for sustained heat through the evening.

Ciarán’s childhood turf was heavier black turf, often called stone turf, that lit up slower but lasted longer and produced a lot less ash.

The briquettes, we agreed, were devilish yokes in an open hearth because of all the fine ash that covered every nearby surface after every fire.

I told Ciarán the story that the great Mayo writer John Healy told me with tears in his eyes decades ago about the reason why old bachelor Mayo farmers he knew had fiercely refused to allow themselves to be taken away from their hearths for necessary hospital treatment when they were old and enfeebled.

John Healy said it was because there was a custom in West Mayo, when enforced emigration was an epidemic, that the emigrating family would bring a few coals from their fire to the hearth of the nearest neighbour and ask that their fire be “kept safe” for them until they were able to return.

John Healy said there were four such poignant “kept” fires on the hearth of one of the old bachelors who, decades later, had been adamant he would stay and keep them alive.

This was in an era when cruelly few emigrants were ever able to return to the warm hearths of home.

As my little fire died before us, Ciarán and I talked at a deeper modern level about the reality that the hearths of Ireland are disappearing by the day.

A powerful factor has been the EC ruling that our stretches of bogs, especially the raised bogs, are now environmentally precious, are SAC’s (Special Areas Of Conservation) and turf cutting has to be banned on them.

Our bosses have responded by effectively declaring the old turf cutting rituals illegal, except in very restricted areas, and offering the traditional turbary men of the West, especially, a pitifully small level of compensation for their loss.

The old turf cutters have rebelled and are still defiantly cutting their own traditional bog banks but their numbers are reducing and traditional turf in most regions is now as scarce as hens’ teeth.

Meanwhile, machines in the Midlands are producing what we call sausage turf and the Bord Na Móna briquettes roll off the line in their baled millions. They may be more efficient sods but, dammit, they don’t have the old aromatics attached and there is all that fine yellow ash left behind.

Anyway Ciarán Yelverton and I talked a little business and then he ordered me to go up the town to Willie Walsh’s for a couple of slow pints and to be in no hurry home.

I followed orders and, in Willie’s company, thought about the thatched cottage we lived in for 15 years before coming to Killaloe, its huge red-painted old hearth, its ancient black crane, and even the two cubby holes in the breast of the chimney where, a century earlier, matronly mother hens were brought in to hatch the clutch of eggs under them.

And between one chat and another, and one diversion or another, it was a good four hours before I got back home.

By then, as promised, Ciarán and his accomplice Liam had installed the tidy black solid fuel stove I had ordered and my open hearth was gone forever. I was both delighted and downcast. Ye know the feeling. For the first time in my life I will not have an open hearth to sit at any more, more heat and almost no dusty ash.

Ciarán and Liam had to rush away to do the same transformation exercise for somebody else before the day was over. Stoves are all the modern rage. Indeed, if you are thinking of killing your own hearth this winter I warmly recommend the pair of them for speedy service.

And that, as I write my first piece before a stove, is the usual pure truth.

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