THE IMAGE of a donkey and cart drawing home the turf is an iconic symbol of old Ireland. But like rural creameries, tiny post offices and remote one-teacher schools, the tradition of turf cutting has more or less disappeared.
“We’re a dying race now,” says John ‘Busca’ McMahon from Lisselton, Co Kerry, who has been cutting turf by hand for 50 years. “It’s hard to get a team together now. People don’t want to hear about cutting turf the old-fashioned way. It’s going to go out in the very near future. When our old crew get too old to go out, the young crew will not pick up from us.”
McMahon is one of several men to participate in a documentary about turf cutters, which premiered in the Cork Film Festival.
The 14-minute Home Turf follows a group of turf cutters through every stage of the process, from cleaning the bog in April to drawing home the turf in September. It is an attempt to capture a traditional skill, which, as Kerry-born producer Aideen O’Sullivan was painfully aware, is rapidly dying out.
She said: “We realised that there are not many people cutting turf the old-fashioned way with a sleán anymore. My parents came from North Kerry which has a lot of bogland and my Dad used to bring home the turf every year.
“I didn’t have a clue about what he was up to. I knew it was something special, but I never made the effort to go down and see what he was at.”
In recent years, however, Aideen became curious: “I know it’s something that won’t be there forever.”
The documentary for which she and director Ross Whitaker spent eight days filming at the bog in Lisselton — is her way of immortalising the craft.
“There is a great sense of camaraderie — the men have their tae, and they break from the work for a chat and a banter. There’s a great sense of nature and hard work and dirty hands,” she says.
As the cameras rolled, it was clear the men enjoyed the chore and that they came to the bog not just for turf, but for the company, the craic and the sheer enjoyment of the work itself.
A crew of about 11 North Kerry turf cutters participated in the documentary; farmers and fishermen mostly, from areas such as Ballyduff, Lisselton and Lixnaw.
Many of the men, who range from their 50s to their 70s, have been cutting turf for decades. Aideen says: “We stood back from them as if we weren’t there and let them get on with the day. We didn’t interfere or interrupt or ask questions. We wanted to bring out the natural interaction between the men.”
The film’s poignancy lies in the fact the men are all too aware that they are probably the last of their generation to cut turf by hand. On one occasion, recalls Aideen, a turf-cutting machine arrived on the bog next to them, highlighting the end of an era.
Sixty-six-year-old John ‘Busca’ is no fan: “The machines are ruining the bog. They’re cutting big holes in it. The machines make big holes and the water stays there and doesn’t drain away as it does with the sleán. If ‘twas done the old way the bogs would not be as damaged.
“There used to be a great tradition to cutting the bog, the people took great pride in doing the work well and they would be admiring their bank of turf drying on the bog, that it was so straight.”
But he welcomed the cameras: “I didn’t mind them filming me at all. That film will be around when we are dead and gone. I think it’s a great idea.”
Eamon O’Sullivan, 72, a retired garda from Ballyduff and one of the turf cutters featured in the Irish Film Board-funded documentary, grew up on a farm and went out to the bog with his father from the age of 12.
“I’d say there are no more than 10 plots in the area being cut by sleán out of several hundred — the job has been taken over by machines,” he laments.
“Anything I’d have associated with rural Ireland as a youngster, like the rural creameries and the turf cutting, is nearly gone. The creameries are gone and the turf cutting is nearly gone. These were all occasions where people met and chatted. I miss those days — the whole scene is changing. Sure, they’re taking the wigs off the judges now.”