Donal Hickey: Call of the bog is in the air

For many people, Easter was a time when they began an annual expedition to the bog, perhaps cutting the turf on the Saturday or bank holiday Monday when extra help was available.
Donal Hickey: Call of the bog is in the air

For many people, Easter was a time when they began an annual expedition to the bog, perhaps cutting the turf on the Saturday or bank holiday Monday when extra help was available.

And, in keeping with time-honoured custom, you can be sure there will be some activity in the peatlands this weekend.

Industrial-scale turf production has been wound down for years and there’s growing pressure from environmentalists to stop turf-cutting altogether. Many raised bogs have been designated as areas of conservation but, despite calls for an outright ban, pressure from turf-cutters and contractors has succeeded in keeping some bogs open.

Most turf is now cut by machine and men using a traditional ‘sleán’, a spade-like implement, are almost as scarce as the curlew that once frequented such territories.

Some people can’t resist the almost gravitational pull of the bog. It even has a romantic aura, though many of us who toiled there in our younger days didn’t find it romantic. It was back-breaking work.

Writer John B Keane, who liked to recall his days labouring in the bogs of north Kerry, enjoyed walking in such terrain in his mature years and sometimes reminded his readers of the benefits of fresh air and the closeness to nature he found there.

He he also understood the hard, but skilled, effort of wielding a sleán, noting, “you’d have blisters in your hands like small balloons’’.

Bog workers had to be well fed — there was no better place for putting an edge on the appetite. There was a saying that it was after the ‘four o’clock tay’ the turf was cut, thus fortified, workers would go up a few gears for the two remaining hours of the working day.

In the bogs, long ago, we didn’t hear any talk about environmental damage. But we did get some appreciation of wildlife; of curlews and skylarks and their distinctive calls.

And, skilled sleánsmen cut neatly, three feet across, along the side of the turf bank — in contrast to machines which can do great damage to the surface of the peatland.

Alas, the boglands we knew in the highland countryside straddling the borders of counties Cork, Kerry and Limerick have largely disappeared and are now covered with conifer trees.

The old Irish word, ‘meitheal’, is being used loosely nowadays in the context of communities working together to combat the coronavirus. In rural areas, however, the term is more precisely defined to mean a group of neighbours coming together to save hay, or cut turf, for example.

But we can forget about all that for the present as physical distancing restrictions do not now allow groups to work side by side as the bog entails.

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