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Con Houlihan: Bogged down in turf war

During the winter of 1939, it became clear to many households that for the coming year they would have to supply their own fuel. For many, it was a daunting task. The man of the house had to acquire an array of implements -- a hay-knife, a spade, a slean and three pikes, known elsewhere as forks -- and he had to acquire wisdom and skill.

Working with the slean was almost an art. The new sleansman had to get some experienced man to teach him. Some people became very good at it. Others never really acquired the art.

The sleansman stood on top of the bank and cut the sods, rather like long bricks. The breancher pitched them out to the man on the bank. He was called the spreader and he arranged the sods in logical order. The hardest part seemed to be over, but it wasn't: footing turf is the worst kind of stoop labour. A man has to reach down to the ground and pick up sods that are heavy and wet. He has to form those into something like a milking table.

If the weather is fairly fine, the next process is "stooking". This is light work. By now, the sods aren't so heavy and they are easy to handle. And when you are stooking, you are a kind of artist. You are making the sods into the shape of a big beehive.

After a fortnight more, the turf should be dry, but it doesn't always happen that way. A bad summer can be a heartbreak: foots fall down and some of them may have to be rebuilt. Some of the stooks may fall down, too, but rebuilding them is fairly easy. A friend of mine used to say: "You must fight the bog." And that was why the implements were known as weapons.

Some people hated the bog and could never be reconciled to it. Some people loved the bog from the moment they set foot on it . They were like friends of mine who fought the Second World War. The North African desert affected them for the rest of the their lives. They could never get it out of their souls. Some people, men and women, were similarly affected by the bog. And they loved its inhabitants.


Every morning about 10 o'clock, the bog-lark ascended from his nest in the heather. If he went up only a few hundred feet and came back down, the day would be showery. On some days he ascended, soaring and singing, until he disappeared so far up in the sky that he was little more than a dot. That promised a fine day.

Then there was the frog that looked at you with his magnificent eyes. When his colours were dark in the morning, you wouldn't have a good day. When his colours were bright, you were guaranteed sunshine.

People were very happy when they had their turf home in the shed in the yard. The produce of three men was called a slean. When the turf was dry, it came to about 300 cubic feet. This was about enough to do a household for half a year. If you had two slean in your yard or shed, you could be confident of facing the winter. People loved to see the turf burning in their fire. They loved its varying colours and the scent it gave out. Women especially loved it because, in comparison to coal, it was very clean. And it is always good to enjoy food or fuel that is your own produce.

In those years of the Bog Rush, turf was the main source of conversation in pubs and in kitchens. Football and all kinds of sport were more or less forgotten. On the mountain above us, you might see smoke from about 100 fires going up into the sky.

Now the EU has tried to prevent some people in the Irish midlands from cutting their turf. This is outrageous. There are families there who have been cutting their turf, not for generations but for centuries. This is their culture and for once the men in Brussels have made a bad mistake.

Their purpose is to preserve the wetland for various species, but the wetlands will always see after themselves. I know that the good people of the midlands will resist this shameless piece of bureaucracy and will go on cutting their turf even at the risk of imprisonment. They can't imprison them all. This is a big test for Enda Kenny and his Cabinet. He cannot turn his back on it. Jimmy Deenihan comes from an area where the bog is not threatened but you can be sure that he will back the good people of the midlands. He is, after all, the Minister for Culture.

Some hardy people are still cutting turf long after the coming of gas and electricity has made it redundant. Indeed, the bog may become popular again. Some people may prefer to spend their hard days working there than lying on some sunny beach in some foreign country. Bord Failte may advertise holidays in the bog. It would be good for people and for the culture.

There was a time when my own town resembled the Klondyke, as turf almost took over the economy. That day is unlikely to return but we would like to see some of the boglands brought back into action.

One of the hardy people who still cuts his own turf is Tom O'Riordan, famous runner and journalist. He has a plot in the Dublin Mountains, which he regards as his little kingdom. The ancient Chinese, about 300,000 BC, had a proverb that sums him up: "You can take the boy from the bog, but you cannot take the bog from the boy."


Long ago, a Belgian married a Kerry girl who was his governess. His name was Bonguelmi and he settled down in Castle Island and decided to cut his own turf.

When first he went to watch the cutting of it, he uttered a judgement that became part of folklore: "The man on top has only to point the cutter at it. The bank manager has only to share it out, but the man in the breanch should be relieved every half hour."

Fogra: Warmest good wishes go to Jimmy O'Brien's friendly pub in Fair Hill in Killarney. It was opened in June 1961 and has never looked back.