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Tuesday 21 November 2017

Con Houlihan: It's sod's law out on the bog

Turf cutting is often prosaic work, but when you dig into the remains of An ancient forest, and find leaves or little branches, then it becomes sheer poetry

The bogs in our part of the world are lonely now. You feel it most of all about this time of the year because in May and June activity was at its height.

And in the hills all around you could see smoke rising from more fires than you could count. Seemingly, the European Union has put a ban on turf cutting and so some people will say that romantic Ireland is dead and gone.

This isn't quite true because the ban doesn't apply to all kinds of bogs -- and working at the turf wasn't always as romantic as it might seem looking back. Our bog was in Fahaduff Mountain, about 1,000 feet above the sea and very exposed to the elements. Trees didn't grow up there.

The typical bog in that part of the country was about three feet deep. Nature had put it down in four layers, all about nine inches deep. Three men was the usual team for cutting. One man worked the slean. A man with a pike (called a fork in parts of the country) took the turf from him. He sent it out to the man on the bank who arranged the sods neatly in rows parallel to the bank. He was called the spreader. The man who sent the sods out to him was called the breencher. The man with the slean dictated the pace. He had little trouble with the top sod. It was generally fairly soft. The second sod was the real trouble. It was like elastic. To cut it you need a very sharp edge and a fair amount of skill. People used to say, "You'd think it was alive." The third sod was no problem. It was brown and soft and the final sod was black and soft and precious.

When the turf was cut, it was left for about 10 days if the weather was dry. Then every eight sods were put together in the shape of a child's stool. If the weather held well, after about 10 more days you made stooks. These were like beehives. And if you got another 10 days of fine weather, your troubles were over. In the volatile Irish climate, especially in the southwest, it didn't always happen that way.

Charlie Haughey and myself had at least one thing in common: neither of us ever wore a watch or any kind of timepiece. How did we manage in the bog? In most houses in the country you would find two clocks -- one was a good clock and the other had been bought cheaply from a street vendor on the day of a fair. Those cheap clocks often kept better time than the good clocks and, of course, they were taken to the bog.

Very few of my friends owned a watch. The few who had watches wore them only going to the dance on Sunday night to impress innocent-minded females.

After the first day in the bog, there was no need of a timepiece. The dogs would see after that. They took their pattern from the first day and on any other day, no matter how far they had roamed, they would arrive back about a quarter to 12. And they would come to their tea about a quarter to three. And then about 10 to six, they would wag their tails and walk a little distance towards the land and then turn back as if to say, "What's keeping ye?"

We hadn't much need of the weather forecast. When the boglark went up about 30 feet and came back down, you could be sure of showers. When he disappeared away up into the sky, it would be a fine day. The frog was our long-distance forecaster: when he was bright and yellow, you could expect fine weather; when he was dark and green, you would be expecting a bad spell.

Even though three men were the regular team in a bog, a fourth man came in very handy. Indeed, I always thought that four was the ideal number. The extra man could help the spreader or he could tend the fire or go to the well for water or give the man on the slean or the breencher a bit of a break. The breencher's work may look easy and may seem to require little skill but in the course of a day -- between eight and six -- he shifts about 15 tons of turf. In the old days it was common for girls from our county to go to Belgium as child minders. A young lady from our town married a man called John Bonguelmi. When she inherited a pub, they came back to our town.

In his first year there he decided to cut turf and he went to the bog with a basket of bottles of stout on the first afternoon and watched the work for a while. Then he opened the basket and they all sat down and one of them asked him what he thought of the turf cutting.

His answer became part of folklore: "The captain has only to point the cutter at it. The bank manager has only to share it out. The man in the breach should be relieved every half-hour."

Cutting the ordinary four-sod turf that was based on mud and stone was prosaic work. The great excitement was in cutting turf that was on the remains of ancient trees. This could be as many as 10- foot deep and, of course, you needed four men. It was very easy turf to cut and got easier the farther you went down and after about six or seven feet you could meet leaves or little branches, the remains of a great forest.

And eventually you came to the trunk of a tree that had been standing proudly about 10,000 years before.

That turf was of all colours -- red and brown and green and black. Sometimes you got down so deep that the man on the slean and the breencher couldn't see the men on the bank.

We hadn't portable phones but we conversed all the same. And more often than not when we came to the trunk of the tree, we met eels, the most wonderful and mysterious creatures in God's kingdom. Cutting ordinary turf was prose but this was poetry.

Fogra: Jose Mourinho may not buy this paper. And yet I congratulate him. He has shown that you needn't spend vast sums to assemble a winning team. I suspect that his secret is very simple -- he has common sense

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