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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
Frederic William Burton
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Winning the Turf - Fuel for the Family Fire

bog near Sally Gap

A bog near Sally Gap - photo by author

by Suzanne Barrett


Cutting turf for the family fire is a centuries-old tradition in European countries where bogs are prevalent. Ireland gets more of its fuel from peat than any country except Finland, and bogs cover one-sixth of the available land. Turbary, or the right of private individuals to cut turf for domestic use has been carried on in Ireland for hundreds of years. Since the fifteenth century, hand-cutting of turf has been responsible for the loss of eleven percent of the blanket bog area. Upland Blanket bog covers mountain flanks from Kerry's McGillicuddy's Reeks to the Mourne Mountains and is common to the wettest portions of the country. Where the rainfall is less, bogs develop in shallow lake beds which over the years fill with peat, then aquatic plants, until finally a dome is formed. These are called raised bogs or sometimes red raised bogs and cover a sizeable portion of the Midland Plain.

A third type of bog is found in the flat lowlands to the west. Lowland blanket bogs are unique in that they are formed in a rainfall-rich locale where the supply of minerals is kept up and the acidity down. The makeup of vegetation includes plants which thrive normally in poor fen land in the rest of Europe, namely, black rush, sweet gale, and purple moor grass.

Other plants typical of the various bog types include moorland spotted orchid, carnation and brown-beaked sedges, heath milkwort, butterwort, and a newcomer from America--the pitcher plant, introduced in this century. These form undulating lawns of bright reds, oranges, yellows, greens, and metallic blue-pinks.

A bog both grows and expands, burying whatever lies in its path. Trees in the path of the bog are first killed, and then their stumps buried. In County Mayo, there are discoveries of stone field walls, houses, even tombs, long buried under the encroaching bog. In many instances, relics of a fairly well-developed, four-thousand-year-old civilization practicing sophisticated animal husbandry methods have been unearthed. Surprisingly enough, evidence reveals the turf cutter of today utilized techniques known and practiced thousands of years before.

How is turf cutting implemented into the annual rural calendar? Before turf can be cut, it is necessary either to burn the bog or spend time stripping it of a top layer of heather and roots. Burning requires a permit, sometimes not obtainable. According to tradition, turf is not cut until after St. Patrick's Day when the March winds will have dried the boglands. Early May is generally the turf-cutting time in the West of Ireland. After the bog is burned or stripped, a family or men from neighboring farms gather to lend a hand. Generally, it takes one man a week of cutting to lay down enough turf for the coming year. Turf cutting is done with a sleán or slane, a long-handled turf spade with a shaped steel end. Slane styles vary from county to county but are used to cut the turf in a vertical direction for the thin blanket bogs in the West, in a horizontal direction for the deeper raised bogs of the Midlands.

The depth of a single piece of cut turf is called a spit or a bar. A vertical turf bank is measured in numbers of bars to a depth of a slane (about twelve inches.) A good bank might be six bars deep, and in which the turf cutter would be working in bog water up to his ankles, throwing the cut bars up to the bank. It is very difficult labor, and even an extremely fit man will find a day in the bog an arduous task. The lower row of bars is the wettest, however, once dried, these make the best burning.

The cut turf is now removed to open ground where it will dry. Turf barrows and creels of hazelwood are used to convey the soggy sods to their initial drying place. Here they dry for a week, then they are stacked upright into a footing which begins the real drying procedure.

Several trips are made to the bog during the drying process which can last through the summer. Once the footed turf is somewhat dry, the size of the stack is increased into what now becomes a rickle. When it is finally dry, it is carried home to be stacked against an east-facing wall which offers protection from westerly winds. A well-built stack sheds water, so it is constructed with care.

In days gone by, turf cutting was the countryman's only means to get fuel. Today, it can be purchased in compressed briquettes in supermarkets throughout Ireland. Turf burns cleaner than coal, with a slightly blue smoke and a pleasant smell. In fact, there's nothing so cozy as sitting by one's own turf fire, a mug of tea in hand. Many who grew up in rural Ireland of the thirties and forties claim there's no treat so tasty as soda cake baked in a bastable over a turf fire.

I've no experience with bastable cookery, but my preference for the open fire is untreated sods which can be purchased by the bagful at many filling stations.

From sods to briquettes: In 1946 Bord na Móna evolved from the Turf Development Board. Its purpose is the extraction of turf on a commercial basis. In forty-one years, more than 200,000 acres of bogland have been exploited for fuel. One sixth of Ireland's electricity is generated from peat, including the generators at Shannon. In addition, Bord na Móna, who employ over 6,000 people, provide milled peat and moss peat for gardeners and horticultural use. All this seems good for the economy, but is there a downside?

Environmentalists Michael Viney and Margaret Cruickshank think there is. Viney, a journalist by trade, claims Ireland's peat bogs are fragile and finite. We've arrived at the last one percent of untouched raised bog, and machines now harvest blanket bogs that hand tools would not have touched for centuries, he said. The problem is not the exploitation per se, but the pace of it.

Confusion about the uniqueness of the bog has played a part in their destruction. Choices of which bogs to save has dwindled, and now the raised bogs--the only ones of their type left in Europe because the Dutch and German bogs have all disappeared--are themselves vanishing at the rate of eight per year. In 1987, Margaret Cruickshank, an instructor at Queens University, Belfast, cautioned against continued peat erosion in the higher hills. She said Ireland needs to balance the economic needs of rural people against the duties of conservationists. This includes turf extraction by hand winning as well as by machine.

UPDATE:
When this feature article was originally written, I mentioned that there were two bright spots on the horizon--Peatlands Park near Portadown, and Peatland World in the heart of the historic Bog of Allen in Kildare. There a program on education and conservation was being practiced to show how boglands form, and how they have been--and currently are being--used. But the plea to rethink exploiting boglands on a grand scale is of even greater concern now if the landscape of Ireland is not to be forever changed. A recent report from the Friends of the Irish Environment suggest that 34 of Ireland's 2000 raised bogs show extensive damage from machine cutting and that little to no effective action has been taken, either at the EU or national levels, to protect Ireland's peatlands. Site visits by Friends of the Irish Environment show extensive machine cutting and general bog destruction. In the FIE May 2011 report states that of the 32 bogs designated for protection, some show turf cutting continuing and the level of destruction rising. Photos of lateral cutting at Redwood Bog, County Tipperary show the extracted turf being spread on the high bog as opposed to the cutaway area. As stated in the report, this bog “dramatically lost 84.6% of its [active raised bog] habitat” between 1994 and 2005. This is a hotly contested political issue, and I have listed below some video interviews by interested parties.

  • The UK Guardian

  • Nenagh Guardian

  • TV3

    Only with dialogue between all concerned entities can the proper balance be achieved to save Ireland's vital and peculiar heritage--her peatlands.
    Do you have a question about Ireland? The Ireland for Visitors Forum is available with many helpful members.

    Until next time.

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    midleton, Co. Cork

    All photos by author




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