A Turf Life: “Saving the Turf” in County Galway

By Susannah Cooke • MSc Anthropology, Environment, and Development

The peatlands of Ireland are iconic. It would be impossible to disassociate the two and for Ireland to shake off its reputation as “one of the boggiest lands on earth” (Feehan and O’Donovan 1996: 153). The longevity of the connection between the Irish people and the bogs, not only as a landscape, but also as a source of fuel, has caused the bogs to become an “intimate part of the personality of the island” (Evans 1973: 35). This is a short account of the hidden attraction beneath the toil and the quiet commotion which occurs on the bogs today in County Galway.

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Freshly cut turf

People in Ireland have been cutting turf for generations as a domestic fuel on these ancient landscapes. Through this process they have built up a unique relationship with the bogs. The bogs have provided fuel and warmth for centuries, but they have also created a mixture of material and cultural values, and for some, a source of livelihood. Beneath this undulating blur of heather and brown is a hive of biodiversity and an internationally recognised and protected carbon reserve. Natural peatlands that are devoid of human interference are a vital ecosystem across the world due to their hydrological features, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration role (Mackin et al. 2017).

EU legislation in the 1990s regulated turf cutting and implemented restrictions on the traditional activity due to the widespread destruction of Irish peatlands and the release of carbon emissions (DAHG 2015). In the face of EU sanctions for non-compliance and legal restrictions on turf cutting, the following observations show the unbroken connection to “saving the turf” and how it is deeply intertwined with values of ownership, rural identity, and tradition. 

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A donkey taking home the turf

Cutting a year’s supply of turf for a household is a laborious process. The method of “saving the turf,” as it is colloquially known, is hugely dependant on good weather. It isn’t until “after the March winds and the lengthening days of spring” when activity begins on the bogs (Evans 1988: 187). When turf was primarily cut by hand in the twentieth century, a commotion would begin on the bogs in the early summer months as families came out to “save the turf,” bringing with them tea and sandwiches (Lehane 2003). The annual harvesting of turf was more than just hard work in order to provide fuel: it was a social time, and importantly, ‘there was something more’ going on below the toil (Feehan and O’Donovan 1996: 477).

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Roundstone blanket bog

The traditional meitheal was the crux of rural Irish life1, and while it only exists in areas in a diluted version, the connection to the bogs still generates a sense of local community. An observation in the car with several men after being on a blanket bog captured this rural community. As we passed various neighbours on the road, the window was quickly wound down to tell them we had “sausages and tea on the bog” and an exchange would follow about whether they “had the turf cut yet.” They would tease another neighbour about the quality of his hand cut turf and sleán techniques2. In raised bog areas, neighbours would ask each other whether they “saved the turf yet” or “did he come yet the fella who is cutting.”

These moments were described as a “social necessity” in rural parts of Ireland by one participant as we drove passed raised bogs near Moylough. Another raised bog owner believed “it is a big thing, social inclusion. Families go, people go that they mightn’t see. People go and turn their turf and have a chat with people.” As one participant described, “it is a way of life for a lot of people in spring time.” A contractor explained how in the case of a tragedy or difficulty he “wouldn’t even ask for the money” and will tell the family not to worry that year. He also recalled how he helps a local 80-year-old, despite the extra effort to move his machine to a new bog, because he “wouldn’t want to see him without turf. It is an honour. It isn’t purely business. Turf is part of his life.” The era of tea, boiled eggs, and “sangwiches” (sandwiches!) on the bog might have faded away with use of the sleán but there remains a strong and valuable social presence on raised and blanket bogs today.

To the untrained eye the bog looks like an exposed, commonage landscape as there are no discernible lines of ownership; only imprints and marks which remind you of the human activity. No fences, no wire, no walls, but rather ownership is handed down from those who previously worked on the bogs. When asking my participants how they know which part of the bog is theirs, I was often greeted with “oh you just know.” The boundaries have been passed down through the rules of previous generations and ownership can be marked by as little as a bush or a drain. It is important to follow the invisible lines because if you put “the bucket into the bit of another fella, you will fucking hear about it. It is fierce fierce. It is like a prize possession.” One man remarked that “you would be better stealing a man’s wife than cutting turf on his bog” and that the act of cutting on another’s bog was akin to a “sinful, dirty deed.”

Living a life so connected to the bogs results in memories segmenting different chapters of life. One turf cutter, who has been on the bogs for as long as he can remember, said that “everyone would come out to the bog, even if you were of no use. The old would look after the young. You wouldn’t be getting up to mischief because there were so many jobs to be done.” Another man, who used to go to school a short walk away from his bog, reminisced that during cold weather they would have to bring a sod of turf in to contribute to the classroom heating but he “never felt the warmth because the teachers would stand in the front warming their arses.” It is no secret that “there is nothing like sitting round a fire.” 

The smell of a turf fire is extraordinarily distinctive. It is sweet, smoky, and peaty at the same time. Even in midsummer in County Galway there was always a turf fire lit and the instantly recognisable smell was never far away when travelling between field sites. In a conversation about emigration from rural areas, one man remarked that for those who “did ever return the smell of turf reminds them of home. It is a lasting thing that will never leave them until the day they close their eyes.” The future still consists of a burning turf fire for a few of my participants but the majority felt that it “will stop on its own as those who want to cut will die away.” The larger sheds belong to an older generation who have a stronger penchant for a turf fire. When we passed a large but empty turf shed, a contractor fondly reminisced that “if the uncle was alive he would have the shed full. He did nothing all day except draw the turf.”

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Footed turf

As Ireland moves towards a greener future and closes the doors of peat-burning power stations in 2030 (Murtagh 2015), a seismic shift will begin to reverberate as peatlands slowly metamorphose from a productive landscape back to one of amenity. For turf cutters living in the shadow of a hummock, turf will never be fully replaced but put to one side to make way for an alternative, accessible, and sustainable fuel. As turf fires begin to fade, they will leave behind a sod-shaped imprint on the rural Irish landscape and identity. The legacy and memories of the bog will continue to fill the air alongside the smell of a rogue turf fire.

1A rural Irish tradition where neighbours would gather together to help with farming work.

2A spade-like tool with a perpendicular metal wing to pick up wet turf (Lehane 2003).


References

Department of Arts, Heritage, and Gaeltacht (DAHG). 2015. National Peatlands Strategy: A National Peatlands Strategy 2015. Online.

Evans, E. E. 1973. The Personality of Ireland: Habitat, heritage, and history. Cambridge: University Press. 

Evans, E. E. 1988. Irish Folk Ways. London: Routledge. 

Feehan, J. and O’Donovan, G. 1996. The Bogs of Ireland: An introduction to the natural, cultural, and industrial heritage of Irish Peatlands. Dublin: Environmental Institute, University College Dublin. 

Lehane, S. 2003. Sleán Turf in North Cork. Folk Life 42(1):73–90. 

Murtagh, P. 2015. Bord na Móna signals end of peat harvesting by 2030. The Irish Times, 5th of October 2015. Online, accessed 4th of April 2018. 

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