Every spring our family, from my father down to my youngest brother and even my Uncle Tom, was involved in ‘cutting the turf’ (peat to people outside Ireland). This was necessary to ensure we had a fire for cooking and heating all year round.
The bog where we acquired our fuel was unusual in that it had what we called a high bank and a low bank (a raised bog). For several weeks my father would spend weekends on the bog preparing our allocated area for cutting the turf. This entailed cutting large ‘sunders’ (about 3 foot square) consisting of tree roots, scrub, bracken and spongy ‘topsoil’ for want of a better word and using them to fill the pit from where last year’s peat had been extracted. He also constructed a temporary shack for shelter from rain, a frequent drawback in Ireland.
He then took a week off work for the big event. My three siblings and I did not attend school that week so we could help. When the first day of cutting arrived, my sister and I would head off to the bog in the donkey and cart, with me driving. My parents would go there on their bicycles taking my younger brothers with them.
Mother would have packed plenty of food. Working on the bog and in the fresh air generated a great appetite. Uncle Tom made his own way there from where he lived.
My father cut all the turf using an implement called a slane. These devices had a few different designs, some similar to a spade but much more sleek and some had a swing on one side.
There were several different roles in the process of cutting the turf (Girley Bog style). When the sodes were cut they would be tossed from the slane to whoever was assigned to catch the wet sods and stack them on a wheelbarrow or on bogies. The donkey (Neddy) was used to tow the bogies out to the bank where the turf was taken to dry. The sods had to be unloaded and spread out for drying. My mother’s job was catching the sods. Uncle Tom pushed the laden wheelbarrow to the nearest drying bank and I led the donkey pulling the bogie to the further drying banks where my sister and brother’s spread the wet turf.
We had two bogies, so as soon as I got back to the pit another load would be ready. I would unhook the donkey from the empty bogie and hitch him to the full one and off we’d go again.
When the cutting started my father would be much higher up on the bank than the catcher but layer by layer he would come to ground level and then descend down until he hit bedrock, about 6 feet deep. For the last few layers water would start seeping into the pit and this entailed bailing. It was worth it as the turf from that area dried very hard and burned longer. We called it black turf.
The white turf from up high was spongy and burned very fast and was good for getting a fire started. Then there was the brown turf which was the best.
When lunch time came Mam lit a fire and boiled the kettle (the fire also served to keep the midges atbay). We all had mugs of tea, ham, hard boiled eggs, sald and homemade brown bread with current bread afterward. We loved our meals on the bog and even enjoyed working there. It was like a holiday.
We would make our way home at the end of a long day feeling very tired but happy. After dinner we would fall into bed to be ready for the next day on the bog.
Of course this was only the first stage of turf production. When a dry skin formed on the sods, they were turned over so the other side would be exposed to the drying process. Then later sist to eight sods were stacked together with spaces between each sod to allow for air flow. This was called ‘footing’.
When the outer sods were dry each footing would be redone with the inner sods now on the outside and left to dry for a period, depending on the weather.
Then, when the turf was dry, it was formed into several ‘clamps’ until it could be brought home. This protected the turf from the weather and also made it more difficult to steal, not that stealing was much of a problem.
The bog was also a wonderful place of adventure for us children. Fraughans, also locally called Moonogs (like wild blueberries), grew profusely and we gorged on them. There was wild cotton, white and purple heather, ferns and fox gloves, all sorts of mosses, streams with rich brown water and of course, bog holes. The bog holes were a constant worry for parents but we delignted in their danger and became very adapt at spotting them.
Most other bogs in Ireland were flat and cutting turf was simpler. Our bog, Girley, is now partly and ‘Eco Walk’ and partly a forest of spruce trees.
Bord na Mona (Turf Board) still cut turf on the huge Bog of Allen in the Irish midlands, but it is a mechanised process.