The perils of stepping on Irish turf
RADIO REVIEW:DURING THE 1970s, Frank Kelly wrote and recorded a series of sketches for The Glen Abbey Show on RTÉ radio which brilliantly captured the perils that awaited British broadcasters who ventured into deepest rural Ireland.
Each week, Kelly’s plummy-voiced English presenter visited the fictional townland of Ballykilferret, “in the Republic of Eire”, to learn about country life from local resident Gobnait O’Lunacy. Part cute hoor, part feckless waster, O’Lunacy would spin tales of arcane native rituals, such as watching the bacon-slicer, for the benefit of the gullible reporter.
The spectre of O’Lunacy and his wide-eyed guest loomed large last week when British magazine show Open Country (BBC Radio 4, Thursday and Saturday) investigated a subject that has proved bafflingly contentious to many people here, never mind curious outsiders: the conflict over Ireland’s boglands. Travelling around the midlands, reporter Helen Mark initially uncovered the historical importance of our peatlands, from ancient wooden trackways that criss-cross some bogs to the sacrificial victims buried there. This was interesting but potentially blinkered fare, benignly absorbed in the landscape’s past while ignoring the present-day dispute over the ban on turf-cutting in certain EU-designated sites.
Eventually, however, the current controversy obliquely emerged into view. Dr Craig Bullock of UCD spoke wistfully of the serenity and wildness of the boglands, but acknowledged that for many local residents this landscape was bound up with the more practical traditions of cutting the sod. “I would see it as an aesthetic thing or environmental resource, while others would see it as cultural or economic resource,” said Bullock.
Having established the storied past and ecological significance of these lands, Mark heard from Seamus Boland, whose family have long hewn peat at the raised bog in Clara, Co Offaly. Boland described the area as “one of the most unique bogs in the world” but admitted that “we didn’t realise it ourselves”. He recalled the dismissive local attitude when wildlife broadcaster David Bellamy appeared on The Late Late Show in the 1980s to decry the damage done by turf-cutting. It was only recently that people there had “faced up to the fact” that they had such a precious resource, agreeing to source peat in another nearby bog. “That’s the road we have to travel,” said Boland, who admitted to previously making “embarrassing” statements that he would go to jail rather than forgo his traditional rights.
Far from being patronising, Mark’s story had a depth of information and unhurried inquisitiveness missing in much of the more confrontationally- pitched Irish radio coverage of the issue.
Conflicting attitudes were also on display on The Green Room (Newstalk, Monday), though in this case the opposing outlooks were held by the one person, Terence Davies. The English filmmaker spoke frankly to presenter Orla Barry about the grim childhood