Back to those back-breaking days on the bog
For a Co Mayo youth in 1995, saving turf was demanding but rewarding work. So what about now, writes EOIN BUTLER
AT 8.40am, I hear the cattle grid rattle. Michael Gallagher’s van is outside. He said he’d collect me at a quarter to nine. But I’ve known him long enough to know he’ll be early. “Have you wellies?” he shouts, when I appear at the door. I don’t.
It’s been a miserable year in Mayo. Gallagher’s turf was cut in early May.
He footed it – that is, he stacked it in small piles for drying – a month later. Then the rain came. The grassy roadway between Gallagher’s parents’ farmhouse in Aughadeffin and the bog behind became waterlogged and impassable.
Beyond that, his neatly stacked reeks stood marinating in the Irish summer. “It’s been one of the worst years I can remember,” he laments. “Even when the turf dried out a bit on top, the bog was so wet that the damp would still soak up from the ground below.”
It is only in late September that an opportunity has presented itself to extract the load. So it’s all hands to the pump. Michael is a builder by trade and my late father’s first cousin. As a teenager, I lugged blocks, tiled roofs and plastered walls for him – work for which, in retrospect, I was probably woefully unsuited.
Gallagher’s ordeal, of having me as his assistant, began when he called to our house for a drink on Christmas Eve in 1994. Without even running the idea by me in advance, my father casually inquired whether he would “have any work for this fella?”. Michael told me to be ready in a good pair of boots at 8 o’clock on Tuesday morning.
He arrived at 7.55am. It was the day after St Stephen’s Day. I was 15. I’d spent the previous 48 hours sprawled out on the couch, watching Back to the Future and Indiana Jones, and consuming industrial quantities of Cadbury’s Roses. Now I was working outdoors, in the pitch dark, digging endless trenches in the frozen ground.
Now I don’t know if Michael Gallagher and my father conspired to engineer this brutal baptism of fire into the world of manual labour for me. But if they did, it sort of worked. Over the next few years, I began to enjoy those days. The work was never easy. But it was often fun.
Footing turf in the summertime was by far the most physically demanding work. But it was also the most convivial. As an effete townie, I always felt I had something to prove on the farm. So as we footed our respective sections of the bog, I was determined not to let either Michael or his gregarious father Seamus (my great-uncle) pull too far ahead of me.