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.
I thought I was doing rather well, that first day in 1994, when we reached the end of the first stretch – when I realised they had each footed two rows of turf, to my own meagre one. It was back-breaking work.
I played minor football for Ballyhaunis, so I was fit. But it made no odds. Seven or eight hours of heavy physical labour, bent over at the waist in the hot sun, will take its toll on anyone.
“It was a different type of effort from what you were used to,” Michael recalls. “But I’d say it toughened you up. I bet you didn’t pull your hamstring that year, did you?” He’s right, I didn’t. Today we have returned to find out whether, after half a decade interviewing minor celebrities for The Irish Times, I have another honest day’s labour left in me.
We’re joined by Michael’s son John and his brother Shane. Michael’s father Seamus is attending now in a supervisory capacity. Seamus greets me warmly. The All-Ireland final is just days away. He asks whether I’ve had any luck with tickets. I’ve been slapping backs, buying pints and kissing babies, I tell him. But none yet.
It’s terrible, he says. The worst yet.
Shane starts up the tractor engine and we’re away. Michael hitches a ride on the tow-bar. John and I sit in the trailer behind. When the tractor gets bogged down in a particularly messy stretch of track, we drop concrete patio slabs into the muck behind us to lend a little extra traction for the return journey.
The bog is exactly as I remember it. All that’s missing is the old Austin Maxi, to which Seamus and I would repair for a flask of tea on the odd occasions when it rained. (Alas for us, that first summer of 1995 was one of the driest on record.) Michael isn’t sure what happened to the car. Most likely it sank into the bog.
The turf is already in bags. So all we have to do now is to take them out of the bog. We quickly set to work, loading the bags on to the trailer. Some of them are light; meaning the turf inside is dry. But most are soggy and very heavy. Michael will have to stack this wet turf up in large round piles, or “clamps”, when he gets it home.
When each trailer-load is full, Shane navigates the delicate journey back. The concrete patio slabs do their job and we make it to the farmhouse. We stack some of the turf in the hayshed. The rest goes in the back of Michael’s van. It’s heavy going, but I’m holding up okay. At 11am, we’re invited inside for our tea. But Michael says no. He’d rather work straight through until dinner time.
I’m momentarily alarmed. Then I recall that, around here, dinner is eaten in the middle of the day. In fact, that’s probably the best thing about working on the bog: the food. You get a proper spread – meat, potatoes, vegetables, gravy. The first time I was here, I now recall, I mistook a jug of non-pasteurised milk (which I had never seen before) for custard.
My cousins laughed at me at the time. But they were kind enough to inform me that, when my father had visited in similar circumstances many years earlier, he had accomplished his own disgrace in a much more dramatic style. His error was to mistake a dung hill, crusted over in the sun, for a raised stretch of yard. When he attempted to walk across it, he found himself up to his waist in slurry.
They still laugh about that in Aughadeffin. My faux pas with the milk, it seems, is long since forgotten. Inside, Seamus and my great-aunt Bernadette are listening to Midwest Radio. We talk about the turf-cutting ban, which has recently come into effect. The Gallaghers’ bog isn’t a raised bog, so the ban doesn’t affect them for now. There are fears it may be extended, however. I ask them whether the traditional day on the bog might soon be a thing of the past.
“No way,” says Michael. “If anything, it’s coming back. Coal and briquettes are gone awful expensive. All the farmers who still have a bit of bog will still cut their own.
So he doesn’t anticipate Department of Agriculture surveillance drones flying over Aughadeffin anytime soon? “Not at all. If a man can’t cut a small bit of turf, for his own use, then I don’t know what the world is coming to.”