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Lá sa Phortach
A Day in The Bog

One of my most enduring but by no means endearing childhood recollections is the trips to the bog to save the turf. Most rural households in East Mayo in the 1950s and 60s looked to the “bog” for their fuel supplies for the year.

My father cut our turf  in the nearby Tumgesh bog and it was there I was sent in early summer and in the month of August to play my part in saving the year’s supply of turf sods. The intervening time wasn’t put to waste as the hay crop had to be harvested. After the turf had been lifted from the bog and brought to the roadside to be  arranged in stacks or clamps for carting home later , the potato crop would be ready for digging and picking.

It may be taken for granted that kids of my era in the  neighbourhood and in every other village for miles around had little reason to complain about boredom or having time lying heavily on their hands! But parents had little time for rest or relaxation in the busy season either and there was always plenty of time when  the pressure eased off to follow pursuits of our own choosing.

My dad cut our turf with a sléan- a long-bladed spade that had a wing or blade attached to its blade and mounted at right angles to this cutting surface. To digress slightly, an implement without this blade would have been called a loy. Loys were preferred to ordinary spades by most rural people of my time and for generations before this as they were heavier and stronger than their conventional counterparts.

Sléans (sleans) certainly needed the strength and durability of loys as every sod had to be cut by hand and as  turf was generally the sole fuel used by families for heating and cooking, a lot of turf sods had to be cut.

The sléan shown opposite is a good example of this type of tool. The wing-like attachment can be clearly seen and so can the fact that this implement could be used by a right-footed individual only. Exclusively left-footed turf cutters had to have one with the foot rest on the other side of the handle. The same applied to loys- as a rule they were made for left or right oriented people but for some reason they never had the configuration of a conventional spade.

The men, hard at work here, were carrying on the practice of generations as the younger man cut the sods and the elder one caught them in mid-air and then placed them on the wheelbarrow.
For both, it was a continual series of bending and lifting for hours on end. The bog barrow differed in some respects from the garden or farm version. The one shown here is typical of its genre wide a large, wide wooden wheel and a low, flat body.

As the barrow man or spreader had to wheel his load away from the bank and spread it on open ground before returning for another lot, an experienced turf cutter could cut sods quickly enough to keep two or even three barrow users occupied.

Wheeling a barrow of wet sods over soft, uneven ground made for hard work. This was especially true where the heather and moss on the spreading surface hadn’t been cleared first  There was differing views on this subject.
On the one hand, clearing the undergrowth made the work of wheeling the barrow relatively easy and when the time came to lift the sods and build them into little structures, known locally as gróigíns, ( pronounced growgeens and meaning  little mounds) the turf worker didn’t have the added trouble of tearing the sods away from the heather and getting multiple cuts and scrapes from the twigs embedded in them.

One the other hand placing the wet sods on growing undergrowth lifted them up off the bog surface and shortened the time needed to allow a skin of sorts to form. On a denuded bog surface the area quickly became a quagmire in wet weather periods and the sods never got a chance to dry and develop a hardened skin before they dissolved into mud.

It was really a case of Hobson’s choice; damned if you do and damned if you don’t but usually the bog owner opted to leave the undergrowth alone unless his plot was well drained and firmer than average.

I never got to operate a bog barrow; by the time I was old enough to do so the barrow had begun to disappear from the bogscape as mechanical cutters and spreaders began to appear on the scene. However, I often used a hayfork to catch the sods as they were cut and then  I would swing around and cast them gently onto clear ground behind me. At times when the deposits of peat were deeper than usual, it took two or even three kids with their hayforks to  mover them far enough out from the bank in order to leave the closer in ground free for the bottom layers or spits of turf to be cut and cast out by the sléan wielder. The depth of a turf deposit was measured in spits- a spit being the length of a sod.

As he cut each spit, the work of the cutter grew progressively harder as he had to throw the sods higher and higher to clear the bank. Furthermore, as the cutter descended one spit at a time, the quality of the turf increased and the blacker and more compressed it became. By contrast, the burden eased for the spreaders as the earlier spits had to be spread further out than the later ones but by evening time both cutter and spreader were well and truly exhausted.

The hardest part of saving the turf was over when the last of the sods were cut and spread but there were to be many more days in the bog to get through before it was ready to bring home.

Gróigíns were built after several weeks of waiting for the turf skins to form. They were then lifted carefully and stood on their ends to allow them complete the drying out process.  A number of sods were placed on top of the standing one to help strengthen the gróigíns. At this stage of turf production, women and girls could join their male counterparts and they would also assist in carrying the gróigíns out to the roadside when they had sufficiently dried out to be stacked in clamps or ricks to be taken home.The turf could be brought out by horse or donkey cart or in wet weather when the ground became soggy, the bog barrow would re-enter the process. By the time the turf in the bog was seasoned sufficiently to be transported to the roadside, summer would have arrivedand so did the midges!

A small stack or rick of turf reading for bringing home.

The base of this relatively small one is circular in shape but larger ones had a rectangular base. In any even they were carefully built along the  lines of a beehive with the base gradually tapering to a narrow apex. This was called frying and the stack needed careful frying to prevent rain from entering the stack and softening the sods inn the centre.
Even though, by then, the sods were relatively firm, the wind was unable to dry them further and they would gradually lose their shape and cohesion and turn into mud.

When this happened, all the hard work of saving them would have been wasted so the fryer had to work with great care!

A day in the bog meant hard work for all concerned and the inevitable cuts and scrapes along with the midge bites increased the discomfort. Sore backs and tired limbs were the inevitable result when going home time mercifully arrived but despite all of those negatives, the memory of smoke=scented tea evokes happy memories. Throw in a couple of hard boiled eggs and a few wedges of fresh home-baked soda bread and I’d nearly bed tempted to go back again.

Nearly ready that is but not fully so all the same!

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