Ireland’s Natural Resource
Any person who lives outside of Ireland, when they hear the word ‘Turf’ think of the green grass of a football pitch, or the horse-racing course, or a golf course. But for us Irish, the word brings to our minds lapping flames in a fire on a cold winter’s night, and the distinctive sweet smell that accompanies it. More commonly known as ‘Peat’ in other countries, we prefer to call it turf except when we refer to those modern hard, compressed blocks which are sold as ‘Peat Briquettes.” In modern days of smokeless fuel, the briquettes have grown in popularity, but mostly in the urban areas. In the rural areas of Ireland, the cutting, drying, and use of turf are still widespread.
Cutting the Turf
Gathering the Turf
‘Turf’ is an early form of coal which has been providing heat to homes, cottages, and castles throughout Ireland for centuries. In fact, we Irishmen and women have been cutting turf for over 2000 years with a special type of spade instrument, and it laid out and turned several times to ensure it dries fully. For those readers who have not had the joy to travel through Ireland’s beautiful villages, towns, countryside, mountains, and lakes it has hard to describe that unique aroma which belongs to the turf fire and the peace, serenity and comforting warmth that it provides. Those of you who have been fortunate to visit our beautiful country know that the smell of turf is something you cannot forget. Thinking about the word itself can conjure up faint traces of that aroma and bring back memories of wonderful days and evenings spent in a country with a unique beauty and history.
Bringing the Turf Home
To start the story of turf, we must begin by discovering what it is. Put simply, ‘TURF’ is dried peat and has been used as a source of fuel for the Irish people for thousands of years and is harvested from the bog-lands that once covered large areas of Ireland but is now disappearing. For the uninitiated, a ‘bog’ or ‘bog-land’ is a wetland that accumulates peat, which made up from deposits of dead plant material, such as mosses like the ‘Sphagnum Moss’. There other names for bogs that are used in other areas of the world i.e. ‘Mire’, ‘ Quagmire’, ‘Muskeg’ and ‘Fen’, which are covered in plants and shrubs of the heather family and are rooted in the ‘Sphagnum Moss’ and peat. The gradual accumulation of decaying and decayed plant material in the bog functions as a ‘Carbon Sink’, which means they soak up much more carbon than they emit, making it the ideal material for fuel.
Transfer from the Bog
‘Bogs’ are found where the ground surface water is acidic and low in nutrients. The ‘Fen’ is alkaline and therefore is not a ‘Bog’ in the true sense of the word. Usually, these bogs are ‘cloud fed’, which means they receive all their water and nutrients from rainfall and other precipitation, rather than from streams or springs. You find such environments as these are isolated from the surrounding landscape, and as rain is acidic and very low in nutrients, they become home to organisms that are tolerant of acidic, low-nutrient environments. The water content in these bogs are directly related to their climate and are not dependent on flowing streams or rivers, therefore it is the temperature that dictates how quickly water evaporates from these bog-lands.
Any water flowing out of the bogs has a characteristic brown colour that is derived from the dissolved peat tannins. But because of the low fertility and cool climate, there is relatively slow plant growth in the bogs, which also means decay is slower in the saturated soil and, therefore, the turf accumulates, and large areas of the bog landscape can be covered in peat to the depth of many metres. The bog, however, is not just important for the resources that can be recovered there. They have distinct animal, fungal and plant species that are unique to those areas and are of high importance for biodiversity in such areas that would otherwise be settled and farmed.
Turf, nevertheless, is the chief resource of the bog-lands of Ireland. As has been said it is an organic fuel that is created by accumulation and partial decomposition of vegetable matter in areas where the climate is, for the most part, wet and mild, and the drainage is poor. Turf, or Peat, deposits are the first stage in the formation of coal and, if the climate was drier the turf would dry quicker and decompose more quickly. But, currently, the moisture that is retained in the ground does not allow the vegetable matter to completely decompose. Turf, then, in its natural state is ninety to ninety-five percent water, and in the summertime, it is cut into blocks with a specially created spade and set in stacks to dry. When they are dry, the blocks of turf weigh between three-quarters of a pound to two pounds each. This dried peat is brought home by the cutter and placed on the fire, where it burns with a smoky flame and a very distinct, pleasant, odour.
The turf was the primary source of heating and cooking in Ireland for many centuries and great tracts of bog-land once covered the country. Today, bog-land covers about fifteen percent of Ireland, though in Counties such as Mayo large expanses of bog can still be found. Turf brings back lovely childhood memories for me as I can recall days visiting relatives in Sluggan, outside Carrickmore. I remember, as a young boy, helping as best as I could with the back-breaking work of cutting, stacking, drying, bagging and storing the turf for winter. Each morning of my short stay, my aunt would drag me out of comfortable bed to get ready for work in the bog. Though hard work, it was like an adventure to me as a young boy as I heard the men tell stories, make jokes, and talk about country life. The hot black tea from a tin mug and the soda bread and wheaten sandwiches were a treat that you could not help looking forward to when you saw my aunt coming over the brow of the hill with everything to hand.
For the hearth and for the cooking range the turf was harvested from the bog. It was all done by hand, using a two-sided spade called a “Sleán” to slice blocks of the turf from the bog. And, by God, it was hard, time-consuming work that in years gone by required entire families to be involved in the process. The turf was cut three blocks at a time, and you could hear the squelch of the spade in the still air, as it lifted in and out of the bog. The aim of the cutter was always to leave a ‘straight-face’ in the cutting for the next cutter who followed. Each turf cutter was followed along the bank by a ‘lifter’ who lifted the sods onto the bank where they were to dry. It was an important job because the lifter had to ensure that the wet turf sods weren’t broken as they were transferred to the bank.
The sods were left to dry on the bank until the sods of turf were able to develop a ‘skin’ thick enough to stop them breaking. It took every available hand to gather enough fuel to sustain the family throughout the cold winter months, for there was not just the cutting, but also the drying of the turf to a stage when it would light when it was needed.
There was a definite art to standing the sods of turf upright and leaning them against each other in a process that was called ‘footing’ the turf. This was usually started about a fortnight after the turf was cut, weather permitting, and this was an activity that involved all the family. ‘Footing’ was a back-breaking activity that involved four sods being lifted at one time and ‘footed’ together, which meant stacking them together in a pyramid style to allow air to circulate around the sods.
Then, when thoroughly dry, the sods are ready for ‘Rickling’. This process took place about a week later, but it could only take place when the sods were sufficiently solid. ‘Rickling’ was like building a wall with eight or nine sods of turf. Three sods laid in a horizontal row East-West with approximately one sod space between them. These were then topped with a further three placed North-South, followed by another two or three placed East-West on top. Although there are a lot fewer people who cut turf these days, in some the western counties of Ireland turf stacks can still be seen in the summer months, balancing against each other to dry out in the wind and the sun. Once the turf is deemed dry enough it is gathered together and brought to a turf barn or shed for storing. Some of the turf is also bagged and sold by individuals and shops to those not fortunate to have a turf-bog of their own. Either way, the sods will probably not see a match until the cold days of winter set in.
One terrible story, concerning the harvesting of turf, concerns the Irish peasantry during the years of the ‘Great Potato Famine’, 1845-1850. As we have seen, even in recent times cutting turf and saving it is hard and exhausting work and a day in the bog is still a daunting prospect for any person. So many of the Irish peasantry were starving with hunger and weakened by the lack of food that they were too weak to work at any job, let alone harvesting turf. This, of course, resulted in the Irish Peasant having an inadequate supply of fuel for the winter months, particularly the of extreme and bitterly cold temperatures experienced in 1846-1847. Those who did not die of hunger and disease and were evicted by heartless landlords froze to death in their thousands at the side of country roads throughout Ireland. The lucky ones were those with energy enough to salvage cowpats, dry them and burn them to provide some heat.
Today the majority of turf cutting is carried out by large companies, such as ‘Bord na Mona’ for large energy creation plants, peat briquettes and even compost for gardens. Their work is done by huge machines in the vast bogs of that cover Ireland’s inland counties. Nevertheless, you can still see turf stacks in many places in the West, even places along the coast. Most foreign visitors to Ireland will only experience the glory of a glowing turf fire and its pleasant aroma in the family-run country pubs these days. It is a sad fact that because it is not a smokeless fuel turf has been banned from our major population centres. If the present trend continues it will mean that finding a turf fire will be like hunting the ‘Loch Ness Monster’, for even the poteen distillers have abandoned turf for bottled butane gas. That’s what is affecting the taste …