The Turf Cutters

During the 30s and 40s, our whole summer was spent on the bog, we were lucky to have a good strip of bog land at the end of our farm which meant we had no travelling to do and the workers could always come home for the dinner, although it proved to be an extra chore for my poor mother to have a meal ready by one o¹clock every day. By: Maureen O¹Dwyer

When the month of May came in, my father started preparations for the turf cuttings, the old strong heather had to be burned off right through the area of the “high-bank.”

Depending on the amount of turf he intended to cut in that particular year. The dry mossy undergrowth then had to be dug off and thrown aside or used to help make a foundation for the new turf to be laid out on, this was called ‘Spodder’. The third job was to mark up and dig out huge clumps of dry turf, which we called “Portans” and were always burned later on at the back of the open fireplace in the kitchen.

The turf barrow was next got in order with any decayed wood being replaced and balanced and finally the “slean” was cleaned and sharpened and maybe a new handle fitted for the first cutting which was very dependant on a fine spell of weather, although we were hardly ever disappointed by the weather in those years, I always think that all our summers were fine and hot in those years of our youth.

My father always had a few good turf cutters booked to give a few days to him, the one, I remember best was big Neddie Reilly he was a powerful strong man - about 6’ feet 4 inches tall - and when he threw off his boots and rolled up his trousers and shirt sleeves his strong muscled arms cut out and threw up those sods at a second breaking speed. The turf catcher was also a very important person as the sods of turf had to be caught firmly by each end, otherwise the turf would break and was completely useless for harvesting. A pyramid of turf was built on the barrow and wheeled out a short distance by another young lad who carefully tipped the barrow over and left the turf down for drying, this was always done in a relay fashion, when he came back in with the empty barrow, the catcher had another one full and so it went on all day long. Every now and then, the men would have a break to fill their pipes and smoke them, which gave a chance to the young lads to get behind a clamp of turf and have a few smokes from an underage forbidden cigarette, they could also have the drink of buttermilk from a can placed in a niche in the cool turf bank.

As very few of the bogmen had any timepiece on them, the Angelus Bell at 6 o’clock was their signal for ‘quitting’ time, in those days we could hear Mullagh, Maghera and Carnaross bells quite clearly as there was no traffic nor machinery to block the sound. Everyone downed tools, cleaned their ‘sleans’ and headed for home after a hard days work.

Every eligible family member was drafted down to the bog for the following weeks to help “rear” the huge amount of turf, first the sods of turf had to be built up in squares or Harries so that the air got through and dried them out completely, my younger sister, Rose (RIP) was a second holder in making these squares. Later on, the older ones would built them all into a clamp or a rick where they remained until September or October when they were all drawn home and built into bigger ricks in the haggard. I can still remember, many decades later the roasting I got on the bog during those long hot summers, I was as tanned as the turf itself, we had no need for Lanzarotte or Torremolinas or sunbeds in those days.

During the Second World War when there was no coal available, the bog was a great asset to our family, my father cut extra turf for sale every year. Every winter he delivered cart loads of turf into Kells about three times a week, leaving home at 5 or 6am when he retailed, the price was two sods a penny or one Shilling for a bagful, the full horse load was two pounds ten shillings which was great bonus to any farmer when times were very bad. That bog now lies still and silent, no activity whatsoever down there, even the lonely curlew has forsakes the bog, two more generations have settled in the family home who have never heard of a ‘slean’ or seen an open hearth fire.

Taken from Breffni Blue
April 2002