For as long as I can remember my dad has been going to the bog and cutting turf. Once a year, we get a delivery at home that has to be neatly stacked in an outside shed. The main bulk of it can be thrown into a heap inside but the walls have to be carefully constructed. I used hate to see the turf coming. It meant hours of back-breaking work after school when I’d rather have been reading. And never, in all these years, never once did I ever bother to go the bog with him – not once.
I was at home in September and he was heading over one evening to check the turf…to see if it was drying and to fix any stacks that had fallen. As we drove through the bog, he explained how various families were given plots during World War Two as coal supplies from Britain had stopped almost entirely. They would cut turf manually with a special spade called a sleán. Imagine, at that time, over six million tonnes of it was hand-cut. Once cut, the turf is stacked to dry. Neat rows lined up like sentinels, watching over each other as the air dries them out. And once dry, the turf is drawn. Cut, dry, and draw. That’s the order. A tradition that is centuries old and fast dying out.
The purple heathers and bog pools simmer, emitting a soft glow in the shadow of the setting sun. The place is deathly quiet. Surreal. For thousands of years, this turf has been growing. For hundreds of years, we have been cutting it and using it as fuel. And now, experts predict that in five years’ time, we’ll see the beginning of the end. Four bogs in Kildare alone are stopping turf-cutting. What then? What will happen to the tradition?
My dad works away, restacking fallen walls, checking that each sod is drying out. These strong hands have built and made and sown and harvested. These hands have held mine to cross the road; they’ve shaken hands with mine in congratulations; they’ve worked to give me that innate sense of security that allows me to be who I am. As I listen to the silence, I am moved by the rhythm of his singlemindedness. As I watch him at work, I am ashamed that it has taken me so long to take the time to travel those five miles with him. And as I write this, I say a quiet prayer that he will be around to draw turf for many years to come. I promise myself that I will spend more time listening to what he has to say, lest the traditions disappear entirely.