By John Corbett
The auld turf fire,
And the hearth swept clean,
Sure there’s no one half so happy
As myself and Paddy Keane.
The baby in the cradle,
You can hear its mammy say,
“Won’t you go to sleep alanna
Till I wet your daddy’s tea?”
The above are a few lines from a popular 1950’s ballad, indicative of the cosy domestic scenes to be found in Irish homes in far back times. Much of the summer was devoted to cutting and saving turf at that time.
The history of turf cutting goes back a long way. Ever since man acquired the power to light fires, our ancestors have been trying to find ways to feed them. The consensus is that bogs were the last wilderness to form in the Irish landscape in the wake of the Ice Age. As they expanded, they forced back the onrush of farmers and stopped field expansion along their inhospitable borders.
During the first thousand years of farming in Europe, little could be done to reclaim these barren, wet lands and transform them into arable fields, as was done with most of the forested wildernesses. However, after a while things began to change and bogs were soon to play an important role in community life.
Two reasons are given for the development of bog lands: (1) the disappearance of forests which meant that timber for fuelling fires was getting scarce and (2) the growth of population.
As the forests contracted and the bogs expanded, turf became more common as a domestic fuel. Our ancestors discovered that it burns easily. Burning infernos, which periodically swept across the expanses of heather in hot summers, provided the decisive clue. Most houses were made of wood and within these, turf proved to have certain advantages over burning wood: it burned low and evenly, and there was much less danger of a burning splinter setting fire to the house. Because of these facts turf came to be regarded as a reliable fuel.
In medieval times it was used in monasteries and manor-estates as well as in the cottages of tenants. Cutting, storing, and transporting turf formed part of the customary duties levied by landlords upon their tenants. The Dalys from Dunsandle, who owned large estates throughout the county, obliged people from our parish to supply turf to them as late as the first part of the Twentieth Century.
As farmers became more familiar with the edges of the bog, they began to realise that peat bogs were not as impossible to cultivate as they had previously thought. Once drained and fertilised with manure, they could be made to grow grass and crops.
Of course, the crops selected to grow there must be chosen with great care due to the nature of the soil and the amount of moisture it contains. Certain types of carrot for instance flourish in peaty soil and I’m sure most of you have heard the expression, ‘As sound as a bog carrot’.
Peat Moss is widely used by horticulturalists to improve soil for the growing of garden plants.
Estimates as to how much peat bog was cut away by hand through the centuries vary from around three quarters of a million to a million and a half acres. During the 18th and 19th centuries – in fact until 1940 – around 5 million tons were cut every year. It is estimated that between 1814 and 1907, at the height of peat cutting, 800,000 acres of bog were cut away. At present the preservation of bogs has become a controversial issue which is likely to dominate the discussions between rural dwellers and the government for some time.
Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own