I always find it amazing how a smell can bring back memories of a time gone past. A whiff of turf smoke on a winter’s evening wafting from a chimney pot.
The turf smell brings me back to going out to a day in the bog in our brightly painted cart pulled by our big brown horse. We would have a box packed by my grand-mother with enough food to keep us well fed all day.
There was always a fresh cake of soda bread, homemade butter and jam. Eggs supplied by our hens and milk from our cows. The tea was the only thing bought in the shop.
Off we went early in the morning with the summer sun shining on the green hedges making the lacy cobwebs glisten like diamonds. I loved listening to the clip clopping of the horse’s hooves as he trotted along the road, his black shiny mane swaying in the breeze.
When we got there, Nelly, the horse, was let free to wander around and eat grass and relax while we worked. The men cut the turf and us children filled up the flat turf barrows and spread them out on the dry bank.
The Kerry bogs basked in the sunshine are wild sweeps of colour all summer long: the purple of heather and ling run rampant among the yellows of low growing gorse.
Early summer the bogs had seen foxgloves spring along the wayside, their purple thimbles giving them a splendour all of their own. After the foxgloves, masses and masses of rosebay, the slender spikes of rose coloured flowers surely living up to their name.
There, too, the pretty yellow orange of the bog asphodels, flowering as they were among the sphagnum mosses and the sundews. The mosses, of course, have a magic all of their own, carpeting the bogs as they do, tinting them with the softest of greens and yellows and reds.
The mosses, of course, had a magic all of their own, carpeting the bogs as they did, tinting them with the softest of greens and yellows and reds.
The feel, the very touch of the mosses, reminding you of happy childhood days when you played in the old school grove and the bogs at lunchtime.
The Kerry bogs are a haven for wildlife of all kinds of course: magnificent dragonflies and damselflies, for instance, their silken wings catching the light and making it shimmer at every turn. Butterflies, plenty of butterflies, safe as they are from the ravages of chemicals and sprays of all kinds, the warmth of the peat and the flowers scenting the air around them.
Stonechats and larks and meadow pipits too: the lovely little lark fluttering above in the high blue turrets of sky and filling the place with his song; the jangle of the stonechat, the latter perched in the yellow brakes of gorse and flicking his tail with delight. Rabbits and hares and, of course, Mister Fox, for he has plenty of cover in the woods nearby.
Saving the turf in County Kerry was an operation, which required all hands available in order to avail of fine weather and provide winter fuel each year.
It was so important that in some villages they used the ‘Meitheal’ system in which neighbouring families clubbed up to provide maximum man power and completed each family’s work in turn.
The woman of the house provided food and drink for men on thirsty work. A fire was lit on site from the
multitude of pieces of wood left behind in what was once a forest. The forests had died and over thousands of years the timber had mutated into peat.
My uncle Sean said tea tasted best in the bog and food also was exceptionally wholesome - probably due to fatigue from the hard work.
Everybody had access to a peat bog. Some owned theirs, but most were leased. Every May the topmost layer was scraped off to a depth of about six inches and a drain dug along the bottom of the turf bank to remove as much moisture as possible.
Then the strongest and most able, stood down in the drain, and using an implement like a spade called a sléan, cut or dug the peat in prisms and flung them up from the drain, and on to the area where turf had been stripped away in previous years - called the cutaway area.
The prisms of turf called sods were still saturated with water and very heavy, so this was very hard and tiring work. Then the remaining helpers laid the sods of turf to dry.
When sufficient turf for the winter was cut and spread it was left to dry in the sun. After a week or so, depending on the weather, the sods were turned and again left to dry until they were capable of standing up without drooping.
Then we ‘footed’ them, which meant that we put them leaning against each other in groups of five, locally called ‘grogeens’ Here they were left for most of the summer to dry out fully, the sods turned so that all sides dried.
A good summer meant good dry turf and good firing
for the winter. Hence the necessity to get the job done as quickly and early as possible. Because of all the moisture, they said, lightning was attracted to the bog, so some of my family being brontophobic (afraid of thunder and lightning) vanished at the first sight of the telltale blue cloud.
We fled like wild life from a bush fire, and as soon as we hit our own hearth Mam would have us down on our knees reciting the rosary and asking God to protect us. Those who were not afraid, including Dad, used to smile at the intensity of the prayer, and, occasionally from trying to be sombre, laughter would erupt, making Mam very angry. Neither our animals nor we were ever hit, so the prayers must have worked.
At the end of the summer, providing the weather had been dry the turf was taken from the bog along the stone and gravel track by donkey and cart. It turf was then stacked in the haggard, as we called the area around the house, usually at a gable end for easy access on cold nights.
There were many trips to the bog where we enjoyed the fresh air with the wholesome food we brought. The eggs were cooked on a turf fire in the same kettle the tea was made from and everything tasted so much better when consumed sitting on a bog bank in the glorious sunshine.
It may be all in my mind but a turf fire still seems the cosiest of all.