Yesterday along a bog trail, we passed neighbours, towing turf home. Also known as peat, turf is a source of fuel that has burned in Irish hearth fires for hundreds, if not thousands of years. A machine cuts the turf into bricks and then you turn and “foot” it by hand (i.e. place five or six bricks upright, leaning against each other), leaving it to dry. It’s back-breaking work, avoided nowadays by all but the hardiest and thriftiest of people.
The son of farmers, Seamus Heaney wrote a poem called "Digging", admiring the labours of the men in his family. Part of it goes: "My grandfather cut more turf in a day / Than any other man on Toner's bog. / Once I carried him milk in a bottle / Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up / to drink it, then fell to right away / Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods / Over his shoulder, going down and down / For the good turf. Digging." Instead of a spade, Heaney wields his pen, to quarry the rich loam of memory: "The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge / Through living roots awaken in my head."
My husband’s grandfather used to come up on his pony-driven cart, to cut and dig and foot turf. Such travel between here and Sligo took a day and a night. Now it’s a trip that takes 20 or so minutes by car.
Along the trail, I spotted cuckoo flowers, yellow iris, buttercups, white mushrooms sprouted in dried cow-pats, and the leg bone of some hapless animal, probably a deer.