Turf Cutting

'I for one loved how it shaped our summer...'

The evocative smell of a blue-smoked turf fire can transport many an Irish person back to their childhood in an instant; I am no different. Turf was part of life and the: cutting, turning, footing, rickling and clamping at the ‘Moss’ marked out a childhood summer from May to August.
Bid for your Bank
Long before any turf was cut the father of the house set out to negotiate with a local farmer who owned ‘moss’ land. The men would agree a rental price for a bank of moss to be used for the incoming summer. A bank was a small portion of bogland, carefully measured, for the purpose of turf cutting. Family size dictated how many banks were bid for but generally one or two would suffice.
As with all rural activities, turf-cutting hinged on the weather - a wet summer would mean a cold winter! May was the ideal starting point. The first suggestion of dry weather towards the end of May and the local schools would find themselves bereft of students as families, young and old, were rounded up for the turf cutting.
Turf-cutting itself was a man’s job and one that certainly elicited awe and admiration from the younger members of the family. The peat was cut by hand using a special turf-spade or, sleán. The turf was cut three at a time with the satisfying squelch of the spade as it lifted in and out of the peat punctuating the still May air. A tuft-cutter’s aim was to leave a ‘straight-face’ in the cutting for the next cutter.
The turf cutter was followed along the bank by a ‘lifter’ who lifted the sods onto the bank to dry. A lifter’s job was very important. The lifter had to ensure that the wet sods weren’t broken as they were transferred to the bank.
The sods were left to dry before being turned. The purpose of drying and turning at this stage was to allow the sods to develop a ‘skin’ thick enough for ‘footing’.
A fortnight later (weather permitting) and the sods were ready to be ‘footed’. Footing was a back-breaking activity that involved all the family. Four sods were lifted and ‘footed’ together which meant stacking them together in a pyramid style to allow air to circulate around the sods.
Rickling began about a week later. Rickling could only take place when the sods were sufficiently solid. Rickling was like building a wall with eight/nine sods three in a horizontal row East-West with approximately one sod space between them topped with a further three placed North-South with another two/three placed East-West on top.
Clamping was another wall-building exercise commenced about a week later. The clamping was very similar to the rickling only this time with no spaces left between the sods.
By the time I was able to help with the turf cutting ,the turf was collected in strong bags. The turf collecting always happened on a hot summer day. My childhood memories of bagging are fond. A social outing with a gaggle of cousins. After an early night we’d set off at what felt like dawn.
An all-important stop was made at a local shop to buy juice to keep us hydrated through the day. This was an adventure in itself . Having a bottle all to yourself was a treat. We were often torn between taking more decision time on our selection,and fear of being the last one out of the shop and thus responsible for holding up proceedings unnecessarily. One of the best things about having a drink just for yourself was being able to submerge it in a moss-hole for the day.

A moss-hole was a hole dug out of the bog that filled naturally with peaty water. There was no better place to keep your drink cool all day than a moss-hole. We did work hard to get all the turf bagged and loaded onto vehicles that would make the journey home. My most  vivid memories though are of chasing around with my cousins, jumping over clamped turf walls and generally having a great day’s cráic and banter.
By my generation, turf was stacked in bags in a ‘Turf Shed’–effectively a three-walled barn-like structure. The fourth side of the structure was open. Before such structures however, turf was traditionally stacked against the East wall of the house,in order to protect it from the elements.  Turf bricks were lifted for use from the inside out, to ensure they were dry.
Turf Use
The primary use for turf in rural areas was as a source of fuel to generate heat through the winter. In my grandmother’s house however , a turf fire fuelled the range. The range was a forerunner of the AGA status symbol much beloved by city folk who wish to have a ‘country-style’ kitchen.

The range
The range was the heart of the kitchen; it was the first port of call for anyone entering the house. There are few things better than coming in from the cold and standing with your bottom toasting in front of a turf-fired range. The range was not only a source of heat, but was used for cooking.  An iron-bottomed kettle was always bubbling just off the boil.
Turf formed an essential part of rural life and even as a small child I felt it. It was a job of honour among my cousins to be sent out ‘to fill the turf bucket’. We each tried to outdo each other by picking the biggest and driest sods for the bucket , when we were chosen for the job. It was a simple task, but we learned quickly to respect the importance of turf in our lives and I for one loved how it shaped our summer.
The beauty of the bogland landscape, on the other hand, was something I took for granted as a child. Bog cotton and the purpling heathers that grew on top of the peat didn’t really feature on my childish radar. When the turf was collected we replaced the top layer of vegetation that had been removed and set aside so the rich peat underneath could be reached. This allowed the heathers to take root again and flourish after we were done. It is unfortunate that modern turf-cutting machines show no respect for the surface vegetation and are rapidly damaging a fragile ecosystem.
Cathal Coyle