Turf wars: It’s unfair to pick small bank owners out and start this ridiculous cull

The controversy surrounding the proposal by the Green Party to make it illegal to sell turf reared on the local bog onwards to neighbours and friends in years to come is something this writer finds not only bewildering, but, frankly, unbelievable too.

  As most readers of my columns and observers of my work with RTE News down the years will know by now, my roots are firmly placed in the bog. I was born into

a Bord na Móna community where my father and grandfather before him cut their own turf with the traditional slane (slean) in the local bog.

  We spent much of our youth near the ‘high bank’ in a place called Derrygeel in the process of helping to load the turf into the transport box of a blue Fordson Super Dexta tractor the day it was cut, returning later to spread it out after a few weeks on the spread-bank nearby, then making it up in various stages with half the family, cousins and helpers present – when and if the weather allowed us (and there were a few years when it wasn’t really keen to do that either!). Then we’d bring it home with tractors and trailers from all corners in a once-a-year ritual that was akin to what we call a ‘meitheal’ in rural Ireland – where everyone in the townland, half-parish or the family pulls together to get something done in a hurry on the land.

  We didn’t actually sell any of our turf on to anyone. From my memory, it was mainly due to the fact we didn’t have a big bank of turf to cut in the first place, and, apart from the odd bag that went to a sister or brother away from home in digs at college from time to time, all of the brown and black sods we cut came home to the family homestead in Killinure every year.

Regimental approach

My father had a regimental approach when it came to cutting turf. It was an ‘all or nothing’ attitude to the attendance of every member of the family on the day of the event. You were usually summonsed with clear advance notice of at least a week and advised that you were supposed to be ‘fit and on the team’ and in the bog. If you were not there, you had better have a good excuse for it or else prepare yourself for a tongue-lashing the next time you met him in the living room at home.

  “Ah yes – you’re back. You will sit in front of it here in the kitchen alright but you won’t help us rear it, will ya!” would be a more polite version of part of the speech that often went somebody’s way in these circumstances. Few excuses worked, in my experience.

Emma’s perspective

Emma Burns is a researcher and activist from County Tipperary who has written a much more articulate version than me on what the events of the last two weeks have meant to those of us who were reared near the bog and find this controversy all a bit bewildering.

  Emma has worked for over ten years in various teaching and learning support roles in schools and colleges in both Ireland and Germany. Last week she took to her Twitter account to expand a bit more on the context for what Eamon Ryan and friends are trying to do and how it refers back to us – in reality. Here is her view:

  “My family cuts turf along the edge of the industrial wasteland created by Bord na Móna over the decades. My grandad did some deal with Bord na Móna back in the 50s, the details lost to time, but he planned to restore the cutaway for grazing and the banks were a bonus. The reclaimed bits never really flourished. There are a few acres of poor grazing used by my uncle for his hobby cattle. It has no schemes attached to it, no agricultural payments. We’ve planted native trees and hedgerow along the edges, let corners go wild. The remaining turf banks are made of highly acidic peat underlaid with marl (impermeable gravelly clay) and the whole has been deemed unsuitable for forestry by Coillte and other agents. The terrain makes it unsuitable for rewetting, according to local rewilders.

Money for Feile

“I’m not sure if anyone still cuts turf by hand with the slane and barrow. Usually a machine comes in, digs out the bank and spreads the turf on the spreading ground in front of the bank. There’s room for turf for around 3 to 5 families. Most save it for themselves and extended family. My sister and I used to work the bog every summer. £30 for footing a plot (family rates). It paid for Féile tickets and guitar lessons and doc boots. The bog would be buzzing in summer, a race to get the turf saved in the dry, rain so bad the turf got stacked on pallets, memorable rescues of sunken tractors and foolish drivers of low profile cars. And the fecking midgies, my God.

  “It’s very hard to describe to non-boggers the magic of a place like this. Two months of turf-saving, ten months of quiet, only larks and curlew and grouse and the mad hares. Most people who own banks and cut turf for personal (use) used to love the bog. Many tend to it. It’s worthless ground to others. Yes there are people who rip it up for profit. It’s hard to change attitudes that were created by the state through Bord na Móna. I agree with the cessation of commercial cutting but banning personal use can’t happen in isolation.

  “What would help shift culture? Some of us already see ourselves as caretakers of the bog, even if we take our turf from it. Create rewilding schemes aimed at individual turf bank owners. Fund tree planting, rewetting. Start with small pockets of bog, scale up from there. Compensate those who stop turf-cutting. Give them access to grants for retrofitting their houses, for getting eco-friendly heating systems & double glazing. Cover the costs. I guarantee that no one who relies on turf for heating can afford the current schemes.

Ryan’s plan

“The current focus on small-scale turf-cutters will be felt as an injustice while there are no plans to just as abruptly ban sheep grazing on upland bogs or to ban ploughing of soil or ban dairy methane emissions, or while green schemes remain unaffordable to so many. To end, I haven’t personally saved turf for a while now, wouldn’t benefit from any of this beyond the improvement to the environment generally and the knowledge that family members who currently save turf would be warm in winter. Eamon Ryan’s plans leave us all cold”.

Just transition?

Emma’s opinion piece (edited above) is a brilliant portrayal of what happened on all those small turf banks over the years and why it is unfair to pick these small bank owners out now and start this ridiculous cull.

  I have said it a hundred times that we all knew full well that the days of turf-cutting and peat harvesting were numbered, but, like fools, we honestly believed in something they called ‘Just transition’. If this is it, they can stick it where the sun don’t shine.