For many, turf (or peat) brings back childhood memories of granny’s kitchen. It’s the distinctive smell of Irish nostalgia that conjures up images of glowing windows in cosy cottages and family hospitality. Combine the warmth of a smoky turf fire with a customary mug of tea and you’ve got the closest thing to Irish “hygge” you can find.
But as we gaze back further into Ireland's past, before cottages, fires and even people inhabited the island - the origin of turf couldn't be further from the warmth of an Irish kitchen.
Formed under the glacial lakes of Ice Age Ireland, dead plants and trees were slowly broken down in waterlogged bogs over thousands of years. As the organic matter breaks down, its energy is stored in the dense turf, ready to be cut.
Traditionally, turf was cut from the bog by hand using a ‘Sleán’, a double sided blade that cut the turf into strips known as ‘sods’. Nowadays it would be cut with the help of machinery but the stacking and drying process is still done by hand.
The sods of turf are stacked and dried in an extremely labour intensive process, often requiring the whole family to help. It is this relation to the earth, from kids to grandparents that has made Turf such an important part of Ireland’s national identity and culture.
As cherished as turf is - it’s a highly carbon-inefficient fuel, so in the country’s move towards cleaner energy, the tradition is dying out. For many communities, in the midlands and west of Ireland who are reliant on the fuel, they are currently still allowed to use turf, but future generations will have to find ways of protecting Ireland’s peat bogs while looking beyond turf as a fuel for a greener future.
The famous poem ‘Digging’ by the late poet laureate of Ireland, Seamus Heaney, shows the admiration that continues on for the hard work and grit which existed among the farmers who dug the land - values which live on among the next generation in other ways as the working bogs die out.
Digging by Seamus Heaney
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
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.
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.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.