Turf, A Love Affair…

Turf, A Love Affair…

As the nights grow cold we will again be lighting and gathering around the fires.

If you find yourself out at dusk on a crisp autumn evening and you catch that turf fire smell you might not know it but you are filled with the comfort and memory of generations.

Any country person will have memories of turf and the bog.  Turf is a part and parcel of our lives, going to the bog, ‘footing’, ‘clamping’ and bagging turf, bringing it home on the tractor (the fun part), unloading and filling up the shed in time for winter.

Other memories too…. waiting for a good spell of weather in summer, then the rush would be on to ‘get the turf’ because you have to get it dry or it won’t burn.  Every young and able bodied person would be recruited, food and flasks of tea loaded and winning the turf before the weather changed the aim.

Remember how you were always told and felt it true, that bog dirt was ‘good clean dirt’ and how food never tasted so good as it did on a clump of heather with the wind and sun scorching the head off you, black fists of tea and sandwiches, aching backs, lark song and the mountain, grasses, ceann amhan (cotton like white plant) blowing, ever rolling stiffly for there’s not much shelter on a bog.

Reluctantly then, back to work, sinking your hands into that ancient earth moulded from trees twisted and life, from time itself. Sometimes hard as coal, cracked and dusty or god forbid wet and black and death cold to the touch. Turning, lifting, building and bagging, the great enterprise of the ordinary man getting ready for winter.

Now winter do your worst for the turf is home and the parents and the grandparents sigh with pleasure for their role is fulfilled, and whatever happens we will all of us be warm come winters storm.

My grandparents and siblings bringing home the turf, sometime in the eighties, Aughnasheelin, Co Leitrim
A trailer load of cousins and my dad, 1980’s

This is all true and of course as children we didn’t know that any of it mattered or what it meant to the grown ups.

We could scarcely imagine then the central role of turf  when our parents were children, when turf was not only the comfort but the very life of every home, when the turf fire was the only source of light, heat and food.

From the time a house was built till the day the walls came down the fire never went out.   To go into a house and not see a fire was un-imaginable, the turf fire was everything.

‘Every evening the family gathered in a circle around the fire, listened to the crickets singing in the walls and watched the great theatre of flame, as the night drew in and the shadows longer you could see all kinds of everything within.” Nora (Fox) Gilheaney (in conversation)

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Song of the Turf Fire

Draw in your stools good folks for heating and gaze into my eyes and see what sets the kind heart beating where the lonesome cricket cries.

I was the beam of the crooked heather, I was the moss that grew, but time hath moulded us together beneath the years of dew.

I kissed the elves feet in my branches and trembled at his tramp, ages before my purple branches were cut to make a clamp.

I have surprises hid for showing time, hid them in my heart where by a small streams endless flowing I felt my youth depart.

I hold the past but I will show it to the Irish faces only, folks, if you like me you will know it, when the cricket makes you lonely.


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Hill in front of our home in autumn

Turf & The Bog Explained  (for those who don’t know what I’ve been talking about here!)

For anyone who doesn’t know, turf is cut from the earth, it is a compression of trees and vegetation over thousands of years in areas of land common in Ireland called bogs.  These days some bogs are protected and no one is allowed to cut them anymore but in the past turf was the only source of fuel for people and even today it is common, popular and  controversial.

‘Winning’ the turf is not straightforward as first it has to be cut, now done by machine but used to be done by hand.  The next stages are all about getting the turf dry, it has to be dry or it won’t burn.  This is no easy task in a country where it rains as much as Ireland!  Each cut piece or ‘sod’ as its called has to be turned over (by hand)  left to dry and then perhaps turned again (depends on the weather).

The next part is important because if you can get it dry enough to lift off the ground then your chances of getting it home are much better.  The turf is ‘clamped’ lifted (see the black and white photograph at the top) and built into little structures of criss-crossing sods.  As soon as they are dry enough the turf are taken home and stacked in the shed or barn for winter.

To be perfectly straight with you, nothing smells so good as a turf fire, put it on  your bucket list today : )

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14 thoughts on “Turf, A Love Affair…”

  • Daddy used to tell us, as we complained our way through an evening in the bog, that some day we will probably long for these evenings , footing turf etc…
    Some days I do, not too often mind, but sometimes….

    Good work Jane , excellent recall

  • I found your blog via the “Blogging Your Way” group on Facebook (I was a student in Holly’s 2011 class), and was immediately smitten! Your writing is SO lovely. I can actually picture my Great Grandparents, originally from Ireland, doing exactly as you described, and it brings a smile to my face.
    Thanks so much for your story, it completely made my day.
    xo Deirdre

  • You might as well quit now jane, your not gona beat that one! You forgot to mention how the brother(me) and the father did 90% of the work while the four sisters and Mum gave moral support! 😎

  • As an Arizona desert native, I have little need for heat of any source. This gathering of turf is a curious practice to me. Is it a renewable resource? Does it grow back? Why is it controversial? If it doesn’t grow back, what is left in its wake?

    • Hi Lori yes it is renewable/it does ‘grow back’ but the process occurs over hundreds of years. Its controversial because its a unique habitat with its own unique animals and plant life and so some people feel it should be conserved. Some bogs are now protected and no one is allowed to cut them but also many private people own bogland the same as farmland and they like many others feel that for reasons of ownership/tradition/heating and so on that they should be allowed to continue cutting turf as they have always done. Many privately owned bogs are small but there are some very large ones also such as the Bog of Allen. We live in different worlds Lori : )

  • Burning turf and wood smoke are favourite smells! Has anyone noticed that when you burn turf you have to go and stand outside to smell it. Your writing brings the smell to mind and I can almost feel the heat on my face!

  • I love this post about turf…of course, it was a new concept to me, but I adore the fragrance + feel of a turf fire, especially around the holidays. We have a massive shed full of turf that I hope will never run out! It’s also amazing to use in cooking….would love to turf smoke a ham sometime.
    Lovely blog…is there any way to experience a live Shaylyn Group performance in Ireland a the moment?
    All Best, Imen x

    • Hi Imen, thanks for dropping by and commenting. Unfortunately the group is not performing these days, the members are pretty much scattered across the globe. If anything changes in that regard I will let you know

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