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Turf Cutting In A Fast Changing Environment

Machined Turf Cutting

When I was young and restless, my mind was ill at ease,
Through dreaming of America and the gold beyond the seas.
Oh, sorrow take their money,`tis hard to find the same,
And what´s the world to any man if no one speaks his name.
I´ve had my day and here I am, a building bricks per load.
A long three thousand miles away, from the Old Bog Road.

Proinsías Barrett reminisces, taking us on a ramble down the old bog roads of Tipperary, yesterday and today.

Jimmy Deenihan buckled under the influence of the IFA, and rightly so, many might say. It is unfortunate however that the scores of other citizen reaction groups do not have the same access to an organisation as ‘influential’ as the IFA to rally to their myriad of causes.

We have all read the debates in the ‘Nationals,’ concerning turf cutting, not just as a relatively cheap fuel or source of modest income for owners of ‘bad land,’ but the debate also included submissions on the grounds that the practice of turf cutting was a social and cultural feature of rural, small town and village tradition.

I remember from my own teenage years in the 1980’s being rounded up for the day in the bog, turning, footing and heaping sods. Plots were laid out and us ‘townies,’ arriving en-masse, disembarking from Ford Cortina’s, Volkswagon Jetta’s and Datsun Sunny’s wearing their ‘bog-duds,’ (work clothes) and the women in pink and yellow marigold gloves, stooped over working a seemingly endless row of freshly cut, water sodden turf. There was a strange language associated with bog work, unique even and which only referred to the task at hand. Expressions like:- ‘There’s great dryin in it today,’ ‘She’ll have to be turned twice before you can foot her,‘ or ‘The bog would put a fierce hunger on you,‘ ‘By God there’s a breeze in the bog today and t’would skin you….

There was politics too, a sort of ‘bog-etiquette,‘ or ‘bog sense.‘ No-one wanted to be ‘The disgrace of the bog‘, your work and progress would be routinely (often covertly) inspected by other bog men/women under the guise of coming over to have a chat, with the introduction of ‘God bless the work,’ and if you weren’t following the un-written turf saving procedure, you might end up being the ‘Talk of the bog,’ as  ‘That turf is washed away into the ground‘ or ‘If he doesn’t get that into foots soon it’ll be useless,‘ or ‘Be jaesus his heaps are awful lookin,’ ‘Who’s plot is that?… Ryan winkle a Galboola’s…. and the grass growin up through it.’  The term ‘bog standard,’ had a completely different meaning, once you entered the realm of the bog men, and once you had proved you ability to foot and save with the best of them, you might hear ‘By God that’s great lookin turf Frank, good black turf, she’ll burn well.’

Watching the mechanical turf extraction machines scoop out peat from deep holes in the bog and forcing the material into a spreading machine which laid out row upon row, over the open landscape of the bog, was a completely different system from the cutting which my grandparents would have been familiar with. What might have taken several men a lifetime to cut in those times, took the man in the machine maybe only a few weeks and it didn’t take a scientist to know that the bogs were being stripped as fast as the ones currently under the management of Bord na Móna.

The new language of modern Ireland as a member state of the EEC hadn’t yet become familiar, phrases like ‘sustainability,’ or ‘environmental impact,’ were known only to academics or EEC-government liaison civil servants. But ordinary people didn’t have to have a specific term or phrase to know that all aspects of rural agriculture and rural industry were intensifying and that practices were changing and the emphasis now was on productivity first and foremost. The surroundings were changing and nature was struggling to cope. As a lad of 10 or 11, my pals and I could spend all day fishing at Lady’s Well and catch nothing, the river smelled and fellows often felt sick after swimming. Land we walked on Saturdays or during school holidays out towards the Sugar Factory, conjuring up great battles in our imaginations with ash sticks as spears and bows and arrows. To see the wildlife at the Mud-fields or investigate the Fairy-fort, often had cardboard signs on the gates which simply read ‘Poison,’ or ‘No Trespass.’  We’d often meet hunters with shotguns and .22’s who would laugh at our painted shields, (The wooden lids off barrels from Erin Foods) and our wooden swords and when we’d ask if they got anything they usually said ‘Ah the Hare’s are all gone,‘ or ‘There isn’t a rabbit left without the myxomatosis,‘ or ‘Be careful out that way lads the land is all poisoned.‘ Even for 9-11 year olds, it was grim listening.

I was fortunate in that I had been instilled subconsciously from an early age with a great grá for our natural landscapes and environment and things that try to grow and live devoid of any assistance from us people, and how easy it was for us people to change or end that, almost instantaneously with machinery, spraying and farm ‘improvement schemes.’ My mother often organised Sundays out of town for the family, a spin out the country, park the car and walk the lanes and hills where she or my father grew up. We luckily got to spent two weeks annually down in the south east also, near Courtown, where en-route we would hear of Mount Leinster and that standing stones should never be interfered with, the last Irish wolf or the pike men of ’98 compared with our own on Slievenamon.

The countryside would change in appearance as we moved into another region of the country with slightly different farming practices and traditions, ‘Look at the beautiful straw thatch being re-covered,‘ by men with bundles of straw on ladders, and ‘the artistic finishes on the ridges and around the chimney’s, ‘getting scarce now,‘ my father would say. Wexford strawberries were on sale by the roadside, small but with the odd large one, unlike today’s mutant supermarket varieties.

Back home in Tipperary, mother could identify tree and plant species and would have stories of Puisheógery, Dún’s and Ráths, Kings and commoners, Saints and scholars, while we stopped to admire a Holly or White thorn or an Oak or Yew. I was a Thurles Scout too, and the scouts back then were a fantastic organisation who took youngsters from towns on camps and cook-outs and further instilled this bond with nature and the outdoors. As we got a little older, a cycle from Thurles to Barnane at the back of the ‘Devil’s Bit,‘ or even as far as the scout log-cabin in Kinnitty, in the Slieve Bloom mountains, for several 12-14 year olds, was never a major issue, and parents never worried about us, allowing us a great sense of freedom and independence.

But what has all this to do with turf cutting, compensation and intensifying agricultural/rural-industrial practice?

We knew that there was European legislation in the pipe relating to turf cutting and other issues concerning the Habitats Directive as far back as the early 1990’s, but like many EU directives and recommendations, a substantial portion was put on the back burner and shelved for as long as any politician representing rural or turf cutting areas could entertain IFA lobbying and guarantees of votes. The result was a huge back-log in pending legislation which could and should have been eased-in during better economic climates. Now we have a situation where as a nation we are being fined by Brussels, daily, in some cases for the non implementation and protection of special or unique areas of conservation.

The cutters and land owners deserve to be properly compensated and encouraged to set-aside and participate. We witnessed how the Green party was (in my opinion) set-up by their coalition partner as they were handed the dusty bulging files of ‘EU environmental legislative best-practice agreements,’ when they entered government, allowing their political partner to pass the buck, knowing that the people of Ireland would be unhappy, to say the least, at the amount of ‘new,’ laws and charges seemingly being orchestrated by the Greens (What an excellent get-out clause for FF!). Now these have been passed on to FG/Labour.

The turf cutting is the very same as the septic tanks issue (Do you mean to tell me that previous governments were not aware of the leeching of effluent from busted old tanks put into the ground back in the 1960’s/70’s/80’s/90’s/2000’s poisoning ground water and water courses?)  Still when it could have been afforded, there was no interest in legislating for minimum standards of septic tank type in all the new houses built during the boom and substantial grants for people to up-grade. There was NO MONEY IN IT.

The water debate, on-going at the moment, is cut from the very same political/economic cloth as the others. Again it’s a case of ‘Who are they kidding’? do you mean to tell me again that a small island nation with just over a four million inhabitancy, and well above the European average in precipitation (rainfall) cannot provide an efficient and clean/safe supply of drinking water? (Latest EPA report has indicated that some councils nationally had as much as 75% ‘unaccounted for water,’ and since emergency remedial works have been carried out this figure has now dropped to just 50%, half of the drinking supply going missing! and this is progress?)

I do feel however that the metering system is a good thing, because it has been proved that as soon as people know that their water is now on a meter, they become conscious of waste. You might say ‘but I am already mindful of wasting water,‘ and that may be, but you can be sure that there are others who couldn’t give a damn and as long as no-one sees or knows, they abuse it. But what I don’t agree with is metering as a means to charge with all this broken infrastructure and without any guarantee of water charges being put back into infrastructural maintenance. Don’t get me started on why the hell is the State putting chemicals, like Fluoride, into our water? What’s the science behind that and prove it?  Now we have the IMF making inferences to the complete, or at least partial privatisation of our drinking water and ‘outside,’ interested parties are already in talks with our politicians. Another opportunity to be a world leader in how to provide fresh clean water to all our citizens, without charge lost, probably forever.

Everything has been left to the very last minute and now there is no money to do anything. The REPS schemes are being scaled back drastically, our Coillte have destroyed the mountains and watercourses with their cash crops, there is hardly one hundred mature specimens of any of our native trees left in the country, bar a few isolated remains which thankfully voluntary groups have taken it upon themselves to record the locations of our remaining mature and rare tree specimens, and have prevented in many cases, land owners and developers from cutting or damaging them. Are we custodians or outright owners of the land of Ireland, to do with as we see fit?

Our country has changed so much over the last 25 years that we are still reeling from the effects of the developments. Some old practices have to go, but it has to be handled fairly and sensitively, especially practices which are so ingrained in our psyche as traditional such as turf cutting and other irreparable practices. Like a 200 year old oak tree, when its gone its gone for at least another 200 years. Bogs, once they have been cut out, they are gone forever.

Some might ask ‘What business is it of Brussels, how we manage here anyway?’ Well the Dutch for example, have one tiny patch of bog remaining in their historically overly intensively extracted landscape, and it is treated almost as a national monument. They have little or no wild or natural landscape worth mentioning and they really don’t want to see Ireland make the same mistakes which they made in a time when there was no redress to environmental degradation. It’s not bullying, it is genuine concern and alarm and disappointment. Tax payer’s money of 2.5 million euro is a very small price to pay for the preservation of a natural and national monument which took thousands of years in the making.

If we want to create or re-create a country where people have the option of entering and experiencing wild and natural landscapes, seeing wildlife in its natural state, looking in awe at a 2 or 3 hundred year old yew or oak or holly, turn on our taps and drink clean fresh un-tainted water, have cheap energy and warm environmentally friendly homes, the onus is on everyone to speak up and get involved and have their speak and counter powerful vested interest lobby groups who claim to represent all our best interests but in the end only represent profit.

A dismantling of party politics games at local government level and easier access to political decision making for ordinary people, instead of through the old well worn routes which have failed us all too often. ie Want to be in politics? Well first you must join a party without a party you are alone and ineffective.

Voting should be held for positions like County Manager, City Manager and Mayoral positions, achievements in politics should be reviewed every few years, and if you’re not producing the goods, well goodbye.

Remember that life has and should have much more to offer than just a job or a quick buck, many’s the sad and lonely millionaire, passed on, with only the memories of the people they stood on, to get rich, and beware of Greeks baring gifts! i.e. Not all jobs which may be offered a struggling country during a recession are necessarily the jobs we want or need, and prevent privatisation of resources and energy.

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