For hundreds of years, people throughout Ireland have cut turf from the peat bogs as an inexpensive fuel for cooking food and keeping the house warm. Though not as efficient as coal or wood, it is clean and light to handle. You can often tell when someone has just visited a house with a turf fire, because its pleasant aroma clings to their clothes. Bearded boffins fret over the carbon released into the atmosphere from the abuse of valuable wetlands, and rant on about the destruction of wildlife habitats. When times are hard, however, needs must and stacks of drying peat are still a common feature of the rural landscape. But this tale is from an earlier time when the removal of peat for any purpose went largely uncensured. Based on a true event, it concerns a farmer who lived in the west of Ireland, so far west, in fact, that the next parish was probably in America. Whilst visiting his stacks of turf in a local peat bog, he made the unpleasant discovery that some were being stolen, but following a chance conversation in a village shop, found a rather unusual and effective way to deter the thieves.
Every springtime, Jonjo set off down the valley from his farm with his donkey and cart and a few simple tools. The road to the peat bog passed through some wild and rugged scenery and skirted the steep slopes of a mountain. At the turf bank, he would meet up with a couple of old friends and the three of them could cut a year’s supply of turf in three or four days. It was back-breaking work, but if the weather was fine, they didn’t grumble. Turf cutting was a job that was often shared with neighbours or friends, and when one man’s winter supply had been harvested, they would work on another’s.
Using a sleán, a small spade with a flat upright edge, and working from the top and the front of the bank, they cut out neat blocks of turf and scattered them over the bank to dry. When it was time for a break, they boiled a billycan of water over a fire, and, along with some buttered soda bread, enjoyed the sweetest mugs of tea that you could imagine. Afterwards, they lit up their pipes and debated the relative merits of mountain and lowland peat, or just put the world to rights.
As spring turned into summer, Jonjo returned to the peat bog to pile up the drying peat into tall stacks. These helped to shed any rain, of which there was always more than enough to go round, and dry out the turf. It was during one of these visits that he noticed that some of his turf was missing. At first, he though it was a trick of the light, but on closer inspection saw that several of the stacks were much smaller, and that a large sack of turf he had left to one side had disappeared. This was puzzling but it was also worrying. People who worked the turf banks would never steal from other stacks. They were friends or neighbours and everyone looked out for and trusted each other. Looking around, Jonjo got the impression that some of the neighbouring peat stacks were also depleted, but that his had suffered the worst. One possible explanation could be that his stacks were the nearest to main road, and, further down the valley, the path became inaccessible for vans or large carts.
On the way home, he called at Mrs Ned’s village store for a newspaper and a loaf of bread. Whatever the shortcomings of Mrs Ned’s small shop, she always seemed to have a supply of papers and fresh bread. He told her about the missing turf and she expressed her surprise at this unusual occurrence. The road near the bog only went as far as the village hall at Ballyfahy, but she couldn’t imagine anyone from that pleasant village who would dream of doing such a deceitful thing. Her shop served as a bar and a small stranger enjoying a pint across the room joined in the conversation.
Some years earlier, he had a pig stolen from his farm, but managed to catch the thief when he returned by spending several nights sitting with the other pigs. Without a doubt, the lying in wait had been an uncomfortable and smelly assignment but well worth it in the end. Mrs Ned and Jonjo wondered if, while bonding with his new companions, he had grunted occasionally. The man said he had not, for fear of being carried away squealing in a bag. It gave them a good laugh, but it gave Jonjo an idea.
Over the next few weeks, turf continued to disappear from Jonjo’s stacks and the cause remained a mystery. It was annoying because cutting the turf had been hard work and now someone else would enjoy the benefits of his labour during the coming winter. Then Jonjo recalled that, on Sunday evenings, the village hall at Ballyfahy held a dance which was very popular and which attracted visitors from right across the county and beyond. By varying the time of his visits to the peat bog, he soon discovered that the turf was usually missing by Monday. With the long summer evenings and late sunsets in the west of Ireland, it was unlikely that anyone would be hanging around the peat bogs before the dance started because they would easily be seen from the road. After the dance, however, it would be dark and most folks would be hurrying home in their battered old cars to get some sleep before the week started again. Of course, some may wish to leave the dance a little earlier for one reason or another.
And so one Sunday evening, after the cars had made their way up to Ballyfahy for the evening’s entertainment, Jonjo came down the track armed with little more than a few empty sacks and a large torch to light his way. It was going to be a long wait but, if he listened carefully, he could just hear the music drifting up the valley from the village hall where everyone was enjoying themselves. As Mrs Ned would have said, ‘There’ll be a great crowd in it tonight.’ After sunset, the bog became alive with all kinds of mysterious creaking and croaking sounds, and Jonjo shivered a little as he sat there alone by the peat stacks. A cold wind rustled through the rushes, the moon broke through the clouds, briefly illuminating an isolated stack, and a bird flapped noisily in the darkness as it rose from the bog. He was not particularly superstitious, but he had heard some strange stories over the years and it was the ones from his childhood that always seemed to stick. Did that stack move towards him just then? Was that someone limping down the path? Come on, get a grip of yourself, man! In such circumstance, the imagination can play terrible tricks on one’s mind. Indeed, an isolated bog is not a place to hang around alone at night without some powerful refreshment; something rather stronger than a billycan of tea.
After a few hours, Jonjo heard the band at Ballyfahy striking up the last waltz and sat up. In the words of the popular song, ‘the last dance should last forever’, but he prayed it wouldn’t because he felt he’d been there that long already. He knew that within half an hour or so, a procession of cars would be winding its way up the road from the village. Suddenly, he heard the sound of a vehicle approaching from Ballyfahy. It paused at the turning to the peat bog and then drove slowly down it. This was it! Action Stations, Jonjo.
At this point, I’d like us to join the two occupants of the van as they let it freewheel down the path to a sheltered spot where the ground was still firm. With the van at a standstill, they chatted for a while about the dance and the young women who had caught their attention. To be honest, not all their comments were flattering or complimentary, and the toothless grins they exchanged suggested a certain lack of something upstairs. Then, having joshed each other at their complete lack of dancing skills, they stubbed out their cigarettes and set off down the path in the direction of the nearest peat collection - Jonjo’s. With the moon hiding behind a large cloud which had drifted in from the Atlantic, the bog was silent, dark and deserted.
Though they knew that not a soul would be around at that time of the night, they crept quietly towards the peat stacks. Even without a torch, which might be seen for miles, they could just make out several large sacks of turf lying in the darkness. How considerate of the owner to have left them this generous supply of fuel so convenient to the road. The sacks would store neatly in the back of the van and they would be off and away before the crowd came up from Ballyfahy. It was all so easy. Just a quick job.
They carried the first four sacks to the van and, having thrown them into the back, covered them with a large grey blanket. The sacks were large, awkward and surprisingly heavy. Perhaps the turf hadn’t dried fully and would need airing in the barn back home. When they returned for the fifth and final sack, they found it to be extremely heavy. One whispered to the other that the sack might contain some useful tools which could be sold on if they didn’t need them. The other released a loosely tied rope, pulled open the top of the sack, and they both peered inside. At that moment, a powerful light filled the inside of the sack, illuminating a bearded face from which a ghastly pair of eyes stared up at them. As they recoiled in horror at this vision from hell, a voice from the gaping hole of a mouth cried ‘Why are you stealing my turf?’
Well, as you can imagine, they took off down the path as if they had seen a ghost. When the path finished, they ran deeper into the bog to where it merged with a small stream and, slipping on some smooth rocks, ended up covered in mud and soaked to the skin. Without pausing to admire the wild and rugged scenery, for the moon was back in business again, the pair ran all the way back to Ballyfahy, but were too late to cadge a lift from the band who had packed up and gone home. Much later, when they had summoned enough courage to return to their van, the battery was flat because they had left a light on inside. It was going to be a quick job, you see. Even the sacks they had piled up in the van were just filled with rubbish and stones.
As for Jonjo and his neighbours? Well, they continued cutting the peat for many years. They still discussed the relative merits of mountain and lowland peat, and put the world to rights over a billycan of tea, but not a single piece of turf ever went missing again.
Tony Crowley (c) 2011