Turf cutting never the same after the townie revolution

John B Keane


John B Keane

Turf cutting never the same after the townie revolution

I HAVE been accused, quite rightly, of many things but to accuse me of sabotaging the turf-cutting industry in West Limerick and North Kerry is neither just nor humorous.

“We can’t get a man to go to the bog for love or money,” writes ‘Kilconlea Veteran’, “and it’s all your fault. You have encouraged them for years to look for higher wages for less work.

“The next thing you’ll want us to do is bring them a four-course dinner to the bog. I tried to hire a man last week and he asked three pounds and his grub for the day.”

Kilconlea Veteran blames me quite wrongly, and although I have nothing against men who look for higher wages, I most certainly have never taken the side of turf cutters and futters against their employers.

Times have changed in the turf-cutting industry.

The day when a man would work from dawn ’till dark for a few bob and his grub are gone forever. There were some turf cutters who lived on praise. The farmer who hired them would sing their praises loudly and they were delighted with themselves but that ruse does not cut ice anymore.

I remember the first time I assisted at the cutting of a slean of turf the wages paid to the sleansman and the other two workers were seven and six a day and their dinner. I had huge blisters on my hands after the day’s work was over, and one of the men collapsed on his way out of the bog. He was a sensitive fellow not used to slave labour.

He was artistic, too. He was placed third in the competition for slow hummers in Derindaffe Aeriocht in 1939. In those days, the attire worn by bogmen consisted of low waders or hobnail boots, flannel shirts and army trousers. Sometimes there would be a guard’s trousers, but these were scarce. They wore better than any other kind of material.

A man brought his own grub, and as soon as twelve o’clock came the youngest member of the slean was sent to make the tea and find spring water.

I was often sent to take care of these chores, but instead of spring water I used bog water.

Who the hell were these fellows to be looking for spring water? You’d swear they were bank clerks or something.

There was one other meal and this was universally known as the “Four O’Clock Tay”. Tea was made a second time, and what was left over from the dinner was eaten. If there was nothing left over a man might drink two or even three mugs of tea. Sometimes the employer might supply the food.

If he was a decent man there would be meat and porter and there would be a cake to go with the “Four O’Clock Tay”.

It was widely held that when a man treated you decently he should be highly blackguarded, sods should be big and heavy, and no man should strain himself.

Perversely, if an employer was mean, men worked hard for him. I cannot explain why turf cutters behaved like this, but if you don’t believe me, ask any one of them and they’ll admit I am telling the truth.

It was Jack Faulkner who wisely said that a decent man was a nickname for a fool and I think we are all agreed that Faulkner generally puts his finger on things.

I once remember when fags were scarce the employer came and he gave twenty fags to each man. When his back was turned they sat down and smoked. They argued about where he got the fags and what right he had to get fags when other people couldn’t.

Then came the revolution in the methods of turf cutting in the areas I’ve mentioned. War was raging in Europe. Hong Kong surrendered and Singapore fell. From Tralee, from Listowel, from Newcastle and from Abbeyfeale came a new kind of bogman. He was unfamiliar with the use of bike and slean, but he was quick to learn. It was he who introduced sandwiches to bogs all over the southwest. The name given to him was “Townie”.

The first one to be sighted was from Listowel. He cycled to Dirha Bog, now the province of Sonny Canavan’s mighty herd of goats. He went to fut, not to cut. Already he had commissioned professionals to do the cutting and spreading. It was an old woman called Jane McCarthy who spotted him first. She mistook him for an insurance agent but when he got off the bike and questioned her about the location of the bog she nearly collapsed.

“Surely to God,” said she, “you’re not going cutting in them clothes?”

He wore a collar and tie, low shoes, and in the breast pocket of his coat there was to be seen a fountain pen and a rack or comb as it is now called.

She told him where his turf was situated and when he left her she knelt down and blessed herself. She prayed for the future of Ireland.

Hard to blame her, for in those days a man born in the country only wore low shoes when he was getting married, going to Mass, or going to town to dance to the music of the Devon Dance Band.

It was the old woman’s first belief that the end of the world was at hand. How else could one explain why a man would wear a collar and tie going to the bog.

Worse was to follow. They started shaving before they went and there were some that put on hair oil in the foolish belief that the day you put on no hair oil was the day you would meet the good-looking girl.

After the Listowel man’s appearance they came in their droves, townies of all shapes and sizes. They brought frying pans and they brought jam. They introduced white puddings into townlands where the black pudding was king and where no other colour of a pudding was ever seen up to then.

Older readers will remember the fate of Eileen Alanna and Angelina Brown. They were swept away by strangers and suffered horribly afterwards. It was the same with the townies, except that the country girls they swept away were quite happy ever after.

The townie futters and cutters changed rural Ireland in much the same way as Henry Ford’s Model T changed the face of agrestic America. Things were never to be the same again.

Tomato sandwiches, unheard of up ‘till then became commonplace where the horse stoolings rose high and the brown hare gallivanted. Empty cheese boxes and biscuit crumbs confounded frog, curlew and heron.

Today, the bogs are almost empty, because turfcutters cannot be got. They will tell you there is no money in turf. Tradesmen can earn five or six pounds a day, the turf cutters claim, while all they can get is two pounds and even that is given grudgingly. Is not turf cutting a trade too, they ask, or is there anything thought of men who rise blisters on their hands and give an honest day’s work.

The late, great John B Keane was a Leader columnist for more than 30 years. This column first appeared in our edition of May 6 1972


LAST Thursday, while stopped on the street in the act of pulling up my socks, I was hailed by a girl at whose wedding I was a guest some years ago.

“How’re things going?” I asked.

“He’s very odd,” she said.

“In what way?” I asked.

“Yerra over eggs,” she said.

“Choosy?” I suggested. “Doesn’t like them too hard or too soft; likes them boiled a certain way and is inclined to be crotchety when they don’t turn out the way he want them?”

“How did you know?” she asked.

“My dear girl,” I told her, “your case is only one of thousands. Am I right in saying that he cribs if the egg is cracked when you serve it to him?”

“God,” she exclaimed, “that’s him down to the ground. He complains he can’t uncap the egg properly when it’s cracked.”

I did not tell her that I had written thousands of words about the art of taking the caps off eggs. A lot depends on the texture of the shell and the weight of the spoon used in the uncapping, even the temperature of the kitchen where the act of uncapping takes place. Sweaty fingers or fingers which are too cold can have a terrible effect and can make a mess of the job.

“Look,” I told her, “until the day that eggs are laid with hinges you will have trouble over uncapping.”

There have been many domestic rows over the way eggs are boiled. Only a finished mathematician can boil an egg properly. The usual time recommended by experts is three minutes, but what if the egg is bigger than normal, or indeed smaller than normal?

My advice to women whose husbands are finicky about the way their eggs are boiled is this: Let him boil his own egg. Then if it gets cracked or it’s too hard or too soft he has nobody but himself to blame.

Growth year?

NOW FOR the latest in cuckoo arrivals. The first claimants to having heard his tootling refrain are Mr Jeremiah Lynch of Affoulia, Lisselton, and Mrs Mary Ann O’Shea of the same address.

He was heard on the 18th of April at 7.45 in the Sallies, Affoulia, Lisselton.

After three outbursts he became silent for the rest of the day, but has been most vocal since.

Traditionally he is heard in the Affoulia Sallies during the fourth week in April. Never before has he been heard so early.

According to Mr Lynch, his early arrival means that it will be a great year for growth.