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The turf spade

The turf

The bogs were the last wilderness to form in the Irish landscape in the wake of the Ice Age. As they expanded, they forced back the onrush of farmers and stopped field expansion along their inhospitable borders. During the first thousand years of farming in Europe, little could be done to reclaim these barren, wet lands and transform them into arable fields as was done with most of the forested wilderness. Only rarely did man resort to using the bogs to bury butter, to take a short cut or to hide the bodies of the murdered. This wide spread perception of the bog changed for two related reasons: one was the disappearance of woodland, and the increasing scarcity of wood as a domestic fuel; the second was the expansion pressure of the increasing population.

As the forests contracted and the bogs expanded, turf became more common as a domestic fuel. The discovery that turf burns was easily made: burning infernos, which periodically swept across the expanses of heather in hot summers, provided the decisive clue. Most houses were made of wood and within these, burning turf proved to have certain advantages over burning wood: it burned low and evenly, and there was much less danger of a burning splinter setting fire to the house. Thus turf was not considered to be an inferior fuel source. In medieval times it was burnt in monasteries and manor-estates as well as in the cottages of tenants. Cutting, storing and transport of turf formed part of the customary duties levied by the owners of the land upon their tenants. As farming people became more familiar with the edges of the bog, they began to realise that peat bogs were not as impenetrable to farming as they had seemed. Once drained and fertilised with manure they could be made to grow grass and crops.

Estimates as to how much peat bog was cut away by hand through the centuries vary from around 750 000 acres to twice that much. During the 18th and 19th centuries - in fact until 1940 - around 5 million tons were cut every year. It is estimated that between 1814 and 1907, at the height of peat cutting, 800 000 acres of turf were cut away. During the Second World War, when there was no coal coming from Great Britain into Ireland for household use, peat became a important strategic resource. With the end of the war, hand cutting began to decline; oil was cheap and readily available and with the coming of Bord na Mona and rising standards of living, the parochial self-sufficiency of earlier times was considered outdated and unnecessary.

Cutting the turf

The traditional methods of collecting turf by hand in Ireland are much the same as those, which were in use in the extensive bogs of northwest Europe. The slane and the turf barrow are not Irish inventions, but are rather based on ancient tools developed in northern Europe. They were adapted to Irish conditions in much the same way as the ingenious machinery of Bord na Mona. This Irish conversion of machinery - originally developed for the bogs of northern Europe and Canada - replaced the slane in Ireland's bogs.

The earliest account of turf cutting among the Celtic peoples of northern Europe is in Pliny's Natural History, which describes the harvesting of turf during the first century A.D. among the Germanic people between the Ems and the Elbe - the Chauce - on the North Sea coast of Germany:

They weave nets of rushes and sedges to catch fish; and form mud with their hands, which, when dried in the wind rather than in the sun, is burned to cook their food, and warm their bodies chilled by the cold north wind.

Another classical writer described the Celtic Batavi as being so wretched that their drink is the drink of swine, and they burn their very earth for warmth - in other words, they drank beer and burned turf: O misemm gentem quae cibum suum bibit, et termm suam urit. Latin writers often described turf as caespes bituminosum: combustible soil. In 1458 Cardinal Piccolomini, who later became Pope Pius II, wrote how the inhabitants of Friesland make fires of combustible earth, since they lack firewood (ligno caret bituminoso caespite ignes fovet).

Between the Hill of Goig and Castleconnel in County Limerick a togher was found some time in the last century below the peat. Besides this, under at least 20 spits (ca. 4 m) turf, old bog holes and the remains of wooden slanes were found. Slanes have also been recovered from deep in a bog in County Laois, and there are indications of old turf banks under the upper peat of Ardee Bog in County Louth. In 1833 half-burnt sods of turf were found beside a hearth excavated beneath 8 m of peat at Drumkelin bog in County Donegal.

These fascinating artefacts of turf cutting are supported by occasional references in the Old Irish legal scripts. In the Senchas Mar, which dates from the 7th-8th centuries, turf cutting is described in terms that would be quite familiar to us today. However, from the few references available on turf cutting, the comments of the 12th century glossators are most informative. One seventh-century law text includes the ditch of a turf cutting among the seven ditches, which are exempt from liability in the case of accidental drowning. The fine for cutting turf illegally was very substantial: five sets - equivalent to two and a half milk cows.

A tale from the Fragmentary Annals in Standish O'Grady's Silva Gadelica gives an account of the death of a 7th century king of Connaught, Raghallach mac Fuatach, at the hands of a party of turf-cutters. Although the incident is supposed to have taken place in 648 A.D., the tale is in fact many centuries younger. Despite being full of mythological elements, the detailed background description of the turf cutters illustrates a familiar maytime activity that was certainly familiar to listeners of the story. To properly set the tale it seems necessary to add that Raghallach was a proper scoundrel, 'self-willed and full of malice', whose demise the saints had been carefully plotting in prayer.

The saints prayed that before Beltane, and at the hands of mean folk, he by weapons of dishonour should perish in a foul pit. All which was fulfilled: for Beltane being now at hand, a wounded stag rushed upon Raghallach in the island where he watched. He seeing the deer approach took his spear, and with a thrust pierced him from the one side to the other; yet by swimming he escaped, and Raghallach getting into a boat pursued the deer, which from the loch went a great way and until he came upon certain churls that cut turf. These killed the stag and divided him. The king then coming up loudly threatened them by reason that they had broken up the deer, commanding them to yield him the venison. But among them the churls decreed to slay Raghallach the king before they would upon compulsion give up the flesh; and this their design they verily executed with the turf-spades that were in their hands, dealing him strokes on the head that left him lifeless, according to precise promise of the saints.

This tale makes it clear that turf was considered an important resource in Gaelic Ireland, and that it was widely used as fuel.

Turf for Irish Mist

One of the most successful turf-cutting enterprises of the 19th century was in Mona Bog along the shores of the Shannon River. It provided work for several hundred people from around 1825 to the end of the century. At the height of production 5,000 tons of turf were ferried down the Shannon to Limerick every year. Unlike most other turf-cutting operations Mona Bog was quite industrialised and not merely a seasonal occupation carried out when time could be taken off from other labour. A canal was dredged from the Shannon into the bog with side arms serving as drains and for transport. At first, all of the cut turf was destined for a distillery in Limerick. When this distillery ceased operations around 1842, the turf went on sale to the general public. By 1875 around 200 acres of cutover had been reclaimed for cultivation.

Turf cutters recognised four different layers inside a raised bog. On top there was the clearing or “top scraw”. Under this was a variable depth of white turf, which in general, abruptly gave way to the underlying brown turf. Near the bog bottom the brown turf was replaced in turn by the black turf of the fen peat. “White and brown turf,” Boate reported, “costeth but little paines in the making: for being digged, and having lyen some dayes a drying (first spread out thin and single upon the ground, and afterwards piled up in little heaps) it is brought into the barn.”

The turf spade

A special tool called a flachter - also known as a skroghoge (scraitheog) or scraw-cutter - was used to cut away the heathery scraw from the bog in preparation for cutting the turf. The flatcher was imported from Scotland. Each tool was unique and each cutter had is individual tool, which was crafted by local blacksmiths from pliable wood such as ash or sally and held a blade made from scrap metal. The wide handle enabled the operator to push and undercut the scraw with thighs and hands. In some bogs, an upper zone of turf - as much as two meters or so - had to be cut away from the entire bog before it was possible to harvest the lower, valuable peat layers.

An extensive and specialised Irish vocabulary evolved around the cutting of turf, and each part of the country had its own variants or `turf dialects'. Some of the terminology connected with turf cutting in the western isles of Scotland, is of Norse origin. A turf bank in Scottish Gaelic is called bac mona (bakki = bank in Old Norse), a turf spade a treisgeir, which is simply the Old Norse word torf-sceir, a turf cutter. It is possible that the Scandinavian heritage of turf cutting influenced the Irish ways in the northeast through its close connection with Scotland.

The turf was cut with a turf spade or slane (sleaghdn). The becket, which was used to cut turf in the East Anglian fens down to the 1940s, was essentially the same as the slane. Similar tools were in use throughout Great Britain and Europe, but the design of the slane varied considerably between countries and even between regions within the same country, although the turf was cut in basically the same way as in Ireland. In some areas more specialised turf spades and knives were also employed.

In many ways cutting the turf was more organised in Great Britain than Ireland. Therefore the Ulster turf heritage is more closely related to British traditions than those of the rest of Ireland. Long-handled all-wooden scoops or shovels were used in the Somerset levels for lecking out the water, which seeped into the bog hole overnight. These scoops much resembled the dydal, which was used in medieval England for collecting underwater peat.

(a) Internal socket slane, Attymon, County Galway; (b) Long open socket slane, Keady, County Armagh; (c) Short open socket slane, Derry, County Galway; (d) Short open socket slane, Lackagh Beg, County Galway; (e) Strap socket slane, Kildare; (f) Strap socket slane, County Derry; (g) Open socket slane, Glendun, County Antrim; (h) English peat spade from Rosedale Moor; (i) Peat spade from south-west Scotland; (j) Scottish peat spade; (k) Welsh peat spade, Tywyn, Merioneth; (l) Danish two-winged peat spade, North Rangstrup county; (m) Norse peat spade, Sunnmore, More and Romsdal; (n) Danish implement for cutting mud turf, Baarse county; (o) Turf cish from County Armagh; (p) Turf barrow from County Meath; (q) Turf barrow from County Antrim

Strenuous labour

The first step in cutting turf was 'clearing', which involved removing the upper living layers of stems and roots called heathy scraw (from the Irish word scraith, meaning a green sod) using the flatcher. The weakly humified material underneath the scraw was also removed and sometimes used to provide a firm surface on the cutover. The slane consists of an iron head and a long wooden shaft. The head comprises a flat blade, generally with a wing on one side, so that the sods can be cut on two sides and detached with a single twist of the tool. The head has a socket for the shaft. In most slanes this is an 'open' socket formed by bending back the upper part of the blade to form two triangular collars which wrap around the bottom of the shaft. In the northeast of Ireland the open socket is generally longer than in other areas, and is generally found only in “breast” slanes; the more common “foot” slane has a `double strap socket', which may have been a relatively recent introduction from Britain. Apart from these obvious differences, each district had its own distinctive style of slane, which were made either by local blacksmiths or in spade mills.

There are basically two kinds of slane and two correspondingly different approaches to cutting. The breast slane is used where the turf-cutter can stand facing the turf bank. The breast slane can or cannot have wings. It can only be used where conditions underfoot remain relatively dry as cutting proceeds and was thus mainly used in blanket bogs. The sods are cut by horizontal strokes into the facing bank, before being cut vertically by another man standing on top of the bank. The cut sods are usually spread on the uncut bog surface; 16 boxes of turf a day was the average level of productivity.

Deeper bogs on the other hand were cut with the foot slane. The sods are cut on two sides by vertical strokes of a winged slane; the bottom of the sod is broken-up while raising it with the slane. The sod is then tossed to the waiting barrow-men, who take it away to spread on the dry cutaway in front of the turf breast, slanesman and wheelers working together as a co-ordinated team.

The output of foot-slane cutting was estimated at around 20 boxes a day. The size of the sod cut with the foot slane was around 10"x5"x5". Fenland turf cutters in the 1870s would expect to cut 8 - 10,000 sods in a good 14-hour working day. An American observer calculated that the rate of hand cutting per day by a team of 5 working fairly hard was 12,000 sods (85m3).

As cutting proceeded, the cutter had to work increasingly deep in the bog hole. This meant that as the day wore on, and he became progressively more tired, he had to throw the sods, which became more waterlogged and increasingly heavier as the bottom approached, higher and higher. But work was not only tiring, it was also dangerous: the deeper he went the more water seeped into the hole, and there was always the threat of water surging into the hole, if preliminary drainage was insufficient. This was not only problematic for the quality of the peat, but also for the cutter, who could be trapped at the bottom of a hole three or more metres deep. To avoid such a catastrophe, the bog was often fitted with a construction of a series of platforms.




John Feehan u. Grace O´Donovan, The Bogs of Ireland. An Introduction to the Natural, Cultural and Industrial Heritage of Irish Peatlands, Dublin 1996, 1-24.

design: Kai M. Wurm
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