Back to the sad enough story of the reason why Ireland's traditional turf hearth fires are disappearing by the day in the New Ireland but first, if I may, to the related memory of when brother Cathal and I, when returning home from school at the age of about 11 and 12, and wearing our short tweed trousers, were stopped on the side of the road by the neighbor known as The Dipper.
The Dipper got his nickname because, although he was a Protestant who had not much time for Papishes, he was not Church of Ireland, like the majority, but a member of a more fundamental cult. Were he living in your Deep South today he would probably vote Trump I think.
Anyway, he hailed us and promised us a sixpence each if we would capture for him four of the big plump White Wyandot hens that were feeding in the field beside his thatched house. Sixpence apiece was real money that time so we went at it with a will at once and, inside a few minutes, had easily captured four of the angrily cackling big white hens.
He tied their legs and put them in his shed and paid us our wages at once. We would have thought the hens were for the cooking pot.
But when we got home and told Sandy about the incident he said, "Ah lads the winter is coming in and The Dipper is going to sweep his chimney again.”
True enough, The Dipper was observed above on his thatched roof the next afternoon dropping his angry hens in succession down the chimney. It was apparently done frequently enough back then. The frantic wings of the poor hens as they dropped dislodged any soot deposits in the chimney.
For a couple of days afterwards four very black-looking White Wyandot hens ran for their lives when they spotted Cathal and I coming along the road from Rossdoney School. And who would blame them either.
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Another yarn before I get down to the hard facts behind the disappearing hearths. This one maybe explains why turf fires have such an impact, even generations later, on the folk of the Diaspora.
I will never, ever forget the tears in the eyes of the great Mayo storyteller and journalist John Healy as he told me how the last thing Mayo families did before they were forced to emigrate to America was to bring a few coals from their hearth to the nearest neighbor's house, place the coals in his fire, and ask the neighbor to keep their fire safely for them until they returned.
In those days, you see, the huge fires never died out. They were raked up at night and revived every morning. Cruelly, few of those emigrants ever managed to return again in that harsher era.
John also told me the heartbreaking reality in more recent years of very aged and feeble bachelors in Mayo refusing to leave their homes for very necessary care in old folk's homes because they had maybe three or four former neighbors' fires burning on their own hearths. I think John Healy wrote those stories in his splendid book called Nineteen Acres which ye should try and lay hands on for a fuller understanding of the way things were in the west back then.
Today, in a nutshell, the production of traditional turf in the west and elsewhere is deemed illegal because our bosses in Brussels have declared that vast areas of Ireland's peat lands are a precious environmental asset for the continent and are
SACs (special areas of conservation).
Under threat of being fined millions our government, years ago, bowed the knee and declared that no turf could be cut in the SACs.
The traditional farm cutters, especially in Roscommon and Mayo, rebelled, despite being offered small financial compensation, and continue to cut turf in small volumes to this day. They are permitted to cut turf in a very limited area but despite their rebellion, it could be said that the government has won and the battle is lost and old-style aromatic turf has virtually disappeared from the market.
Ironically the common substitute, apart from firewood and coal, is a government-backed product produced on huge tracts of the Midlands by Bord Na Mona, the turf board.
This product is actually briquettes of compressed mold, sold by the bale, quite expensive, a highly efficient fuel in all fairness, but dramatically without either the traditional herbal perfume of the old sods being replaced. There is also machine turf, called sausage turf commonly, but again it lacks the old appeal.
Even more dramatic, in the immediate future, is the prospect that new house building regulations will make it very difficult, if not impossible, for families to fit their new homes with open hearths at all for safety reasons. Usually trustworthy sources tell me that this is very likely indeed.
Accordingly, if you come home on vacation and find yourself sitting in front of a real old traditional hearth fire with glowing turf atop and the room lifted by that special aroma, then consider yourself lucky and enjoy the old ritual for as long as possible.
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