A valentine for Ireland.
I lived in the northwest of Ireland the year of the Iranian revolution, listening to the stages of the hostage crisis via BBC radio or reading of it in the Observer that I would hike over the headland to Glencolumbkille to buy on rainy, windswept Sundays. It was actually the book review section I was interested in; hard to ignore the headlines, though.
We had a wee cottage up a quiet lane close enough to the Atlantic to hear the breakers at night. Arriving in the fall, we had no choice but to heat with coal–too late for turfing. The fireplace in the sitting room was small and put out sufficient heat if you huddled around it. The Stanley range in the kitchen was solid fuel. It was the main source of heat in the drafty cottage. It also cooked our food and heated the water with a tank at the back of the stove. Water came fresh from a spring off the moors above the house; a fine wire mesh on the end of the water hose stuck into the spring was our only protection from liver fluke. That and Powers whiskey. A wire cage by the back door was our refrigerator. We employed nature quite a lot that year: gravity, outdoor chill, triple-use fire.
It was a quiet, peaceful year, but not without an occasional twinge of guilt at my comfort and freedom as compared to those Americans still being held hostage in Tehran. I wrote in the mornings; in the afternoons I kept a garden with lazy beds full of potatoes and fished the lakes and streams nearby. Evenings were quiet: there was classical music from the BBC and the bookshelves in the cottage were stacked with an odd assortment of literature and book club editions: Waugh and Orwell sandwiching Shute; Woolf and Forster alongside Masters and Cronin. And all the while we readied ourselves for the great turfing expedition coming up in the spring.
Our landlord’s son, Nial, informed us that everyone in Ireland was allotted a bit of bog to cut peat in. Once the days lengthened and there was a bit of sun to dry the cut pieces of turf, we would get out to our plot and sort out a good supply for the next year. No more stinky coal; instead the pleasantly herbal aroma of turf smoldering in the grate.
In my novel, Yanks in the Glen, I re-create some of that year. My hapless hero, Jake Jarvis, divorce lawyer par excellence, decides to pick up stakes in Baltimore and settle in Ireland with his daughter Kate and ex-dancer wife Myra. Great idea he has, as Ireland is tax-free for writers. Only problem is, Jake is not a writer, Myra points out. In the novel, with Myra in Dublin doing a bit of freelance dancing, Jake and Kate plan to set out to the moors to bring in the turf. But first Jake muses on what created this wealth of combustible material under the soil of Ireland:
“I subscribe to the notion that this certain moss, a distant cousin of the genus sphagnum, invaded Ireland five thousand years ago, much in anticipation of the British. And like the British thousands of years later, this moss proceeded to bleed the land dry, sucking nutrients out of it like a Hoover on overdrive. And the moss succeeded in sucking the plant life dry, including the great forests that once covered the island. But it out-sucked itself in the end: it was a sucker for its own easy game. Sucking the life out of the land, it had forgotten to put something back in. Even a Hoover has an exhaust.
“The moss sucked the land dry, burpless and lifeless, and when there was nothing left to suck on, the islands of moss began to suck on each other.
“I think of Ireland now as one big hickey.”
“The moss is coming full circle, and isn’t that marvelous? Burpless in its lifetime, it is now quite happily transforming to caloric units and various unnamed effluents chuffing up our chimney.”
But first Jake and Kate needed to cut it:
“We cleared a ten-foot section of top soil along the ridge of what we assumed to be the old turf cutting. The cutting sloped down sharply eight feet on the roadside. Once we were through the top cutting, I took the L-shaped spade called the slaine to work on the exposed mire. Working in about a meter-wide strip, I carved cubes out of the goo with the slaine, walking backward as I cut. Nial had shown me the basics of this, but as with fly-fishing, it was a different matter when I had a loaded spade in hand.
“It took me half an hour just to figure out how to toss the soppy bit of peat without breaking it. But by mid-morning I had the hang of the wrist flip to eject the turf from the slaine, first up onto the bank itself, then later, as I cut down further into the ledge, the flip would send the turf sailing down below the bank. In either case, Kate would pile the turf into the wheelbarrow and wheel them out of harm’s way, to be spread out like wounded in a field hospital for air-drying.
“We knocked off for lunch with the first strip of our cut more than half done and the turf was spread out all about us in a very satisfying manner. We had got the rhythm now and were enjoying things. It was one of the more pleasant fuel-gathering experiences I’d had, nothing at all like the noise and violence of cutting wood. That was rape compared to the seduction of peat digging. By now, we could smell the turf fires from the others out on the bog, but, removed as our cutting was, we could not see these other people. Voices occasionally trailed over the moors to us: a laugh or some Gaelic joking from one man to another. It was social hour on the bogs.”
(Many thanks to old buddy Tom Ovens for the pics–he’s the handsome one in the turf-cutting photo.)