by Paddy Tuohy

Peatlands have played a very important role in shaping the history, culture and economy of Ireland…This is not surprising because with 17% of the land surface covered in peat, Ireland has proportionally more than any other country in the world with the exception of Canada and Finland…Those peatlands have long been regarded as wastelands fit only for rough grazing or for cheap hardwon fuel. In fact, they are one of our great natural assets not only as an energy source, but as some of last wild areas described by David Bellamy as one of the wonders of the world.

Taken from Peatlands J.R. Ross – The Irish Wildlife Service 1989

The Last Ice Age

To write about the bogs or the peatlands, it is necessary to go back 10,000 years to the melting of the last Ice Age. It was the third Ice Age to have gripped the Northern hemisphere and it covered all of Ireland with an ice cap that was three miles thick. That last Ice Age lasted 70,000 years and there were times when partial thaws developed and rivers flowed on the ice, only to be frozen again and remained encased in the ice until the final thaw came 10,000 years ago.

We here in Castleconnell, gained three very important physical features as a result of the melting ice. One was the River Shannon, as the ice began to melt a massive weight was lifted from the area which is now the central plain, causing a huge ice floe pushing southwards, it was forced to turn southwards by the Slieve Aughy Mountains in present day Co Galway and pushed its way through Killaloe, Montpelier and Castleconnell creating the famous Falls of Doonass. It has played a huge part in the social and the economic life of our village and its environs up to the present day. The next feature was the huge peatlands that grew between Newport and Gouig and the Shannon. It also was responsible for a very fine Esker that was Gouig Hill which played an important role in the economy of the area.

There are three types of bog in Ireland: a raised bog, a fen bog and a blanket bog. In this article I am going to write about the raised bog and to a lesser extent the fen bog. The word bog in common use in the English language is derived from the Gaelic word bogach meaning soft. The word turf is related to torb in German and turb in France, meaning a piece of peat cut for fuel. Only in England does it refer to horse racing. The word turbary is derived from the French and it refers to land where turf may be dug for fuel.

The melting ice left a huge stagnant lake between present day Newport and Gouig. The fen, low marshy land, began to creep out from the margins and was home to water lilies and bulrushes. As the mat of fen vegetation thickened, rain water constantly moving downwards leached away all the nutrients that survived allowing bog moss, Sphagnum, to establish itself, thus encouraging it to rise to the surface towards the source of supply like a baking cake with yeast in it. As the fen margin crept out towards the centre of the lake, trees decayed and their dead timber became part of the encroaching peat. Those crisp little sticks were a valuable addition to the harvested turf thousands of years afterwards. The bog followed and eventually the open water disappeared and bog covered the complete area which we call a raised bog.

The sphagnum mosses are the main component of raised bogs. The moss grew in tussocks sometimes a meter high. Some of those turn bright red in Autumn and together with the dying leaves of the cotton grasses have given rise to the name Red Bog, which is the present name of the stretch of bog near Bridgetown where it became home to water lilies and bulrushes. Sphagnum moss has high acidifying qualities and it was soon joined by sedges, cotton grass and heather especially ling heather…rain water could supply all the nutrient needs of the bog.

The bogs on both sides of the O’Brien Bridge road which were the Enright , McNab and the Crawley Bog, were also laid down at this time. The harvesting of turf from these bogs during and after the Famine was a great source of income to the people in the area because that turf was used to power industry in Limerick. Actually, that huge bog would have spread the complete way from Newport to the River Shannon with the exception of the esker that was Gouig Hill. It covered thousands of acres from Garden Hill in Limerick to Annaholty in Tipperary and from Gouig to Newport. It was owned at one time by five landowners, Henry of Forthenry, Going of Cragg, Waller of Castlewaller, Ryan of Ballymackeogh and De Burgho of Castleconnell.

On that bog in the early years of the twentieth century two different companies were set up to commercially harvest peat in two different formats. Anthony Mackey set up a factory at Clooncommons, what is now called Newline, to produce milled peat. This product was mostly exported as bedding for horses particularly for the English army in India. Here is snippet from an article in the Limerick Leader written by John Edmonds in 1954 about this Peatworks as it was known: Many people will be surprised to learn that the distinction of establishing the machine turf industry cannot be claimed by Bord na Mona. In Co. Limerick a comparatively big industry, in which scores of men were engaged in the production of peat moss and peat briquettes was set up almost fifty years ago (1910). The venture was of an exceptional nature and was carried out near Limerick city, lasted some years, long enough for the pioneer who organised it to prove that the development on such lines of the native fuel industry was a practical proposition. At Castleconnell beside that stretch of the main Limerick-Dublin road at Newline one can still see the remains of the old Peat Factory as it was called. The undertaking was sponsored by the late Anthony Mackey of Castleconnell, who was an extensive landowner. He was the proprietor of fisheries on the river Shannon at Castleconnell, Killaloe and Athlone.

That peat factory closed during the first quarter of the 20th century due to lack of government support. It had given employment to fifty local men, many of whom were dead when the article was written in 1954.

In 1864, in the northern end of the parish at Annaholty, a Quaker family called MalColsom from Portlaw in Waterford set up a factory which was believed to be the first briquette factory in the country. The briquettes were made from kiln dried peat mixed with coal dust. The manager was called King (surname) and the factory chimney and the workmen’s houses became known as King’s Buildings. In the 1940s C.I.E. buses travelling from Limerick would have Kingstown written on the destination plate in front.

Although cutting and harvesting of the turf had been carried out in Castleconnell area over the centuries, it was not until after the famine that any kind of development took place with roads and drainage. Lady De Burg built a famine relief road that skirted the bog between Gouig and the bog that’s known today as Lady’s Road. It enters the bog near Sandpit Hill and exits near the Tile Factory. Another road that went through the bog was from Barna in Newport to the high land of Gouig. It was laid and built by Ireton Cromwell’s son in law on his way to attack Limerick in 1649. The Land Commission laid down roads through the hitherto uncharted terrain that was just an extensive morass and where turf was only harvested around the perimeter. The turbary was divided into plots and banks were made available to the people of the surrounding area.

Leaving aside the importance of these two peat industries, the one at the Newline and the one at Annaholty, the real influence the bog had was as a great source of fuel to keep the home fires burning, and on the local economy as a harvested crop to sell either as stacks or by the horse load. Preparation for turf cutting began in February with the stripping and cleaning of the bank, cleaning all the scraws and roots until the bank of peat was reached and exposed. The bog hole from the previous year had to be filled because it would be used as part of the spread area to place the current crop. Sometimes the filling of the bog hole had to aided with the putting in of tree branches, usually black sallies. Spades, shovels and hay knives were all used in this preparation and of course the Slane, the most important implement of all. The breast slane was the type used, it had the capability of shaping the sods all with uniform length, width and depth. The slanesman was the most important person in the production of turf, he was like the pulse of the whole bog campaign. A rough shelter had to erected to give protection from the elements or the old one from the previous year would be repaired usually corrugated sheets or the body of an old car would be used.

Four lines of a poem by a local poet one Martin Gleeson, goes somewhat like this;

They cut the shelving sodden bank in sunshine and in rain,

That men by winter fires may thank the wielders of the slane

Like the great boatmen of Castleconnell, the men who worked the bogs were also greatly skilled in their own particular field, for down through the years they had developed the work of turf cutting to a high degree of artistry. To watch these fine slanesmen at work was an experience to be long cherished, to see the sods, all of equal length and thickness, come high into the air from the cutter’s slane to land on the brow of the bank at the barrow man’s feet. Their great knowledge and experience was brought into play when they went after the best quality turf which was to be found in the depths of the bog. ‘Taking out a bottom’ or ‘bottoming a bank’ were terms used to describe this operation, which was executed by leaving a wall or a dam of peat to keep the water at bay while the last black sods were won, speed and skill were of the essence because the water eventually burst in forcing a hasty retreat of the slanesman!

Certain areas of the locality became closely associated with turf cutting and slanesmen from families with a long tradition in the craft. One such area was appropriately enough the Bog Road where the Bourkes, Tierneys, Moloneys, Keatings and McMahons had few equals and neither had Steve Casey, Richie Buckley, Michael Reidy and Tom Joyce. In Gouig and Clooncommons were the Keane, Shyne, Byrnes, Murphy and Ryan families. Woodpark and Garden Hill could boast too of men who could hold their own in any line up of expert turf men. They came from the Berkerys, Joyces, Doyles and Maddens and some fine individual craftsmen like John Joe Mulqueen, Tommy Reilly, John O’Neill and Ned Bourke. The O’Donnells and the Quinns of Wood Road… From Stradbally came Paddy Travers, an expert with the slane and from the Old Street came Jos Ryan, Johnny O’Brien from Nelson’s Cross, Christy McInerney of the New Line, Sean Ryan from Derryhasna and the Skehan brothers, Jackie and Mickey from the cross. Annaholty gave the Quinlivans, all of whom were skilled in the art of cutting and harvesting the turf.

Times have changed now and the introduction of the big turf cutting machines that could turn out large quantities of turf in a very short time signalled the beginning of the end for the traditional method of turf cutting in the parish, the grand craft of the slanesman was slowly dying out. The smoke from the fires where meals were cooked, which was mostly boiling water for tea, or boiling eggs and on occasions the frying of a thick rasher, the chat and banter where local cutters got together for a smoke and exchange of gossip is no more! The sound of the skylark bursting into song as it rose from the heath and singing ever soaring and soaring until it became a tiny speck in the heavens. Returning to the bog it fell silent about twenty feet above ground and dropping like a stone, it flew parallel to the bog for about thirty yards until it silently dropped to its nest. The call of the cuckoo which always heralded the beginning of summer was a welcome sound.

Silence has settled over the once great peatland, a silence which is only broken now with the lonesome cry of the curlew and the constant drone of heavy traffic on the new motorway. The slanesmen, just like the cry of the corncrake and the horse drawn mowing have gone their way. During the forties, wrist watches were very scarce or pocket watches for that matter and people depended on the tolling of the Angelus to tell us that that it was six o’clock and therefore time to call it a day. I remember hearing men say “the blessings of God on you, Davy” when the Angelus rang out at six o’clock!

The local bogs made an enormous contribution to the economic and the commercial life in Limerick City and the wheels of industry were kept turning with fuel supplied from the bogs during the coal shortage of the war years. Big companies such as Todds, the Boot and Shoe Co., and the Irish Army, which was billeted in Castleconnell during the Emergency years, all cut and saved turf in the local bogs. The Army had bogs leased in Annaholty (The Long Bank) and at the Newport Bog Road. The Army had such a big contingent of young soldiers cutting turf in Annaholty it was necessary to say mass at the bog and Seamus Ryan and his grandfather attended that mass in order to fulfil their Sunday duty.

Mattie Bourke told me that he received his First Holy Communion on the same day as his cousin Donal. Mattie changed out of his outfit and himself and Donal went over to the bog to visit the soldiers. A soldier got a helmet and went around and collected threepenny and sixpenny bits for Donal. Mattie didn’t get anything because he wasn’t wearing his rosette and badge like his cousin!

The turf carmen of Castleconnell supplied a large number of households with fuel during that time and in the dark and freezing mornings of Winter that hard band of turf carriers set off for Limerick city with their horse and well-loaded creels. Stephen Reidy told me that many times in the dark of a freezing winter’s morning, he would have to go down to the tar road of the old N7 and check for icy conditions. He would then report back to his father before he would venture out with the huge load of turf. Mattie Bourke told me that in the days before Rural Electrification, it was normal for his father to reverse the horse into the kitchen to avail of the light from the oil lamp to insert frost studs into the horse’s shoes to prevent slipping. Sometimes a thick rubber band was affixed to the shoes to do the same job. Those two men and Johnny Hurley and some small few others are the only men alive today who delivered turf by the horse load to Limerick. They supplied very good turf, dry and hard, it was a living hard earned but it was honest and they were proud of their product. The creel loads were filled the evening before with every possible space on the cart filled with turf and the load raised above the height of the creel, but they did it without losing a single sod.

I remember going to the bog with my uncle to fill a horse creel of turf and he topped it off with a pointed top exact and accurate, and it did not matter that he would be throwing off his load an hour afterwards. He had the same culture as the slanesmen, they would not cut the bank of turf unless it was straight and true.

Working in the bogs activated a hearty appetite and the midges were a big problem. The bog lizard or the old Irish earc luchaire was also a problem if he took up abode in your bread and sandwiches, and if swallowed in your eagerness to satisfy your hunger. It was very difficult to get him out of the stomach and medical intervention could be needed! There was a man in Rearcross who had a system, he would starve the patient for two days and then light a fire with a frying pan and smokey bacon on it. Then with a gantry he would suspend the patient by the ankle over the frying pan and the aroma would entice the earc luchaire to leave its host! There was an old saying if a growing youth had a very big appetite, people would say that he had an earc luchaire in him!

The bog also lent itself to social life, in the 1940s as part of Rural Week a turf cutting competition was held to pick the best slanesman and barrow man in the parish. One evening accompanied by great excitement and cheering, it was announced that Jimmy Hyland of Belmont was the Champion and Martin Tierney of the Bog Road was the best barrowman. About once a year, a pack of foot beagles were brought from kennels near Limerick by a huntsman called O’Brien-Kelly who was fully equipped with hunting horn and uniform. They assembled at the Newline and all the young lads followed the hunt all day nearly as far as Newport. Many hares were chased but I never saw one being killed. As a young lad I was always amazed at the sound of the bugle and how the hounds obeyed its musical sound.

The bog was a rich storehouse of stories of turf cutters who could blacken the bog in a day and who could keep a sod in the air all day long. There were stories of turf selling yes and stories of pilfering, stories that didn’t lose anything in the telling! The brothers Joyce lived in Upper Annaholty and their bog was known as the long bank with great black heavy turf. They were honest men and exact and when they made a stack of turf for sale, it would be made square, true and perpendicular. In fact, it was constructed like a house! A man called one evening to buy a stack of black and heavy turf. The deal was done and they had even exchanged a luck penny when there was a sudden shower of rain. They ran to the stack to lean against it for shelter but it collapsed under the weight! Thieves had come and taken all the inside of the stack and just left the walls intact.

Tales of sightings of Jack o’ the Lantern or Will o’ the Wisp were rife and in more innocent times it was thought that those lights represented lost souls trying to get in to Heaven, or the Pooka trying to lead people astray. When I was a real small boy, one time while walking in the bog with my mother and a neighbouring woman, we saw the light about 10 feet above the surface of the bog, moving hither and hether across the bog in a zig zag fashion. We know now that it is the methane gas emanating from the bog as a gentle ball of light. My father told me a story about being in the bog one early morning in October with a neighbour and they saw the light. The neighbour was frightened thinking it was Jack o’ the Lantern he wrapped his arms around a big bag of wheat and he shouted “Come on Jackie, if you take me you will have to take the bag of wheat as well!” He then proceeded to turn his coat inside out!

On the old N7 where Co. Limerick joins Co. Tipperary a small stream is a demarcation line between the two counties. In the early 1950s it was an assembly point where the young people gathered on summer evenings to play music, dance, talk and sing songs. Everything was discussed from hurling to politics and sometimes the debates could be quite heated! I remember one evening after a by-election in East Limerick when a man called John Carew, a leather merchant on behalf of Fine Gael won the seat. Some people lit a bon fire to celebrate and I saw another person put it out with a vengeance! Next day in the meadow turning hay, if my father saw me yawning, he would say “you are tired because you are over at the Moving Bog all night.” That’s what people of his generation called it….the Moving Bog.

Thirty years ago, I interviewed the late Danny Ward and he gave an account of the moving bog which he had heard from his father and grandfather. The perimeter of the huge bog at Annaholty which bordered the Nenagh road had all been cut away. In the 1880s the bog moved, thrusting forward like an ocean of wet, broken moorland and it was the road which stopped it by acting as a dam and thus preventing the huge movement from going further. Engineers from Trinity College came to report and examine the impact and it was a follow up to another big bog movement in the Slieve Luachra area of Co Cork, where lives were lost. It was deduced that if the road wasn’t there, the bog would have moved the whole way to the River Shannon. The level surface of the bog was rent asunder with pieces of peatland standing jagged in the air. At the time when people were leaving in the aftermath of the Famine and walking the road to get a ship in Limerick, they often sheltered in the temporary shelters erected by the turf cutters. There was always the fear that someone could have perished in the moving bog. Years afterwards when Maurice Keating was working with Mick Quinlivan cutting turf, he found the remains of barrows, slanes, forks and spades lying very deep as a result of the bog being turned upside down in the movement. The bog settled and in the 1940s when Lar McGrath was taking his milk to Birdhill Creamery, he noticed the stacks of turf shimmering, shaking and trembling. He thought his mind was gone and that he was seeing something that was not happening at all. He had a reason for thinking this because a short time before, a young man from Ballina was wheeling out from a slanesman and when he came back to fill his barrow, he asked “who owns the second fork that is standing beside mine?” Some ailment affected his brain, he had double vision and he died that night.

Now bogland in an agricultural sense was frowned on, it could not produce wheat or barley or good pasture land to fatten cattle, as all the nutrients had been leached out of it, but at least a raised bog was a rich harvest waiting to be reaped. On the other hand, a cutaway bog was the absolutely the bottom of the barrel, but Patrick Kavanagh, with the great sensitivity of a poet saw beauty in it with his beautiful poem One and the last two lines of that poem

“That beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God Was breathing his love on a cutaway bog”

To the people who laboured hard and long to harvest the fuel and who are gone to their eternal reward, I write this as a memorial to their honesty and skill. Those who strove to rear families by the sweat of their brow…I like to have visions of them now standing in some great bogland talking not about Brexit, but about stripping turf banks or the price of bonhams.

Paddy wrote this piece to give a talk on our local bogs during Heritage Week and he would like to thank Nicky McNamara for giving him the opportunity to share his thoughts, Stephen Reidy, Mattie Bourke, John Joe Daly and John Hurley for all their help.