Note: The following was contributed by an Irish relative in County Sligo, Ireland. He will be a guest contributor from time to time:
Saving the year’s supply of turf, (we never called it peat), was a family exercise extending over several months each year. Soon after St. Patrick’s Day my father would arrange to have the turf cut. At this stage a sod of turf is about 16 inches long and 4-5 inches square, and black sodden mass 80% water. Our bog was a fairly shallow blanket bog (about 5 feet deep), so we got only three tops ( three vertical rows). Two of the tops were thrown in two parallel vertical heaps on the bank and one in the bog hole. The next process involved “spreading the turf” where the sodden turf sods were spread out in a single layer to dry. This was very messy and heavy work and at the end of the day you and your clothes were covered in black muck. With my father and brothers working, it took 4 or 5 days to complete.
After about three weeks the top layer was dry while the bottom was still very wet. The turf was then “wreckled” that is the sods were stood on their ends in groups of 10-12 . I enjoyed this part of the process as you could be creative and develop your own “signature” wreckle. After about a month, the turf was dry and ready to be moved from the bog to the side of the road, though the time it took to get to this stage could be seriously delayed by bad weather.
The first ass cart I remember working on (assisting with the filling and emptying) had metal shod wooden wheels, but shortly after that my father replaced the axle and wheels with a car axle and rubber car wheels, which was regarded as a major technological advance. One part of our bog could not be reached by cart, so the turf was removed by ass and pardogs (wickerwork panniers). I was put in charge of this part of the operation at age ten. Two years later, I was put in charge of the ass and car and my younger brothers inherited the ass and pardogs. We had to move 140-150 cart loads a distance of 30 to 300 yards to the side of the road. This took place in June and took us about three weeks to complete. The weather seemed better then, as I recall hot sunny days working with the turf. In the next bog were three boys about our own age. As our carts passed each other, both groups were greeted with a fusillade of clods (small pieces of turf up to about 3 inches long). After a warm day in the bog we were covered in turf dust which stuck to your sweat and the way we had to clean up was to go for a refreshing swim in a large rock pool where the water was significantly warmer than the sea.
Our bog was three quarters a mile from our house, and, as you could put much more turf in the cart, we had about 70-80 cart loads to get home. I hated it as it seemed to take forever. We could get maybe 5 or 6 carts home in a day. Things seemed to cause delay. The ass might tire and fail, and would need the next day off. We had one ass that would work away happily for three or four days and then would just stop and would not move any farther. You just had to un-harness him and leave the cart there until he had his day off.. On the sharp stones the wheels regularly punctured and occasionally a wheel seized. On one occasion I was walking ahead of the ass when the reins were jerked out of my hand. When I turned and looked back, the cart was on its side in a deep ditch and the poor old ass was on his back with his legs up in the drain.
My children have very good memories of bringing home the turf for their grandfather. We were living in England at the time and during our summer holiday a brother would borrow a tractor and trailer, and with a team of from 10-15 children the job was completed in one day. My children thought it great to ride with their cousins in the trailer to the bog and to run home barefoot through the bog. My brothers went with the tractor while I stayed with my father to build the stack. The children were completely banned from throwing clods (my daughter had lost half a front tooth from a direct hit from a cousin). At the end of the day my brothers and I would start throwing clods at each other and the children were allowed to have a bog fight with us which they all remember. They were fascinated at the way we caught the in-coming clods and threw them back.
What I have described is the process of saving turf in North Mayo in the era of the ass and cart. With different types of bog the process was somewhat different.