In a chilly spring, turf smoke evokes the whiff of nostalgia

The smell of turf evokes so many memories for John Arnold
In a chilly spring, turf smoke evokes the whiff of nostalgia

KEEPING THE HOME FIRES BURNING: Turf cutting by Thompson’s Bakery employees at Nadd, North Cork, in June, 1947.

WHAT is it about turf smoke and the smell of it? There’s something special, kind of melancholy and historic and rural and evocative about it.

Strange, isn’t it, that on the last Thursday of May I’d be still writing about lighting the fire, but sure that’s the year we’re having.

At the corner of our haggard, there’s a shed that’s always been called the Turf House. The late Paddy Murphy recalled that maybe 70 years ago my father used get a lorry load of turf at the end of the autumn every year.

Now, we always had, and still have, thank God, plenty timber for firing and fuel, but I suppose the lure of turf was special for my dad. I don’t know of course but that’s what I presume.

Growing up in the 1960s, we still called it the Turf House, though ne’er a sod of turf was ever to be seen there in my youth. No, we used fill it with timber — ash, furze, sycamore and alder — with kindling or cipins at the front, cut up small with the billhook on a chopping block.

I loved using the billhook, though I still bear the scars where I cut deeply into two fingers on my right hand.

When we were building the milking parlour in 1980, a JCB accidentally demolished the Turf House- it was just a roof on wooden poles. Well, we rebuilt a new shed on the same spot and we still called it the turf house!

The wheel always turns, they say, and about a decade or so ago a man called one December Saturday selling bagged turf. He’s from Tipperary and calls ever since on a fortnightly basis.

Oh, I love the turf fire and when you’d be out in the haggard maybe late at night checking the stock, well, that turf-smoke smell evokes so many images for me.

I can just imagine my father as a young man going back to near Rathmore with a lorry in the years after the War and bringing back the brown, dried sods.

Many associate turf with bogs and poverty and, as they say in Irish, ‘bochtanas agus cruatain’. Maybe we thought of people from turf saving areas as bog-men, and so they were, but the term was never meant to be an insulting one. The richness, culture and lore which emanates from our bogs is part and parcel of our history.

I never experienced the thrill of working at saving turf — hard work, no doubt — but working with nature and the elements is so special. Like saving the hay long ago — of course it wasn’t easy, but when there was a crowd, a meitheail, it made the work easier and more enjoyable.

As one gets older and looks back down the boreens and tracks of memory, maybe you look through rose-tinted glasses, but sure what’s the harm in that?

In times like these, unprecedented years with Covid and lockdown and all that entails, we might think it’s the worst of times ever. Maybe so, but then I suppose we’ve had it so good for so long that we really don’t know what real hardship was.

A friend and relation of mine died earlier this week. She was in her 90s and myself and another friend were reminiscing about what life was like nearly a century ago. Betty’s grandmother was widowed in her 30s with four young daughters. She remarried a few years later and had six more children.

Rearing ten children was no easy task on a farm long before things like ‘running’ water, inside toilets, ‘the light’ or other ‘conveniences’ were even dreamt of.

I have no real ‘first hand’ understanding of what life was like back then, but from talking to people like Betty, I have begun to get a fair idea of a different Ireland.

Phrases like ‘waste not want not’ and ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ were the ‘apps’ and ‘sites’ and ‘links’ of that era. Where Betty’s grandmother grew up there were 22 children in three households — nothing unusual, I suppose, but ‘twould be seen as the wonder of the seven worlds in the post Celtic Tiger Ireland of today.

Imagine using and reusing everything — the term recycling wasn’t invented because people knew no other way. I can even remember having sheets on the bed made from flour bags!

Mam was great for home baking — nearly every homemaker was at the time. We didn’t buy white and brown flour in one or two pound bags but in two stone cloth bags. In our kitchen the flour was always kept in the press under the cups, plates and saucers. When the flour bag was empty it was washed and washed and boiled and maybe washed again. It was cut neatly down the two sides and then maybe four bags were sown together to make a perfect white sheet with neither a smell or sign of flour.

The only problem was, there was always a strong seam across the bottom of each bag and if you happened to be lying across that by night, you might have a nice mark on your back — a kind of early ‘home grown’ tattoo — but it never spoiled our growth!

When it came to clothes, we never heard the term ‘hand-me-downs’ — it was just the expected norm that items like jumpers, shirts and trousers were passed ‘down the line’ — there were four boys in our family and we just thought it was as normal as breathing that we got items of clothing from older siblings — waste not, want not.

I am slow to condemn the throwaway nature of society today, but lads, it’s a far cry from 50 years ago. Two sisters I heard of — there were 12 altogether in the family — got a new coat each for the first time when they were about 30! Before that it was what came down the line!

What really stunned me when I look at old records and diaries was the way people could feed a family, literally, from half an acre of land. 

Keeping a pig, maybe a cow ‘for the house’, a few hens, growing spuds and vegetables and collecting firewood meant little had to be ‘shop bought’.

Ah yes, truly the light of other days, and make no mistake, they were great people to do what they did. In truth, they had no options but to make do with what they had and make the best of what they could find.

I know, I know I’m not comparing like with like. Society has changed and the expectations of people have risen dramatically. That’s a great virtue — to improve your lot and do better than the meagre ways of existence of the past.

No problems, there but my question is when will enough be enough?

Our ancestors in the previous generations had little but they seem to have been happy, even content with what they had. Some say ignorance is bliss and you’ll never miss what you never had. That’s true, no doubt, but in the way the turf smoke evokes memories of other times for me, thinking of life in simpler times is like a tonic for me also.

Do you remember the hit Joni Mitchell had years ago with a song called The Circle Game?

And the seasons, they go round and round

And the painted ponies go up and down

We’re captive on the carousel of time

We can’t return, we can only look

Behind, from where we came

And go round and round and round, in the circle game

And go round and round and round, in the circle game

It’s important though to be able to ‘look behind, from where we came’. It gives us an appreciation of two things. 

Firstly, we can and should be thankful for the lives we now live with so much to help and assist us. Secondly, we should never forget our parents, relatives and friends — many now gone — for the heritage, legacy and memories they nourished us with.

From the bottom of my heart I thank them all, including my friend Betty.

Though I shed tears today, through those tears will came smiles as I recall great times we had. Truly, as another song says, ‘Memories are made of this’.

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