Today I got the smell of freshly cut turf in my nostrils and I was very much taken aback by the effect it had on me. It’s been a long time! Suddenly my head was immersed in a flurry of vivid memories going all the way back to my childhood. The sensation was intense – but that’s what a smell can do to you.
The occasion was the John Keane inspired ‘Drumcree Bog Fest’. I had only gone along to support John and those involved in a local initiative.
Having been born no more than a stone’s throw from Drumcree bog, I am familiar with just about every inch of it. My earliest memory is of our own bog and accompanying my mother as she ferried bottles of tea and food to my father and whoever was toiling with him at the turf. Those idyllic days were short-lived, as from an early age my brothers and I were conscripted for duty. Tossing, footing and clamping of turf was to be our lot. Next, my brother Willie and I were promoted to ‘barrow-men’ – a much sought, ego-serving title – but back-breaking work nonetheless.
From my early teens, my ambition was to ‘get out of the bog.’ I succeeded; swopping the soft feel of bog dirt to go drilling into hard rock 2,000ft under the frozen wilds of northern Canada. Today I realise the wisdom of the old saying; ‘you can take the man from the bog- but you can’t take the bog from the man’. You can’t take the bog from me!
Today I left my car at Reilly’s gate and walked 500 metres along the road before turning left in Malone’s boreen. Johnny Fitzpatrick was directing traffic into the bog. Johnny knew I didn’t need any advice – and I was glad. Most of the people going in would not know they were on Malone’s road. If I had a sod of turf for every time I walked in that boreen, I would never have to buy another drop of oil. Once upon a time, there would not be a blade of grass on the gravel road at this time of year such was the traffic to and from the bog.
As I walked towards the crowds and the action, I found a new realisation of the beauty of the bog and especially the colour of the flower and fauna. Nature does not pause or wait to see what man’s next move is going to be.
It was like old times on the bog – with the added pleasure of background music! Groups of neighbours could be seen in huddles everywhere; talking, telling yarns and laughing a lot. I engaged with old friends and former neighbours: people like Neddie Nolan. Neddie is great company and our respective fathers were best friends. Nolans came from the other side of the bog – but we used the same path. Neddie and I exchanged stories of a generation long since gone – and not all of them ‘bog stories!’
And then I got that whiff of sleane turf. The smell got me. I was transported back into short trousers, running into Malone’s house, where Madge always came up trumps with a slice of bread loaded with home-made blackcurrant jam. Nostalgia can be a bitter-sweet emotion.
On my way back out, I felt compelled to go in and view what remains of Malone’s cottage. The entire area is so overgrown now that I had difficulty finding the road gate. Rusted and warped, the gate rejected my weight as I sought to climb in. In what was once the garden – and where my father opened potato drills for his friend with a one-horse plough, I battled through furze, ferns and briars, determined to reach the walls of the house.
Nature has taken back its entitlement: Whitethorns, sally, birch and massive briars compete for space where once John Malone would be out with his hedge clippers. The door is gone. I used my arms to part branches as I crouched inside. The roof slates are gone too. The rafters rely on over-grown ivy to hold their position. The frame of a kitchen table and a couple of rusty chairs lie there undisturbed for a generation. The singing of the birds and the festival music endeavour to lift my mood, but nothing can shift my temporary feeling of sadness. I am reminded of the last words George Harrison spoke on his deathbed; “nothing lasts”
I say a prayer for John and Madge and further along, I murmur another one by the cross of my brother’s best friend, Ronan Conlon who got killed there. God rest all of them.
Things have changed greatly around Drumcree during my lifetime, but some things never change. The smell of freshly cut turf will never change – nor will the fact that ‘you can’t take the bog from the man’!
Keep your face to the sunshine and you will never see the shadows.