A day in the bog is quickly becoming a memory. It would seem that this once integral part of vernacular survival is to be no more.

So, at this cusp of change, before we all forget, let us allow ourselves one last guilt-free reminiscence of a day in the bog.

May was the time to go back to the bog, lest the frosts of April turn the sods to “brus”. For many, the treasured blacksmith’s “sleán”, oiled and wrapped in sacking over the winter, was taken out as chief amongst the “weapons” to tackle the new bank.

This, along with the hay-knife, the bog-spade, a three-pronged pike and maybe some type of low turf barrow were assembled and brought to the bog.

No two bogs in Ireland are the same and depending on one’s circumstances, you might be working in a midland raised bog with the turf anything from 10 to 20 sods deep.

This contrasted with the blanket bogs on the mountain tops, some with barely two sods. The deep bogs demanded that you work in a “meitheal”, and children were given a day off school to help to spread and later foot the turf.

Sunburn was often a by-product of a sunny day in May on the bog. For those people high on the hilltops foolish enough to strip off their tops, and sun protection a concept long into the future, their milky-white torsos were often badly burnt.

The first sod

The hay knife and the bog spade were employed to lift what was called the long “stripping”: the tough scraw, about 10 sods wide on the top of the bank.

This was an important task, as here is where the back-breaking work of turning and footing would take place over the following weeks.

Tidy work was all important and many brought a line and took pride in keeping their banks perfectly perpendicular and straight.

The sods of scraw were carefully put down into the hole where last year’s turf had been cut and the living part of the bog, with its fluffy white bog cotton and sphagnum flora, continued to thrive.

The first sod with its fibrous, tough matter was the most difficult to cut and the strongest man was assigned to this task.

The handle of the sleán was short and the constant downward pressure caused blisters in the centre of one’s palm if you were not used to such work.

Once the day’s work began, it was a constant process of cutting and spreading and pikes and barrows were used to bring the turf to the farthest corner of the bank where they were neatly arrayed in ranges.

This was an important task, as here is where the back-breaking work of turning and footing would take place over the following weeks.

The only thing that might interrupt such hard work was the relentless attack of small flies or the very real threat of thunder and lightning.

Toil and tea

With such constant toil and the sun shining, the bog held a great danger of becoming dehydrated and a most welcome respite was a cup of tea.

Some would have come to the bog with a can of milk, which they planked in the cool of the turf bank away from the sun.

Others would have brought the ubiquitous Irish flask: a bottle of tea wrapped in an old sock. For many others, the kettle was set boiling on the spánach (the little “cipins” of burnt heather), and the small caoráns (little hard bits of last year’s turf left on the bog).

You often hear people remark that there was nothing as memorable and refreshing as tea in the bog.

Such a pause might allow one a moment to observe the tranquillity and peace of the bog; the hovering and singing of the skylark; the wandering herds of wild goats; the hare caring for her young leverets.

For many of us, our days in the bog are filled with special memories and it is no harm to bring such wonders back to mind.

Shane Lehane is a folklorist who works in UCC and Cork College of FET, Tramore Road Campus. Contact: shane.lehane@csn.ie

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