Standing proud on a hilltop in the month of June makes you feel that you are on top of the world. With clear views in all directions, you are at the very centre of the cosmos and you cannot be but fully conscious of your own existence.

The distant sounds of sheep bleating and the trill of the curlew calling, along with a gentle breeze blowing the white bog cotton and a blue sky, amplify this idyllic locus.

This feeling of contented majesty was regularly my sense, almost 20 years ago, when I would pause from the work on top of Inchamay bog when we were cutting turf. Stripped to the waist, the sun beating down, you could look up and see the weather coming in; and almost as if you had control over it, you knew how long you would have before it would change.

Endless drudge

There was an endless drudge and monotony to all aspects of turf – from its cutting to the spreading, to the turning, to the footing, and the stacking – yet like all hard graft it was also deeply meditative and satisfying.

In August or September, when a full supply of good dry black turf used to be brought home and clamped in the reek, those who toiled at the turf could allow themselves a moment of pride and contentment for labour well done.

My fuller appreciation of the bog and turf came in the summer of 2002, when I took it upon myself to record the experiences of the people who lived in the boglands on top of the Boggeragh mountains, Co Cork. Anxious to learn about the tradition and using my naivety as my calling card, I used to sit for hours in their kitchens, my small tape-recorder whirring, asking questions while drinking tea and eating swiss-roll. Here, I registered the complexities and detail of this fundamental aspect of our vernacular survival as it was meticulously and generously revealed.

Of all the lovely people I interviewed that summer, the most forthcoming was Johnny Katie Looney, who lived with his sister Hannie near the summit of Barrachauring. Their house was so close to the top of the hill that one of their great fears was the danger of lightning. To my utter amazement I was shown the pieces of cutlery that sat one day on the kitchen table but were then left entirely mangled and twisted following a flash of intense lightning which came in the open door.

There were only two reasons, according to Johnny, that men who were dedicated to working a full day in the bog would have to leave: one was the lightning, and the other was the ‘small flies’. The midges are ecologically suited to the wet boglands with its moist air in the mornings and evenings, and they settle in their droves on the turf. Once disturbed, they rise in a dense cloud and start to bite and once you are bitten, they excrete a signal to tell the others to join in. You had no choice but to leave the bog when the flies were at their peak and Johnny remarked that those who tried to stick it out often got very sick from inhaling them.

Bog Butter. /The Butter Museum/National Museum of Ireland

Rancid butter

Johnny spoke about every aspect of his experience in the bog, but I remember the day I asked him about bog butter. Here is his account:

“We found it at the time of the war, in the west side of the bog. ‘Twas a three sod bog. We were cutting away and the next thing we saw this little bit of timber falling out. ‘Twas stuck to the sod, so we stopped and we dug our way around it.

“The bog was block solid and we brought out, a little barrel of butter about that size. ‘Twas in staves, they were sound enough, the cover got broke off. ‘Twas like cheese. ‘Twas the very same as the block cheese. ‘Twas yellow out. And I took home a little square of it and put it into the fire and it melted. ‘Twas perfect. The little barrelin had a track cut down into the rim.”

In Ireland’s ancient past, the hilltops were not just the focus of turf for the summer months but they functioned also as the ‘buaile’ or booley where the cattle were driven to profit from the summer pastures.

Here the cattle were milked and the butter churned and it is perhaps one reason that we have found so many containers of bog butter planked in the bog. Over the years, around 500 or so examples of bog butter have been recorded, many neatly packed in to tidy wooden churns and staved barrels. The majority of these date between the Iron Age circa 500BC and circa AD 1500. It is possible that they were placed in the wet bogland as an offering to the local goddess, while equally, it may have been a way of preserving the butter in the warm summer months.

Some scholars have suggested that the butter was buried to rid it of its rancidity while there are historic accounts of the cool, anaerobic bog being used to flavour the butter with garlic. If left over a long period, the butter placed in the bog resulted in a complete change in its chemical composition and the resultant mass of grease might have been used for other important purposes such as easing the friction of an axel on a cart or tanning a hide.

With all the many changes, the days in the bog in the summer are quickly fading to a distant memory. I can picture Johnny Katie’s smiling face as he took pride in retelling the detail of a lifetime of hard toil and I am glad that I took the time to sit and listen.

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