Irish turf was burned in open fires in pubs, hotels and homes all over Ireland in years gone by. Let's explore what is Irish turf?
When most Americans hear the word "turf" an image of green grass immediately comes to mind, like the lush green turf of a golf course, or the plastic green of artificial turf.
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What Turf Means to Irish People
For Irish people the word conjures up dreams of lapping flames, and the distinctive smells of a turf fire.
And so today I thought I might introduce my American readers to Irish turf.
Known as peat in other parts of the world, the Irish prefer the term turf, unless referring to hard, compressed fuel blocks known as peat briquettes.
But whatever you call these brown earthen blocks, I think most Irish people appreciate the warmth and comfort of a turf fire.
Turf is dried peat and was a primary fuel source for Irish people for thousands of years. Turf was Ireland's solid fuel for centuries.
The Smell of A Turf Fire
The smell of a turf fire is nostalgic for many Irish people. It evokes warm memories for many of us. I remember sitting beside my granny's open hearth as a little one, inhaling the sweet smoky air.
People from Scotland also have fond memories of peat fires.
The aroma of turf or peat smoke is very distinctive. It exudes an earthy perfume, filling the air with a magical aroma of ancient oaks and moss.
If you love this smell then you might like to check out the Irish cottage Irish Cottage Turf Incense Burner Set from Gifts of Ireland. These little burners can fill your home with your favorite scent of Ireland.
Cutting Turf in A Bog
Upon hearing the word 'turf' my husband immediately recalls days of back breaking summer toil, cutting, stacking, drying and bagging winter's fuel supply.
When he reached his teenage years, his poor father had to peel him off the bed to come help him in their Donegal bog. Somehow the lure of an ice cream cone at the end of the day had lost its appeal for a cool teenager.
In the past, Irish people used turf to heat their homes and cook their food. Turf was harvested from a bog. Cutting turf by hand is a laborious task.
A two-sided spade called a sleán (pronounced slawn) is used to slice blocks of peat from the bog.
So much work was involved entire families, in years gone by, took part in the summer turf cutting expeditions to the bog. Everyone's effort was necessary to save enough fuel to sustain the family throughout the cold winter season.
Preparing turf requires drying it out so that it will ignite when lighted.
Sods of newly cut turf are laid out in the sun and turned to allow them to dry.
Back Breaking Work
The turf blocks or sods are then stacked into small 'stooks' as shown in the photo above.
These little towers of peat allow the wind to blow through the sods and help with the drying process.
Standing the sods of turf upright and leaning them against each other is no easy task. This process is called 'footing' the turf.
Stacking turf is back breaking work.
Very few people cut turf these days, but in some western counties turf stacks can still be seen in the summer months, balancing precariously against each other to dry out in the wind and the sun.
The sods of turf in the picture above are almost ready for the fire. However, they probably wouldn't see a match until the cold days of winter.
Once the turf is deemed dry enough it is gathered together into a great mound or rick for storing.
Seamus Heaney Poem - Digging
Séamus Heaney is one of Ireland's most revered poems. His poetry reflects on rural life in Ireland when he was a boy growing up in County Derry.
Here's a short excerts from his poem "Digging"
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
This beautifully crafted verse underscores the importance of hard work and bringing home the turf in rural Ireland.
Turf Cutting During The Great Irish Famine
In the summer months of 1846, at the time of the Great Irish Famine (1845 - 1850) many Irish people were too hungry and weak to work in the bog.
Cutting turf and saving it was exhausting work. A day at the bog was a daunting prospect on an empty stomach.
As a result the poorest Irish folk had an inadequate fuel supply stored for the winter months of 1846-1847. And to make matters even worse, that winter was cruel, with bitterly cold temperatures.
I have read that people took to drying cow dung to burn in their fires for heating, since they had no turf saved.
Such sad, sad times.
In the photo below a rick of turf has been gathered on top of the high cliffs overlooking the Atlantic ocean on the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal.
Turf Cutting in Ireland Today
Turf cutting was primarily completed by machinery in the vast bogs of Ireland's inland counties in the past decades.
However, climate change and Ireland's efforts to go green and reduce air pollution have resulted in a ban on the mass production of turf.
Those that own their own bog still have turbary rights to cut turf for their own use, but are not permitted to sell turf to others. This exception is important, because for some rural residents, turf is their primary source of heating during the winter months.
But you'll still see turf stacks in unusual places along the coast.
Turf cut from peat bogs may be the traditional fuel in the west of Ireland, but unfortunately it is a smoky fuel. It has been banned in smokeless urban zones.
In my granny's cottage kitchen in rural Ireland turf was the fuel of choice. I still remember the bright, lapping flames of the turf fire, and the sweet aromatic scent that permeated her kitchen.
If you've every wondered about how turf is cut, just check out this video from County Antrim.
Thanks to the filmmakers for giving me permission to link to it ...
In the next video you can take a closer look at the turf ...
Turf brings back lovely childhood memories.
Let us know in the comment section below if you have ever had the pleasure of warming your toes in front of a glowing turf fire, or perhaps you endured days on end of back breaking labor to save the precious turf when you were a child. I'm looking forward to reading all your stories.
Many Irish pubs in the west of Ireland still burn turf in open fires, helping tourists and locals experience a little bit of the olden ways of Ireland.
Thanks for following my recipes and ramblings.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade
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