A night out, a glass of wine or two and suddenly the conversation turns into animated laughter where everyone – but me – has a Bog story they’re dying to tell.
As a city dweller, my childhood included nightmares from one of the many scary books I’d just read or maybe even a paper cut or two. My country friends, it appears, experienced a different kind of horror – the bog. But their retelling of those, not so long ago days, were so hilarious that I made them each promise to write a flash fiction piece for my Blog – an opportunity for us city folk to get an insight into what we were missing!
First up, is Nikki Whelan, with The Slog of the Bog:
The Bog: A place in Ireland where childhood labour is real, where midges kill, backs ache and summers are forever lost.
Every Sunday my dad would bring us on a mystery tour. In those days, there was no such thing as buckling up – there were no seat belts – so the five of us would pile into the back of his Ford Sierra Sapphire full of anticipation.
“Watch out for the Guards,” my dad would say, “two of you be ready to duck for cover.”
We rarely saw the Guards, but we would nod and laugh, bickering over which of us had to be ready to duck this week. These tours could bring us anywhere – from point-to-point race meetings in the backarse of nowhere, to horse sales in Goffs, the lakes of Blessington, Glendalough or even to view a dog trailer in Thurles. But each summer, one such trip would invariably bring us to the Clongory bog to pick a plot of turf.
When we’d arrive, Dad would get out of the car, make a big show of inhaling, then he’d turn to us with a big smile. “Doesn’t it look great?”
We’d all look at him confused and eventually reply that it looked the same as the plot from last year and the year before that. All our friends were excited about a summer in Spain, Cork, at their Granny’s or the Gaeltacht, while for us, our summer began at the bog …
After the turf was cut, it was time for our work to begin. First, we’d foot the turf. This involved stacking about 10 pieces of turf on top of each other, in different directions, to allow it to dry. A quicker alternative for drier turf was to clamp it (stacking in tepee fashion). That was too easy – we were hard core – we never clamped it. It was back breaking work. My siblings and I would compete to see who would get their line of turf footed first. I learned quickly that this was a futile exercise. Once you were finished your line, you would be directed to help the others.
After a few days of footing, with the summer sun beating off our backs, we’d all shuffle off the bog bent over like 90 year-olds. But this wasn’t the biggest evil of the bog – no, the biggest evil was getting eaten alive by midges. Swarms of them would come out, mostly in the evenings; it was an incentive to get our work finished early. They’d eat every unclothed part of us, leaving red itchy lumps the size of large grapes protruding out of us. We’d wear our socks pulled up high to save our shins. The only midge deterrent we knew of back then was smoking. Oh God, how we envied the adults who puffed away to midge freedom. My mom smoked tip cigars on the bog – but only on the bog – it was acceptable there. One day, I’ll be old enough to puff my way to midge freedom, I thought, totally unaware, back then, that I’d have gas central heating in Dublin and never have to spend another day on the bog!!!
When it was time to leave, if the turf still wasn’t fully dry, then we returned a few days later and we’d stack it then. I remember the days we’d wake to hear the rain pelting on the roof. How we loved rain, it was our saviour – the only thing that would spare us from the bog. Next was the bagging phase. The car and trailer were driven onto the bog so that we could throw the turf straight into the trailer. But, if the ground was too soft to drive on, then we’d load it into bags. These bags were then carried – or dragged, in my case – to the road and lifted into the trailer. Sometimes my Dad, after inspecting the ground and declaring it driveable, would get the car and trailer stuck in the bog. Amid laughs and shouts, all bodies on our plot and neighbouring plots would come together to push the car back out of the bog. Then we’d be back to square one, filling bags and dragging them out to the road.
We lived for our break, we’d eat ham, lettuce and salad cream sandwiches and buns. We’d drink as much Cadet orange as we wanted. We needed the sugar for energy. Our limbs would stiffen as we sat on the bog and we’d struggle to get up and back to our line.
Finally, when the trailer was loaded and secured, the proud journey home with the turf would begin. We’d sit in the back of the trailer on top of our loot, our bums bruised as they hit sharp pieces of turf as we chugged along. But we didn’t care. We’d make one stop on the way home at the local shop for orange Rocket ice-pops. This was our prize for a good day’s work on the bog. Nobody batted an eyelid at our black dirty faces and hands as each of us traipsed into the shop to claim our prize. But our day’s work wasn’t quite done. Once we arrived home, we’d have to unload the bags of turf into the shed. We’d stack them high, leaving the shed with a sense of pride, knowing that it would be a warm winter.
I hated and loved those long summer days on the bog. The smell of peat was lovely, an awful lot nicer than the smell from some of our other summer activities like mucking out stables. And the comradery on the bog was fantastic; we survived it together. We always left with sore backs but a great sense of achievement. You’d sleep like a baby after the slog of the bog – that is if the midge bites didn’t keep you itching all night!