Turf and serf

Meeting a turf farmer on the side of the road in Ireland gives me an insight into the world of peat bogs and their Irish heritage.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Irish turf farming and peat bogs

On an expansive windy plain in the west of Ireland, Joe is preparing for a cold winter. It’s what he’s done every year for decades.

It’s only June but now is the best time to harvest the natural energy that’s going to keep his family warm when the weather turns sour.

The peat bogs of Ireland stretch out for kilometres and have a unique history to this land that stretches longer than anyone can remember.

They’re slightly springy as you walk on the grass on the top and I’m pretty sure you would sink down into the mud if you didn’t watch carefully where you walk. I slip a little as I slowly make my way across the bog and climb up to where Joe is working.

irish turf farming, peat bogs, ireland, turf peat

He is laying out strips of peat – cut from the ground – to dry. This is the traditional way of doing things, the way it has been done for hundreds of years. But a lot has changed in that time.

These bogs have always been a rich source of fuel. The peat inside them, created over many years from decayed vegetation, burns well in a fire but doesn’t create much smoke.

It’s perfect for a stove or a fireplace in a small house. And, best of all, it’s already on people’s land and it’s free.

irish turf farming, peat bogs, ireland, turf peat

But this access to cheap and easy fuel has created problems over the years because it’s been overharvested.

Recently, strict conditions have been put in place and now industrial farming of the bogs is very limited.

Joe is able to still go and take the peat from his land but many other farmers have been banned because they live in more environmentally-sensitive areas. And even Joe can only take it for personal use – he’s no longer allowed to make a profit by selling it to other people.

irish turf farming, peat bogs, ireland, turf peat
irish turf farming, peat bogs, ireland, turf peat

He’s a friendly man, Joe, who doesn’t mind a stranger just wandering onto his land to ask what he’s doing. I get the feeling I’m not the first.

He points to the edge of the raised area we’re on, about a metre high, and explains that a machine was used to cut off a slice about 30 centimetres wide. In that slice was the peat that he’s now putting out to dry.

It will be enough for a whole year.

irish turf farming, peat bogs, ireland, turf peat

Before I have a chance to do any maths in my head, Joe points to a pole about three metres away and tells me that’s how much they’ve used in the past ten years.

It doesn’t seem like much at all and I find it hard to understand why there are such strict bans on peat harvesting until I remember that this is just for one house.

irish turf farming, peat bogs, ireland, turf peat

Joe is a little hard to understand. He’s got a thick Irish accent that is made even less smooth by his rural upbringing. But it’s got the usual lyrical trills that make listening to it a pleasure.

It seems I’m a bit hard to understand too because Joe is confused about why I don’t know more about peat. He asks me, perplexed, what we use for heating in Sydney.

Well… where do I start to answer that one…

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Stena Line, Paddy Wagon Tours and Discover Ireland but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

8 thoughts on “Turf and serf”

  1. I remember looking out the window of the bus to see the irregular cuts in the hill from the peat farmers. It is a neat tradition, but looks like a ton of work. Not that that is necessarily bad, but eesh.

    I wonder if the bogs are renewable at all? In human lifetimes or is it on the order of 1000 years?

  2. I always enjoy finding out what locals do for a living (or even other travelers I meet). Although it is an incredibly annoying American thing to ask “what do you do” as your first question when meeting a new person, you do learn a lot of interesting occupations…. just don’t make it the first question you ask someone 🙂

  3. Hi I’m from Ireland a coach driver in fact. I saw your article a few of them actually I think they are well written. Just about the turf it’s not wet after it is stood up and air circulates around it in the spring and summer months. Usually families help each other to pick it up to stack it (some stack it in two’s first lying flat one way the next two at ninety degrees to that and so on and so on)
    A week or maybe more later people come back and turn it all over and restack it so the last of the wet areas dries out. There is only a few months to “bring it home” as they say. Families and friends help each other to get the job done. They would bring sandwiches and flasks out for lunch and be there most of the day.

    Taken back by trailers on tractors they would be placed in straight lines on top of each other into a shed with open sides to let the air through but the rain out.

    A family might get two years burning out of a summers loads.
    It really is fun for the kids though hard work in their school holidays

    And great to see young and old alike sharing the one goal helping neighbours and meeting other friends “out on the bog”

    • That’s awesome – I love the way you put it. It’s nice to think of it as a family and community effort that brings everyone together and helps keep the homes warm for so long.


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