“You can hire a turf cutter for £80 a day,” said the voice on the television.
I looked up. “Turf cutting,” I thought, “I didn’t know they cut turf in England.”
It was not the turf cutting that I had imagined, instead it was a programme called Garden Rescue and the turf cutter was a machine for taking the surface off of a lawn.
Turf cutting, cutting peat from bogs, was an essential activity in the life of the people amongst whom I ministered. Once a man I knew recalled watching turf cutting in Co Donegal:
“We went up to Donegal on holiday; it would be a good few years ago now. Anyway, I set out for a drive one day and not knowing where I was, found myself across the border. I was in the Six Counties, I had crossed the border from Donegal.”
“I drove a few miles and saw people working up on a bog, cutting turf with slanes. Cutting turf by hand was hard work and skilled work and I stopped and walked up to them for a chat.
“Anyway, I went on from there and found myself back in the Twenty-Six Counties and I think I must have passed down the opposite side of the same bog. There were three Garda cars parked up on the roadside and the boys were up at the turf. I stopped to watch them and one of them came down to ask if there was something I wanted.
“I was just watching. I come from a place where a lot of turf is cut.”
‘You know a bit about it, then’, he said to me.
‘I do’, I told him, and we stood and talked for a while. He said a group of them rented a piece of bog and cut turf each year’.
It had seemed a remarkable memory, perhaps from the days when Garda squad cars were dark blue; it would have been hard to imagine in more recent times that anyone would have risked parking up three brightly coloured patrol vehicles and not have expected to attract attention.
It seemed an incident worthy of the life of Sergeant Reegan in John McGahern’s novel The Barracks. Reegan is disillusioned with his police life, his desire is for the rural ways, working the land, making a living from his own labours. Reegan digs his potato patch in Garda time, his only anxiety that of being caught. Sergeant Reegan would have felt at home wielding a slane amongst the company of colleagues. Had he lived in the times of squad cars, perhaps his enterprises would have been more extensive, perhaps the potatoes would have been carried in the boot.
The man’s fascination with the cutting of the turf; the Gardai renting a section of bog and engaging in the hard physical labour of cutting it; McGahern’s character’s desire to give up the police work and return to the land; each pointed to a deep longing for the recovery of something in the past that gave them more contentment.
A machine cutting the top off the lawn would not find a similar resonance.