Walking to the shop, there was the sweet smell of turf in the air. There is probably some bye-law against it being burnt in Dublin, but I suspect the old person burning it would have been unaware of bye-laws and had probably spent much of their life ignoring most other laws.
The smell recalled an encounter with a cardiologist I used to see. A Limerick man, he had a directness of a Munster forward going for the line.
“How are you keeping?” he asked.
“I’m fine. I don’t much like this time of year, cold evenings with turf smoke hanging in the air; no wind to blow it away. If I step out into the street, I can feel turf smoke in my lungs”.
“But it’s a sweet smell”, he objected. “Seven or eight o’clock on a winter’s evening and the air is filled with its scent. It’s very Irish.”
“It’s a lovely smell, I like it. I just don’t like it on my chest.”
Turf smoke has an unmistakeable scent, a whiff of it can bring memories long past tumbling into the consciousness.
Many of those who grew up in rural Ireland could tell stories from childhood years onwards of summer days spent saving the turf. Older members of the community could recount the use of the slane, the sharp-edged spade used in cutting turf by hand.
As someone whose only venture among turf was to pick bog cotton on a summer’s day, turf has not, for me, the deep place in family history it had for the doctor.
If the winter well-being of a community depended on dry days and trailers returning laden, then the aroma of smoke on a cold evening will stir thoughts of tired adults and fireside conversations.
The turf smoke hanging in the still air may not be good for the respiratory system, but it never fails to conjure visions of low ceilinged cottages with chairs drawn close to the warmth, and pubs filled with the sound of fiddle music, and a sense of time stopped and all being well with the world.
A late summer’s evening in 1981 appears briefly among the slideshow of scenes passing through the mind. A brief image of the last glowing embers in the fireplace of a youth hostel on Valentia Island in Co. Kerry, sitting with two French girls who spoke of their hopes of the new administration of President Francois Mitterand.
Their hopes of a new France did not materialize, yet if they returned to this country today the scent of turf smoke remains, and with it an Ireland of mountains and harbours, and gnarled hands and strong arms, and laughter and smiles, and firesides and kitchens, and tea and cake, and perhaps doctors still saying smoke is not such a bad thing.
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