While visiting Westport, Co. Mayo several years ago, I visited an antiquarian bookshop in the town. While browsing through the many rare books in the store, I came upon a 3rd edition of a 1946 printing of a book entitled “The Spirit of Ireland” by Lynn Doyle. I flicked through the hundred or so pages of this travel book depicting life in 1930s Ireland, looking for some Donegal interest. Towards the end of the book, I came across a series of photographs of interest. One of these was the above photographic illustration entitled “Loading the Turf Boat, Co. Donegal. The image jumped out of its dusty cover, through my inquisitive eyes into a mind, thirsty for local historical knowledge. The photo depicted an activity carried out by inshore island communities off the Donegal coast including my native townland of Carrickfinn, then a tidal island.
There has been a total change in the way of life since this photo was taken sometime before the first publication date of 1935. In this essay I will examine the detail, the activity and the changes that occurred since the image was captured and tell what is known about the photograph itself. The subject of the photograph is filling the boat with turf. In order to fully comprehend the hardship involved with saving this crop, I feel it is necessary to look at the work involved.
The people of Carrickfinn harvested their turf supply in Diarach Mountain about a mile from the location of photograph at Annagry.
The only method of transporting the turf to townland was by boat as it was a tidal island inaccessible by road. It was the custom that the Carrickfin folk would cut their turf on the days of the new or full moon at the beginning of June when the tide was full in the morning and evening to ensure a hassle free crossing to the mainland. On the morning on the assigned day, the women of the house, would rise early so to have the breakfast ready for the turf cutters. The table was adorned with delph from the dresser, kept for important occasions. The meal consisted of home cured bacon with a duck egg, cooked on the hearth and accompanied with homemade scone bread and butter. The meitheál or team of eight able men was as a rule made up by the man of the house and/or his adolescent sons. The remainder of the team were neighbours. The same company would return the favour when the other members of the team were cutting their crop. This was a family day out with the woman and children of the house going along too, equipped with pandies, tea and bread, the makings of a fine lunch. While the men cut their dark, the woman and children made tea on a campfire, fueling the meitheál to continue their task.
When not capable of fishing due to high seas, they would sail the more peaceful inshore waters of the Gweedore Estuary to work with their crop, thus assuring their free time was used wisely. Every available person in the household went along, but their task now was somewhat different. On the first return to the bog, several weeks after the cutting, the sods of turf were turned over and left to dry in the mountain air until they returned a few weeks later.
Returning to the bog, the drier turf was footed. Footing involved four sods of turf balanced on their ends similar to the legs of a stool with a larger sod on the top to steady it, ensuring that the wind passed through them. On the next visit to the bog the dry turf was clamped into small stacks, each one the equivalent of two creel loads. On the next visit, a donkey was hired from one of the farms close by to take the turf to the roadside. Shellfish and salted fish were given in exchange for the donkey’s services.
In the ensuing days the turf was filled into a cart drawn by a horse and taken to the quay at Annagry, ready to be taken to Carrickfinn by boat. The hire of the horse, cart and driver was again paid through the bartering system.
In an interview before his death in 1993, Johnny Forker then eighty eight years old, tells of the yearly effort to keep the home fires burning…
“In the morning we would leave Carrickfinn and sail our boat called a yawl to Annagry where they would spend the day filling it. When filled with seven cart loads, the yawl would sink in the water to the last board about nine inches from the gunwale. We rowed back home with the ebbing tide to a little quay near to our farm, to unload our crop. We would sail if it was calm and wind in a favourable art. At the quay the turf was built into a stack and from there the youths in the family would carry it home in creels.”
Johnny went on to describe how centuries of tradition came to an end when the turf supply was taken home by lorry on the newly constructed causeway into Carrickfinn from the mainland at Braade in 1945.
In her book Tales of the Donegal Coast and Island published in 1921, Elizabeth Shane, a frequent visitor to Carrickfinn, depicts this laborious work in her poem The Turf-Drawing.
Along the edge o’ the land we tied the white boats in a row,
Where the bank was piled wi’ turf down from the bog a week ago,
An’ all day long the girls an’ men were workin’ wi’ a will,
For the turf is aisy handled, yet a boat takes long to fill-
Oh! The turf, the brown, sweet-scented turf, each boat must have its fill.
The poet describes the above scene as thus; the brown sails glow as the laden boats come slowly one by one.
Since 1945 Carrickfinn folk went along to fill the lorry but with the help of hydraulics the turf could be emptied without anyone handling it. The capability of the tractors to travel on accessible turf banks was also seen as a progression. It ended the carrying of turf by creel and it put the donkey out of business. They could now cycle with their turf spades or sléans tied to the crossbar and with a flask of tea and a packed lunch they could stay there for a full shift. The popularity of the motor car from the 1970s, made the bog accessible at anytime. Harvesting turf has transformed from community based to a more independent exercise. It is now possible to hire a machine to cut turf and hire a tractor with an operator to get take it home. The yearly turf supply can also be bought by the tractor load or in local shops by the bag full.
The men in the photograph wore garments in common with most other older men in coastal communities along the western seaboard; trousers made of flannel, that were both relatively waterproof and hard wearing were worn. A grandfather type shirt was worn under a hand knitted gansey or waistcoat. This attire worn with undergarments such as simmets and long johns kept them warm. It was also customary for the men folk to wear easily repairable hobnailed boots. The youths in the photo are in their bare feet; more common in summer.
With the change in modes of transport from boat, to bicycle and eventually to car, dress codes changed also, to lighter clothing based more on fashion trends and wider availability than necessity determined by the weather and work.
The boat in the photograph was a seaworthy vessel of Norwegian origin known as a yawl common along the Donegal coastline. It was an adaptable craft that could safely carry large unstable cargoes such as herring, seaweed and turf. The sprit and jib sails wrapped around the mast in the photograph were used instead of the usual rig of two sprit sails and a jib to ensure a safe passage.
With the book “The Spirit of Ireland” crediting the Irish Press I searched the newspaper archive and found this image with another confirming the location and passage from Annagry to Carrickfinn.
Interestingly while delving deeper, I found that it was part of a collection of an Irish material to be used by the Nazis for their planned invasion of Ireland.
This romantic image of a boat weighed down by turf takes one back to time not that long ago, when in west Donegal agricultural activities were all done with grit and determination by hand. Taken at a time of transition this snapshot of an age old activity was about to change swiftly beyond recognition, for the better and for the worse; within a generation they could cycle to process their crop; then get a lorry to deliver and empty the load on their doorstep.
The celebrated access to roads ended years of physical struggle and dealing with weather and tides. The growing popularity of motor vehicles in the 1970s also meant people could wear casual clothing and go to the bog anytime they chose. Of all the changes that have occurred in this tradition, the social aspect was most altered. The necessity of going for breakfast with the family whose turf was getting cut stopped; this custom is carried on in the form of an evening tea for the lorry or tractor driver and the workers now.
In summary the contents and historical background of this simple photograph taken in post treaty Donegal has a cosmopolitan feel with simmets from Scotland, yawls from Norway and its fascinating international use by the Wehrmacht.
It is a treasure to have this photograph in order to preserve and highlight our history and heritage, in combination with the poem and the oral tradition in the interview discussed in the essay, we are truly able to reveal a window into our past.
© Jimmy Duffy 19th January 2015.