Can Ming the Merciless save our turf cutting heritage?

Week II

I have been watching the progress of Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan with some amusement, and admiration for a number of years. Amusement because of his long running campaign to legalise cannabis, which has to be a no-hoper. He has been convicted on several occasions for possession of the drug, but undaunted, he sent a beautifully rolled cannabis cigarette to every politician in the Oireachtas as part of his campaign, pleading for them to enjoy a smoke, inhale deeply, and support his cause. That man doesn’t know the meaning of ‘no’.

Ming entered the Galway political scene when he stood as an Independent in the 1997 General Election. His platform was the legalisation of cannabis, and (for a reason he never fully explained ), a protest against his landlord Frank Fahey, a long standing Fianna Fáil TD at the time*. Ming got just 548 votes. But created a minor fuss, and good newspaper copy, by shaving his hair, and styling his beard in the way of Ming The Merciless from the comic strip Flash Gordon. His appearances were “enhanced” by the Flash Gordon theme loudly played by the rock band Queen, and by the picture of cannabis leaves on his posters. He did better in the 1999 European Parliament election, getting a respectable 5,000 votes.

Back in his native Roscommon Ming has become a sensation. In the 2004 Local Elections he topped the poll, elected to the Roscommon County Council on the first count defeating sitting councillors John Murray and Danny Burke. He was re-elected again on the first count in 2009, and elected mayor of Roscommon in June last year. There was a little hic-cup when he refused to say the prayer before the subsequent meeting. Ming explained, to the silent council chamber, that as a non-believer, a prayer would be hypocritical. The matter was resolved when deputy mayor Ernie Keenan agreed to say the prayer.

It would have been a mistake to have dismissed him as a crank. His antics have given him the platform to broaden his campaign into a more inclusive social agenda, which he has articulated in an intelligent and clear voice. On February 25 Ming topped the poll in Roscommon-South Leitrim, receiving 8,925 first preferences votes, winning a seat in the 31st Dail. He made an impressive maiden speech, vowed to take a 50 per-cent of his salary and warned the EU, that mighty body of 27 sovereign nations, that he would defy its ban on turf-cutting, which came into effect as part of Europe’s Bog Conservation measures late last year.

Sense of contentment

When it comes to families harvesting turf for their own use, I wholeheartedly agree with Ming. I have always thought it daft to ban the small number of crofters who still harvest their turf for winter heat and fuel. I make the distinction between the families who have traditionally harvested turf as opposed to the vast commercial Bord na Mona enterprises in Offaly and elsewhere. Today, however, no more than 6,000 people dig their own turf for their own use, mainly in east Galway, Roscommon, along the Cavan/Meath border, and parts of Mayo.

In Tom Mac Lochlainn’s excellent book The Moycullen Ponymen** he reminds us that although you could be eaten alive by midges, ‘ The bog is a beautiful place to work. Every able bodied person helped in the bog and it was quite a community activity on a summer’s day. It wasn’t all work either. Most people who worked the bogs have happy memories of carefree moments chasing someone around a dúchan, jumping off the banks or pushing a sibling into a bog hole’.

‘ On a warm June day when the sun in high, the breeze blowing softly, the cattle lazing on surrounding commonage, the dragonflies flitting about in dark pools, pipits calling overhead, and the smell of the bog overwhelming.’

It’s a smell that I have heard recalled with pleasure by Irish people in Chicago. Cutting turf is a tradition that has been going on for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is a way of life, part of our heritage. When I was a boy the bogs on either side of the Curragh Line were a hive of activity as families worked in the early summer months cutting and piling turf into neat‘ wigwams’, that is six or seven sods (‘ footed’ in a ‘gróigín’ ) for easier drying. My father always said that even if you never read a newspaper, or heard Michael O’Hehir on the radio, you knew if Galway was in an All-Ireland final because there was extra activity to get the turf home in August, and all the summer jobs done before the big match.

A sense of contentment hung over every farmstead when the turf was neatly piled in the shed, ready for the wet, and windy winter ahead.

‘ Bring it on’

Turf is a clean, sweet-smelling, fuel in any fire, and a common source of fuel up to 30 years ago. Tom writes that the Moycullen turf-cutters were fortunate in having a lucrative market on their doorstep in the city, as were turf cutters in Rahoon, Bearna, and Spiddal. Even when the carraeraí (the old horse drawn carts with a load of turf ) discontinued, the turf trade continued in vans, trailers and tractors.

‘The future of the bogs is uncertain, and moves are afoot to ban further cutting in the name of environmental protection. Such moves are being fiercely resisted by those who see this work as central to the traditional way of life.’

If there was a world oil crisis would we all go back to turf fires? In 1943 an emergency turf scheme was undertaken in Moycullen by the Galway CountyCouncil to combat severe shortages in the city, and to deal with a crisis fuel situation in the Regional Hospital. ‘ Every available sleánadóir was employed on the bogs in Seanadh an Éadain, and Tamhnacha. Lorry loads of workers came daily from the east of the city to spread and foot the turf. Local youngsters with asses and baskets earned unprecedented wages. Michael Joe remembers getting his first job putting out the turf with an ass and basket. Joe Sonny remembers seeing trucks for the first time as he came across the mountain from Newtown school. He stood in amazement as they came into Pillagh from Tamhnacha and went down into Drumavohan. Joe’s two sisters, who later emigrated to America, worked on the scheme. The trucks brought the turf to Eyre Square where it was made into a massive cruach beside the famous statue of the Galway writer Pádraig Ó Conaire.’

Ming Flanagan has said he would not cut turf if it damaged any bog. He doesn’t believe, however, that the small amount of turf cut by families today threatens any environment. He said that he, and the Turf Cutters and Contractor’s Association, will continue to ‘ Cut turf as we have done for hundreds of years. And if the EU or the Irish government want to prosecute us....Let them bring it on!”

The EU better beware... Ming is ready for them.

NOTES: *After 29 years serving in the Galway West constituency, Frank Fahey lost his seat in the recent General Election. Somehow being a landlord is regularly hauled up against him, as if there was something wrong about it. He has always been up front that he owns a number of properties, which he has said may well be his only source of income if he ever lost his seat!

I always gave Frank a high vote. As far as I was concerned he was the only local politician actively involved in trying to improve transport in the city, and to advocate the long delayed outer by-pass which has resulted in thousands of motorists waiting in miserable queues of traffic every morning and evening, large articulated trucks having to use inner city roads, and delays in access and exit to and from our industrial estates. I hope one or all of our new TDs takes up the cause of motorists, and bring this log jam to an end.

** The Moycullen Ponymen - from Working Ponies to International Stars, by Tom Mac Lochlainn, published by Ashbrook, now on sale €20.

Who were the Moycullen Ponymen?

On Wednesday April 6 at 8.30pm the Moycullen Historical Society will host a talk in Arus Uilinn Moycullen, by Moycullen native Tom MacLochlainn, the author of ‘The Moycullen Ponymen’. Tom will talk about the various characters and stories mentioned in his fine book. Everyone welcome.


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