EIGHTY-five years after Eamon de Valera visited the Bog of Allen near Ballyteague and cut a sod of turf at the first national Turf Cutting Championship, his grandson Éamon Ó Cuív did the same at Ballyteague GFC.
During a commemorative event held on Sunday 2 June, the TD used the same silver sleán as his grandfather had, which was on loan for the day from Bord na Móna.
The commemoration was held on the club grounds as part of an annual turf footing and country fair family fun day, the brainchild of club chair Frank Moran. This year it was decided to mark the passing of 85 years since de Valera’s visit to announce the drainage of the bogs and the creation of employment in communities – the beginnings of a turf industry that would alter the geographical and social landscape of Kildare, Offaly, and all across the midlands, which had suffered from economic hardship and emigration.
As Frank explained, posters were put up across the UK and America and workers came from there (and throughout Ireland) to work on the bogs, with villages like Coill Dubh built to house workers and tradespeople.
“The midlands don’t have a diaspora in London, Manchester, New York, Chicago because there was full employment here,” he said. “All our communities and villages were shaped by what happened in 1934.”
An article by Brian Dempsey and Michael Jacob in The Allen Eye explained that turf societies had been set up during the early 1930s around the Bog of Allen to promote the quality of hand-won turf. The idea to organise a turf cutting competition similar to the National Ploughing Championship was hatched by TD Tom Harris, Major Henry de Courcy-Wheeler and turf boat owner Jim Doyle. The purpose was to standardise and improve the quality of the turf being produced and it was designed to showcase many of the necessary operations.
The first Turf Cutting Championship drew huge crowds and distinguished guests included President de Valera, Minister for Finance Seán MacEntee, and Minister for Industry and Commerce Seán Lemass. The visitors were welcomed by Major de Courcy-Wheeler who pleaded for the development of the bogs ‘for the sake of the people so that they might secure a livelihood and future for their families’.
According to a contemporaneous article in the Kildare Observer , the President remarked that there hadn’t been such a crowd on the Bog of Allen since the days of Fionn and the Fianna. Minister Lemass – whose niece Louise attended the commemoration this month – was reported as saying that the development of the fuel resources would allow those who had been trying to ‘secure a precarious livelihood on the poorest land’ to ‘gain an adequate means of assisting themselves by their own labours’.
“Here you had a place of mass emigration because there was no work, on the poorest of land, and here you had the government of the time in 1934 coming down to tell the people that now we’re going to build you a factory here, we’re going to create employment, we’re going to need workers, we’re going to pay you for it. We’re also going to build houses – you can come and live in it,” explained Brian Dempsey, one of the organisers of the commemoration.
The Turf Development Board was established the same year (the Lullymore briquette factory opened in 1935) and it initiated the Kildare/Offaly Peat Development Scheme which set up 14 turf camps. In 1946 it became Bord na Móna, with mechanical innovation meaning that “peat and turf production could now be produced on an industrial scale”, according to the authors of The Allen Eye piece.
The recent event in Ballyteague was attended by figures including TD Fiona O’Loughlin and ceann comhairle Seán Ó Feargháil, the grandchildren of Tom Harris, and the descendants of the competition winners from 1934 who were presented with a bog oak pen (Bord na Móna brought the original trophies along on the day).
Following a presentation about the area that featured several speakers – including committee member Paddy Behan and Michael Jacob – a piece of bog oak from Ballyteague bog that had been worked on by John Moran was unveiled, before Éamon Ó Cuív addressed the crowd and cut several sods of turf.
The bigger picture is something both Frank and Brian highlighted as the focus of the commemoration – the impact the development of the turf cutting industry had on Kildare and right across the midlands, with immigration rather than emigration shaping communities which flourished.
“We’re not celebrating turf cutting,” Frank remarked, “we’re celebrating the survival of these communities.”