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From the Archives – Pat Critchley: Priceless memories from working on the bog


This Pat Critchley piece originally appeared on LaoisToday in 2017

Long before the Spanish sun holidays became the norm, we had the bog. It was a great place to get a tan, first the sun burn, then the tan. There was great speculation as to how the wetness of the peat acted as natural suction for the sunrays, like a ginormous magnet. The bog was christened, Costa del Mona or Costa del Sod.

The bog also gave you a great appetite, that would enable you to gorge any type of sandwich, washed down by water, milk or cold tea.

The sandwiches were graded. The Premiership sandwich was the ham sandwich. As you went down the Divisions, you got your corned beef, cheese, banana, tayto and jam sandwiches.

Bottom of the pile lingering in the Lower Conferences was the prairie sandwich. Two slices of bread and wide open spaces.

Back in the 70s and 80s June saw mass migration of schoolboys, like swallows, from Portlaoise CBS to the bog. Most families had their own bank of turf at the edge of the cut away bog. The turf was saved to keep us warm in the winter.

The schoolboys also joined the regular workers with Bord na Mona on the commercial bogs of Cul na Mona, Cul na Ceart and Cashel. The biggest part of this work involved walling the turf.

You rebuilt a wall of turf about five feet high in a hundred yard sections, placing the drier sods at the bottom and the wet ones on top. The sods were much bigger and heavier that those used for domestic fires.

They were for the production of peat moss in the factory at Togher. There were two types of wall, stairs and two by one, each of which ensured that the wind had gaps to blow through and dry the turf.

We were paid by the section and it didn’t matter whether you were sixteen or sixty, you were paid the same for a wall.

This system meant that, once we worked hard, we brought big wages home to our parents. The bog money paid for school books, second hand bikes and pocket money for the year.

My brother Mick was in 1st Year and I was in 6th Class when we first worked for the Bord. Mam and Dad always maintained that the bog was a great education for us and gave us an appreciation of how hard it was to earn money.

Some years we went out at Easter for first walling. There were mornings when we waited in the huts for the frost to thaw off the sods.

The turf for first walling had just been machine cut out of the cut away drains. The sods were sopping, which made them much heavier to lift, especially for schoolboys.

They were stuck together in the wall and we had to cut in with our hands to dislodge them before lifting them to build a new wall. This skinned our fingers until they were raw and the slimy turf muck got under our nails. Second walling, back breaking as it was, never seemed as bad after those Easters.

As the summer progressed, the walling came to a finish and teams were selected to man two shifts on the Collector. You had to be sixteen years old to work on the Collector and were paid on time rate per hour. The men were on a higher rate than the school goers and the regulars who worked full time were on the highest rate. Nevertheless the school goer rate was massive wages for us at the time and everyone worked hard to get selected.

The Collector was a massive conveyor belt set on huge caterpillar tracks onto which the walls of turf were thrown to make clamps which were drawn with locomotives to the factory. It was constantly coming towards you with the drivers on bonuses for the amount of sections covered.

As we cleared our walls, we left a Sahara of bare bog behind us. The track walls were the  hardest with the belt at a higher pitch, dust blowing into your eyes and the sods scattered on the ground to avoid the tracks.

We became weather experts, gauging the cloud line over the Sliabh Blooms with the wind direction, to predict rain. When we were on time rate working the Collector we yearned for the rain.

Rain was Manna from Heaven, as we were paid by the hour, even when we were sheltering. When we were walling on peace time, however, we only got paid by the number of sections that we completed, so the rain was costing us money.

We huddled under our coats and the walls of turf for shelter. On occasions, we worked close to one of the galvanize huts and took shelter there.

Soon a game of cards would be called, poker or 25. Despite being on peace time and only making money if you got a good hand in the card game, when the skies cleared, we had to return to our walls.

If you were caught in the hut in dry weather, you could be fired or it could cost a Townie a place on the Collector.

During one such card game, as the sun began to peep through the hut window, our sentry who was supposed to be peeping out, was asleep on the job. Suddenly he yelled that the Ganger, Tim Dunne, was only 50yards away from the door. Panic!

One of the regulars knew that Tim was a very religious man and saved the day. When Tim entered, he was leading us all in a decade of the rosary.

Tim took off his cap and reverently knelt. When the decade was finished the congregation reverently exited and returned to their walls. Not a word said.

Apart from the money we made, the bog gave us a sense of independence and an entry into the adult world. Even though we knew the work was going to be tough, we looked forward to the bog for the characters and the craic we would find there.

Of all the characters like Ger Dooley, Mick Kelly, Johnny Moore and Bill Delaney, there was none as famous as Paddy Dea.

We would all leave off in September as school re-opened. The Collector would reduce to one shift and eventually finish.

Then the regulars would go back to the factory for the winter. One year, Paddy was neither a school townie or a regular. I suppose he could have been categorized as an irregular.

Irregulars were simply laid off. The Ganger came to give Paddy the bad news, ‘Paddy, I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go Friday. The Collector is finishing. But come the spring, Paddy, there’ll be plenty of work for you here again.’ An unimpressed Paddy replied, ‘What do ya think I am? A fecking daffodil!’

The Collector

She moored on Cul na Mona bog
A tall ship stranded
When our ancient sea dried up

Gangers whip their oarsmen
Bending, banking, back breaking
Tossing sods on belts
Wave after wave of turf walls

Her panzer tracks
Drive forward relentlessly
Shrapnel dust cut our eyes
We fire our missiles

Stick our muck sod mines
Suddenly, clogging, creaking
It groans to a halt
Rest at last

Today I saw its yellow rusty shipwreck
Crashed on the rocks of the M7 Motorway
Its battle lost against the charge of time
Waiting for the waters to return

First Walling

Around pot bellied stove we huddle
In our galvanize shelter
Waiting for Easter frost to melt
Waiting for the call to go

Then into the fields of trench and wall we trudge
Cold fingers cut and dig the wet sods from the earth
Fingers skimmed with bloody muck

Our labour brings peatland growth to suburban gardens
Where no sods fire pot belly stoves or council jubilee cookers
Our midland oil

Windmills now grow from the bog
To feed green shoots in suburban ghost estates
Our windland oil

SEE ALSO – Pat Critchley: Coaching and spectating is grand but it’s never the same as playing

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Pat Critchley is a teacher and coach and has a rich pedigree across a range of sports in a playing and coaching facility. He was Laois's first GAA All Star having been selected on the 1985 hurling team. Author of the acclaimed Hungry Hill, he writes on a diverse selection of topics for LaoisToday. Pat's book Hungry Hill has recently been re-released and is available to buy for €10 at a selection of outlets in Portlaoise