The turf arrives at our door one Saturday afternoon. By turf, I mean the rough-cut sods of peat that burn pungently and cosily in an Irish hearth – the stuff of dreams for any Irish person far from home. Turf in Ireland does, naturally, also refer to the ground smashed by the hooves of heavy horses, another important trope of the Irish psyche.
We live in semi-suburban Dublin, not in a housing estate but in a little workman’s cottage that is old enough (or at least its chimney is) to be suited, indeed it should be crying out, to have turf burning in it.
We won the turf in the raffle at the school Christmas fair. We were late getting to the prizes table and I passed over the other option available – a couple of bottles of expensive-looking wine – for this black stuff. We have enough Italian wine at home, I insisted to a surprised husband. Clearly I was subconsciously looking for the chance to indoctrinate my family of foreigners to a very real, pungent Irish experience.
I grew up in Dublin but I’m secretly a bit of a “culchie”, as are many of my generation – our parents moving from the country to Dublin, with various levels of cousins lingering in Monaghan or Clare. Summer holidays in Connemara come back in an instant with the smell of seawater and a smoky turf fire. Sods of peat are still hand-cut out of the bog in some parts of the country, this is serious land-connection stuff here and very Irish.
It’s the smell of turf that does it. Mention a turf fire to anyone and their eyes will drift off. Combine that with a hot whiskey, an uncomfortable seat, a good chat and maybe a slow tune played on a fiddle (well maybe that’s more for the visitors), and that’s the closest you’ll get to Irish hygge.
So our 5 bags of the loose, crumbly black stuff arrive at the door from the school dad, and I let the foreigners in the family deal with the transaction. I keep myself in the kitchen working on the dishes, where the mother of the cottage should be. And then I realise we haven’t told the kids.
– Who’s at the door? – asks the younger daughter
– It’s the people delivering our turf.
– What’s turf?
– It’s for the fire.
– It’s for a fire? I thought we weren’t going to use the fireplace – says the elder child nervously.
– Well your mother won it in the school raffle, it’s here now.
The polite Canadian husband greets the dad with his delivery.
– This is great, thanks a lot. So how do you actually light it, how do you use it? Does it smell a lot?
This stuff is very rough-cut, not the kind you easily find in the… shops, or wherever it comes from in Dublin. We don’t actually find out where he got it from, his peat bog in the back garden? The husband hauls it bag by bag through the narrow hallway out to the back yard and finds space for it in the plastic fuel shed usually used for coal.
– Did you fit it all in? I ask.
– I did, he says. (He’s learning)
And that’s where it stays. Later, I go out alone to have a look and a whiff. It’s ragged stuff alright, very natural, organic even, and untidy looking, guaranteed to stink out the neighbours. Oh but it’ll be worth it.
The slight air of contraband that hung over the door-step transaction reappears when we mention the turf delivery to our friend the landlady.
– Oh but you can’t burn real turf in Dublin, she says. Not these days. It’s only supposed to be smokeless coal or briquettes.
This being Ireland we investigate the rules and then the ways in which they are usually interpreted. This little cottage is crying out for an old-fashioned smell and we don’t know the neighbours so well, in fact there’s noone on one side (though a Christmas wreath appeared for a few weeks on the door down the otherwise overgrown path). So where’s the harm?
We call in a chimney sweep called Tim – a surprisingly young man, no cockney accent. He has a look at the fireplace, it’s actually a stove, and he says he can’t get in to clean it fully, it’s not his type of chimney. But he still manages to knock a load of dirt out and doesn’t charge. And he says we can burn the turf, no problem.
Now we just have to give it a go and use it.
There’s no hurry though. Spring is soon here but this being Ireland you can’t beat an old turf fire in the middle of summer.