Few issues in Irish life expose socio-political fault lines like turf. East v west and midlands, urban v rural – any threat to turf-cutting leads to an emotive, angry and accusatory debate.
Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan was fully aware of this when he announced the sale of turf will be banned from September of this year on. And for a man who has at times made statements that left him open to being lampooned (rewilding with wolves, lettuce in window boxes, pooled cars in villages) on this occasion, he played it straight and made his point.
Firstly, he said, Ireland could no longer maintain the existing ban on smoky coal if turf trading could continue. The granting of a further derogation for turf would be legally challenged by coal companies. As a smoky fuel, turf contributed to 1,300 premature deaths a year, he added. People would still be able to exercise their turbary rights, but could only foot turf for their own use after this summer.
A strong reaction was inevitable. Michael Fitzmaurice led the charge, as you would expect from the chair of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association (TCCA). The Roscommon man holds that families sell a bit of turf to cover the cost of extraction. He wants any changes phased in, as alternative energy and heat sources emerge.
The rite of passage that is footing turf is enshrined in the public consciousness, whether through Peig Sayers book (if you’re under 35, ask your parents) or Heaney’s poetry. Eamon Ryan’s recognition of turbary rights is informed by this, and Michael Fitzmaurice welcomed this.
The ban on selling turf has given rise to some on social media comparing it to other contraband, with turf sellers now outside the law like drug dealers.
There are parallels with cannabis – it’s smoky, the Government says the smoke is bad for your health, and Luke Ming Flanagan campaigned on both issues.
In reality, it’s extremely unlikely that anyone will be prosecuted for sharing a basket of turf with a family member or neighbour. The TCCA’s assertion that people have the right to “cut their own turf, for their own use, in their own bogs” is being met. The lad heading to Wexford with a lorryload of turf might be in bother, however.
As so often is the case, there is an argument that it’s all little more than a stunt if we continue to import briquettes. Critics will call it classic “mixed messaging”, but others will say we have to get our own house in order first.
You can fill in the blanks after that yourself – data centres, carbon leakage, the need for a relatively prosperous country like Ireland to “step up” and out-of-touch south Dublin lecturing the rest of us. This one will run as long as there’s turf in the bogs.