Cut Grass and Bogs.
In April 1980, we won the Eurovision when Johnny Logan asked us all ‘What’s another Year?’ It was also an Olympics year and standing on that wonderful, teenage cusp of endless possibility and kind delusion, I thought I was destined to be a sports super star in future Games.
A few years previously a local man had come recruiting in our estate to form an athletic club. He held trials in a local field and told my father that I was good at sprinting and so I began to dream.
After his day working on the bog, fed and scrubbed clean with Swarfega, my father would bring a few of us training, usually down to the local track in St. Brigids. We loved it most of the time but Winter was a hard slog, with no Track and Field competitions in sight, it often seemed pointless. Then May arrived with the smell of cut grass and it all seemed worthwhile again. Between the County Championships and the Community Games there was something to look forward to every weekend.
It was at one of these events, May 11th 1980 that we would see my father for the last time.
The Coroner’s verdict said it was a massive thrombosis. Reports that it was one of the biggest funerals the town had ever seen were cold comforts.
I never went back to the Athletic club.
That June I got my first summer job, along with my sister, walling turf for Bord Na Mona, our Father’s former employer. On the first day we were brought on a tractor and trailer from the works entrance to our section. The trailer was carrying half the teenage, male population of the town. I fantasised about summer romances as we bounced across the bog.
Being dropped off away from my sister made me feel like the only inhabitant in a world of peat until I noticed another worker a few drains over from me. He was already stooped over the turf, his arms moving in an intricate, insect like pattern.
I sized up the long line of heaped turf that stretched away from me, like a rugged country road. I decided not to stack higher than four sods: after all you got paid according to the length of the wall. By noon I was parallel with my neighbour, breaking for lunch when he did. I didn’t bring enough ham sandwiches and there were only so many Custard Creams you could eat. Swilling back red lemonade, I felt like the brothers from Friel’s story. I too was working out what I would buy with my earnings. A Queen album was top of the list.
Close to signing off time I noticed a dark form striding across the bog. I knew that this would be the one they called the Ganger and I looked forward to showing off my handiwork. Still some distance from me, he bellowed:
“What in the name of God do you think you’re feckin’ doin’ there?”
“Walling,” I replied.
“Who showed you how to wall?” he asked.
“Nobody, I figured it out for myself.” I said.
He asked for my name. Furrowing his brow and lowering his voice, he inquired if I was Bill Clooney’s daughter. I told him I was. He called across to the other worker.
“You there, come over here.”
The teenager came like a gazelle, hopping drains and jumping walled sections.
“Did you notice what this young one was doing?” he asked.
The young lad said he didn’t. The Ganger asked him how many seasons he had been on the bog.
“Three,” he said.
“Well, in that case,” the Ganger said, “you should have recognised a newcomer, seen that she was making a hames of it. You should have shown her the ropes.”
The youth shot me a dirty look. I shrugged at him. The Ganger said he was awarding half of the lad’s daily rate to me. He also had to help me rebuild the wall, properly, the next day.
It didn’t lead to a bog romance.
I don’t think my sister and I lasted long on the bog that year, but as we headed off to the annual Knights of Malta summer camp in Moate we were delighted with the money in our purses and our healthy bog tans.
As the years slipped by the sense of my father’s presence in the house began to fade, his voice rising and falling as he delivered the rosary became a distant echo. I stopped listening for the back door to open around five in the evening; stopped smelling the heady, peaty, bog mould that spilled from his boots when he sat on the third last step of the stairs to take them off.
But he hasn’t gone far and is still with me when I smell cut grass in May or gaze at the stretches of bog that blanket the landscape in my home county of Laois.
So, unlike Johnny Logan, who reaches out in his song to find no one there, when I reach out, I still find daddy nearby.
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