Selling Turf in Sligo

In this story Reco and Cecil make a trip to Sligo on a horse and cart in wintertime. Reco is twenty-two years old and Cecil is nineteen.Whatever your means of travel it is some 16 miles from Boggaun to Sligo, avoiding steep hills, and the return is shorter by 3 miles if you take the route over Benbo Mountain.  

A shower passes over Benbo Mountain, seen from O’Donnell’s Rock.
Image from Google maps.

Their Mother Annie sees them off to the bog.

“After days of rain, it finally stopped. Before lunchtime Reco and Cecil set off to the bog on two empty carts, the horses well fed. I made them up a basket with eggs, bread and bottles of tea. They would need it when they got to the top of O’Donnell’s Rock. There’s be no shelter up there, a cold wind always blows, worse in November. Maybe they’ll hunker down behind the turf stacks for a while. I was up there once, in the summer but it was enough, I’ll happily leave it to the men. It’ll be after dark when they get back, there’s not much daylight now. And tomorrow they’ll have a longer and harder day, if they can get through the floods.”

Their Father Richard sends them to Sligo Town.

“There’s a powerful price to be got for turf, what with the curse-ed Germans sinking all the coal boats. Arragh, we should’ve gone into the war with England, this neutral thing’s a cod, we’ll pay for it yet, mind my words. I bought extra turbary up on O’Donnell’s Rock these last few years, it’s paying black gold now. Reco and Cecil are taking two load to Sligo tomorrow morning and we might get another two off next week if the weather holds. It will be a long day for them, but they are young, there’ll be no loss on them. The radio forecast says it’s to stay dry and I’ve arranged for their cousin to meet them in the town and make sure all is well. Anyways, I had harder in my day.”

A neighbour meets them on a flooded Sox Line.

“I met the two boys coming out of the Bonet flood water on Sox Line.  I was coming home from Dromahair with a bag of flour on the bar of the bike. They were taking the long road to Sligo, on account of the full carts. Cecil looked soaked and miserable. Apparently, he was leading the horse through the flood, couldn’t see the edge of the road and fell into a pool of water. Must’ve have come up over the top of his head by the look him. His over coat was hung on the cart, dripping and he was shaking the water off him like a drowned dog. Reco and himself wrung out the big coat. No heat in the day either. I told him to come to the house dry off, but he would hear nothing of it.

‘I’ll take a sup of the warm tea, and if I’m still cold I’ll call into Ena in Gillmor’s shop in Dromahair.’ He says.

I don’t think he ever did. A hardy young buck he was. There’s nothing to bate the good woollen clothes when you get a wettin like that.”

Their cousin meets them in the Market Yard.

“The midday Angelus was still ringing when they came into the packed Market Yard.

‘What took ye so long?’ I asked them. ‘I’ve been here this hour.’

‘Arragh, Cecil fell into the flood coming over Sox Line, held us back a bit.’ Said Reco.

When they found a place to park the cart, Reco pointed to the town and said to Cecil.

‘Go down there and into the first place you smell a hot dinner. Don’t come back without getting something into to you.’

He put the nose bags on the horses and we chatted, all the while hoping for a quick sale. The yard was full, with a good few loads of turf but the boys had the right black stuff and was it sold before Cecil came back.  I got away fairly handy and I’d see then again around Christmas”

A woman from the town buys their turf.

“Myself and a neighbour woman bought the two loads. The turf was the best, hard and black and would keep the fires lit and the cooking done well into next year. Grand young lads they were, not a complaint between them, unlike my fella. We lived close by the Market Yard in James Street, so at least they didn’t have to go too far before unloading.  They carried the turf in creels through the house to the small yard at the back and the both carts were emptied in just over an hour. I had tea and a few rashers ready for them when they were done, but they hardly sat down to eat it, said they wanted to be on the road with over two hours to get home. I felt sorry for the two of them having to set off into the darkening evening with such a long way to go. But they were lucky, after the days of rain we’ve had, it was a dry and they had a bit of a moon.”

Phyllis waits for them to return home.

“I heard the dogs bark as they turned into the lane. It was after six and thick dark. I saw their lamps from the window and heard the carts rattle up the lane. The youngest, Jack started shouting their names.

‘Reco! Cecil! Reco! Cecil!’

Earlier, after I got home from The Tech, we all got their jobs done before it got too dark. Mammy had a big dinner ready for them. They were famished when they came in. We were full of questions, but they just ate and ate without a word. It was only after they were finished and sat back from the table that we heard Cecil’s story.”


Notes: This story was given to me by Padraig Fitzpatrick. I have told it through six imagined voices.


Of his generation Cecil was the one who remained farming at Larkfield while his siblings emigrated or moved away. The harshness of the times and his mother’s disapproval of his girlfriends, left him a lifelong bachelor. Cecil is at the centre of many of my enduring teenage memories in County Leitrim; incidents and adventures that I share with my brother Ivor, being of a similar age. My sister Elaine and youngest brother Nigel recall him slightly differently, but nonetheless warmly. Stories involving Cecil have already appeared in this blog and others will no doubt follow.

Cecil about 12 years old, cropped from family group photograph c1935.

Cecil was the third surviving child of seven. After Herbie died Reco became his father’s golden boy and Cecil fell into the role as Reco’s workmate. He was not keen on national school and had no interest in going on to The Tech; perhaps his father was happy to see another set of hands on the struggling farm with its burden of debt.

After Mullaghduff National School he went to Masterson’s in Manorhamilton with his sisters Ena and Phyllis.  His contribution to The School Collection is sparse, unlike his two sisters.  His Uncle Alex, who had returned penniless from County Meath, gave him three short pieces which he copied into his special homework book. Done. Given Alex travels they are interesting:

“Praise the young and they will come to you. Hills are green far away. A stitch in time saves nine.”

Through the 1940s and 1950s Cecil worked on the family farm as it gradually threw off its debt. With his father, and brothers Reco, Alf and Wallace, they put in long days of hard work in all weathers.

He had been going strong with a local girl in the mid-1940s. Their plans, however, were stymied by his mother Annie who disapproved of the relationship, despite the religious affinity.  Perhaps Annie felt that the struggling farm could not sustain another family at that time, or that she feared a re-run of the long struggle with Cecil’s Aunt, Mary Jane, when Annie arrived at Larkfield as a young bride a generation earlier. But for decades to come Cecil would get a regular Christmas card from his former girlfriend.  

He had other girlfriends, but none that would get his mother’s blessing. Annie had made similar interventions in the lives of Reco and Wallace; Wallace’s effective banishment being the most extreme. Despite her husband’s more liberal attitude Annie’s force of will on such matters would hold sway into the mid-1950s. Cecil’s choice was between the farm or the road, to join the stream of unskilled emigrants leaving for England at that time. He never did leave and never married.

Cecil, his Aunt Hilda and father Richard c1945.

After my Grandfather, Richard died in 1961 we kept up our regular holiday visits, three or four times a year. Cecil and Granny would greet us warmly, a welcome after the long car journey, the table set in the farm kitchen.  Cecil had taken over the running of the farm with his mother keeping a sharp eye on all transactions. He was quieter more reserved that his father, but like his father found ways to involve us in the life of the farm, affirming Larkfield as our second home.

We would follow him around like lap dogs, watching him work, giggling uncontrollably when he lost his temper, cursing. And trying to carry out the small jobs we were offered. As we got older, we worked with teenage effort and at the end of the summer holidays would leave with a roll of notes pressed into our hand.  During the 1960s and into the early 1970s we became vital part of summertime’s hay making and farm work.

On both sides of my family honest physical work was valued and carried an expectation of progress; at Boggaun this was most likely elevated further after the collapse of Cecil’s father’s  business years earlier. While I had no great strength, I developed a stamina for work and with Cecil garnered much of the practical skills of running a farm and managing stock that would stand me in good stead in years to come; all bound to a love of the farm’s fields – the White Field, the Angle, The Well Meadow – and the surrounding streams and hazel wood scrub, crisscrossed with tracks of rabbit, badger and fox.

Cecil drew us to a world that was fast disappearing; a time of paraffin and Tilley lamps, of horsepower, of cycling and walking cattle on empty roads to fair days in open streets, of bachelor farmers living in two-roomed thatched cottages that doubled as outhouses, a lifestyle little changed for generations.

We became more aware of lives of Cecil and Granny.  Weekdays Cecil was up as we slept in the nearby bed, the rattle of buckets from the yard outside the small window our alarm clock, while from downstairs came the soft warm sounds of Granny preparing breakfast. Weekends Cecil would often return in half light of an early summer’s morning to skip, jump into his bed still buzzing from the revels of the night. Of course, he would then sleep in until we heard Granny’s hand on the squeaky brass door handle in the room below.

“Cecil! Cecil! Do you know what time it is! Get up!”

Which was repeated every five minutes until he groaned out of bed and pulled on his clothes.

Once or twice during the summer he would drive us to Bundoran on a Sunday afternoon. His father and mother had for many years taken a week’s holiday in a boarding house there, but a holiday was not on Cecil’s calendar. The buzz of the packed amusements in the crowded town was a teenager’s heaven.  We sometimes ended up at a small, cramped table in the lounge of the Holyrood Hotel. Cecil would inevitably fall in with some friends at the bar as we sat sucking on minerals and listening to a Country and Western band play over the hum of the packed room.

Reco with author, Ena with Ivor, and Cecil c1953.

When his mother died in 1978, he was forty-four and on his own. He accommodated the changes taking on cooking and limited housekeeping, falling into a routine suited to his own patterns and favour. There was talk that he should get someone in to help with the house, that it was not too late to find a partner.

He could have married, the house was free for a woman to take over, and there were attempts to make a match. At the time rumours abounded as he was judged a fine catch for the right woman.

During this time John James Davis, Cecil’s cousin from Daysville in Alberta, Canada made his only visit there with his cousin Tommy Davis from County Meath.  They arrived at what they took to be the right lane and enquired of men working there if this was Cecil Davis’ farm.

“You’re in the right place boys.” They were told.

“In fact, Cecil has just married a widow with 4 children, and they are all above in the house now. They’ll be glad to see you.”

Of course, only Cecil was in the house, and he would have laughed with them. However, none of these arrangements, real or imagined worked out and Cecil remained a Leitrim bachelor all his life.

On the farm the meitheal – communal work, reciprocated in turn by neighbours – had disappeared by the mid-1970s. Emigration had reduced the numbers living on the land and those who remained often had part time jobs. As a result, farm help was hard to come by, although the work was eased somewhat by the introduction of tractors; Cecil bought his first one in 1970.  Like many farmers at that time he had moved over to a more extensive suckler cow breeding enterprise and had bought two additional out-farms.

While I would continue to visit him regularly, by the time we had all moved on after secondary school, the summer-long family exodus to Larkfield had come to an end.