“What are you doing up there, an educated man like you?”
The neighbor standing below me on the swamp road would never understand what I was doing. And as I got up to grab the last lawn on top of our tractor, the mountain rain running down my neck, it might have been hard to answer.
How many, I wonder, of the 76,000 families who still burn grass now actually go to the swamp to cut it for themselves? In the town where I arrived in the late 1970s, the spring exodus to the swamp, often of entire families, was part of the small-farm self-sufficiency calendar.
Something like that was my own aspiration as we settled for an “alternative life” on an acre on a hillside, in a Land Commission half-house with an old Stanley stove in the kitchen. The house hadn’t had a fire in years, but it still had its own piece of turbarium — the former tenants’ right to mow lawns — somewhere on the side of the mountain.
No one was sure where I was, but an indulgent consensus led me to a steep, weathered bank still surrounded by tough vegetation. The first strenuous task was to tear a bank of this heather bush to reach the first dark turf.
The sléan, a narrow shovel with a right-angled wing, pushes through the turf to carve a wet, heavy brick, launched in a single, smooth rise to land at random, to the right, in the dry swamp. Then again and again, a dozen more times, an eye on the neighbor’s unrivaled pace and the way their lawns fell in neat rows the way God intended.
Seamus Heaney, who mowed grass as a boy, wrote of the swamp: “The soil itself is good, black butter, melting and splitting underfoot.” It can also hide surprises, like when the sléan bites into the hard red bone of a long-buried Scotch pine stump, a relic of the last great climate change.
As for the swamp climate, it fluctuates with the clouds you see coming, even from the distant horizon of the ocean. In shirtsleeves, on a fine day, with meadow canines high and singing, the swamp gave life to each one’s being.
On other dark, mosquito-bitten days, I think of a lone figure, wearing a bag over his head, cut off on one side like a hood, and working his way across his lawn in the rain. “The old men used to say,” he snapped at me, “that if you don’t get your territory out of Cinnacoille by June 24th, you won’t take him home.”
The same man trotted past my winter gate, riding a donkey as if his bony haunches were a comfortable armchair. This allowed him to hug the big bale of hay he was carrying for distant cattle. But he never had the help of his donkey in the swamp – his hooves were quite wrongly shaped.
In tourist postcard appearances, the animal is loaded with cliabhs piled with grass and carried out of the swamp by children with red curls. Is the animal’s lowered gaze one of patient service or stoic suffering?
The Donkey Sanctuary and ISPCA still rescue abandoned donkeys with hooves grown in long Turkish slippers, a neglect they deplore as inherently cruel. But this was the common state of most donkeys kept to work with cliabhs, as the extra span of hooves prevented them from sinking into the swamp.
A donkey used for road work, however, had its hooves naturally worn to a sharp edge, as in the dry, stony surfaces of its Middle Eastern origins. I generously lent such an animal for my own swamp bales, coaxed it to sit on the grass, and began filling in the cliabhs. He began to sink one corner at a time, like a heavy chair into rotting boards.
two tone bray
It had been years since I smelled peat smoke drifting down the hillside at night (we burn wood now) or heard the half-strangled, two-tone bray originally designed for contact in the Nubian deserts.
Most of Ireland’s modern grass harvest is now mowed by local contractors with machines, although treading, stacking and bringing the dry grass home can still take laborious days in the swamp. In 2008, economist David McWilliams observed a tripling in the prices of roadworthy donkeys as farmers who cut grass in Connemara sought relief from the high price of tractor fuel.
Could this happen again, in strange new energy alignments? First, find your donkey: an early export market took them north to pet food factories in Scotland. Today, most survive in donkey sanctuaries on both islands, or as pets for families who can ideally afford a six-week hoof trimming by a farrier.