An unprecedented turnout gathered to show their opposition to the turf cutting ban at a mass rally in Athlone last Sunday.
The Turf Cutters and Contractors Association (TCCA) said that the large turnout showed that it was now “an organisation that must be listened to” and that the people were passionate about retaining the domestic turf cutting tradition. PRO of the TCCA, Roscommon County Councillor Luke 'Ming’ Flanagan, said that people had endured a two-mile tailback to attend the rally in a bid to have their voices heard.
“People stepped up to the plate. But it is the difference between someone being warm or cold next winter. If you don’t have a fire (and can’t afford alternative fuel) then health and education don’t even come into it,” he said, adding that people were worried that local politicians would not keep their word and fight to keep the local bogs open.
“We got a somewhat of a commitment from Fine Gael, we’re not 100% happy with it, there was no Labour representative there. Sinn Féin said they’d back us,” he added. “Every politician we’ve met has promised us the sun, moon and stars but we’re still sceptical at this stage.”
Addressing the crowd, Cllr Flanagan said turf cutters were being ignored by the Irish government even though they had engaged in consultation. He criticised the lack of response from the Interdepartmental Working Group, while he said a presentation to the Oireachtas All Party Committee on the Environment resulted in “worthless” promises from politicians.
“Four months ago we met with NPWS officials in Cloonchambers bog in order to explain in detail what we thought should be done. It was on that day that the penny finally dropped that we were dealing with people who had absolutely no management plan for what they were proposing. It was on that day that we were told that the NPWS would be forcing through this ban whether we, the people, like it or not.”
Last April, the turf cutting ban was introduced to 32 raised bog complexes. A further 23 bog complexes will be included at the end of 2011 and in 2014, another 75 bog complexes will be deemed SACs.
Cllr Flanagan then used the example of a distant relative Fr Michael O’Flanagan, the protagonist of the book 'Father Michael O’Flanagan Republican priest’ by Desmond Greaves.
The priest fought for the people’s rights to turf in Cliffoney, Co. Sligo, in 1915, when the Congested District Boards announced that turf banks which had been available to the Cliffoney people for generations were to be reserved for its own tenant because of World War One.
After conducting a long correspondence with the CDB without success, Fr O’Flanagan urged his congregation to cut their turf. The next morning 160 people assembled outside Cliffoney chapel and marched from Fr Flanagan’s house to the bog, where they spent a month cutting turf every day.
“If they succeeded then we too can succeed now. We must succeed because if not it will be more than turf at stake when they next come calling for your land,” concluded Cllr Flanagan. Chairman of TCCA Michael Fitzmaurice and Sheila O’Connell also spoke at the rally, as well as film director Donal Haughey who made a film about Irish bogs, and Fr Moloney.