It was an hour for bog colors: the close of the workday in the Bog of Allen. The boy-os working the Bord na Mona mechanized turf cutters were just beginning to put their shirts back on in the sea wind of early evening. That wind was cool and saline and it drove forty miles in from the shore.
They had gotten low in this particular deposit, cut deeply today, and even the men on the machines thought that a pity.
Some parts of this bog, the greatest in the world, were now stripped to the rock. The demands of industry, the world market, and the new power plants had done more damage in a decade than the frugal spades of the Irish had done in thousands of years. With no chance for the sphagnum beds to regenerate, biologists warned, it would be gone in a generation.
Fine traditions would go with it. The seasonal work of "winning the turf" in great teams of family and neighbors. Heavy men's work with the long peat slans. And then women's and children's work: the stacking and drying. The ceilis afterward.
Missed above all would be that scent which is enjoyed even in the cities, in hearths or modern stoves. The scent of the peat as it made its slow, even, nearly smokeless flame: it was the age-old smell of comfort and crachon--conviviality. The smell of home.
Surely something beautiful would be gone out of the world. Besides the value they serve as producers of fuel, bogs are wonderful, mysterious places. Sometimes dangerous, they always hold secrets. Wild, eerie, with their outcroppings of rocks, their coffee-colored dim pools, their heather, gorse, and bog willow, thick with birds of all kinds, a bog is a fit place of concealment for a fugitive, a treasure, or a whisky still.
But the bogs shift. Old people can tell you about that, for their changes can occur within one lifetime. Sometimes things hidden in them will disappear. And reappear, far removed in time and place.
The chemistry of the turf does strange things. It colors and preserves. Occasionally a farmer, lifting his winter fuel in summer, will come upon a sealed bucket of long-forgotten workmanship, filled with what once had been butter, stored in the cool moss long ago. This dark grease is found to be wonderful for skin complaints, lubricating axles, and for healing the roughened udders of cows.
Roots of the red bog oak and sally will come up too. If set aside and slowly dried out, the dark wood is good for any construction that requires great streangth and resiliency. It can be made into a "creepy" stool, or a flour cist, or even (in the old days) the belly of a harp.
But every so often something appears in a bog that makes people cross themselves and go for the priest or policeman. Bodies appear occasionally. Generally, the corpse is found to be some poor fellow who twenty or even two hundred years ago got lost and was drowned for his trouble. But these finds are uncanny as well as disturbing; however old they are, the lost child of fifty years ago or the ancient sacrifice to Crom Duv of twenty-five centuries ago, they are recognizable--as intact as if they had died yesterday.
The National Museum has gained greatly from these finds. And since the Bog of Allen was first exploited technologically, it has yielded hundreds of artifacts to enrich the collective memory of the Irish people. Wooden things, vessels of all kinds, carvings, votive objects, jewelry. Ancient livestock and wild creatures. Textiles, dresses, cloaks, shoes, belts, often left deliberately in the peat by their original owners to get a fine, brown color from the chemistry of the bog, and then lost in the deep, slow currents.
Now and then things turn up which have clearly been "killed" there: objects thrown in to hide them forever. Sacred things of the old church and of paganism hated by Protestant iconoclasts or the Catholic Jansenist priesthood, these were often broken and drowned, to kill them doubly.
It had been an overcast, heavy day: warm and humid. But with the wind from the sea, the gray clouds were lifted along the horizon like a blanket, and the westering sun streamed under it, turning earth and cloud golden, deepest brown and rose.
Smasher Burke loved it like this. The changing mood of the place was one of the things that made this an interesting job. Riding like a king in a machine that took him three minutes to climb on or off, he saw everything.
The only disadvantage was the noise. The racket from the rows of blades that neatly cut the peat into briquettes was deafening, as was that of the belts that carried them to the receiver.
He lit up a fag and stuffed the packet of Silk Cut into his pocket. And then he heard it. A subtle change in the sound of the machine, followed by a grinding.
He instantly switched off the blades and brought her to a halt. As he climbed down from the cab, McWilliams, his partner, was already at the blades, trying to free them with a crowbar.
"Ya fucking bastard, ya!
"It's no good! Smasher, it's jammed. No good at all."
Burke's Wellies slowly squashed across the peat and around the cutter beams.
"It's a great fucking stone, Smasher." McWilliams squinted, the golden light picking out his yellow broken front teeth. "You'll have to back her up a bit."
"Right," Burke answered him, and clambered back on. "Stand away, will you," he shouted, impersonally as a bus conductor. Then he kicked her in, lifting the blades and rolling her five feet to the rear.
"Good enough, man," McWilliams bellowed. "Fucking great."
Within five minutes it had spread all through the crew that the Smasher had turned up a carving. An archaeologist from the museum had been called, but before he could get there it was fully dug out and examined by the men.
"When I heard the crunch I knew it was no ordinary lump of rubbish," McWilliams said proudly. "Look at her, will you? Look at that! It must be thousands of years old."
"It's a cross, man," Burke countered quietly. "It's not thousands. Couldn't be thousands."
It was old, though. Anyone could see that. Spirals. Spirals all over.
"Look there. Yer woman in the middle, with her little cunt stuck up, just as shameless!" McWilliams laughed nervously.
Burke had bent down to examine it more closely. Following it with his finger, he had discovered that the spirals--hundreds of them--seemed to be made from a single line.
"It doesn't look Christian," McWilliams stated.
The Smasher didn't answer.