‘I Haven’t Stood Straight In 30 Years’: Turf-Footing Kids Speak Out
WHILE Ireland’s future as a turf-producing nation continues to be a source of bitter debate in Leinster House, survivors of another peat-based scandal fear that their stories will never be told, and the crimes carried out against them will never be punished.
“People ask me is I remember footing turf as a child and I tell them I do. Every morning I wake up and it’s cold outside, I remember it,” said 37-year-old Manus Dennings, one of the spokespeople for a group of ex-children who claim to have been exploited by their turf-cutting relatives.
“Every cold morning, when the ache in my lower back gets sore enough to stop me from standing up straight in one go, that’s when I remember the days we spent as children on the bog stooped over, handling sods of turf from morning to night, with only the promise of a sup of mineral out of a big bottle to keep us going. Thirty years later, I still carry those aches and pains, and it’s time for the government to do right by us”.
Dennings, who footed turf from the age of 6 to 9, says he was first lured to the bog under the promise that it was ‘great craic’ and that he would have a marvelous time, and that his cousins who accompanied him bear some of the responsibility for the forced labour that followed.
“It was my uncle that farmed the turf on the bog, and he would bring his kids, my cousins, to foot the turf as it was cut. I’d arrive over to play football or play Sonic The Hedgehog or whatever, and my uncle would say ‘it’s a lovely day, let’s get to the bog for the craic’. My cousins could have said ‘don’t do it, Manus, don’t go!’, but instead they said nothing because they knew if I wasn’t helping, they’d have to do it all themselves,” said a stoic Dennings, who, for the last ten years has fought for compensation over his injuries and stress.
“But we were just kids, so I harbour no ill will towards them. They were prisoners, same as me. But what I do think, and all of my fellow Turf-Footing survivors think, is that we are entitled to justice. We worked long hours for years with no pay, no safety measures, and most of us still can’t stand up straight to this day. None of us can look at an empty fertiliser bag without suffering a PTSD attack. The work we did provided heating to hundreds if not thousands of homes, reducing the nation’s need for importing coal and other fuels. The government saved money thanks to our labours and our pain, and now we want it back!”.
Embittered by his experiences, Manus went on to explain how the practice of using children on the bog was ‘common knowledge’ at the time, and that nobody spoke out about it for fear of having no turf for the cold winters.
“It was a dirty open secret around the parish, and nobody wanted to get their hands dirty. Least of all, us kids,” we were told, as Dennings joined hundreds of other stooped-over protestors at the gates of Leinster House.
“There were fathers who drove their kids to the bog and dropped them off, knowing full well what was going on. It was part-punishment, part-lesson, and well, part of life growing up around the bog. Anyone who says they would have stopped it if they’d known is a liar. They knew. They just didn’t care”.
The government has agreed to meet with the turf survivors and launch an inquest into the unregulated child-labour that the turf industry was known for, which will no doubt take years, cost millions, and resolve nothing.