The peat workers
Monasteraden is a tiny village located on the western shore of Lough Gara in Co. Sligo, a stone’s throw from the Roscommon border. I drove there on a drizzly Monday morning, parking next to a set of antique petrol pumps on the forecourt of the local pub. A handwritten sign nailed to a tree offered ‘bales for sale – day and night’. Twenty-four-hour silage availability notwithstanding, it seemed a sleepy little place. There was lichen growing on the stone walls and buttercups teeming in the verges. A Celtic Tiger-era housing development across the road was boarded up and overgrown with weeds.
A white jeep pulled onto the forecourt, and the driver flashed his headlights at me: this was obviously my contact. I pulled back out onto the road and followed him down a narrow laneway. After a kilometre or so, he turned right down an even narrower, tree-lined dirt track. Keen to memorize the route, I made a mental note of some recently chainsawed tree stumps visible around the entrance to the track.
We emerged into a vast expanse: a hundred acres of high bog, maybe more, plotted out into neat rows seven or eight metres wide, separated by drains. The driver, an overweight man in his fifties, stopped his car and got out. He turned his back slightly, as I strode over to meet him, and stood with his shoulders hunched over, staring at the ground. It took me a moment to realize he was taking a piss. When he finished, he shook himself dry with his right hand and then turned and thrust the same hand toward me. I shook it without hesitation. I knew we weren’t flying first class that day.
He introduced himself; let’s call him Michael. He was the foreman on this site. The job he had for me was splitting peat. He asked if I knew what that entailed. I told him I did. He assigned a row of turf to me, told me the job paid fifty cents per ‘bucket’ and that I’d be paid what I was owed by cheque at the end of each week. He repeated what he’d said on the phone two days earlier, when I’d phoned him in response to an ad on the website of a local radio station: there was money to be made on the bog for people who were willing to work hard. Then he got back in his car and drove away. The wind whipped up through the turf rows. Rain rippled in the drains. I was alone.
This was not my first time working on a bog: I had done so as a teenager. It was, I knew, arduous, but I’d been lifting weights and running six days a week. I’d even taken part in a charity boxing match in front of eight hundred people. The prospect of a few weeks’ hard work did not faze me in the slightest.
I surveyed the task ahead of me. This wasn’t the sort of turf some Irish people remember footing as children: dark, lower-layer peat – ‘kind, black butter’, as Seamus Heaney called it – carved into sausage-shaped sods for burning in domestic hearths. This was coarse, brown-red, upper-layer peat – mostly decayed sphagnum moss, cotton grass and other vegetable fibres – to be exported as peat moss. The first part of the job had already been done by a mechanical digger, which extracted from the earth sods that were roughly the size of a step in an ordinary domestic staircase. Twenty of these big sods – stacked ten wide and two deep on the adjacent ridge – made a ‘bucket’. After being left to dry on the ridge for a few weeks, a hard outer skin grew over these stacks of turf, like sandblasted leather. My job – ‘splitting’ the turf – involved piercing through this layer with my fingertips and separating the muddy slabs inside into something resembling sods, along barely discernible lines of perforation cut by the digger’s blades. Whatever I ended up with had to be stacked, crisscross, in piles of six sods – two across two across two.
Each sod weighed about twenty-five kilograms. Lifting one required a concentrated effort of the legs, arms and back. More onerous still was the strain involved in preventing the individual sods from breaking apart while being lifted. These were large, unwieldy, slithering mounds of earth, wildly inconsistent in shape, texture and density, and held together only by the most fragile of plant fibres. Breakages were inevitable; the trick was keeping them to a minimum. A breakage rate of one sod in three was manageable. But if the breakage rate hit one in two, the stacking system began to unravel.
I tore into the work. I was planning to spend the month of July driving across America. My budget for the trip was €4,000 and I had six weeks to earn it. I hoped to earn €250 per day on the bog, but €150 seemed a more realistic target for my first outing. This bog was wilder and less hospitable than the one I’d worked on in my school holidays. That was July and August; this was May. A west of Ireland May at that, practically winter. The misty rain, which had been drifting up through the turf rows since morning, grew heavier as the day progressed. The ground was mucky. The sods were soggy. The work was monotonous. Progress was painfully slow.
At lunchtime, I sat wet and shivering in my car, surfing the internet on my phone. A piece on the Guardian’s homepage was titled ‘It’s not wrong to raise an eyebrow at how the Macrons got together’. It concerned France’s newly elected president Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte, who was twenty-four years his senior. The two had met when Emmanuel was fifteen, and Brigitte was his teacher. And the piece was written in response to an email from a reader who was uncertain how to discuss this awkward fact. The column was probably written at least partially tongue-in-cheek, and there was really nothing too objectionable in any of it. But in that precise moment, I felt a visceral and self-righteous anger against the writer, the editor and just about anyone sitting in a comfortable office anywhere reading it. I was in the real world now. I had real problems.
With gusto diminishing, I returned to my buckets. I stuck at them until 5.30 p.m. before calling it a day. That was nine hours, minus forty minutes for lunch. In that time I had lacerated my fingertips, bent my back to the point where I couldn’t stand up straight, and strained every single muscle in my body – or so it seemed. I’d separated 2,400 sods, erected 400 stacks: 120 buckets’ worth, meaning a haul of just €60 for me.
At the crossroads in Monasteraden on my way home, a man with a wooden stick flagged me down to stop. A herd of cattle was about to pass. While we waited, he glanced sideways at me, covered in shite from head to foot. He recognized a fellow man of the soil. ‘Cunt of a day,’ he observed. I didn’t disagree.
Books have been written about the diversity of flora and fauna in Ireland’s boglands. But the ecosystem that came to interest me there was the one inhabited by the peat workers, who appeared in dribs and drabs once the weather began to improve.
Michael’s jeep was parked at the site entrance when I arrived the second day. He asked how I’d gotten on after he left. I showed him my wrists. They were swollen up like soufflés. ‘Give it a week,’ he said. ‘Then you’ll be flying.’ Again he said that there was money to be made on the bog. Lads just needed to put in the effort.
Funny, for all the times he imparted that advice, I never actually saw Michael turn a sod himself. His role, it seemed, was finding other people to do this work for him. In this effort, he appeared to have a couple of deputies, Eastern European men in their late twenties or early thirties. The first was Linas, who came over to share some pointers with me that morning. He didn’t speak much English. He simply approached the bucket I was working on and gestured for me to stand back. Then he tore into it like Superman, throwing up three stacks in about two minutes. ‘See?’ he said, rubbing his thumb against his fingers. ‘Big money.’ What struck me was how much he seemed to relish getting dirty. He didn’t tiptoe around the mud. He dove right down into it. He pointed to my wrist: ‘One week, is better,’ he promised.
The other guy, who stopped by in a battered truck that afternoon, was also lean and fair-haired. He repeated precisely the same talking points: The swelling would soon go down. It’d take a week to grow accustomed to the work. If I worked hard, I’d be well paid. I told him my name and asked his. ‘Bollocks,’ he said. Sorry? ‘My name is Bollocks,’ he laughed. Then he drove away. Both Linas and Bollocks, I later learned, had been coming to Ireland to work with Michael every summer for many years. The money they earned might be considered meagre here, but it was worth something at home, where both men had partners and families.
I got along better with Mohammad, a fellow grunt employee, who waved me over for a chat later that day. He was an easygoing man from Athlone, who looked to be in his forties. In 2001 an agency had recruited him from Pakistan to work as a peat handler in Ireland. Rates of pay on the bog were higher back then, he told me. But despite falling wages, he had never seen fit to search for alternative employment. He brought a carload of Pakistani workers with him from the Midlands most days. It was an hour’s drive each way, so they only travelled when the forecast was good. Most of them supplemented their wages by drawing the dole.
Mohammad and I stopped by each other’s rows frequently thereafter. Sometimes, he and his friends would sit in my car when it rained and we’d eat pistachios. Mohammad talked about splitting and walling, the two main steps in the process of drying sods. He told me the names of the various characters on the bog and what each person’s story was. When someone was a stranger to us, we’d observe them from afar and deduce what we could about them based on their clothing, posture and mode of transportation. That first day, I mused about the pros and cons of bog work: the tranquillity, the brute physicality, the freedom to come and go as one pleased and the loneliness of toiling alone. Mohammad listened, and then spoke. ‘There are two types of people who work on the bog,’ he confided. I leaned forward, all ears. ‘Those who like to split,’ he said, ‘and those who prefer to wall.’ I paused a moment, wondering if there might be some deeper significance to the observation. But I don’t think there was.
Working on the bog was an extremely challenging and unpleasant means of earning a very modest living. (For my own part, I was still filing copy as a freelance journalist most evenings to keep my head above water.) Given that reality, it was hard not to regard each new arrival on the site as a mystery to be unravelled. The Pillar was an older man in a tweed cap, working on a row a few hundred metres from me. I called him that because, whenever I looked around, he always seemed to be standing up to catch his breath. I guessed he was a retiree on a small pension. Another man, in navy overalls, came out to work in the evenings; I reckoned he was a factory worker earning something extra for his holidays. And when seven shabbily dressed African men peeled out of a Renault Megane on the far side of the site, I guessed they were residents of the nearby refugee centre in Ballaghaderreen.
On Wednesday, a man appeared whose backstory was much harder to guess. His clothing and complexion suggested he was Irish. His new car gave the impression that he was gainfully employed. He looked to be about the same age as myself – mid-thirties – and his productivity indicated he had about as much aptitude for this work as I did, which was not a lot. At a push, I’d have guessed he was a farmer earning extra income on the side. But this was baling season, a very busy time for farmers in the west of Ireland.
I wandered over and introduced myself. His name was Conor. He worked in forestry, a profession that was, apparently, in the doldrums at that time of year. He asked if Michael had promised me I’d be earning €1,000 a week. I sniggered: Conor had obviously gotten the same spiel. I asked if he’d done this work before. He had once, twenty years earlier. It emerged we’d both worked on the same bog, during the same summer, for the same foreman. We hadn’t known each other, but we knew many people in common.
I asked Conor what he thought of our present situation. He reckoned we were getting a raw deal from Michael. The rows he and I had been assigned were close to where the digger was operating, which meant they’d only recently been excavated. The sods we were working with, therefore, were still extremely wet and heavy. Looking over at where Linas and Bollocks were working, I could see that Conor had a point. The turf they were were working with was grey from exposure to the elements. Ours was mud red.
Makes sense though, I ventured. I mean, from Michael’s perspective. They’re his best workers, why not give them the best rows? ‘Aye,’ Conor agreed. ‘It’s all money in his pocket at the end of the day.’
Still, though. Wasn’t this great crack when we were teenagers? No bills, no living expenses. Having a laugh with your friends. What did we want only a few pints at the weekend? This was a stray remark on my part. But Conor, it transpired, was already several carriages further down that train of thought. He wasn’t going to continue working here beyond today, he explained. The turf was shit and the pay was worse. But when the school holidays came in June, he would subcontract a bunch of rows from Michael. He’d recruit a bunch of kids from his home town, bring them out in the car, and pay them a third of Michael’s rate, keeping the rest for himself. Wouldn’t that be kind of exploitative, I asked? Nah, he replied. The tax would come out of his end. He’d practically be doing those kids a favour. He told me I should get in on the action, bring a carload of teenagers from my own town. ‘It’s the only way to make money out here. It really is.’
I split 114 buckets that day, earning €57.
Thursday morning was as bad as it got. On my way to the bog, I had stopped at two different pharmacies in order to double up on the maximum allowable dosage of ibuprofen. My wrists were so crocked I could barely turn the steering wheel.
Michael was waiting in his jeep at the entrance. He’d been up to inspect my work and wasn’t happy. ‘Gaps,’ he berated me. ‘You need to leave gaps in the stacks for air to circulate.’ I drove on. Fuck him and his gaps.
A couple of rows up from mine, Linas and Bollocks had taken over splitting the buckets Conor had abandoned the day before. As I got down to my own work, I also kept an eye on their progress. Their technique was definitely superior to my own. They were more economical in their movements. But they weren’t going any faster than me, or taking any fewer pauses for breath. Before long, Michael made his way up to join them. He sat on a bucket, chatting and joking while they worked. Then he began heckling me. ‘Fuck’s sake, Ronan,’ he yelled over. (He never did get my name right.) ‘What did I say to you about gaps? You’re packing them too tight!’
He was twenty metres away, not nearly close enough to know what I was, or wasn’t, doing. ‘Fuck off,’ I shot back at him. ‘Look’ – I inserted my entire fist through the gap I’d left in the stack I’d just erected. ‘That one might be okay,’ he said. ‘But what about those other ones …’ The stacks he was talking about were ones I’d erected yesterday, before he’d lectured me on this subject. I made that point to him rather forcefully. But he wouldn’t let it lie. ‘I’m not giving you a hard time,’ he insisted. ‘I’m just telling you. If you stack them like that they’ll never, ever dry.’
‘Sorry about that, Michael,’ I offered, feigning contrition. ‘I’ll tell you what, if you want, I’ll knock them all down and start again?’ Michael laughed. ‘Oh Jesus no, no, no,’ he said. ‘There’s no need for that. They’ll be grand.’ Then I gave him both barrels. ‘Then they will fucking dry, won’t they?’ He was open-mouthed. ‘Look, I’m at this thirty years,’ he pleaded. ‘Yeah, and I’m at it three days. I’m doing my best here. Back the fuck off.’ He backed off and I felt satisfied. I resumed working in silence. He was right, of course. I probably was still packing the stacks too tight. But you couldn’t give guys like that an inch.
A Ryanair jet on its descent to Knock Airport swooped low over the bog. Linas pointed up at the aircraft and began shouting, ‘Bin Laden, Bin Laden!’ If that was a joke, it was not a particularly topical or amusing one. But I got it. He was trying to break the tension. So I laughed along politely. Then I surveyed the surrounding landscape. The boglands were not what you might call a target-rich environment. I could hear hens clucking at an old farmhouse down on the banks of Lough Gara. The only other man-made structures beyond that were nine wind turbines rotating on a hill a few miles away, near Ballaghaderreen.
On WhatsApp, my family had been demanding photos of my new workplace. By lunchtime, the weather had finally cleared up long enough for me to oblige. My sisters gushed about how picture-postcard-wonderful the bog seemed. I sensed an attempt to wind me up. Yes, I replied to the group. It’s extremely holistic and organic and I’m expecting to achieve oneness with nature at about half past eleven tomorrow morning. My younger sister inquired whether we offered rates for detox peat retreats. Of course, I replied. For €175, I’d let her finish splitting out this row for me. For an extra fifty, I’d give her the immersive experience. I’d throw her down a bog hole.
After lunch, Michael, Linas and Bollocks all failed to reappear. Later, I discovered Michael had gotten into an argument with some other men on the site and had walked off the job. Linas and Bollocks had left with him. We never saw any of them again.
The next morning, a tall, thin man of about forty stopped by my row. He introduced himself as Trevor. He had short cropped hair, smoked rollies and had a dog that followed him everywhere he went. I’d seen him before, driving a black Hyundai jeep. I’d assumed he was some higher-up, maybe even the site owner. Seniority, however, was something he adamantly denied. He was not the owner, not even the new boss. But in the absence of a foreman, he would be submitting productivity sheets and passing on cheques from the company that owned the site. He said he’d noticed my work. Specifically, he noticed I wasn’t making any money. He wouldn’t try to tell me my business – I could do what I wanted – but, in his opinion, no one could make money on the row I was working. The sods were too heavy. The ground was too wet. If I left it, he said, I could come back and finish it later in the summer.
Trevor suggested I might like walling better than splitting. Walling was the next stage in the process, after the split sods had had a chance to dry out for a few months. It essentially involved dismantling the piles erected by the splitter and erecting larger structures known as ‘walls’. The rates of pay for walling were slightly lower, but the sods were lighter. I followed Trevor over to another row. He demonstrated by throwing up a few walls with the practised ease of a croupier riffling out hands of cards. I gave it a try and took to it immediately. Mohammad had been right. Some people may like splitting. I definitely preferred walling.
Trevor seemed intelligent and articulate, but also extremely shy and soft-spoken. At a guess, I’d have said he was university educated. There was perhaps a faint trace of the old landed gentry about him. He wore a khaki green jacket. He drove a jeep. How did a guy like that fit in to a place like this? He parried any questions of a personal nature, so we talked instead about the quality of the turf in Monasteraden. He agreed with me that it was bad. In fact, he said, if it was any worse he’d be minded to hitch up his trailer and move on. I assumed that was a figure of speech, even if it wasn’t one that I’d ever heard before.
On the bog, there were few places to hide. When it rained, you got wet. When the sun shone, you got burned. But Trevor had a knack for lying low. He seemed always to select the most far-flung rows to work on, and I saw little of him in the weeks that followed. When he left the site occasionally to visit the supermarket in Ballaghaderreen, we might exchange a few words as he drove past. Once, when I happened to mention that I’d spent time in Africa, he told me he had too. While travelling in Ethiopia, he’d been roped into appearing in a local soap opera. (I found the episode on YouTube and watched it at home that night. He played a Westerner whose backpack gets stolen.) But our interactions were rare. Invariably, he was at work before me and he remained after I left.
As the weather improved, my skin burned, tanned, freckled and burned again. But rain remained by far the biggest nuisance. It never stayed off for more than a day or two. So I boxed clever: I worked in drizzle, but I learned better than to plough on through a downpour. Wet underclothing would render you unproductive for the rest of that day and bedridden the next. It was better to sit out periods of heavy rain and make up for it by working later into the evening.
When I visited my aunt in Ballymote, she lent me a book about crannógs in the Monasteraden area. I left it in the car and picked it up to read the next time it bucketed down. Crannógs were tiny, fortified, man-made islands erected in the middle of shallow lakes. The archaeological record indicates that they date back to the Neolithic era and were in constant use over the course of many centuries, but none of the experts could answer definitively what their precise function was. Lough Gara, apparently, is home to something like a hundred and fifty crannógs, representing the largest concentration of these structures found anywhere in the world. The book was written by a Swedish archaeologist who had made her home in Monasteraden and spent five years surveying and excavating sites around the lake, with the help of local people.
Even as I became engrossed in this book, my bog earnings continued to rise sharply. I was getting better at the job. The American road trip, which I’d despaired of ever affording, was now very much back in the realm of possibility. I worked longer and longer hours to make it a reality. I never took a cheque from Trevor – I didn’t trust myself not to splurge my earnings – but I trusted him to pay me when the time came.
When Guns N’ Roses played a concert at Slane Castle, I snagged a day’s employment as a cellarman at the main bar. A ten-hour shift hauling beer kegs for eighty thousand rock fans felt like a much-needed respite from hard work. In June, I witnessed the toll that Ramadan took on my Pakistani friends. Once, in a sudden downpour, I ran for shelter in an abandoned shipping container that happened to be nearby. Hassan, a bearded guy in his twenties, was smoking a cigarette inside. He was usually a happy-go-lucky character. But that day his stomach was growling so loudly even I could hear it. He wasn’t feeling good.
I knew fasting during daylight was a religious obligation, but I wondered if Allah might not make a special dispensation for Hassan, given the rigours of the job and the endless daylight of an Irish midsummer? Sahid just laughed. Then he asked, ‘Do you think Sean would mind if I lay down in his hammock?’ I squinted down into the far end of the windowless container. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. There was a hammock hanging from a bamboo frame. Next to it was an improvised indoor clothes line, with garments hanging from it. There were also two large drums of water and some other objects I couldn’t identify in the dark. ‘Does someone sleep here?’ I asked, bewildered. Hassan nodded. ‘This is Sean’s place. But it’s grand. He doesn’t mind us being here.’
I had no idea who Sean was – and this was the first I’d heard of a worker actually living on the bog. ‘Not just Sean,’ Hassan added, surprised I wasn’t aware of this already. ‘Others too. Your friend Trevor has a caravan.’ Naturally, I went to Mohammad for the inside scoop. I asked if Sean, Trevor et al. stayed on site weeknights, May to September maybe, heading home to their families each weekend? He shook his head. No, he was pretty sure that this was their only home and that they moved from bog to bog, all year around, as the work dictated.
I went back to work and mulled it over. If every peat handler was a mystery to be unravelled, I felt I should be able to figure this one out. The advantages of living without a mortgage, rent or utilities bills were obvious. If you specialized in this type of work, it made a sort of sense to be able to follow it around. Bogs were located in out-of-the-way places; living where you worked removed the necessity for a daily commute. But the absence of electricity, running water, heating and social life surely outweighed all of that. When I told my friends about it in the pub at the weekend, they suggested maybe Sean, Trevor and the others were fugitives from the law. No way, I replied. A prison sentence would be much, much easier.
When the rain returned, I sank deeper into my book. I wasn’t a habitual reader of archaeological theses, but this one fascinated me. For a long time, conventional wisdom held that crannógs were either defensive forts or fishing platforms. The author wanted to challenge that view. ‘There are many other ways to defend property than to build islands,’ she wrote, ‘and there are many easier ways to catch fish.’
There has been a trend towards the increasing use of economistic terminology and thinking over time in crannóg studies (and in archaeology in general). Crannógs have been seen as awkward places to live. The only rational reason that could be advanced for such a choice is the exploitation of resources or the protection of wealth — in other words, there must be some type of economic gain from living on these islands. Otherwise, they might run the risk of representing some slightly odd human activities, with no counterpart in many other parts of the world. Without an economistic interpretation, archaeologists would have a lot more explaining to do.
Regarding Trevor and his caravan, I was honing a few non-economistic theories of my own. The first, based on his contemplative manner and pathological aversion to confrontation, was that he was a stoner. I’d known cannabis users who would abide any privation if it allowed them the freedom to toke in peace. Or perhaps he’d had some issue with an authority figure when he was younger, as a consequence of which he had come to value independence and personal autonomy above all other considerations. At one point it emerged that he had a tablet in his caravan and used his mobile phone to route a web signal so he could stream sci-fi and fantasy movies. On another occasion, he mentioned having taken part in a shamanistic ritual while travelling in South America. That decided it for me. He had to be a stoner. A few days later, I made some reference in conversation to Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, the colourful cannabis advocate turned champion of turf-cutters’ rights, who was a sitting MEP for this area. Trevor had never heard of him.
About a month after we last saw him, Conor finally reappeared on the bog. He had two teenagers in the car with him. From a distance, I watched him give them about five minutes’ worth of instructions before driving away. When the heavy rains came in that day, the boys huddled together under an old fertilizer bag. I drove over and invited them to sit in my car, an offer they gratefully accepted. They were shivering. I noticed they were both wearing name-brand sports gear that looked to be brand new. I asked them if they didn’t have any work clothes they could wear instead. They didn’t seem to understand the question. You know, I explained, old, faded clothes you don’t mind getting dirty? They shook their heads. ‘I don’t really own anything like that,’ one of them replied.
That was my last day working on the bog. The company who’d employed me at Slane now offered me twelve consecutive days’ work setting up and operating a beer cellar for a series of concerts in Dublin. The pay was very good and the work wasn’t weather-dependent. The money I would make there would finally push me over the line: I was going to America.
On the last day of July, I returned to Monasteraden after six weeks’ absence. Instead of empty ibuprofen packets, my car’s passenger seat now carried a cowboy hat I’d purchased a few days earlier in Mesilla, New Mexico, where Billy the Kid was tried for murder. I pulled up at Trevor’s tiny caravan. His jeep was parked outside. When his dog failed to appear barking at my arrival, I assumed he was working elsewhere on the site. I was photographing some tomato plants he had growing by his caravan when he popped his head out the door.
He invited me into the caravan. It was spartan and dirty. I told him about my trip: Savannah and Atlanta, Memphis, Little Rock, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso and Juarez. ‘Expensive?’ he asked. Surprisingly cheap, I said. Staying in budget motels, and with fuel prices low, I’d managed to get by on about $100 a day. He snorted. He told me that when he travels, he wouldn’t spend that much in ten days.
I asked after his dog. ‘I left him with my parents a couple of weeks back,’ he said. ‘There was another dog there. They seemed to enjoy playing together. I dunno, I just got the feeling he wanted to stay.’ So the dog succumbed to cabin fever before his master did? ‘You could say that,’ he replied, deadpan. I asked him what was the longest he’d ever spent alone in the caravan. ‘I was on a bog last year, completely alone, for three months. The nearest house was maybe three miles away. It’s strange. Sometimes you’ll experience sunset and it’s a massive high. Other times, an energy zooms in after three or four weeks. You do feel that compression. It generally only lasts a day, but you do feel it.’
Before I left for America, I had told Trevor I was a writer and was interested in writing about his life on the bog if he was happy to talk to me about it. Trevor asked me to send on some examples of my work. He then agreed to talk, provided I didn’t ask about his family background, personal relationships or finances. I agreed.
‘I haven’t always done this,’ he told me, in reference to bog work. ‘I went to UCD. Studied psychology, sociology and archaeology. I worked for an American company. It was basically an IT job. I ran the logistics networks, with orders coming in every day from all around the world. But I had no freedom in that job. I got one week off at Christmas. If I got sick, there might be a hundred and eighty orders backlogged when I got back. I couldn’t handle that. I like freedom. I don’t like anyone telling me what to do.’
At the same time, he had developed a passion for travel and a tolerance for rough living. ‘The first time I travelled was when I was seventeen. I went with a friend to pick grapes on the continent. We went over on a lorry. No money, no return tickets. We brought tents but we never used them. We slept in subway stations. We got home in the back of someone’s van. And because that happened at such a young age, I never had any fear again after that. Most people, they have a huge fear of leaving their comfort zones. To me, that was the ultimate in leaving your comfort zone and I was totally fine with it.’
He dabbled in construction during the boom of the 2000s but found his niche on the bog. For the past number of years, he alternated between bog work and extended periods backpacking abroad. ‘The bog is always here. I make huge money. I’m not saying there’s many doing it, but I’d definitely be in the top 1 per cent. I can gather up a huge amount of money within a very short space of time. And I’ve no boss. I wake up when I wake up. I go to work when I want. I take two days off, no one gives a shit.’
What was the secret to making money on the bog? ‘Physicality is a huge amount to do with it. True grit. You’d know this from doing it yourself. You develop your own technique. You learn it. And you stick to it. It takes years to develop all the muscles in your arms to have the power and the strength to lift those sods. The wrist muscle is always the first to go. But, honestly, if I was doing the splitting job you were doing those first few days you were here, even I wouldn’t have been able to make money.’
The decision to live full-time on the bog was a practical one, he claimed. ‘The bog I was working in was an hour away from where I was living. There was a two-mile dirt track down into it, with a thousand potholes and craters from lorries going in and out. One evening, I was driving home and the steering rack went on my car. It was an old car so I said, Fuck it, I’ll buy a jeep. And I just got it in my head to get one with a towbar for a caravan. I thought, you know what, a caravan mightn’t be a bad idea.’
The caravan we were sitting in, which he ended up purchasing for €1,100, came equipped with a stove that ran on bottled gas. ‘I’m a vegetarian, pretty much. You kinda have to be when you’ve no fridge. I eat a lot of superfoods. If you open that press there …’ He pointed to a cupboard, which I pulled open. There were packets of chia seeds and maca powder inside. There was also a brick of Kerrygold butter that had melted in the heat and was dripping onto the other foods. ‘It’s all high protein content,’ he said. ‘I would mix all of that up in an orange-juice smoothie every morning. In the winter, I have porridge with lemon.’
Trevor drew his drinking water from a well a few miles away. ‘It’s an old well. Beautiful water.’ In summer, he would bury a carton of milk in the ground near his caravan, where it generally lasted two days before going off. For his toilet, he had dug a hole in the ground and positioned an antique toilet seat over it. He used the jeep’s engine to charge his tablet and, in winter, the batteries he needed to light the caravan. In summer, it stayed bright till 10 p.m. so he was able to make do with candles. I noticed the caravan didn’t have curtains. ‘I have them somewhere,’ he said. ‘I’m not much of a DIY guy. If I want to watch a movie, I’ll throw up a few of those blankets over the windows. But for the most part, I prefer to see out at night-time. Because you can see the moon and the stars. It’s quite beautiful.’
Game of Thrones was his favourite TV show to stream on the tablet. When he found himself on a site without 3G coverage, he passed the time by reading and meditating. He didn’t drink alcohol or do drugs. He didn’t worry much about security. ‘Do I ever feel scared or vulnerable in the caravan? Not on a bog, no. No one ever comes around here.’ What about storms or floods? ‘If the wind is blowing hard from one direction, I normally park the jeep on that side of the caravan, for shelter. The biggest thing in winter is the cold. I have a gas heater but you can’t leave that on all night. So yeah, you’d wake up at five or six in the morning and the place would be like an icebox.’
I told him I intended to spend the following Saturday night on the bog. He recommended the experience and suggested I keep my eyes and ears open. ‘The other evening I heard this humming noise on the bog, like hmmmmmm… It was so crisp. I looked up and it was a huge column of mosquitoes going up and down. I put my head back, closed my eyes and just experienced it. They came down in a vortex and stopped just above my head.’ He wasn’t worried about getting bitten? ‘They won’t come near you. In a sense, I think, you’re at one with them. Your energy doesn’t vibrate on fear. You’re both just one. Those moments only happen once or twice a year. But they mean everything.’
As the conversation wound down, the archaeologist’s phrase kept replaying in my head: there are many easier ways to catch fish. I would leave the bog with the distinct impression that some element of this story was eluding me. Trevor seemed at times, implicitly, to acknowledge as much. ‘What you have to realize,’ he told me, ‘is that when somebody is living alone in a caravan, in the middle of nowhere, that generally means there’s something there. I’m a very private person. In one sense, you coming in here is an invasion of that privacy. But I didn’t mind talking to you, at the same time, because I can see why it’s interesting to you. And it’s nice to have a story written about you, even if no one ever reads it.’
From the moment I found out some misfits were living on the bog, I knew I had to spend a night out there among them. Initially, I envisioned buying a slab of beers and a disposable barbecue from the supermarket in Ballaghaderreen, and sitting on deckchairs underneath the stars in Monasteraden, while they regaled me with anecdotes about their bizarre hardscrabble existence. Then, when it came time to say goodnight, I would bunk in with whoever offered me a place to lie. This was based on the assumption that people choosing to live in deliberate isolation from all of human society were bound to relish the prospect of some company – a very dubious assumption, I eventually realized.
I considered borrowing a friend’s camper van, but I wasn’t sure how the chassis would fare over the uneven terrain of the bog. I also toyed with pitching a tent, but Trevor advised against it. In the end, I decided just to sleep in my own car. A poster in Monasteraden advertised a show that night by Gerry Quigley and the Shinkickers. Signposts offered directions to Clogher Stone Fort and St Attracta’s Well. I informed both Trevor and Sean of my plans in advance, lest the sight or sound of me on the bog late at night might cause them alarm. But when the evening came I parked well away from their encampments and made no attempt to contact either of them.
It was an exceptionally clear night. I could hear sheep, cattle, geese, hens and dogs. In the distance, bank holiday crowds were cavorting at the old pub by the crossroads. I wished that I was back there, kicking up the dust with them. I went for a walk by a row of sods I remembered turning a couple of months earlier, but I was attacked by a swarm of midges and forced to retreat back to the car. At dawn, the sun woke me and I stepped out for a wander in morning drizzle. The wind was whipping through the turf rows. Rainwater was rippling in the drains. I picked a sod off the top of a nearby stack and placed it in the boot of my car. Then, for the last time, I drove back out the dirt track to the main road.
To read the rest of Dublin Review 69, you may purchase the issue here.