Above: Patsy Dalton
(Photo: James Fennell)
They say the sleán is as scarce as the corncrake in West Limerick these days. But should you chance to be in the vicinity of Athea during the springtime, you might yet espy a handful of men who still head out to the bogs to harvest the turf with their brawny shoulders and razor-sharp sleáns. And if one of them is sporting a moustache, a pipe and a denim flap cap, you’re almost certainly looking at Patsy Dalton.
Patsy’s skill at the ancient art of turf-cutting is genetic. His late father was one of the most noted bogmen in the county. Patsy also possesses some of the warrior spirit of his ancestor Sir Walter D'Aliton, a Norman horseman who came to Ireland with Strongbow in the 12th century AD. During the religious upheavals of the 17th century, a Catholic branch of the family was pushed south into the barren bogs of West Limerick.
Patsy’s grandfather Michael “Cooper” Dalton hailed from Athea and probably descended from this branch.[i] He was an accomplished cooper who specialized in making ‘mate barrels’ for storing bacon following the killing of the pig, as well as churns for making butter and small barrels, called firkins, for transporting the butter to the Cork Butter Market.
Patsy’s late father Mick, one of eight children, was born in Glenbawn in 1913 and worked as a block-layer for the building contractor Jimmy Reidy. [ii] Mick was also an exemplary turf cutter and Patsy recalls how his father’s stride became utterly reinvigorated every March as the turf-cutting season approached. He had a bank on the Blane Bog between Athea and Glin and indeed that is the very same bank that Patsy cuts today. The road leading into the bog was constructed in 1942, providing considerable local employment. As the war in Burma was dominating newspaper headlines at the time, the locals christened it ‘The Burma Road.’ Blane Bog is sometimes called ‘The Burma’ and is the subject of a popular poem by Thomas J. O’Donoghue of Drumrisk.
Like his father Patsy keeps his swathe of bog in good order, the sides level, the base water-free. He works with a sleán to create even, rectangular sods of turf which he spreads alongside the bank. He then transfers the sods to a timber bog barrow which he wheels out to the road. When he started, the bogs were black with people harvesting throughout the spring months. There were at least three men – and maybe five or six - on every bank. At tea breaks, stories, yarns and fibs drifted through the air. One or two of the men might sing. Tim Joe Riordan, one of Patsy’s closest friends, could deliver a powerful rendition of Jack Riordan’s ‘Lovely Athea,’ a ballad lamenting the execution of local hero Con Colbert after the Easter Rising of 1916. Otherwise the predominant sound was the sleáns slicing through the turf, with maybe a lark or a swallow or a cuckoo whistling in the distance.
Patsy, one of three children, was born at the Green Lawn Hospital in Listowel on a snowy December morning in 1950. He grew up in the same low-lying white-washed roadside cottage where he lives today. He reckons the building has been there for over two hundred years. In his childhood, part of the house was occupied by a country shop. Mrs Casey, who ran the shop, sold tea, sugar, cigarettes, bread and paraffin oil but closed it down when the supermarket opened in Athea in 1969. Families from throughout the district would bring their eggs to Mrs. Casey’s shop from where they would be collected by lorry and taken off to places like O’Neill’s bakery in Abbeyfeale.[iii]
Like many families, the Daltons kept their own pigs, slaughtering one in the autumn and another in the spring. ‘It takes three months to fatten a pig,’ Patsy advises. ‘You’d give him all the small potatoes and the waste so it wouldn’t cost you anything to feed him.’ On the appointed day, the pig would be killed with a mallet and hung up on a ladder. Once its brains and innards were removed, the pig was cut into pieces on the kitchen table, salted with a knife and placed in a barrel of water for the season ahead.[iv] ‘The nicest pig of all is a young sow after the first litter,’ says Patsy. ‘That gives you the loveliest streaky bacon.’ His mother also made a spicy black pudding, the memory of which still makes Patsy’s mouth water.
Local tradition dictated that on the day the pig was killed, the children of the family would go around to the neighbours, offering up the best parts. ‘You started with the two hams and they were nearly gone by the time you got home,’ says Patsy. ‘And you gave away all the best of the lean meat too. We were feeding maybe sixteen neighbours at that time.’ However, as everyone had pigs which they reared and slaughtered, the good meat came full circle when the neighbours children came a-calling.
In those days, wild goose was a particularly popular specialty. When geese were flying low, the people would lure them into V-shaped pits, laden with wheat, sunk into their small fields. Once in the trap, the goose could not escape and so, as Patsy says, ‘you’d have goose for dinner that night which made a nice change from the bacon.’
Perhaps it was the spiced black pudding and the wild geese that stirred Patsy’s culinary instincts. After he left school in Ballyguiltenane, which he hated, he made his way to Copsewood College, a secondary school outside the village of Pallaskenry, County Limerick, run by the Salesians of Don Bosco. The school includes an agricultural college where Patsy studied from 1970 until 1979. For the last five of those eight years he also worked as a cook in the college kitchens, providing food for nearly 270 students.[v]
In 1979, Patsy bade the Salesians adieu and made his way to Tralee, County Kerry, where he worked with Burlington Industries, an American company that specialized in the manufacture of a new washable polyester and wool blend called Burlana. Shortly after his arrival, the company began expanding into denim apparel fabrics and, as the age of Levi 501’s and Wranglers began to dawn across the Western world, so Patsy began making denim rolls ‘a mile in length’ which they packed into containers and sent back across the Atlantic. His denim cap is something of a nod to this era.
In 1982 Patsy left Burlington to help complete the billion-dollar Aughinish Alumina refinery on Aughinish Island, which lies in the River Shannon. Completed the following year, this was the largest construction project in Europe at the time, employing up to 6,500 workers. It is said the money generated for the region put a washing machine in every house in west Limerick. ‘It was a big job but great money,’ agrees Patsy.
However, he warns there may be a serious price to pay for the refinery. With millions upon millions of tons of toxic red sludge being pooled in a series of containment tanks alongside the Shannon, it is difficult not to conceive of a disaster similar to that which struck the River Danube when the aluminium refinery in Hungary burst in 2010. And for anyone who maintains that the pools at the Russian-owned Aughinish refinery are secure today, bear in mind that Aughinish used to be a peninsula. In 1755, a freak earthquake in Portugal sent a tsunami crashing up the Shannon which tore Aughinish away from the Irish mainland.
When he finished at Aughinish, Patsy went to work in the bogs, harvesting the peat with his sleán from early morning until the sun went down. ‘We were always looking for gold but we never feckin’ found any,’ he laughs. ‘Someone got a lump of bog butter one time. It’s meant to have been buried there for a thousand years and still edible! But I wouldn’t try it in an omelette.’
With thanks to Bernard Stack and Tom Donovan.
All four 'Vanishing Ireland' books are available via Turtle's Amazon page at http://astore.amazon.com/wwwturtlebunb-20
[i] Mick Connors Dalton, Patsy’s grandfather, died in 1958. Patsy’s family are known as the Woulfe Daltons to distinguish them from other Daltons in the area.
Patsy does not believe he is related to James Dalton for whom Dalton Street in Athea is named. James Dalton was an engineer at the Limerick Gas Works with strong Sinn Fein connections. One evening in May 1920, he was gunned down on his way home to dinner by a gang of nine armed men.
[ii] The last of Mick’s eight siblings died in 2010. His brother Jack and sister Bessie were in Birmingham. Another sibling married into the Mourne Abbey Bar in Mallow.
[iii] People used to bring eggs and everybody made money from it. The lorry from the Castlemahon chicken factory used to gather up all the eggs. It was a collection point. And they would also sell the old hens. Bakeries also bought the eggs. ‘Eggs was an awful commodity that time, from August until Christmas. Everyone had a garden with cabbage, turnips and spuds.
[iv] There’d be a big barrel of water in the yard and you’d kill him with a mallet. Then you take out his brains and that was it. Put him up on the table, then hang him up on the ladder and clear him out, slit him straight down through the centre and clear him out. Then start cutting him up into pieces on the table, salt him with a knife and into the barrel for the winter, and then you’d do another in the spring for the summer. It took 3 months to fatten a pig. He would be given all the small potatoes and the waste so it didn’t cost you at all. People didn’t smoke the bacon. ‘But the rule here in Ireland now is that you can’t kill a pig. You are in Germany but here you have to get it done professionally. That’s health and safety for you.’
[v] The school slaughtered their own meat for a long time until a law came in 1973 that you had to be certified to slaughter, so they got the butcher to do it.