How turf helped Offaly GAA to brightly
The success of Offaly footballers in 1982 was rooted in the bogs of the county. You cannot understand how Offaly managed to beat Kerry in that most famous of All-ireland football finals without stepping off the playing fields and walking in the bogs.
This is a story that is peculiar to a particular place at a particular time.
In its essence, it tells how the bogs of Offaly gave the county a certain economic growth during the decades immediately after World War II.
It was a growth that
— in the greater scheme of the long sweep of history — was exceptionally short-lived, but its context made it extremely potent.
It is a smaller-scale version of how the mining of coal transformed communities across Wales and the north of England in their own time. It is not that the bogs had not been used by people for centuries before the 1940s, rather that the imperatives of Irish society in the 1940s and 1950s demanded that the harvesting of turf be dramatically increased.
The demand for indigenous sources of power to bring prosperity to Ireland’s faltering economy was intense.
In the years immediately after the war, the Irish economy teetered on the brink of collapse and emigration reached heights not witnessed since the famine of the 1840s. The contrast between, on the one hand, the booming consumerist economies of Britain and America, and on the other hand, the stagnation of Ireland was stark.
The result was a mass exodus of the unemployed and the underemployed from Ireland.
The scale of the exodus was staggering. In the second half of the 1940s, about 150,000 Irish people emigrated. Then, during the 1950s, the floodgates truly opened and almost 500,000 Irish people emigrated. That was equivalent to almost one in six of the population.
The establishment of Bord na Móna in 1946 and its subsequent growth was one of the few economic success stories of the era.
What emerged over the first two decades of its history was a remarkable network of narrow gauge railways across the midlands which pulled turf from blanket bogs where new technologies were used to cut and remove layers of peat. The rural electrification of Ireland saw the building of power stations at Rhode, Ferbane, and Shannonbridge in Offaly, and at Portarlington just across the Laois border.
In itself, rural electrification underpinned immense cultural change in Ireland — but that’s a tale for another day.
For our purposes here, what matters is that it now saw the ESB join Bord na Móna as a key employer in Offaly, and this employment was supplemented by the building of a host of briquette factories and other spin-off employment.
Initially, many of the men who came to work in Offaly stayed in large hostels run for their benefit. This was particularly the case with seasonal workers. These men worked hard and did not have it easy, but engaged in sporting activities that ranged from tug-ofwar and pillow-fighting to Gaelic games.
Then, as the work moved from being seasonal to more and more rooted in permanency, housing estates were built in the county.
It is not as if Offaly was suddenly transformed into the Irish equivalent of an oil-rich