Jim Phelan, “Life Line”, in The Penguin New Writing, ed. John Lehmann (April 1946), pp.85-96.

Twin pillars of smoke from two small fires, close together in the middle of a wide bog, lifted straight into the air. There was no wind; the sun blazed as it blazes only in bogs and deserts; nothing moved except the smoke. Brown and flat, the bog stretched featureless to the horizon.

In the middle, by the tall trunks of smoke, two small huddled groups made the only breaks in the dun monotony. About a hundred yards apart, two donkey-carts were tipped, up, the animals lying nearby, outstretched and motionless.

Beside each cart, a pair of rough wooden barrows lay on their sides. All the surface near was dotted with little heaps of dark, newly-cut sods of turf, each heap a barrow-load. Narrow tracks, made of twigs laid on the spongy ground, led away out of sight among the heather.

Beside one of the carts, a rough sun-screen had been erected. A large, square cloth, made by sewing half a dozen sacks together, had been raised on two poles. This threw a patch of shade, in which five people lay outstretched, close together, in a row.

A stout, barefoot man, shirt-sleeved and red-faced, a plump, middle-aged woman, two youths and a girl of about sixteen, all lying on their backs, fast asleep, shared the few feet of shadow. The remnants of their midday meal were scattered nearby.

No shelter was rigged by the other cart. A man and a woman, both about fifty, lay outstretched beside it, in the complete relaxation of utter weariness. Neither slept. The man’s pipe had fallen from his mouth, as if during sleep, and he made no move to replace it. But, his eyes were open, and he watched, with a hungry eagerness, the passage of time as shown by the shadow of a heather twig. The woman watched her husband. [85]

Under the cart, in the shadow, a tall, big-muscled youth lay sprawled asleep. Barefoot, as were all the others, with his trousers rolled up, and wearing only a flimsy singlet besides, he slept heavily and without the slightest movement.

The man watching the heather twig raised himself suddenly on one elbow, as if from a deep sleep, and looked up at the sky. Without speaking, he glanced down at the shadow of the stalk again. Then, as if it had at last reached some point on which he had previously agreed, he rose with a jerk, in the manner of one who has suddenly remembered the time.

‘Glory be to God,’ he said, with a little clearing of his throat, ‘It must be after two o’clock. We ought to be - ‘He did not finish the sentence, but put away his pipe with an air of finality.

The woman rose without haste. After a single glance at the sun, which met with an answering, challenging, glance from her husband, she began to pack away the remains of their dinner. The man was already wheeling one of the barrows along the heather track. After a tiny pause, his wife nudged the sleeping youth with her foot.

He woke with a jerk, and his hand clutched a book which had fallen from his grasp while asleep. Then, meeting his mother’s eyes, he smiled at her and immediately went to sleep again. She waited a minute, then nudged him once more in the side, with, her bare toe, sharply.

This time he sat up and blinked around. Then, as he saw his father wheeling the barrow away, he hurried to his feet. After exchanging smiles and shoulder-shrugs with his mother, he grasped the other wheelbarrow and trotted along the track.

The barrow-tracks led in and out among the heather clumps, nearly two hundred yards to a deep, rectangular hole in the bog. This was part of a cutting, like miniature cliff, where the bog-surface stepped down, sharply, some eight or ten feet. All in front was a waste of water, with a few lonesome patches of reed. [87]

At the edge was the hole in, which the youth and his parents had been working. Several feet deeper than the level of the water in front, it was temporarily protected from flooding by a thin dam of turf which had been left uncut. Water continually seeped and trickled through.

As the young fellow arrived, trotting, with his barrow, the elder man was already preparing to descend into the hole. A spade, stretched across one corner, and another jabbed into the turf half-way down, made his hand- and foot-holds. He swung himself over the edge without speaking, after a single sour glance to where the group beside the other donkey-cart still slept.

At the bottom of the hole he picked up the slane, a long, straight spade which made two cuts, at right angles to one another, simultaneously. With this, he cut a few sods of turf from a corner, making a well into which all the water that had seeped through during the dinner-hour quickly drained. The sods were thrown up, with a skilful heave and twist, over his head, to be caught by his son and placed on the barrow.

The mother and son stood idly looking into the hole for the next few minutes, while the cutter below prepared to work on the now relatively dry floor of the hole. He hurried over the preparations, working with furious haste but with great skill and certainty, watching every trickle of water and the beginnings of every bulge in the soft turf dam.

The floor and walls of the hole were of raw turf, smooth and glossy, dark-brown like Christmas pudding. The side made by the dam shone most, because of the extra water. The floor was covered with turf-mud, which the man scraped into the well he had made. Then he cut a trench at one end of the hole and, taking a larger slane, commenced to send up the turf to his barrow-crew.

As each wet slab came flying up, the young man caught it, in his hands, laid it carefully on the barrow. Bulky and water-soaked, they weighed several pounds each. Two layers of eight, with one of four on top to hold them in [87] place, made a load. Immediately his barrow was full, the youngster pushed it off, laboriously, along the heather track, to the spreading-ground near the cart. As he left, his mother took his place with the other barrow.

The flying turf-sods arrived in an unbroken stream. Her barrow loaded, the woman started away along the track, skilfully keeping the single flat wheel on the little roadway of heather twigs. Half-way, her son passed on his way back, trotting with the empty barrow. At the edge of the hole he said: ‘Turf up,’ quietly, and the first sod flew into his hands a second later.

They worked for half an hour without speaking. man below continually increased the speed of his cutting, working more and more feverishly as the quantity of water in the hole increased and the soft dam bulged more threateningly. Layer by layer, he removed the floor from the hole, each time going a foot deeper below water level. For each layer, he cut a deeper well in the corner, to take the waste water.

At last he snarled impatiently, when no barrow was at the edge to take the turf. ‘Shorten it,’ he ordered, when his wife returned panting from the spreading-ground. She wheeled the next barrow-load to a smaller spread, nearby, and her son took her place immediately.

Thereafter the turf came up without cessation even for an instant. If no barrow was ready, the turf-sods fell on the edge, to be picked up in scrambling haste, later.

The water was trickling fast, in a dozen places, by this time. The man below watched it, warily. The woman on the edge watched it also, a long-handled shovel laid ready to her hand on the edge of the hole. There was-hardly time to rush the turf even to the nearer ground now, so fast did the man in the hole send it flying over his head. He panted and sweated, on the edge of exhaustion, but he watched the dam continually.

Half-way through one layer, he stopped for a second and threw the long slane out of the hole, then continued to [88] work with the shorter one. This was harder work, but it gave him more freedom. He only grunted acknowledgement when his wife called, warningly: ‘Dan!’ as a trickle of water became a stream and small pieces of the dam began to fall in.

Suddenly the stream of water, instead of falling downwards, began to shoot straight out. The woman called ‘Dan’ again, and reached for the long shovel. Below, the cutter threw the slane from him, out of the hole, and rushed to the spade jammed in the corner. His wife let down the shovel to him, and he climbed to the first foothold. Reaching the second, he lay face downward and retrieved the other spade, just as the dam broke and the water came rushing in.

Panting and weary, he lay on the edge of the hole, while his wife and son watched the dam fall to pieces and the water fill the hole. In a few minutes the cutting was filled to the brim, and the boghole was part of the waste of water. Dan lay, outstretched, beside it, taking his overdue rest while his wife and son prepared the next rectangular patch.

The slight noise, from the irruption of the water and the splash of the falling dam, woke the fat man by the other cart. He blinked sleepily and reached for a watch, then stared with a comical grimace of dismay.

‘Glory be to God,’ he muttered. ‘The bloody watch is fast again.’ He lay back and closed his eyes, only to open them quickly as he felt his wife watching him. They stared at one another for a second, the corners of the woman’s mouth twitching with laughter.

‘What time is it, Bartle?’ she asked, in a low tone.

‘Nearly two,’ her husband told her, and added without conviction, ‘but I’ll swear that watch is fast.’ As his wife continued to stare, he rose slowly to his feet, stretched himself and yawned, then began to move about swiftly with a great appearance of hurry and bustle.

‘Come on, yous lazy gang of tinkers,’ he roared, to the [89] three younger people. ‘What do you think this is - the Hotel Metropole or something? Turf up!’ His utterance was the hoarse, threatening shout often used to horses or cattle, but his face was wrinkled into a good-humoured grin.

The girl sat up, and looked about with heavy eyes. ‘Now,-da,’ she complained. ‘Slave-driving again? Sure
we’re just after our dinner. A body must have a bit of —’ She jumped to her feet and rushed away with a shrill screech as her father made a threatening grab at her. Her brothers rose and stretched themselves without speaking.

Bartle glanced in the direction of the other turf-cutters. The rest of the family followed his gaze, to where the man lay, still spread-eagled, near the cut-out hole, the woman and her son stripping the top-waste off the next one.

‘Dan Dowling’s mistook the time again,’ Bartle remarked dryly. ‘But begob he’s bottomed that one in style. Divil another sod of turf I thought he’d get out of it.’

‘Poor Dan,’ commented his wife. ‘Sure he’s a marvel, the way he slaves for that boy of his. A marvel.’

Nobody spoke, but his own sons exchanged quick furtive glances of amusement, and the girl turned, slowly, to look at her mother, as if seeking some possible double meaning. The mother sighed sympathetically. ‘Having to cut their own turf,’ she went on, ‘and there but three of them to do it.’ For an instant her eyes turned, with a hint of complacency, to her own two strong sons and her daughter. ‘But young Michael’s a good boy, and worth it. If - ‘

‘’Tis not my idea of spending a month’s vacation from college,’ laughed one of the boys. ‘Up to your knees in bog-dung, and driven like a nigger. If I was going to be a priest -,

A roar of laughter from all the rest of the family interrupted him, and he glared round. His sister curtsied in front of him mockingly, while the others looked on with broad grins.

‘Wisha, God bless you, Father Patrick Condon,’ snivelled [90] the girl in mock piety, ‘and could ye learn me how to play nap, your reverence, or pick me a couple of winners for Clonmel races, your reverence -’

Pat flushed for a moment, then recovered his temper and laughed with the rest.

‘Come on,’ came Bartle Condon’s hoarse bullying roar again. ‘Come on, yous mob of lie-abouts. Sure it’ll be night, and not a sod of turf cut.’ He picked up one of the barrows and led the way to a boghole about sixty yards from the Dowlings’.

All through the afternoon the two families sweated at the turf-cutting, in the unending race against time and water. Shrewd and skilful, Dan Dowling made ‘the most of every minute, every inch of space, every muscle-movement. Half-way through the afternoon he had ‘bottomed’ another hole, his wife and son had covered another large stretch of the spreading-ground.

From the Condons’ cutting-bank came a continual stream of laughter and chattering, with occasional shouts of delight as someone slipped and fell in the turf-mud, or gloating yells of ‘Turf up’ when a barrow came back to the edge before the cutter was ready. Once, there was panic for a moment, when, Bartle Condon was nearly trapped by a falling dam, but a moment later, as he was heaved up at the end of a long shovel by his two sons, the laughter broke out again.

The Dowlings worked in silence,, expertly and fast. From time to time, Dan or his wife measured with a glance the amount of turf being spread on either, drying-ground. The Dowlings were at least equal to the other family, possibly a little in advantage. But the two extra people at the Condons’ side made all the difference. One family played at hard but pleasant labour, in the wine-strong freshness of the bog air. The other slaved.


About five o’clock Mrs. Condon lighted a fire and made [91] tea, which the rest of the family took turns to drink; without interrupting the work. A few minutes later Sheila Condon strayed across to Mrs. Dowling with a jug.

‘God bless the work,’ she called down into the boghole, in the usual greeting-phrase, and Dowling grunted the reply, ‘And you too.’ A second later a sod of turf arrived in his son’s hands, just as he was turning to smile at the girl. Sheila continued her way to Mrs. Dowling.

‘There’s only one cup,’ she laughed, ‘but I don’t suppose yous’ll be wanting to stop all together for high tea.’ Without further speech, she passed the jug to Mrs. Dowling, took over her barrow, and wheeled a load of turf while the woman sat down to drink. When it was Michael’s turn she took his barrow and continued his work, only exchanging smiles.

Michael finished his tea and leant over the edge of the hole. ‘Will you come up fora cup, da?’ he enquired. ‘I’ll cut fora while.’ He prepared to descend by the spade-handles.

A sod of turf flew up. Sheila Condon caught it, dropped it on the barrow. Another followed; and another, but the man in the boghole made no answer; saved his gasping breath for the work. The moment Sheila’s barrow was filled, Mrs. Dowling took the girl’s place. The turf came faster.

‘Have a cup, da,’ repeated Michael. ‘Sure you’ll be killing yourself if you don’t have a -’

‘Shorten it,’ was the panted reply, and Dowling increased his pace. Only then Michael noticed that the dam was beginning to show many little trickles of water, and that his, father was racing to cut the turf that would otherwise be lost for ever in a few minutes.

Shamefaced, he hurried to catch the flying turf-sods, dropping them near at hand, keenly watching Me, spouts of water from the dam. At the last safe second his father threw the slane from him, and Michael held down the long shovel for him to climb to safety. Dan Dowling gulped two cups of tea and stretched himself on the bank. [92]

The sun was well on its way down before the two families ceased work. Young Pat Condon had harnessed both donkeys a few minutes earlier, and the eight people walked, stiffly and wearily, beside the carts to the beginning of a road at the edge of the bog. Sheila Condon climbed into the Dowlings’ cart, to equalise the loads, sitting beside Michael. Then the two small animals trotted smartly, a little over a mile, to the families’ adjacent farms.

There were cows to be milked, fowls and animals fed, supper to be eaten. It was dusk before Michael Dowling walked slowly up the road. His father had gone to bed immediately after supper. Half-way to the Condons’ farm, Michael took a side-road, and in a few minutes overtook Sheila Condon. They walked together in silence for a few yards, then talked about farm-work, turf-cutting, and the coming of a fair to the nearby village.

‘I suppose you’ll be off back to college before the summer’s out,’ said the girl at last. ‘Sure we’ve hardly seen a sight of you this time, with the hay and the turf - we might as well be living counties apart.’ Michael said nothing, and the girl walked on a few yards in, silence. ‘And this’ll be the last time you’ll be in the bogs or the hayfields,’ she added with a laugh. ‘Faith, I’ll have to watch my step when I’m saying good morning to Father Michael Dowling. When d’you go, Michael?’

The young fellow stopped, then walked on beside her. ‘I’m not going, Sheila,’ he told her quietly. It isn’t right I can’t, and that’s a fact. Sure it’d be wrong of me if I -’ He kept silence for a moment, waiting for the girl to speak, but she said nothing. ‘I’m going into Cahirlee now,’ he went on, ‘to see Father Carberry and get his advice.’

‘Your father’ll break his heart,’ was all Sheila said. ‘The young fellow held her by the shoulder, and she looked up at him in the dim light.

‘Good night now,’ he said quietly. ‘I’ll get on into [93] Cahirlee before Father Carberry’s in bed,’ He left her standing, and hurried away down the road.

In a quarter of an hour he was drinking coffee at the priest’s fireside. An hour later he was still talking, jerkily, excitedly, to the white-haired old man with the soft peasant voice, who watched him in an unblinking sympathetic stare from mild brown eyes, exactly as Michael’s mother had done many times lately.

‘My son,’ said the old man at last, and rose. ‘My son, if you are sure - if you are sure, you must tell your father at once. If -’

‘I am sure, father,’ Michael broke in. ‘It’s been, coming, long now. Long.’ He stood up, and shook hands with the old priest. Father Carberry led the way to the door.

‘Tell your father to-morrow,’ he said, and smiled as if the discussion was over. ‘And ask him to come and see me if he - if he wants to advise you.’ They shook hands again, and Michael started slowly for home.

Before five o’clock next morning the two donkey-carts were on their way, down the ever-narrowing road into the bog. Pat Condon rode beside Michael in the Dowlings’ cart. Mrs. Dowling’s eyes were dark-rimmed and red. Her husband drove the donkey, looking straight ahead without speaking. None of the cart’s four passengers looked at another.

Just after Mrs. Dowling and Michael had prepared the first cutting-ground, Dowling spoke suddenly. His wife and son started, with guilty jerks, and stood without moving.

‘If it’s just this Condon girl, son -’ said the elder man, in a harsh, throaty tone, awkwardly. Unaccustomed to speech, least of all to sympathetic or placatory speech, his questing far words made him speak in a strangled voice that sounded more menacing than conciliatory. ‘If it’s just -’

It isn’t just that, da,’ said the young fellow. ‘I told [94] you. It’s everything. I’d be doing wrong, and I’d be ruining your two lives - as well as my own. Go and see Father Car -’

‘Go and see the divil,’ interrupted his father, and turned suddenly on his wife. ‘This is your work,’ he accused, in a tone of hatred. ‘It’s not enough that I have but one chick or child -’ Automatically, with greedy hunger in them, his eyes turned to where the three Condon youngsters were laughing beside a boghole.

‘Dan,’ said the woman, pleadingly.

‘That’s not enough for you,’ he continued with a venomous glare. ‘But now, when I’ve slaved - aye, slaved - seventeen year to make him a priest, to even things up that way, you must encourage him to - ‘He licked his lips, mad-eyed, looking from side to side, the grey bristles on, his lean face making him seem like, some trapped, wild wolf vainly seeking escape.

‘Dan,’ begged his wife. Dan, jewel, sure you shouldn’t take it that way. Michael’s a good boy. He’ll do right. And he’ll be good to have here, on the little farm, when me and you -,

His vicious, high-pitched laugh reached even to the Condons on the next bank. They stopped, shamelessly, to listen, but did not hear what followed. ‘Will he?’ laughed Dowling, as he got ready to descend into, the boghole. ‘Will he, indeed? I’ll lave the place away first.’ He grasped the slave and threw the first sod of turf to his son.

Mrs. Dowling worked, without further speech, for nearly two hours. Michael pushed the full barrows, and trotted back with the empty ones, without raising his eyes to his mother’s. Dowling worked with even greater fierceness than usual, driving the barrow-crew as if he were demented. The spread of turf at their drying-ground was far ahead of the Condons’. The big dark-brown slabs, the best of the turf, from the bog-bottom, came flying up from the deep hole without pause.
Suddenly Mrs. Dowling missed catching a sod of turf. [95] It fell unheeded at her feet. The next one struck the edge of the bank, fell back into the hole, to land with a dull plop some yards below. Dowling looked up curiously. His wife began to talk to herself.

‘Lave the place away,’ she said, in a heavy, thick monotone. ‘Nobody laves a place away from their own son. To lave him a stranger, a labourer, without a penny, looking at his own father’s and grandfather’s little place. No. No - Dan wouldn’t do that.’

‘Shorten it,’ snarled her husband, and began to throw the turf faster than ever. Automatically his wife, obeyed, rushing a, barrow-load to the nearer ground. Michael followed hastily. The long slane came flying out as she returned to the edge. Another barrow was nearly filled before she had a chance to recommence her pleading. ‘No, Dan,’ she repeated, while her son was absent, ‘you wouldn’t do that.’

‘A sod of turf, flying as high as her face, was the only answer. Dowling wrought furiously, with the short slane, snatching quick glances at the many small trickles. In the middle of the dam a larger stream started to spurt, and he threw the short slane away upwards, rushing to the corner.

Slowly and reluctantly his wife reached the long shovel into the hole. It fell from her hand, to land with a dull splash below. The dam burst and toppled. In a few minutes the cutting was filled, and all in front was a waste of water, with a few lonesome patches of reed.

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