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THE MEN WHO KEPT THE HOME FIRES BURNING

Leinster Leader 27th May 2010
The men who kept the home fires burning
 
A visit to Killinthomas Wood on the road from Rathangan to Edenderry to view the May bluebells brought this column close to another reminder of a part of Kildare’s history. Navigating deep into the wood where nature’s artist has been busy painting hues of vivid blue against the ivy-green tones of the foliage it is possible to make out the outlines of a series of low buildings. A few paces closer and these enigmatic silhouettes reveal themselves to be the  remains of a turf-camp from the Emergency years, or as known to the rest of the world, the Second World War, 1939-45. The buildings have worn their age as well as might be expected and the structures of dormitory billets, dining halls and a water tower are still to be seen.  Killinthomas turf camp, also known as Ballydermot, was one of numerous such camps set up through the Bog of Allen to add muscle to the national effort for self-sufficiency during the times of scarcity. Sleepy midlands townslands became household names as the Turf Development Board (forerunner of Bord na Mona) mobilised turf cutting on an industrial scale. Locations such as Allenwood, Timahoe, and Derrinturn, not to mention Ballydermot and Mucklon on the Kildare/Offaly boundary, were invoked in many a fireside chat. And well they might because it was hand-won peat from the Bog of Allen which provided the fuel for the hearths of Ireland when the coal boats ceased to ply the Irish Sea.
Pausing to look at the old turf camp buildings it was almost possible to hear the sounds of the dining halls and billets echoing to the chatter of hundreds of young men from all parts of the island. The accents of Mayo and Galway would have been prominent among the conversations, so too those of Munster, with many Gaeltacht speakers among them. Sometimes forgotten among all the provincial colour was the large number of Dublin men who found themselves in, what was for them, the strangely rural setting of the midland turf camps. Their sentiments might have been characterised in the line attributed to Brendan Behan, himself a veteran of the Army’s Construction Corps which was engaged on similar turf cutting operations ‘They told me that Naas was a terrible place, and that Newbridge was twice as bad, But in all the places I have ever seen, By jazus, Kinnegad!’
An elaborate structure was set up in the turf camps to provide the basics, material and social, to sustain the men’s morale through their tough day time work on the exposed bogs.  With between 300 and 500 men accommodated in each camp there was a need for a structured outlet for energies. Sport was encouraged and a number of moribund parish clubs benefited from the influx of men with well honed hurling skills. Writing in this paper some years ago, reporter Paul O’Meara remarked that the turf camp men ‘worked hard and played harder’. He recalled that a hurling team known as Killinthomas, drawn from the camp, was made up of players from hurling strongholds such as Limerick, and captured Kildare hurling championship titles for four years in a row from 1946.  Apart from the sporting fields, the men from the turf camps were to become a hugely important influence in the life of communities along the Kildare/Offaly boundary. Many married locally and introduced the particular talents and characteristics of their native locations into the population of the peat land villages. Places like Rathangan, Clonbullogue, and Timahoe were rejuvenated by the new arrivals who formed the bedrock of invaluable local enterprises such as credit unions and parish councils. The spirit of a self-sufficient Ireland was epitomised in the new village of Coill Dubh which was built as a direct and permanent successor to the turf camps. Coill Dubh is a rare Irish example of a new town – its layout and design fostering a sense of community cohesion and a commitment to good town planning well ahead of its time.
The turf camps might now be just an echo lost in the heather-scented breezes which permeate the bog lands of west Kildare but their legacy is not entirely forgotten. Just last  month this newspaper reported that the sale of the Killinthomas lands and buildings stimulated much interest in nearby Rathangan where many of the residents are sons and daughters of the men who came from Connacht and Munster when the camps were in their heyday. And just last July, Conor McHugh reported in these pages on a reunion of some of the men now in their seventies and eighties who had worked in the turf camps near Coill Dubh. As he rightly pointed out,  they had been participants in ‘an interesting and influential episode in Kildare’s history.’  Series no: 179.

Liam Kenny in his column 'Nothing New Under the Sun' from the Leinster Leader of 27th May 2010 reflects on the men who kept the homes fires burning during the Emergency.  Our thanks to Liam.  


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