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Looking back 50 Years – Some Memories of Boora

Dr Finbar Callanan former Bord na Móna Chief Civil Engineer

Taken from Scéal na Móna, Vol. 13, no. 60, December 2006, p39-43.

I joined Bord na Móna on the 1st of June 1956. Prior to joining the Board I was engaged on the design of the new jetties and harbour facilities for the port of Waterford which had a sizeable expansion programme under way. I had been considering a career change at the time and I attended an interview for a civil engineering position in Bord na Móna which at the time seemed to be going places consequent on the major change-over from sod peat to milled peat for power generation.

I was interviewed for the job by Eugene Redahan Chief Civil Engineer and Patrick Cogan Asst. Chief Engineer and one comment of Eugene Redahan's which stuck in my mind was that Bord na Móna would be an utterly different engineering experience compared to anything I had done before. This turned out to be very true. The interview was successful and I was offered the post of Civil Engineer in Boora. As I had been recently married the offer of a house in the new village at No 6 St Cormac's Park Kilcormac, was a major inducement.

Before taking up duty I reconnoitred the whole area and a number of things struck me. They were the immensity of the areas in development and the tidiness of everything -on the bog, the offices, the workshops, the railways and the village itself which to me was a model of layout and care. The machinery was certainly very different from anything I had seen or worked with previously and the first sight of a ditcher working up to the north line in Boora was an eye opener to say the least.

My neighbours in St Cormac's Park were Dan Davy and Mick Coughlan on one side and Sean Treacy and Tom Quinn, Production Engineer and later manager of Clonsast, on the other and we were made very welcome. I didn't have a car so Sean Treacy, who afterward left the Bord to go into private business, introduced me to Boora on my first morning, where I was greeted by the Manager, Lewis Rhatigan, with whom, in various capacities, I was to work very closely over the next 23 years.

I was assigned to work on the development of Boora 3 which at that time consisted of Derrybrat, Drinagh, Noggus, Falsk, and Clongawneymore, and I don't mind admitting that I had a lot to learn. There was a large amount of survey work to be done for acquisition, bridges, railways and drainage which also entailed a lot of discussion with the local landowners with whom we were always most anxious to maintain good neighbourly relations. I was very fortunate to avail of the experience and local knowledge of Mick Doyle who was foreman in Boora 3 and who was an exceptional man in every way. Others with whom I worked closely were surveyors Sean Linehan, later to be manager of Kilberry Works, and Pat Higgins from Leitrim who did so much of the fundamental survey and setting out work throughout the Group. Mick Gorman, Asst. Foreman, was always most knowledgeable and helpful as were other staff, including John O'Brien from Carna who fabricated the famous milled peat model in the Boora Offices and other men such as Sean Dolan and Jimmy Connerton, who were not only skilled staff men on survey and setting out but were also very helpful with their knowledge of the people and the areas we were working in.

In late 1956 some of us were more than a little perturbed that there might be staff cutbacks consequent on the cutting back by the ESB of their programme of expansion involving the peat stations. However that matter was eventually sorted out to our great relief by the Government decision to use the surplus peat production capacity to build two Briquette Factories in the Boora Group and in the Derrygreenagh Group.

That really initiated a very demanding programme of work with a well established deadline for completion and I cancelled all thoughts of moving elsewhere and decided to stick with the Company for the time being.

The following years saw Boora Works developing into a hive of activity which was led briskly by Lewis Rhatigan. Ferbane Power Station commenced taking peat. Drinagh and Noggus were brought into production and development advanced in Falsk. Development also accelerated in Clongawneymore which had already been plough-drained and a most complicated drainage pattern was designed to take account of the ups and downs of the bog floor which would have done justice to a blanket bog in Mayo. Additionally Oughter, Pollagh, and other fringe areas were acquired with the objective of expanding the total area under production and so reduce the original target demand of 100 tons per nett acre to 70 tons per nett acre, which was more readily achievable.

Clongawney was a unique bog in many ways in peat composition and in its surface flora and fauna. The derries on the islands throughout the bog were a unique feature and at least one of them was approached by a "Danes Road" mainly composed of birch which was exposed in subsequent drainage.

The site investigations carried out north and south of Crancreagh bridge on the Cloghan to Birr Rd., eventually led to the purchase of a farm at Derrinlough which became the site for the briquette factory. Preliminary works for construction commenced with Liam Dunne (who came from Lullymore) as Manager and Harry Huggard as resident engineer. This set off a flurry of activity throughout the Group including the renovation of the old  hostels  in  Boora  to  house  the  German  contractors  who  were  not  prepared to take second best 

Changes in the administration saw Tom Quinn going to Lemonaghan as Manager and Martin Kelly being appointed production engineer for the Group. I took over from Martin in development, drainage, railways and construction which kept me well occupied for the rest of my time in Boora as railway connections linked the various bogs, bridges were built and main outfalls were developed. The Board was very fortunate in all its developments in that almost without exception the neighbouring landowners were invariably very helpful in facilitating the construction of railways and the deepening of external outfalls There is no doubt that the Company's compulsory powers of acquisition were a very powerful instrument, but where drainage was concerned the farmers generally welcomed us with open arms. In that regard Bord na Móna added significantly to the improvement of much marginal land around its periphery.

In all our works on development we were able to avail of the generous advice of Tommy Lee, Head Office Development Engineer, and of Design Engineer, Joe Larkin, who with Ernest Vivion Switzer had designed the first Bord na Móna bridge across the Shannon at Lanesboro and many other lesser bridges besides. Additionally the service provided locally to the civil engineering side by the mechanical side under the ever helpful Andy Brown was always appreciated. I recall with gratitude the ready assistance afforded us by Peter Usher, Andy Freer, Bernie Jennings, and others in those areas where mechanical and civil engineering crossed.

The year of 1958 was a complete disaster for the Bord with one of the worst summers ever. Apart from the effect on the peat harvest I remember it for the difficulty of building the railway and machine bridges across the Silver River, the number of times flash floods swamped our works and the problems of excavating the site at Derrinlough and building the railway embankment from the factory to the Little River.

During most of my time Mick Dempsey was supervisor on the bridges. His experience of working in water gained on the Brosna Drainage was invaluable and I had great admiration for him. It was there also that I became acquainted for the first time with a very young Lal Daly ­subsequently a Director of the company. I am sure Lal and others will remember how we finished a final pour on one of the bridges one evening by the light of diesel soaked clods of turf stuck on reinforcing rods which were inserted upright around the site. It may not have been advanced technology but it got the job completed at a time when a flood was expected.

However difficulties were overcome and by 1960 all the bogs were linked by rail. Derrinlough briquette factory was up and running and Ferbane Power Station was also working well. It was a great time to be in the Bord. The summer of '59 was brilliant and we harvested almost up to October. We had visits from the Russians, who photographed plenty, but language was always a problem unless Capt. Brunicardi was present to translate. There were also visits from other organisations and individuals and we were always proud to show what we could do and outline what we were hoping to achieve in the future. There was a great spirit in the Board where all recognized that a significant Irish enterprise was receiving international acclaim. It would be remiss in this trip down memory lane not to pay tribute to Lewis Rhatigan, the Manager who was later to become Managing Director, for his dedication to best management practice and training and the highest standards. Coupled with him should be Hubert Collins, General Foreman, whom I came to appreciate for his knowledge and overall ability in a demanding role. Lewis Rhatigan was promoted to Asst Chief Engineer in 1959 and was succeeded by Maurice Keane, former Manager of Ballydemot Works. Others I remember with great respect were Kieran Egan who brought such enthusiasm to the job, Dan Davy with whom I worked subsequently on the Suck bogs and Christy Doolan who was so effective in the organisation of large scale milled peat transportation and who worked so well with his counterparts in the Power Station.

There was a very good team in Boora during that period, including Tom Oliver the Accountant, Joe Connolly, Jim O'Boyle in Stores, Paddy Fitzpatrick, and the ever popular Sean Meehan. Also in the administration were Breeda Sheridan (later Mrs Joe Connolly) and Maura Glynn, whom I subsequently met years later as a sister in Mount Carmel Hospital in Dublin.

Above all I remember the men and women at all levels who worked in every aspect of development, production, transport, sales and administration, and who were the heart and soul of Bord na Móna

However I also remember the tragedies. The first was the fatal accident to Joe Flanagan in Drinagh in 1956 and the other was the death of Sonny O'Donoghue in Tumduff a few years later. They were terrible accidents which remain in the memory of all who saw what happened. They cast a great shadow of sadness over everyone at that time.

I had moved to Ferbane in 1957 and I was a transferred to Head Office in 1960 as assistant to Tommy Lee on milled and moss peat development throughout Ireland. I was sorry to depart from “The Green Fields” round Ferbane". I had brought a young wife to Boora and left for Dublin with a young wife and three children and very good memories of Kilcormac and Ferbane. Life had moved on and there was a new and challenging job beckoning which would be my challenge in life for the next 19 years -ach sin sceal eile

* * * * *

Dr Callanan was educated in Mount Sion Waterford and in University College Cork where he graduated in Civil Engineering

After an early career in Local Authorities, The OPW, Harbour Commissioners and consultants he joined Bord na Móna in Boora in 1956

He was promoted to Head Office in 1960 as Asst. Development Engineer from which he progressed to Project Engineer (sod peat mechanisation), Planning Engineer, Production Control Engineer, Chief Operations Engineer and finally Chief Civil Engineer.

In 1974 he outlined the first plan for The Third Programme which was adopted by Bord na Móna as its response to the energy crisis of that time In 1979 he left the company to take up the position of Director General of The Institution of Engineers of Ireland of which he was President in 1974

He retired from that post in 1996 but has maintained his interest in engineering matters and is currently President of the Irish Academy of Engineering.

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