What’s good about bogs?

Last week, when a few brief hours of sunshine replaced torrential rain, I went for a walk, a bogtrot, on my local bog, Móin Uí Faithaigh, O’Fahy’s Bog, Moneyaha, or Moneyarha, as described on some maps.

Last week, when a few brief hours of sunshine replaced torrential rain, I went for a walk, a bogtrot, on my local bog, Móin Uí Faithaigh, O’Fahy’s Bog, Moneyaha, or Moneyarha, as described on some maps.

Ming Flanagan, and his protesting group, have recently focused our attention on areas of our landscape which, normally, do not make newspaper headlines. Bogs were just there, a black, sodden, oozy feature of our geography. In return for very hard work, they provided limited quantities of winter fuel, in the production of which entire families took part. In retrospect, all of this hard work was often recalled in sentimental memories of sunny days and smokey tea.

And that is how I recall, with happy memories, my first discovery of Moneyaha Bog, in a long-ago youth. I walked there, with friends, via the Mountain Road, and Poulnagunogue, through the woods at Lyranearla, and crossed a stile on to open moorland. We walked through an area known as the “free bog.” This had once been a commonage bog, long since harvested. And then, we saw this great expanse of flat bogland sheltered by the Knockanaffrin ridge.

Moneyaha, which was known and harvested only by local people, was “discovered” by Clonmel during The Emergency, when Waterford County Council leased turbary rights on a section of the bog, in order to augment the very limited supplies of coal and gas then available for heating, cooking and light. People rented small banks from the Council and every weekend during the summer would cut and save turf. Although many had little or no previous experience of this harvesting, they learned quickly. Transport to and from the bog was very limited, and many people cycled, or walked there. Cycling was ultimately limited by the difficulty of acquiring tyres.

In late summer, Clonmel’s turf-cutters combined in hiring lorries and the winter’s supplies of fuel were deposited in backyards and gardens, to be nursed into flame, and my mother always maintained that it was of such quality that it required the most delicate of nursing before it produced any worthwhile heat. But, with very limited gas, supplied by Clonmel Corporation (and with the occasional use of the prohibited “glimmer”), families were fed and kept warm during a time when neither convenience nor comfort were priorities.

And then came times of plenty, and of cheap oil, when convenience and comfort became an imperative. Turf-cutting on Moneyaha Bog almost disappeared, with just a few local people harvesting. The bog, in its glorious setting of mountains, became a tiphead. Old kitchen machines, cookers, refrigerators, carpets, refuse of all kinds, were dumped into the drains and by the bog roads. There was evidence that the burning of electric cable (to retrieve copper) was being carried out, almost on an industrial scale. In very recent times, Waterford County Council has carried out a clean-up of the more obvious surface rubbish.

But there has been a gradual resumption of turf-harvesting. It started just two years ago, when I saw an entire family, from grandparents to small children, cutting and saving. Over the singing of a lark and a gentle breeze, I shouted to the young mother: “It’s good to see you back”; and she replied “It’s the austerity.” It would seem the common denominator between The Emergency and The Austerity is self-help.

But times are inevitably changing. Historically, turf-harvesting on Moneyaha Bog has always been done in the traditional way, using the old tools, and the old methods of stacking and drying.

On my most recent visit, however, I saw a large machine, cutting “sausage” slices from the turf banks and then transporting and spreading on to drying areas. The capacity is huge, achieving more in a few hours, than the old Emergency Clonmel harvesters would cumulatively achieve in an entire season. It is labour-saving at its most productive, but what is it doing to the surface and environment of the bog?

Moneyaha bog is now only a fraction in size of what it once was (an area which embraced the “free bog”). It still has the potential to provide fuel for many emergencies and austerities, perhaps many centuries, to come, if traditionally harvested. But these vast peat-eating machines could, in a matter of decades, reduce its potential to non-existence.

And what would we lose if that were to happen? Apart from the capacity to produce fuel, and power, bogs are nature’s greatest absorbers of carbon dioxide. They are nature’s sponges, storing rain, slowing water-flow and thus reducing flooding. They are (when we don’t dump our garbage in them) beautiful, peaceful, silent places, with special flowers and plants and bird life.

Bogs have evolved over many centuries when cold, water-logged soils, unfavourable to bacterial decay, facilitated the build-up of vegetable matter. In Ireland we have two types - the blanket bog, of which Moneyaha is an example which is usually shallow and which occurs in high rocky areas. The other - the raised bog, occurs in areas of poor drainage, is normally very deep, and rises above the surrounding countryside.

Blanket bogs are not given any legislative or environmental protection but the European Community has asked us to preserve just three per cent of our already depleted raised bogs, because they are unique in Europe and because they are endangered geographical features, which, once obliterated, may take centuries, if ever, to replace.

It would seem a modest request, with which the last government was tardy in complying, and which has now become a Ming-led populist protest.

And it all begs the question: have we learned nothing from our recent experiences of the so-called Celtic Tiger years, when immediate satisfaction replaced any prudent long-term planning? When we fell for the shadows rather than pursuing the substance?