The Politics of Peat

It’s a poignant juxtaposition, perhaps: the old turf road that leads into the peat cuttings at Letterlickey, here in West Cork, with – beyond – our newest energy technology lining the distant hills. On October 31st this year, the sale of turf, smoky coal, and wet wood in shops or online was banned in Ireland as part of the drive to improve our climate.

The move marks the loss of an ancient tradition in Ireland. ‘Turf’ – or peat – has been harvested from our bogs for countless generations. But it’s a resource that can’t be readily renewed. It’s also relatively inefficient: the gruelling labour required to cut, dry, store and transport turf on a domestic scale is hardly justified by the output of heat which it provides. However, such work has been deeply ingrained in family life for centuries by those who have always accessed the bogs. The word ‘bog’ derives from the Irish bógach, or “soft place,” and 17 percent of Ireland’s 27,000-square-mile national territory was originally covered in peatland. Commercial extraction, however, has significantly diminished this resource. What has been realised – in comparatively recent times – is that peatlands, including bogs, store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests – if left intact.

The turf workings at Letterlickey: the significant and ancient bog there has been in use in very recent times – perhaps it still is active. The new ban doesn’t prevent families who have always had turf-cutting rights from continuing to gather it for their own use. But all commercial peat extraction has now ended. It’s a sobering thought that electricity was generated by peat-fired power stations in Ireland for many years: ‘peat power’ peaked in the 1960s, providing 40% of Ireland’s electricity. But burning peat for electricity emits more carbon dioxide than coal, and nearly twice as much as natural gas. In 2016, peat generated nearly 8% of Ireland’s electricity, but was responsible for 20% of that sector’s carbon emissions. Today all of the peat-fired powers stations here have been closed. The West Offaly power station at Shannonbridge (below) was the largest in Ireland: it shut down in December 2020.

We are witnessing the end of an era here in Ireland. At the same time we are embracing the search for new technologies: we are harnessing the wind – that will never stop blowing! PV cells are now commonplace, and we know that it’s likely we will mostly be driving electric cars as the decade advances. Other ways forward are still waiting in the wings. We were interested to see – when we were walking the Letterlickey turf road yesterday – that the trackway has been deliberately blocked by large boulders:

These blockages have been put in place since we last visited – and, probably, fairly recently. There could be local access issues: we don’t know. It could be to do with neighbours or trespassing, but it’s also possible that current political preoccupations are being practically addressed. It’s certainly interesting that significant moves are under way since the importance of peat bog preservation as carbon sinks has been fully understood. ‘Bringing home the turf’ will soon become a solely historical concept. The image below is by Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh:

“. . . Ireland has more than half the European Union’s remaining area of a type of peatland known as raised bog, one of the world’s rarest habitats and, scientists say, the most effective land form on earth for sequestering carbon . . .”

New York Times 04/10/2022

14 thoughts

  1. Catching up indeed – a very thought-provoking article. I was always convinced that hand-won turf only burned well placed directly on the open hearth, and not on a grate or in a stove. A big black open chimney would not impress nowadays, but the fragrance of potato cakes together the turf I’ll never forget! Forgive my ramblings, love your posts.

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  2. Strange how the turf industry, once an integral and important part of the Irish economy, is now seen as so destructive. You can’t imagine the notion crossed anyone’s mind in the 1960s as the boglands began to be ravaged. Still, I hope the old manual cutting can continue in a small and renewable way as was done in the old days. And I know it’s the future but I despair when seeing those wind farms scar the landscape.

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  3. Brought to mind the stories Dad would tell with the turf fire central to all else: cooking, heat, light, symbol of home, story-telling evenings – and all free of charge!

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  4. I still remember staying in a quiet hostel and the host insisting on starting a peat fire for me in the common room, explaining enthusiastically how peat fires were better for the environment and for me because it was “natural”. I was mortified, never mind that not being used to it, the peaty smoke irritates my eyes and throat something fierce even with a well-maintained fireplace. I wonder how many other people visiting the many “eye” related holy wells had the same trouble…

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