Blog by Dr Liam Campbell
When I was a child growing up in Donegal, a phrase that was commonly used to sum up someone’s stubbornness, rudeness, or more often stupidity was, “You can take the man out of the bog but you cannot take the bog out of the man.” I don’t buy this any more, and thought not a scientist of the wonders of peat and bog, I began to wonder why culturally we have denigrated our bogs and peatlands to simply a resource to be burned or drained ?
Many years ago, I was lucky to interview Prof Mike Baillie ( QUB ) on the shores of Lough Neagh re his work on of dendrochronology on Ireland’s long oak tree ring chronology and his identifying the significance for global environmental history of growth reductions in tree rings. He has since tied these to various global catastrophic events such as volcanic eruptions etc . All this research originating in the peat around Lough Neagh. Later I was to meet another hero, Dr John Feehan (UCD ) co-author of The Bogs of Ireland and these scientists were to encourage and inspire me. Now lucky enough to work in place surrounded by so much of the ‘dark stuff ‘ (the title of Donald Murray’s book on peat ) it is a pervading and wonderous presence .
The study of the nature of the bogs of Ireland is interwoven with the story of human presence and human perception of that nature in Ireland. The bogs are a kind of palimpsest, superimposed forms and places that testify to the complex interaction of nature and human culture. This attitude goes back as long way as far as I can see. Even in the 12th century the cleric and writer Gerald of Wales wrote,
The inhabitants of Ireland do not have affinity with castles as a means of defence ; instead they make the woods their stronghold and the bogs their stinking trenches.
Giraldus Cambrensis ( Gerald of Wales 1185 )
Later in the sixteenth century, Edmund Spencer the poet and writer who reflected the Elizabethan world was to write,
Ireland is a wasteland in need of improvement that is flat, empty and inscribable full of wolf and woodkerne
Edmund Spenser 1595- A View of the Present State of Ireland
It is interesting to add the wolf and the woods to this debate on bogs as they are all demeaned and demonised literally and animals and places to be eliminated.
For Elizabethan colonists, the prospect (or actual view) of bogland from the English Pale was, as it were, the ground-level reality of Irish nature, very different from the colonial prospect (or anticipated view) of Ireland from England. Gerard Boate’s Ireland’s Natural History (1652) writes of the reason for the extent of our bogs: “now wonder if a country, famous for laziness as Ireland is, abound with them.”
There is indeed a long history of colonial writing on the nature and culture of bogs.
In 1685 William King – later to become Archbishop of Dublin – published ‘ Of the Bogs and Loughs of Ireland ‘ in Philosophical Transactions, in which he calls Irish bogs ‘ infamous’ and equates extensive bogland with barbarity. The bogs offered an advantage to resistant natives, who, King believed, deliberately built near them: the bogs ‘are a shelter and a refuge to tories [ dispossessed natives turned outlaws], and thieves, who can hardly live without them. They take advantage then to them to have the country unpassable, and the fewer strangers came near them, they lived the easyer. The bogs are very inconvenient to us ‘.
It is easy to blame a colonial mentality towards the bogs but a mentality has come down through the years. Think of the phrase “ Drain the swamp “ used in American by Donald Trump !
The science and wonder of the bog is magnificent and has been well recorded of late. There have been some iconic books on the nature of our bogs with the likes of David Bellamy’s The Wild Boglands (1986) to the monumental study by John Feehan et al. in The Bogs of Ireland (1996).I’d also recommend Michael Viney’s Ireland – A Smithsonian Natural History (2003) for its chapter on the Brown Mantle ( a phrase I love ) and Padraic Fogarty’s Whittled Away – Ireland’s Vanishing Nature (2017 ) But little has been written ( with the exception of Derek Gladwin’s Contentious Terrains: Boglands, Ireland, Postcolonial Gothic ) about how the political and geographical history of boglands are represented in modern and contemporary Irish literature and culture and how this impacts on present day attitudes.
The bog has been a subtle theme in modern Irish history, extending to political and cultural issues as well as permeating social and economic ones. There is a picture richer in detail and more complex in its development than traditional images of the bog question in Ireland would suggest. It is timely, given the current political and environmental debates and in the exploration of how colonization and its legacy overlap in new forms of “colonization”. Nature and culture in Ireland finds its debate par excellence in the story of the bog.
Boglands invite a whole academy of sciences to their study, but the cultural element is often neglected. You cannot have one without the other. If we add the threatened ecology of bogs to the resources of literature, archaeology, and other elements of culture the possibilities are limitless for their survival. The arts and sciences do not meet often enough. There are few other substances that can join the built, natural, and cultural elements of our heritage as much as our bogs. Joseph Beuys, one of the world’s most influential post-war avant-garde artists described our bogs as, “the liveliest elements in the European landscape, not just from the point of view of flora, fauna, birds and animals, but as storing pieces of life, mystery and chemical change, preservers of ancient history.” These contentious terrains can throw a light on the past and help us look to the ( uncertain ) future.
The way we look at how the bogs, the moor, the moss or whatever it’s called locally, affects me and others and has done through the ages but as we enter a crucial age for the planets survival we can all learn to love the bog that has too often been denigrated, feared and despised. The bogs of Ireland are our Amazon forest and a library of knowledge ( re climate change, archaeology, culture, biology etc ) and preservation in so many ways. I hope we can uncover a picture richer in detail and more complex in its development than traditional images of the bog question in Ireland would suggest.
Few do it better that Seamus Heaney who in many ways as a poet has done as much for the science and wonder of the bog as have the scientific community. But both need each other if we are to give the bogs the respect they deserve.
“ We have no prairies / To slice a big sun at evening – / Everywhere the eye concedes to / Encroaching horizon, / Is wooded into the cyclop’s eye / Of the tarn. Our unfenced country / Is bog that keeps crusting / Between the sights of the sun. / They’ve taken the skeleton / Of the Great Irish Elk / Out of the peat, set it up, / An astounding crate full of air. / Butter sunk under / More than a hundred years / Was recovered salty and white. / The ground itself is kind, black butter / Melting and opening underfoot, / Missing its last definition / By millions of years. / They’ll never dig coal here, / Only the waterlogged trunks / Of great firs, soft as pulp. / Our pioneers keep striking / Inwards and downwards, / Every layer they strip / Seems camped on before. / The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage. / The wet centre is bottomless.
Seamus Heaney – Bogland