Whether they’re fens, bogs, or swamps, these rich Irish green wetlands quietly stock away carbon dioxide and methane, like Father Ted hoarding his covert stash of cigarettes.
Annie Proulx teaches us in her collection “Fen, Bog & Swamp” that relatively new (as compared to pagan) Judeo-Christian beliefs allow humans to use the rest of the world as they see fit and reminds us of Genesis 9:2-3.
“And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be on every beast of the earth, on every bird of the air, on all that move on the earth, and on all the fish of the sea. They are given into your hand. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.”
She invites her readers to understand the beauty in those marshy, sometimes foul, places. Her beautiful prose vividly portrays those overlooked habitats and injects life into them, through her words “black arms of drowned forests protrude from the water”.
Turf, a symbol of Irish tradition, harvested from the boglands, illustrates the complex relationship between tradition and environmentalism. Most Irish people would have walked through the bogs, without shoes on, the squelch of turf a familiar feeling under their toes.
The peat bogs, integral to Ireland’s identity and biodiversity, have been the historic source of turf, burned as a fuel. As we excavate these bogs, the drying and burning of peat releases harmful pollutants into the air, contributing to the atmospheric burden.
It’s a conflict between heritage and environmental impact, illustrating the interconnectedness of our traditions with the health of the planet.
Mining and burning peat, an extremely harmful practice for the atmosphere and biodiversity, is central to Irish identity to the extent that famine migrants carried a piece of peat in their meagre belongings, a Proustian memento of the country – the subject remains sensitive yet the European Commission has called on turf cutting on some designated lands in Septembre 2022.
Ireland, a rain-soaked land, is home to a spectrum of wetlands, each a sanctuary for diverse ecosystems. Yet, despite nature’s hand, the discord of development threatens these vital habitats, with wetlands vanishing due to human intervention.
Finally, these spaces are now seen as life-savers, shielding against erosion, floods, and even purifying wastewater. Come autumn and winter, these wetlands become a grand stage, drawing migratory birds from around the world, just playing their pivotal role in preserving wildlife and revealing their irreplaceable place in Irish ecosystems.
“My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.”
Heaney, S (1996). Digging. Poetry Foundation
Join Green Sod Ireland in safeguarding biodiversity by supporting our ‘Wild Acres’ – sanctuaries, where species thrive through re-wilding and responsible management. Each piece of land is governed by its own unique ecosystem and has its own management plan.
For example, our site at Páirc a’ Tobair in Cork is a diverse site teeming with wetland wonders that has potential for immense biodiversity growth. Among other habitats our large site in Donegal encompasses magical upland blanket bogs, featuring a mosaic of heather, crowberry, and bilberry and we are working to restore it to a rich conservation status. Let’s protect and celebrate the vital life systems that nurture our health in all its forms.
Wetlands are taken for granted by many.
They play a critical role in curbing the warming of the Earth, as they store carbon dioxide and methane.
As these precious landscapes get ripped apart, it’s like cracking open the door to a greenhouse, releasing these gases into the atmosphere, furthering our planet’s rapid warming.
This fact often eludes the general public, garnering attention mainly from ecologists and climate activists, leaving a significant population indifferent to their plight.
91% of Ireland’s internationally-important habitats (bogs, grasslands) have ‘bad’ or ‘inadequate’ status. However, the exploitation of fens, bogs, and swamps continues, primarily due to the misconception of their value. Many gardeners eagerly purchase neatly packaged peat bales, failing to recognise the utility of wetlands beyond drainage; yet they are so much more than that.
I was reading a Blindboy short story the other day, in a cosy greenhouse-warmed living room, and came across one where a man named Dave accidentally discovers a mysterious box in a bog.
They were bodies, history’s accidental pickles, courtesy of the bogs. Preserved thanks to an acidic, chilly, low-oxygen setup, those bog bodies range from skeletons to well-fleshed bodies.
Once discovered, oxygen triggers rapid decay.
The remains show signs of inflicted injuries, hinting at either criminal punishment or ritual sacrifices.
Those ancient humans trapped in boggy time capsules are yet another illustration of the heavy history attached to wetlands of Ireland.
Proulx, A. (2022). Fen, bog & swamp : a short history of peatland destruction and its role in the climate crisis. HarperCollins Publishers.
Heany, S. (1996). Digging. Poetry Foundation https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47555/digging
Woodworth, P. (2018). Why peatlands matter in the battle against climate change. Irish Times https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/why-peatlands-matter-in-the-battle-against-climate-change-1.3714889
Forde, A. (2022). Commission orders Ireland to ban turf cutting on some designated lands. Irish Farmers Journal https://www.farmersjournal.ie/commission-orders-ireland-to-ban-turf-cutting-on-some-designated-lands-725921
Tierney, N. (2020). How Ireland is abandoning its dirty fuel. BBC Future Planet https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20201203-peat-the-decline-of-the-worlds-dirtiest-fuel
Depenbrock, J. (2022). In ‘Fen, Bog & Swamp,’ Annie Proulx pens a history of wetland destruction. Author Interviews. NPR https://www.npr.org/2022/10/11/1127959575/annie-proulx-book-wetlands
Claddagh Design. (2015). Ireland’s Bog Bodies.
Blindboy Boatclub. (2017). The Gospel according to Blindboy: The Man in the Box. Gill & Macmillan Ltd.
Photos by Rory MacCanna: https://www.flickr.com/people/maccannarory/ & turf picture from The Guardian by Patrick Bolger (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/dec/12/like-an-oilwell-in-your-back-yard-irish-turn-to-cutting-peat-to-save-on-energy-bills)