Irish bogs are a strange thing. Waterlogged trunks, great firs and a bottomless wet centre. Seamus Heaney was one of the many poets to explore these blacker than black landscapes not for combustible fuel, but for artistic fire. Being from Roscommon, the bog was an annual hellish ritual. Sweaty, sweltering and swallowed up by the strange landscape the work was never ending. Only when I took an elective last year in college did I realise it’s uniqueness. The bog has a special place in Irish identity, literature and art. From bottomless bog holes to fairies this ecosystem captures imagination like no other. This other-worldly, hot landscape is a place of pure grit, strenuous labour and a hidden cache of inspiration and identity.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. A lot of people read this blog from abroad and when I shared a photo of a bog on Instagram asked: What’s that? Before I delve into some into Irish bogs as a source for artistic inspiration, let’s look at the bog in a practical sense.
What is a bog?
For thousands of years, dead plant matter would pile up and up in waterlogged areas. Over centuries the dead plant matter and waterlogged soil formed sphagnum or bog moss which created layer upon layer of turf. Turf is the soil of the boglands it’s like a black sponge. This turf could be cut into brick shapes, stacked to dry and could be used to burn in people’s homes. Seeing as electrification of rural Ireland didn’t finish until 1979, this turf or peat was an essential fuel throughout winter months. The work in the bog is back-breaking. The process of cutting it, stacking it and bringing it home is a yearly ceremony that I’d rather avoid.
Why are Irish bogs special?
Geographically bogs are special because of their rarity. They’re a unique ecosystem. They are home to an abundance of unusual plants and fauna. Bogs provided the all-essential turf for heating rural homes and in turn used for cooking. The fireplace being the heart of an Irish home. Although nowadays turf is not the only option for heating the home, in many rural areas the tradition of using these boglands continues. However with concerns about protecting this rare ecosystem it has to be asked: is this tradition harmful exploitation? Estimates suggest that 99% of original Irish bogs have been depleted and lost. The Living Bog is a conservation project that aims to restore and conserve these precious environments. The project outlines how demand for peat by the horticultural sector and the use of peat in electricity production has had disastrous effects. Much of the damage done to bogs is irreversibly damaging.
Bogs and preservation.
The bog’s cold acidic soil coupled with a lack of oxygen allowed bogs to be used to preserve food. Carbon radio dating has allowed archaeologists to date some samples of a preserved “bog butter” unearthed from the darkness to as early as 375 BCE. The same qualities that make the bog an excellent preserver have also leant it to mummification. Numerous bog people have been found preserved in the wetlands.
The Old Croghan Man is one of these bodies preserved due to the chemical composition of boglands. Believed to be over 2000 years old, it is unique among bog people. The body was believed to naked with the exception of a leather strap around his left arm which could indicate he was of high status. The body was found at the foot of an ancient hill that was used during ancient kingship ceremonies.
Many of these bodies have been found to be tortured or maimed. The Old Croghan Man was relatively unharmed with the exception of deep cuts under his nipples. There are many suggestions that Iron Age bog bodies are the victims of ritual sacrifice. One theory suggests The Old Croghan Man attempted to become King indicated by his unusual scars. To suck an Irish king’s nipples was a sign of submission and therefore a man without nipples could never have his people submit to him and never be king.
Scientific, archaeological and botanical studies of Irish bogs never stray too far from their mythology. Tim Robinson, a naturalist and cartographer celebrated for his work Stones of Aran a topographical and mythological study of the Aran Islands gathered colleagues in a bogland to define it when they started sinking.
“Mind is being reabsorbed into matter; humanity’s imposition of languages, order, meaning, is being sucked down and choked off by Nature”
Even a scientific examination can’t ignore the ancient folklore and history that seeps from the bog’s damp surface. Maybe it is this mysterious timelessness that placed the bog at the hearth of Irish identity. The bog in addition to butter and bodies is a mythological and cultural preserver offering an insight into ancient pagan times.
Bogs and mythology.
The bog’s unique composition has led to rare and unusual geographical phenomenons that may be the source of the landscape’s mythological abundance. There are ditches and holes where the spongy soil turns to a thick liquid form in which things or people will sink in. People believed many of these bog holes to be bottomless and were a source of fear for people as they can be camouflaged into the landscape.
Unexplainable movements in the earth creating “bog bursts” where water under the soil moves causing a soil movement similar to volcanic ones terrified and bewildered people. In 1672 at Kapanihane bog in County Limerick there was a reported sound of thunder and “little whisking winds” before the land moved with “movement like waves” that engulfed a cottage.
The strange lands that weren’t fully underwood and had strange movements could be hostile which could explain the existence of the Bo Man fairies. These unusual fairies would attempt to destroy those travelling through boglands. Myths often develop to teach lessons and explain natural phenomena in the absence of scientific understanding. The strange landscape of boglands with many rare geographical features and occurrences explains for the large mythology surrounding it.
Heaney and Irish bogs
Bogs have become intricately linked with Irish identity. Over thousands of years the inhabitants of this Island have used this unique terrain. From maturing buried butter to inspiring Ireland’s artistic tradition. Seamus Heaney described the distinctive “black butter” soil in Bogland,
In his first collection of poetry Death of a Naturalist (1966) Heaney begins with the famous Digging which many Irish students have come to know through their exams, ending with the lesser-known Personal Helicon. Digging explores tradition with Heaney’s grandfather digging turf and his own father digging potatoes. It is literally and figuratively quite down to earth. Personal Helicon describes old well “old pumps with buckets and windlasses. I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells.” However, the title is a classical allusion to Mount Helicon, where Apollo and the Muses resided. Where the winged Pegasus struck his hoof to form the Hippocrene spring. From this ‘Horse Spring” flowed all poetic and creative inspiration. T.S Eliot once described the poet’s imagination:
“The poet’s imagination must be at the same time primitive and sophisticated, extending human consciousness to the extreme limits of our encounter with the present and our knowledge of the past.”T.S. Eliot
There is no doubt that Heaney does this. It is evident throughout his poetry whether recounting his own familial tradition of digging or yoking an old farm well to Greek mythology. The bog, like Heany’s poetry, is simultaneously primitive and ordinary yet has been a bottomless pit for Ireland’s rich artistic and literary traditions, for identity and resistance.
Heaney’s bog poems and Irish nationalism
Heany’s bog poems are part of postcolonial resistance literature, it is in North where more than anywhere else where he discusses the Troubles and England’s presence in Northern Ireland. Heaney read an archaeological study The Bog People (1969) and remarked: “the unforgettable photographs of these victims blended in my mind with photographs of atrocities, past and present, in the long rites of Irish political and religious struggles”.
A gendered reading of nationalism and colonial resistance in Heaney’s poetry depicts Ireland as a mother and a victim of exploitation and brutality. But also a mother that has the capabilities of producing dangerous children and resistance.
Stephanie Alexander in The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies describes Heaney’s landscape: “the pastoral space of the bogs exists as an abject feminine landscape, a place of violent and monstrous femininity and maternity. […] Ultimately, through, North’s violent bog queens offer an onus for radical pastoral resistance.
In his bog poems Heany uses his technique of using the simplicity of rural life and personal experience to draw the past to the present. He parallels the sacrificed pagan bog bodies, to the victims of the Troubles, past and present. The Irish have not learned from their history.
“The nineteenth century, especially the second half of it, was a time of restatement in Ireland. After the famine, after the failed rebellions of the Forties and Sixties, the cultural and political desires for self-determination began to shape each other in a series of riffs on independence and identity.”Eavan Boland
Irish Bogs and Art
Irish bogs are deeply symbolic. The bog is a hippocrene well from which Irish artists continue to draw from today.
Barrie Cooke drew imagination from the discovery of a giant Irish elk skeleton in boglands for the creation of his Megaceros Hibernicus (1983). According to the Irish Museum of Modern Art the elk represents a symbol of pre-civilised consciousness, it’s antlers serving as antennae delivering a message from the past.
The Celtic Knot by Padraig Larkin in Lough Boora bogland park symbolises the celit belief in the continuity of life. The loops have no beginning or end. The sculpture is the root of a pine tree uncovered after 5,000 years buried and pinned by a bolt to the trunk of a bog oak.
Irish Energies by Sean Lynch features Kerrygold butter sandwiched between two briquettes of turf. When I was first doing some research for this article, I thought it was bizarre. Lynch’s sculptures often shed light on unknown historical objects. And it worked. This sculpture inspired me to try to understand it, and in part to write this post! Although it is a weird sight, it inspired curiosity and a desire to learn which art should do. It was quite difficult to find much more information about this sculpture- hence the low-res photo. Maybe it was burned, or spread on toast.
The bog was once at the hearth of every Irish home in the form of turf. A fuel for warmth and cooking. A strange fuel that families harvested themselves. A spongy catacomb of pagan bodies tying those who wish to exploit it to the land and the seasons. Therefore it is no wonder that the strange landscape has and still holds the Irish artistic tradition close. It is at the same time the mythological bottomless bog pit and a classical source of poetry and beauty. In both forms has been and is a medium which is exploited for literal fuel and artistic fuel.
Following leaving Paris due to Covid-19, I’ve been spending time back in Roscommon in Ireland with my family and I’m really enjoying sharing some travel experiences closer to home! I even did a hometown tour and reviewed Normal People where my college is featured! Stay safe and well!
If you have any questions about Irish bogs let me know on Twitter or Instagram!
Until next time,
–The Student Explorer
For this post I did a lot of research in journals via JSTOR, an online academic platform which I have access to through my college. I believe it is also accessible through most Irish local library searches. If you would like to read up more on Irish bogs, I used and found these sources particularly interesting:
Alexander, Stephanie. “Femme Fatale: The Violent Feminine Pastoral of Seamus Heaney’s North.” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 39, no. 2 (2016): 218-35. Accessed May 17, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/44160367.
Pratt, William. “The Great Irish Elk: Seamus Heaney’s Personal Helicon.” World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (1996): 261-66. Accessed May 18, 2020. doi:10.2307/40152041.
Archaeology and Geography:
Limerick Bog Bursts –http://www.from-ireland.net/bog-bursts-limerick-1697/
Dianne Meredith. “Hazards in the Bog: Real and Imagined.” Geographical Review 92, no. 3 (2002): 319-32. Accessed May 17, 2020. doi:10.2307/4140913.
Downey, Liam, Chris Synnott, Eamonn P. Kelly, and Catherine Stanton. “Bog Butter: Dating Profile and Location.” Archaeology Ireland 20, no. 1 (2006): 32-34. Accessed May 17, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/20559122.
Bigger, Francis Joseph. “Irish Bog Butter.” Ulster Journal of Archaeology 5, no. 2 (1899): 112. Accessed May 17, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/20563868.
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