Irish Bogs and Culture

by James Fairhall

What do you associate peat bogs with?  If you think of bleak, sparsely vegetated land punctuated by small, irregular upwellings of cloudy water; of disorientingly same-looking terrain with unsure footing; of will-o’-the-wisp night lights; of elemental smells—well, perhaps you might be picturing northern Minnesota or regions of Germany, Russia or the U.K.  But if you link the bogs with an ecosystem that is not only a natural but a cultural landscape, one that helps identify a particular country, then you’re thinking of Ireland.  Although rivers, lakes and ancient forests are more prominent in Irish literature, bogs percolate through it and rise uncannily to the surface like hints from the unconscious.

Natural History of Peat Bogs

Peat bog covers more of Ireland (about 15%), proportionately, than any other country except Finland.  There are two distinct types: the blanket bog in wet or upland areas, and the raised bog in lowland areas.

Unintentional products of culture, blanket bogs began with the clearing by Neolithic farmers of Ireland’s thick post-Ice Age forests, which covered most of the island by 4000 BC.  By the end of the Bronze Age, around 500 BC, the acidification of clear-cut soil due to the leaching of nutrients was typical of the uplands and had spread to lower levels.

On this depleted soil only heathers and rushes grew.  Because their debris couldn’t decompose, a layer of peat built up, swallowing any lingering trees and the remains of Neolithic farms.  An intact, mature blanket bog reaches down about 3 meters.

Raised bogs (right) cover much of the Irish Midlands. Deposited during the last Ice Age, glacial moraine formed a poorly drained plain full of tiny lakes in depressions between hummocks. In time these became raised bogs.[1]

Reed communities at the lake edges deposited peat, which built up and emerged above the lakes.  Rising water tables barred water from flowing into the lakes from surrounding land.  As the water stagnated, the dark tea-colored peat—90% water and 10% sphagnum moss, along with heathers, grasses and sedges—acidified and extended to a mean thickness of 7 meters.

The absence of oxygen prevented the decomposition of organic matter that sank in the bog: trees, animals, people.  Thus arose the cottage industry of resurrecting bog oak and other trees as sources of furniture and craft material[2] in a treeless land.  And thus arose, from discoveries of long-dead, mummified bodies and remains of settlements, tantalizing bits of knowledge about Ireland’s mysterious pre-history.

Excavating a bog oak

 Bogs in Irish Culture and Literature

Among the legends once attached to Irish bogs, it was believed that blue flames flickering on the surface at dusk on misty days came from fairies cooking supper.  Then, as darkness fell, stars tumbled from the sky into the bog.  In fact, the flames were marsh gas (methane) ignited by static electricity.  And—this natural fact is more poetic than the legend—the stars were tiny drops of bog sulfur that impregnated the wings of evening-foraging snipe and sprinkled down as the birds flew away.

Although the U.K. has huge expanses of peat bog, it doesn’t identify itself as a nation of “bogtrotters,” a British epithet marginalizing the Irish and Ireland as “the other.”

Nick Robinson Collection, National Museum of Ireland[3]

In Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800), the newly arrived English bride of an Irish landlord finds the nearby bog bizarre:

“And what’s all that black swamp out yonder, Sir Kit?” says she.

“My bog, my dear,” says he…[4]

The novel evokes the bog, in passing, as essentially Irish and comical—more a cultural than a natural entity.

Charles Lever’s Lord Kilgobbin (1872) places a raised bog in the Midlands at the metaphorical center of his novel.  The opening evokes a “dreary expanse called the Bog of Allen…flat, sad-coloured, and monotonous.”[5]  It is a cultural landscape, associated with “’the ould trees [that] was cut down by Oliver Cromwell,’”[6] and a touchstone for the main characters’ differing reactions to it.

The bog is also, like Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath (The Return of the Native) or E.M. Forster’s Marabar Caves (A Passage to India), a disorienting, alien presence that suggests nature as an all-powerful other:

The roads that led through the bog were so numerous and so completely alike that it only needed the dense atmosphere of a rainy day to make it a matter of great difficulty to discover the right track.[7]

A car-driver approaching Kilgobbin warns: “’Only mind the bog-holes: for there’s twenty feet of water in some of them, and the sides is so straight, you’ll never get out if you fall in.’”[8]

James Joyce’s “The Dead” (1907) ends with images of nature, including the Bog of Allen, which suggest the dissolution of the protagonist’s ego boundaries amid a vision of mortality.

Similarly, Seamus Heaney’s “Bogland” (1969) emphasizes the way in which bogs deconstruct human mapping of the known world: “The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage./The wet centre is bottomless.”

In Marina Carr’s play, “By the Bog of Cats” (1998), the bog stands both for nature, primeval and uncanny, and the dark forces of human nature.

Today, Irish bogs are recognized as ecologically rich wetlands threatened by industrial turf-cutting.  If the boglands do vanish, the uncanny agent of dissolution will be capitalism.[9]  But the image of the bog in Irish culture and literature will survive—in part because the larger, uncanny natural forces that the bogs embody will continue, through a sort of Atlantic seepage, to undermine the familiar ground we walk on.


[1] For a graphic of the natural history of a raised bog, see: http://www.wesleyjohnston.com/users/ireland/ geography/bogs.html

[2] See the Celtic Roots Studio website for a history of bogs and bogwood crafts: http://store.celtic-roots.com.

[4] Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent (1870; New York: Norton, 1965), p. 16.

[5] Charles Lever, Lord Kilgobbin (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1872), p. 1.

[6] Ibid., p. 66.

[7] Ibid., p. 60.

[8] Ibid., p. 64.

[9] “All that is solid melts into air”—Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Communist Manifesto (1848).

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Irish Bogs and Culture

  1. Christine Skolnik

    Jim,
    So glad I (finally) have time to review this wonderful post. It elicits so much raw material for the intellect and the imagination. I’m utterly taken by the magic of the bog . . . the bog as a door to prehistory . . . the underworld. The figure of “undead” trees is marvelous. Reading your post I’m reminded again (not how or why) but merely that irish culture seems particularly (?) universal, timeless.

    Question: is the bog oak dead or alive?

  2. Christine Skolnik

    P.S. On the particular or should I say peculiar universality of Irish culture I was surprised to find a section of my current read *A Dangerous Method* (about Freud and Jung) titled “Peet-Bog Corpses.” (Seems like a vote for Jung : )

  3. Pingback: Earth Day Event: Derek Gladwin on Irish Literature and the Environment | environmental critique

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