Under a Grey Sky
by Simon Burch
As early as 1807 it was considered that peat could be used as a commercial fuel, before that any discussion about the boglands were concerned with reclaimation for agricultural use. All through the 1800's unsuccessful attempts were made to win turf commercially, and in 1872, when a miners' strike in England increased the price of coal in Dublin by 100%, renewed efforts were made to exploit this natural resource. It was finally achieved by Sir John Purser Griffith at Turraun, Co. Offaly when in 1924 he built a power house, and with fully automatic machines he produced turf of a first class quality. His principles of bog drainage and operating of machines formed the basis on which the Turf Development Board and subsquently Bord no Mona worked, although both made many mechanical improvements. (C. S. Andrews - founding Managing Director of Bord na Mona)
This work is located around the midlands of Ireland, centering on Co. Offaly and parts of Co. Galway. This area is the centre of peat production in Ireland, with the harvested peat being used as fuel for the power stations, to provide electricity for the Irish National Grid. It is also sold for domestic use in the form of peat briquettes.
The Harvesting is a clinical process. The peat can be up to 30 feet deep with gorse bushes and small trees at the surface. They drain the bog over a period of two or three years. Once it is dried out sufficiently a forty foot wide machine, dragged by tractors, skims off a two or three inch layer of peat. This is left to dry and then another machine pushes it to one side where it is collected by a small train. This process is repeated until all the peat is extracted and they get down to the bottom where there is sometimes gravel, which can also be extracted, or a clay type material. During the winter they stop harvesting because it gets too wet and in the vicinity of the River Shannon there is flooding.
The culmination of these commercial efforts is now represented in the black landscapes of developed bogs, but this natural resource is finite and production is estimated to cease within 15-20 years. Once this happens these exposed landscapes with disappear. The land will be put to agricultural and recreational use, and the visual evidence of a significant national industry will be hidden.
It is against this background that I sought permission from Bord na Mona to photograph on their lands. The focus of the work is the bogland areas of Co. Offaly, the black landscapes of turf, and the community and individuals who live and work there.