“Peat is more valuable to us in the ground than in the fire”

Like many Irish people, the bog is part of Manchán Magan. Her father is from Co Longford, so as a child Magan spent summers mowing the lawn on her grandfather’s land. Drinking from tea flasks and being eaten alive by gnats. Neither lake nor land, the peat bog, which occupies a sixth of the country’s landscape, has always fascinated him. He jumped at the chance to present An Fód Deireanach, a new four-part series on TG4 that explores Ireland’s relationship with its bogs.

“As for the bog, I had this idea that people in the west weren’t willing to modernize,” he says. “I hadn’t realized the sovereignty and power that comes with being able to heat your own house for a man. Working in the summer to provide heating and cooking fuel for the winter for his family. We have always been hunters and gatherers. There are seanfhocail about the assurance of seeing a well stocked barn with good, tall turf stacks ready.

“Also, the pub is dying in the west of Ireland. Communities coming together for dances are long gone. There was this thing in the summer – men and women working in the bog, getting to know the neighbors’ children. It was community time away from the farm.

“I didn’t realize that the social element is still relevant today. Yeah, they don’t go in the horse and cart anymore, and the hopper, a cutting machine, can cut the grass, but that always involves turning the clods over, drying them out There’s a bet: if it’s a dry year you get that bounty, if not you go home with very little and you may have to -be buying coal. It creates excitement.”

Unfortunately, as one contributor to the documentary series points out, turf is more valuable to us in the ground than in the fire. Even Bord na Mona, the semi-state agency synonymous with grass cutting, has changed its ways. The company has gone green, focusing its energies on wind farms and agritourism.

Manchán Magan and Eanna Ní Lamhna on a bog during the filming of An Fód Deireanach on TG4.

Ireland, which has the third largest peat bogs in the world, has an important role to play in helping preserve what remains. Peat bogs are a bulwark against flooding and the destruction of fauna and flora. Magan also mentions that people should no longer use peat moss in the garden; there are more sustainable alternatives.

“The Environmental Protection Agency has now realized that two-thirds of our national carbon stocks are in peatlands,” he says. “All this talk about trees. Tree lovers like me – trees are meaningless compared to peat. There’s more carbon in the world’s peatlands than there is in all of its rainforests, but they don’t grab attention because they’re neither evocative nor alluring — because they’re those flat expanses and dull brown.

An Fód Deireanach is not a boring series of academic lectures on climate change and biodiversity. There are wonderful contributions sprinkled throughout. Luke Ming Flanagan fights for the traditional bog cutter; Magan argues that despite rising fuel prices, people – with government help – will need to find alternatives to heat their homes.

In the mountains around Muskerry, Co Cork, musician and composer Peadar Ó Riada reflects on the bog’s place in Irish history and its future. In Co Donegal, herbalist Margaret Chití Ní Bhaoill – Magan’s favorite collaborator – has some fascinating remedies to share.

Manchán Magan highlights how Bord na Móna is changing its attitude towards the exploitation of peatlands.
Manchán Magan highlights how Bord na Móna is changing its attitude towards the exploitation of peatlands.

Magan is currently juggling several projects, including a new direct delivery podcast series due out next week; the release at the Imax cinema of a historical film narrated by Liam Neeson on Ireland which he presents; and he’s in the middle of a theatrical performance of Arán agus Im in which he celebrates sourdough bread and the Irish language. As for the prospects for our declining peatlands, he is optimistic.

“Ireland doesn’t have wilderness at the moment. Britain does – parts of Scotland are wilderness. America has vast expanses of wilderness. Everything in Ireland is cultivated or everything has been exploited. We left nothing wild. Before the 17th century, bogs were the areas where wild spirits like Liam-na-Go lived. That’s what we have to go back to. There will be walkways to through wild bogs for people who want to escape the chaos.

“We need to educate people to appreciate the wilderness of the bogs: the endless species of insects, bog rosemary and bogbean, plants unique to the bog, as well as the bearded partridge and red ptarmigan that live there. Once we start to see that this wilderness is globally unique, provided it becomes pristine and swampy again, we will use them as places to relax and walk.

  • The first episode of An Fód Deireanach airs on TG4 on Thursday April 7 at 8 p.m.
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