How Irish culture got sucked in by the bog

Barrie Cooke, Seamus Heaney, Patrick McCabe, Marina Carr . . . Ireland's soggy realms have inspired great art for generations

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Ireland’s peatlands are as unimaginable to those who have never set eyes upon them as a snowfield is to a jungle-dweller. These richly pigmented realms are as dark as crème brûlée and as textured as tweed, with tints ranging through ochre, olive and emerald to the very brownest of purples.

For many of us, familiarity dilutes the magic of these uncanny realms that are neither solid nor liquid. In terms of art, their greatest gift might be considered the ancient chalices, psalters and illuminated manuscripts that they occasionally disgorge, having been preserved for aeons within them.

But they have delivered a much richer artistic harvest. Our bogs have been catalysts for poets, painters, playwrights, dancers, novelists and film-makers since at least the 19th century, when a fashion for bog oak sculpture took hold in Dublin and Killarney. Brooches, bracelets, walking sticks and furniture decorated with Celtic designs were the Victorian equivalent of Guinness T-shirts and leprechaun hats.

In the years after independence, peatland became a popular scene in Irish art, with bucolic vistas of blanket bog cloaking statuesque hills by such painters as Paul Henry and Maurice MacGonigal.

It was 1974 before the attention of the international art world turned resolutely towards the midlands, with the arrival to Ireland of Joseph Beuys, one of the world’s most influential postwar avant-garde artists. He was lured here by the sheer wonder of these fibrous almanacs that loyally record every fallen pollen spore and Neolithic wheel rut.

For Beuys, bogs were “the liveliest elements in the European landscape, not just from the point of view of flora, fauna, birds and animals, but as storing places of life, mystery and chemical change, preservers of ancient history”.

During his stay in Ireland Beuys created a sculpture from two peat briquettes sandwiched together with a pound of Kerrygold butter, titled Irish Energies, which is still as potent today as ever.

Bog poems and elks

In the 1970s Barrie Cooke and Seamus Heaney were also turning towards bogs. The former’s massive Great Irish Elk canvases, displayed prominently in public buildings and at major exhibitions throughout the 1980s, brought home to many the epic drama of our peatland expanses.

Cooke’s great friend and collaborator, Seamus Heaney, was equally bog-enchanted. His seminal 1970s “bog poems” offered a new prism through which to see them; both in their own right, in poems such as Boglands, and as multitangential metaphors for social and ethical issues, in particular the political turmoil in the North, addressed in The Tollund Man and Strange Fruit, with its eerie description: “the girl’s head like an exhumed gourd. Oval-faced, prune-skinned, prune-stones for teeth.”

After Beuys, turf became ubiquitous in contemporary art, but it took until 2000 for the Bord na Móna briquette to regain international attention when the architect Tom de Paor used 21 tons of them to build Ireland’s first ever pavilion at the Venice Biennale. His installation, titled N3, was like an early Christian oratory or Neolithic passage tomb on the edge of Venice. Once the biennale was over, the 40,000-odd rectangles of Irish midland bog were mulched and spread in the Giardini as a gift of ground to a drowning city.

Perhaps the high-water mark in the history of peatland art was reached in 2002 with the establishment of Sculpture in the Parklands on 20 hectares of cut-away bog at Lough Boora Discovery Park, Co Offaly. This set in train a new era of Irish midlands art on the international stage that may very well end up defining Ireland’s artistic identity in the future, especially now that Bord na Móna has committed to ending all peat extraction by 2030. We might come to associate Ireland’s midlands bogs with wild sculptural installations rather than rapacious turf extraction.

Sculpture in the Parklands began 14 years ago as a symposium at Lough Boora in which seven Irish and international artists were invited to work towards the creation of large-scale, site-specific sculptures. That first year saw the construction of eight art works, including Eileen MacDonagh’s 6m-high Boora Pyramid, made of unmortared glacial stone and Mike Bulfin’s Sky Train, using abandoned peat wagons found on the site.

Having been exposed to the harsh climate of this barren expanse, these pieces are now wonderfully weathered and are joined by more than 20 other vast sculptures that stand out against the broad midlands skies, offering intriguing juxtapositions between contemporary art and the Mesolithic culture that existed here 9,000 years ago. The intention is to continue to invite Irish and international artists to create significant site-specific works of art on this vast post-industrial site that is now a protected wildlife reserve, home to one of Ireland’s most threatened breeding birds, the native grey partridge.

A malevolent presence

Our broad midlands moors of rusted bracken and spongy sphagnum pelts have made their presence felt equally in literature and theatre, most evocatively perhaps in Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats, set in what The Irish Times called “a bitter stretch of the Irish midlands . . . a sunken and frozen place, stalked by ghosts, grotesques and vengeful characters steeped in myth”. The peatland surrounding the town is an ominous, malevolent presence, best summed up by the term bog gothic, a genre title used to describe Patrick McCabe’s vivid, harsh and hilarious exposition of the dark vivacity of the small-town Irish psyche, as captured in his books and plays, from The Dead School to The Stray Sod Country.

Similar traits can be seen in The Midlands Trilogy, a series of productions by Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, developed in the bogs surrounding Legan, Co Longford, at Shawbrook Dance School. Their shows brought outlandish melodramas of bog life on tour around the world from Sydney to Berlin: The Bull, a retelling of An Táin Bó Cuailnge, had 12 dancers performing in and on several tons of finest midlands peat moss.

It would require pages to list all the film directors and artists since the 1980s who have attempted to capture the unique light, pigmentation and otherworldliness of this realm of primordial compressed botany that midlanders call home. Each portrayal of the precious, transient complexity of this biosphere helps bring our attention to the wonderland of heather, hares and orchids that we so frequently ignore – and risk losing unless we demand that bold conservation steps be taken right away.

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