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Distillation review: This ode to our landscape will give you a new perspective on Ireland’s bogs, writes Eanna Ní Lamhna

Dublin Theatre Festival 2023: The smells of turf, smoke and mosses help convey the effect of our exploitation of our bogs over centuries



This is a world-premiere performance that looks at our relationship to place. It gives a voice to the landscape – literally. It opens with a handful of turf addressing the audience through the voice of Luke Casserly, the sole presenter, who grew up beside a bog in Co Longford. The audience of 25 people are seated around a bog of exposed peat, represented here by a large round table covered with milled turf from bogs in Longford, Wicklow and Mayo.

All of the senses are engaged: not just sight and hearing but also touch, smell and even taste. It is the sense of smell that Distillation addresses most. Smells evoke memories, influence moods and emotions, even affect our behaviour. Seamus Heaney refers to “the smells of waterweed, fungus and dank moss” in his description of a well in his poem Personal Helicon. By having the audience concentrate on the smells of turf, smoke and mosses here, the bog tells how it feels after centuries of exploitation by us humans.

But it is not just told from a single point of view. A cup of tea handed around evokes the turf-cutting season on bogs by a whole community who removed just enough each year for their heating needs. Although those days are long past, memory, aided by the cup of tea and the soundtrack of bog birds, conveniently forgets the midges and the rain and the heavy labour of cutting turf with a sleán and footing it into endless ridges. The memory selectively chooses the good bits.

The audience has an essential role in Distillation. One member reads a script with Casserly that gives the point of view of those who formerly used the land and their hopes for the future. There are several pauses to smell selected objects, such as the handful of moss that is reverentially passed from hand to hand and the aroma savoured.


The climax is the search for the essence of a bog – the vial into which the turf that had the opening lines has been distilled, by the perfume maker Joan Woods, and that now addresses the audience again. This is what this landscape is. Having sprayed it on their wrists, the audience sniff first at their own hands and then at the hands of their neighbours. The bravest express the memories that these smells evoke. I don’t venture the observation that it reminds me of a single-malt Islay whisky.

Distillation, a coproduction of the Abbey Theatre and Solas Nua, is dedicated to the future of our broken landscapes – in the hope that, by listening to them, we might be able to better understand them. One will certainly look at a bog the next time with a different perspective.

Distillation continues at the Goethe-Institut, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival, on Saturday, October 7th, Friday, October 13th, and Saturday, October 14th

Éanna Ní Lamhna

Éanna Ní Lamhna

Éanna Ní Lamhna, a biologist, environmentalist, broadcaster, author and Irish Times contributor, answers readers' queries in Eye on Nature each week