Bog villages after peat production ended: ‘What grew afterwards was amazing: the wildlife, the biodiversity’

‘People came from different parts of the country to work for Bord na Móna. They knitted together, and became stand-alone communities, and friends for life’

Driving along the N63 in Co Roscommon, towards Strokestown, blink and you might miss Cloontuskert. Windmills twirl in the distance as you pass a row of semidetached cottages, intersected by a wide, cherry-blossom lined street leading into an estate off the main road. Unless you go off track looking for it, you’ll definitely miss Cloontuskert bog.

Tucked away from the main road are about 2,000 acres of bog land, from which milled peat was industrially extracted by Bord na Móna since the 1950s, for burning at the nearby Lanesborough electricity plant. After the second World War, Bord na Móna was founded to provide energy security for an independent Ireland. More recently, bog extraction days were numbered and due to wind down gradually, but in 2019 Bord na Móna halted it altogether following a High Court ruling that all peat harvesting on bogs larger than 30 hectares required planning permission.

This marked the end for extraction in swathes of the midlands’ bogs which were part of the large-scale commercial peat harvesting that powered Irish electricity for decades. A big employer, a set of skills, a way of life, abruptly ceased. There were solid environmental reasons for this. There was and is much talk of a “just transition” to help communities move towards a more sustainable economy.

Shauna O’Neill is 26-years-old and lives with her family – parents Margaret and James and her brother TJ – in the Abbey, as the small estate that is Cloontuskert is known. That cherry-blossom road leads directly to an arch with a prominent crucifix looming above, stylistically typical of de Valera’s Ireland, then rows of small semidetached cottages curve out right and left, creating a sense of enclosure, with great open spaces for community life. It is a housing style characteristic of midlands Bord na Móna villages: designed by Frank Gibney and purpose-built for the massive influx of workers for the bogs and electricity plants back in the 1950s.


At the O’Neills’ home there are solar panels on the roof, and a heat pump. In the small front room Shauna, her mother Margaret and their friend Joe Cribbin are chatting. They have just won a number of awards: Cribbin as Volunteer of the Year for his Tidy Towns and Men’s Sheds work; Shauna O’Neill, chairwoman of Cloontuskert Development and Tidy Towns, for runner-up in the Pride of Place competition, following five-in-a-row bronze medals in the national Tidy Towns.

O’Neill is conscious of the need to reinvent and reimagine a climate-friendly future for her home village and others like it. They are all involved in Reimagine, an Irish Architecture Foundation “placemaking” programme, and the Workers’ Villages project, funded by Creative Ireland, to co-design solutions to local problems, and co-create opportunities.

Architects Evelyn D’Arcy and David Jameson have worked with locals and some ideas include developing a local greenway on surrounding bog lands (Roscommon County Council is doing a feasibility plan) and reinventing a nearby former Bord na Móna workshop and industrial complex, possibly as a bog land heritage and architectural museum; Bord na Móna has since put it up for sale.

Architect-led teams of designers and researchers explore Gibney’s vision to see how his principles can be applied to the changing environment, post-peat energy. This housing is admired for its distinct design and incorporation of public space, and regarded as examples of sustainable planning and urban design well before their time.

O’Neills’ Gibney house had a deep retrofit in 2021, bringing the 1952 Bord na Móna worker’s home up to the standard of a modern, super-insulated A-rated house. Funded by the family, it has been evaluated by a UCD study. For Cloontuskert’s energy master plan, Turner Connaughton Architects surveyed residential and community energy use for a Bord na Móna pilot project here. While some residents have embraced a more sustainable future, for others it’s a harder sell, Shauna O’Neill observes.

The four of us walk across from O’Neills’ to that Gibney arch in The Abbey. The buildings on either side of it were a national school for decades, but have been vacant since 1997 when a new school opened across the road. It is now heading towards dereliction: no roof, weeds ruling the roost. For decades, ownership of the property was unclear, but it has recently been clarified that the Office of Public Works owns the title. O’Neill hopes it can soon be reinvented as a community centre.

She is the kind of local hero that makes a community shine. A nanoscience and physics graduate, after her degree in Trinity College Dublin she returned to her homeplace and trained as a teacher. Behind the houses on common-land is a treasure trove of activity: she shows me a little garden learning area, a vegetable polytunnel, an orchard and a nuttery. There is a small park, Cribbin’s Men’s Shed and repair cafe.

Behind the Gibney houses and the blooming community life lies the bog. Down a rough path, we come to an old workers’ hut, or tea centre. There is a stove cooker (for turf, naturally), ash still inside, and the now-redundant rooms look like people left just yesterday, in haste: busy noticeboards, coats still on hooks. O’Neill points out a yellowing map of the extensive bogs around the area. As a student she worked in the bog during the summer and enjoyed it, making good money for college.

Further down, the path widens to exposé the expanse of bog, brown and raw, like a vast open wound. It is a sudden contrast to the meadows of the adjacent stables. The long ridges stretch on into the distance. There are large silt pools of extracted water, part of the process before excavating the peat. They ceased cutting this bog in 2019, and already the return of wildlife is apparent: there’s birdsong, we see a curlew. No bog cotton, but there’s the invasive weed horsetail, Cribbin points out.

The boggy earth is starting to cover some of the rail tracks once used to take the milled peat – not the familiar sods of turf but loose, crumbly peat – to the electricity plant. Various large machines remain, with all the appearance of sudden abandonment: as if one day the work just stopped and everyone walked away.

Indeed it was sudden, says O’Neill. Mounds of that milled peat still line the ridges, never having made it to Lanesborough; it’s evidence of several months’ work, they reckon. Margaret shows me the still-whirring water-extracting pumps. If they stopped the area would flood, she says. Shauna adds that this hasn’t been discussed with locals. “Our experience has been that it’s unclear who is responsible for Just Transition in the first place, and communities haven’t had a significant chance to voice their opinion as part of the process.”

In response to a query from the Irish Times, Bord na Móna said under its peatland rehabilitation and rewetting plans (at, Moher Bog adjacent to Cloontuskert is not scheduled for rehabilitation in 2022, and there will be engagement with local stakeholders when its rehabilitation design starts. Bord na Móna says it engaged with the local Tidy Towns about a potential biodiversity project on the edge of Moher Bog.

I first met the O’Neill family a few weeks earlier in Kilcormac, Co Offaly, another of the workers villages, at a Reimagine workshop visualising the futures in which they find themselves at the heart of a dramatic transformation.

We started on the bog. At Kilcormac that bog is now Lough Boora Discovery Park. Where Cloontuskert was raw, Boora bog has relaxed, being a couple of decades on from being industrially harvested. It’s an otherworldly landscape, with rewilding, swathes of water, curlews, trees, and even a sculpture park.

Architects Caelan Bristow and Michael Haslam are working with Kilcormac residents on the Workers’ Villages project. Former Bord na Móna worker Seamus Barron says while Lough Boora is the first such post-peatland park, it could be replicated elsewhere. “What grew afterwards was amazing: the wildlife, the biodiversity.”

Kilcormac also has Gibney houses, St Cormac’s Park, known as The Park, a bigger development with 104 two-storey houses, large curved greens, and the characteristic arch with crucifix. It’s a lively village, with stalls on Saturday, and a sensory garden. In the community centre driven by local fundraising – with a creche, sports hall and kitchen for preparing Meals-On-Wheels – a workshop facilitated by Global Action Plan is bringing together former workers and residents of the bog villages.

Memories and old photographs are shared around.

John O’Brien shows us the intricate model of Boora bog, which his father, also John O’Brien, who came from Connemara to work on Boora, built in 1954. In miniature form there are ridges and cut bog, and the machinery unique to industrial bog lands: ditcher, miller, harrow, ridger, harvester. Pride in the past glows. They’d like to display the model, along with some original machinery.

“The secret life of peat production is there,” says Barron. “The machinery tells the story of industrial heritage.” It’s a lost world. Barron would like two stories to be told: the human story of those who worked on the former bog, and the industrial story, of draining the bog land and the technology to extract the peat.

Hopes for the future are also expressed, along with brainstorming how to plot a future for the area.

Like thousands of other Bord na Móna workers, Barron was a blow-in in 1969, moving to The Park from Tullamore. He was a maintenance fitter for 44 years before retiring a decade ago. His commitment and passion for the place is palpable. From the 60s to the 80s he reckons there were 800 people working in Boora bog, plus the ancillary employment, “and that’s replicated all over the midlands”.

Residents of St Cormac’s Park are mostly former bog and power plant workers and their families, on limited incomes, with very few younger people, he says. Barron thinks there should now be a reduced rate energy for the workers who produced power indirectly for decades, to help them heat their homes, which are still heated by solid fuel. “There’s nothing coming back to the people who worked there for years. There needs to be some huge help for everybody.”

Lough Boora Discovery Park has been a success, with 100,000 visitors pre-Covid. But Kilcormac needs to find a way to leverage that by developing tourism. Barron cofounded the Kilcormac Development Association in 1982, and possibilities are being explored with the council.

As in Cloontuskert, the ideas are teeming: from an information office and bike rental in the village, to developing a greenway linking the Grand Canal, the Discovery Park and cycle tracks in Slieve Bloom mountains, with Kilcormac as the gateway. But as of yet, there’s no accommodation, and not even a cafe in the village, for visitors to stay a while.

“I’m very proud of where I live,” says Barron, “and what the people of The Park (St Cormac’s) have done. It’s a unique community. People came from different parts of the country to work for Bord na Móna. They knitted together, and became stand-alone communities, and friends for life”.

Everything is interlinked here. A significant cultural and industrial heritage link with the early years of the State. A history of good employment that generated vibrant communities, leaving them decimated by its loss. A sense of pride in the place, its past and its potential. The challenges of moving on from peat, for employment and the climate.

Our post-industrial bog lands are at a point of change. There is a question mark over how those midland communities will deal with their future, and uncertainty still about how the Just Transition is delivering. A visitor can get a real sense of the culture and life of the thousands of people who moved to work on the bog or in the electricity plants, putting down roots, making their lives, raising families. There was a good living to be made, and a great sense of camaraderie, for the communities who moved here.

When they abruptly ceased cutting turf for electricity, the bog villages were left by the wayside somewhat. But there is impressive ingenuity and imagination, and committed people in local communities attempting to rebuild and reimagine.

Back on still-raw Cloontuskert bog in Roscommon, the past and the future were laid out in front of us: acres of abandoned bog, and on a hill in the distance, wind turbines whirring away.

Shauna O’Neill says: “I really love where I live, and I would love to see a bright future realised here.”

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey is a features and arts writer at The Irish Times