The Turf Wars of Ireland: A cultural heritage or a harmful practice?

Turf

Is turf banned in Ireland? 

That seems to be the question that has been on everyone’s minds these past few years, with different groups fighting to protect a natural habitat and others trying to protect themselves against the cold and rising fuel prices. Every year, when the weather is good (well, Irish weather good), people all across the countryside brace themselves for the words “we’re going to the bog!”, but what is it about this fuel that is causing such a commotion amongst environmentalists, politicians, and the rural people of Ireland? Let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?

What is turf used for?

Turf cutting in Ireland is about more than just fuel, it’s a family affair, a way of life passed on from generation to generation. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that turf has been used as a source of fuel in Ireland for over a thousand years. So when people ask, what do the Irish use turf for, the answer to that is pretty simple – everything! To sum it up quickly: we Irish use peat in many ways. After we cut it, foot it, bag it, take it home, and stack it, we then burn it. In the past, when there was little else to use, we even made our houses out of it.

Turf also has a place in the tourism of Ireland, as industries cash in on the love affair that tourists have with all things rural. In pre-Covid times, bog tours were offered to tourists along with everything else you might expect to find. The humble sod of turf has been turned into candles, incense, face masks and figurines, we even put images of it on postcards. In fact, turf has become so embedded in the Irish identity that even Seamus Heaney thought it worthy of a mention in his poem, Digging.

Today in Ireland, there is a certain nostalgia attached to turf. We burn turf because we need to but we keep going back to it because it’s what we’ve always done. It is a rite of passage and perhaps the consolation prize for doing such back-breaking work is that you get to complain about it afterwards. A day in the bog is the benchmark that all rural people can point to and say, “you may be a hard worker, but there’s no harder work than turning turf!”. For this reason, it has become part of the identity of rural Ireland and remains a link to our past, even if the work leaves your arms and legs aching for days afterwards. 

 

Why do we burn turf? 

Aside from the nostalgic elements of turf and the cultural heritage attached to it, between environment and necessity, we must turn our attention to the sordid topic of coin. The simple answer as to why the Irish people continue to burn turf is that as a fuel source, it is by far the cheapest option. As an indigenous source of fuel, it makes sense to use it and when you look at the price comparison below, it’s obvious as to why there has been resistance. The graph below shows how much fuel €500 will get you when you spend it on turf, coal, oil, or natural gas. 

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Source: Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland Fuel Cost Comparisons.xlsx 

As you can see, for the price of €500, it is clear why turf has remained a popular fuel source for rural Irish people. These prices may vary depending on the region and the supplier, but they show that while Irish people would like to help the environment, there are also practical considerations. Moreover, natural gas is not accessible in many rural areas and so this has created a dependency on turf. 

Is burning turf bad for the environment? 

The downside of the practice is that it does harm the environment. Turf is made of peat moss, which is a mixture of 95% water and 5% dead vegetation which has built up over hundreds and thousands of years and acts as a carbon dioxide sink. When peat bogs are disturbed, they release these harmful emissions and further break down the natural habitat. Today, peatlands cover 16.2% of the Irish landmass, some of the largest in Europe after Finland with some peatlands being over 9,000 years old. They are also home to rare plants and animals, which is another reason why environmental groups wish to clamp down on the practice. 

As it stands, peat is the least carbon efficient fossil fuel and produces more CO2 emissions than natural gas, oil, or coal. Not to mention that the regrowth rate of a bog is only 1mm per year and so if we continue to use the peatlands of Ireland in this way, we run the risk of losing them forever. For some rural Irish people, the argument is that what is taken home per household per year is not a large enough amount to cause any lasting damage. However, there are other groups who argue that we have already damaged peat bogs beyond repair. A greener option seems out of reach as people need to heat their homes. And with the recent announcement from Bord na Mona to close all 62 bogs by 2024, there are fears that this could lead to fuel scarcity. These fears were not unfounded as was evidenced when it became known that Ireland was importing peat briquettes from Germany and Estonia, whilst denying local workers the chance to produce their own. 

 

The future of turf

The debates surrounding the future of turf are complicated. Currently, turf is still being used domestically by people all over Ireland. However, with only 5.2% of households citing peat as their primary fuel source, it does beg the question as to why oil is allowed but peat is not. If we are simply trading one fossil fuel source for another with the same harmful environmental impact, where does that leave the rural people of Ireland? As it stands, the future of turf is unclear, but personally from one ‘culchie’ to another, I would hate to see the practice die out completely. 

 

Photo courtesy of National Folklore Collection, UCD. D015.29.00005 ‘Women’s clothes: woman bearing a back-creel of turf. One-roomed thatched (rope thatch) house in background, Co.Donegal’. Photographer: Hood, Osmund, 1936.

 

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