Keep the peat fires burning

Ireland's boglands are finally being recognised as an ancient and unique environment. But without the introduction of conservation initiatives, could they disappear forever?

"Just as well you've got your boots on - trainers are useless in the bog," said Kathleen, pointing out various routes on a map. My friends and I opted for a short one and set off down the Old Bog Road, from the Visitors' Centre of Connemara National Park. As Katherine yelled out her parting shot, "Watch out for bog holes," we squelched cautiously across the ground.

"Just as well you've got your boots on - trainers are useless in the bog," said Kathleen, pointing out various routes on a map. My friends and I opted for a short one and set off down the Old Bog Road, from the Visitors' Centre of Connemara National Park. As Katherine yelled out her parting shot, "Watch out for bog holes," we squelched cautiously across the ground.

The boglands were not dark and dank as I had expected. Instead they shimmered with the soft, white plumes of cotton grass, and the tiny, yellow flowers of tormentil. The minty smell of bog myrtle hung in the air as we climbed up a ridge, stepping now on springy, mauve-flowered heather and damp green sphagnum moss. At the top we were met by vast views of the velvety green folds of the "Bens", the 12 rounded peaks of the Benna Beola mountains - until a cloudburst sent us cowering for shelter behind a rocky outcrop.

We were in the heart of the grassy blanket bog that envelops much of the west coast of Ireland. The timelessness of the boglands caught me. As did the rich, dark-brown peat, stacked up to dry in little wigwams on the rim of a turf cutting.

The Visitors' Centre at Letterfrack had fuelled my curiosity about peat. I had learnt how the foundations for today's peatbogs were formed over 8,000 years ago, after the retreat of the last glaciers, and how Neolithic man had accelerated the process by cutting down and burning ancient woodland to clear the land for farming.

Buried deep in the rich darkness are hints of previous millennia. The remnants of vegetable matter and pollen grains that have been preserved for thousands of years, show the signs of events as diverse as the beginnings of the industrial revolution and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

In the dense blackness of the old turf cuttings, I touched the dried stumps of pine, oak and yew trees that lay uncovered, ridged, worn and twisted, after tens of thousands of years in their burial ground. There have been other discoveries: antlers of the giant Irish deer that roamed here at the end of the Ice Age. And buried treasure from early Christian times. More macabre are the mummified bodies that have been exhumed from their peaty graves in all their ghastly darkness.

The peat may be a silent witness to the past, but it also has a more discernibly practical value: as a source of fuel in an all but treeless land. Sean, our amiable host at a bed and breakfast in Co Mayo, showed us a slean, the long-handled, narrow-bladed spade with a metal wing that is used to slice out the neat, rectangular shapes.

"You throw the sods up onto the top of the bank, and leave them there to dry for a few weeks. Then we come back for the footing." I looked at him and he laughed. "That's the word we use, for stacking up the sods of peat to dry." He drew a pyramid shape in the air to show me.

Everywhere, in late summer, sods of peat cover the ground beside turf cuttings. For those who have left their homeland behind, the spectacle is deeply nostalgic. "It was back-breaking work, the scourge of your youth when your parents used to drag you out to cut the turf," one lady told me. "But when I go back, the distinctive sweet, smoky smell that's out in the streets on a still, damp day evokes wonderful childhood memories."

The Irish have cut turf for centuries. It has, until recently, seemed a limitless resource. But 50 years ago the state-owned Turf Development Board (yes, really), signed the death warrant for hundreds of thousands of hectares of this unique environment when they started exploiting it with machines. In the past few decades, most of Ireland's raised bogs have been destroyed to generate electricity or to make briquettes for fuel.

"The bogs that have developed over millennia have, in a tiny fraction of that time, nearly disappeared," Sean told me. "But Ireland has finally woken up to the fact that, far from being a wasteland fit for nothing but grazing, the peatlands are an unique environment. Many of the bogs are now taken care of by the National Parks and Nature Reserves."

"The future isn't all bleak," he continued, optimism shifting his speech up a gear. "The Heritage Service is making a new national park in north-west Mayo and there's a lot of bog plants that grow there: sundews, golden spires of bog asphodel and a lovely little thing, quite rare, the sky blue, ivy-leaved bell flower, Wahlenbergia hederacea."

We looked out over the landscape, all shades of brown and green mixed with a mauve haze of heather. I was glad to think that Sean's grandchildren - and perhaps mine, one day - would have the opportunity of exploring the beauty and stillness of this great part of Ireland's heritage.

* Connemara National Park Visitor Centre is in Letterfrack, County Galway, Ireland (00 353 95 410 54). The easiest way to get there is to fly to Dublin on Ryanair (0870 156 9569, www. ryanair.ie), which has return fares from Luton for £33.30, and then to hire a car. Hertz (0870 599 6699, www.hertz.com) is offering a week's rental for IR£150 (£111)

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