The Blanket and Raised Bogs of Ireland occupy, according to some estimates, about fifteen per cent of the country’s landscape and they hold a special place in the hearts of most Irish people. In recent years more and more of these bogs have been rehabilitated or restored and Bord na Móna plans to rehabilitate 60 Raised Bogs in the Midlands in the future. It is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the most important projects affecting Ireland’s natural world because it is an enormous change in land use and a very positive thing, writes Derek Fanning.
In one of his poems, Seamus Heaney makes the point that here in Ireland we have “no prairies to slice a big sun at evening. Everywhere the eye concedes to encroaching horizon…Our unfenced country is bog that keeps crusting between the sights of the sun.”
Heaney had a sustained interest in bogs throughout his life, in the physical mass of the things themselves, and in the ancestral memory contained in them, including preserved bodies a couple of thousand years old.
In an interview in the 1970s which discussed his fascination with bogland, he pointed out that memory and the backward-looking thing is very strong in all of us in Ireland. He said he got a notion one day that just as the prairie in the US has a sense of being outward bound and believing in a future, a sense of going out in a positive direction and with purpose, so in Ireland do we have landscapes which mirror our feelings, our moods.
We haven’t got a prairie to equate with in our minds, but we do have the bogs. In the midlands of Ireland the boglands are, of course, a very big presence and have a major foothold in the psyche of those living in the region.
The bogs don’t just evoke a sense of wilderness and otherness, but they are also repositories. They are repositories of the vegetation which constitutes them and they are repositories of human goods and humans themselves.
“I thought of bogland as a Jungian ground,” Heaney told his interviewer, “in the sense that it has been used as a term of abuse about us – bog trotters, bog men, and so on. In my poetry I have turned that upside down and celebrated it.
“If you go into our national museum you will find that a lot of our precious artefacts came out of bogs. So our symbols of ourselves, how we identify as a nation, as a culture, came out of the bog too.”
Bogland is very good at preserving human bodies and some of them can be seen in the national museum.
In his poem Jutland Man, Heaney describes one of the bog bodies – a person who, we think, was sacrificed to a Mother Goddess of the ground. “I think of the bog as a feminine, Goddess-ridden ground,” Heaney told the interviewer.