The bargeman seen in Hades as the funeral carriage
crosses the Royal Canal has been "Dropping down lock by
lock to Dublin. With turf from the midland bogs."
Ireland's midlands contain vast expanses of glacier-scoured,
rain-soaked terrain where "peat," a precursor of coal,
has been building up for millennia, often to depths of 20-40
feet (up to 12 meters), in so-called "raised bogs": rounded,
water-logged hills that once were marshes. For a very long
time inhabitants have sliced peat out of these raised bogs,
stacked it to dry, and then burned it for heat. Turf-cutting
accelerated rapidly in the 17th century, and in the 19th
century large quantities were shipped to Dublin on barges.
The construction of the Grand
and Royal canals from 1779 to 1816 provided an
economical way to bring the cut blocks of turf to Dublin
fireplaces. A series of locks overcame the difference in
elevation between lowlying Dublin and the upper reaches of the
Shannon and Barrow rivers, and horses provided the power to
move barges along the flat water of the canals. The narrative
of Hades captures both elements of this system: "On
the towpath by the lock a slacktethered horse."
With tethers pulled taut, barges reportedly moved at speeds up
to 10 mph (16 kph). This was state-of-the-art transport in its
day, but the picture created in Hades is far from
glamorous: "On the slow weedy waterway he had floated on
his raft coastward over Ireland drawn by a haulage rope past
beds of reeds, over slime, mudchoked bottles, carrion
Far more abundant than coal in Ireland and thus cheaper, peat
also supplies far less heat—about half the BTUs.
Turn-of-the-century middle-class Dubliners saw it as poor
people's fuel. When Mr. Best announces in Scylla and
Charybdis that Haines has gone off to buy Hyde's Love
Songs of Connacht, John Eglinton jokes that "The
peatsmoke is going to his head." In Wandering Rocks,
Father Conmee sees the same turfbarge that the men in the
funeral carriage saw, now about a mile farther east on the
Royal Canal, and blesses the Almighty's tender care for
tenement dwellers and peasants: "Moored under the trees of
Charleville Mall Father Conmee saw a turfbarge, a towhorse
with pendent head, a bargeman with a hat of dirty straw
seated amidships, smoking and staring at a branch of poplar
above him. It was idyllic: and Father Conmee reflected on
the providence of the Creator who had made turf to be in
bogs whence men might dig it out and bring it to town and
hamlet to make fires in the houses of poor people."
Joyce's presentation of the good father's benevolent
condescensions is never more withering than here.
The construction of the two long canals whetted appetites for
further government-funded development of the peat resource.
Another scheme, not yet attempted at the time of the novel,
was to dredge the bottoms of the Shannon and the Barrow,
which, as Gifford notes, "flow through extensive bogs and
marshes. In the latter half of the nineteenth century there
was considerable public discussion of engineering projects
designed to deepen the two rivers in order to drain the
marshland and to develop the peat bogs." In Cyclops
the Citizen castigates the British for ignoring "the beds
of the Barrow and Shannon they won't deepen with millions of
acres of marsh and bog to make us all die of consumption."
After independence Ireland undertook some of this hydraulic
engineering and embarked on industrial-scale harvesting of
peat, but that era is now coming to a close with recognition
of the need to combat global climate change.
People are also coming to recognize that the boglands contain
rich ecosystems that should be preserved, but in 1904 their
awareness was focused more exclusively on the economic value
of the peat and the inconvenience and disease potential of the
standing water. The Citizen is not alone in his distaste for
"millions of acres of marsh and bog." In Telemachus Buck
Mulligan deplores the condition of "Living in a bogswamp,
eating cheap food and the streets paved with dust, horsedung
and consumptives' spits." Meditating on water in Ithaca,
Bloom thinks of "the noxiousness of its effluvia in
lacustrine marshes, pestilential fens." Stephen thinks
of Deasy's Stuart coins
as "base treasure of a bog." (Some astonishing
treasures have been dug out of Ireland's bogs, as well as
perfectly preserved "bog bodies" and prized bogoak. The water is anaerobic
The canals now have outlived their intended uses. The building of railways in the second half of the 19th century took away most passenger traffic, and automobiles, just coming on at the time represented in the novel, signaled the coming obsolescence of all barge traffic. Freight dropped steadily in the 20th century before being finally discontinued in 1959. Since then, the canals have gained popularity for recreational use, a practice whose early-20th century anticipations too are acknowledged in Hades. Bloom thinks, "I could make a walking tour to see Milly by the canal. Or cycle down." He wonders also about "Houseboats. Camping out."