Midland bogs

Midland bogs

In Brief

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.

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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 dogs."

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 and acidic.)

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."

JH 2019
Map showing the deep "raised bogs" of Ireland's flatlands (red) and the shallower "blanket bogs" of its mountains (green). Source: www.askaboutireland.ie.
Turf-Barges, Portobello, Dublin, a 1941 woodcut print by Harry Kernoff Rha. Source: www.whytes.ie.
Boglands, oil on canvas painting by George Russell held in the Chazen Museum of Art, Madison. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Turf cutting on a raised bog, in a photograph of unknown date from the collection of
Maggie Land Blanck. Source: www.maggieblanck.com.

Cut peat turf on a blanket bog in County Kerry. Source: www.irishcentral.com.