The turf cutters of the Bog of Allen
The Grand Canal from Dublin to Ballinasloe passes through the middle of the Bog of Allen. Being desirous of seeing a spot, with which so many interesting events in the history of Ireland are connected, I availed myself, in the autumn of 1834, of the circumstance of having some business which required my presence in the County of Galway, to go there by the Canal packet.
For the first fifteen miles from Dublin, the course of the Canal, which is along the high southern bank of the Liffey for the greater part of this distance, lies through a tract of country which, for the rare and happy combination of fertility and picturesque beauty, is not, perhaps, surpassed by any other of the same extent in the universe. On the left you have the lofty chain of the Wicklow mountains, grass clad to their summit; their sides covered with corn fields and pastures, farm-houses, cottages, and country seats embosomed in woods. In the plain below the village of Clondalkin, with its aged round tower looking down on the rich and varied scenery of groves, meadows, villas, and gardens, that every where surround it. On the right the enchanting banks of the river Liffey, with its far-famed villages of Leixlip and Lucan; and, farther on, the magnificent demesne of Carton, with its spreading woods now clad in their autumnal dresses. Behind you, in the remote distance, lies Dublin, and its Bay, its winding shores covered with marine villas and gardens, and terminated by the two portals of the ocean, the lofty promontory of Howth on the north, and the steep cliffs of Dalkey on the south; beyond which, dimly seen, tower the Sugarloaf and other primary mountains.
At the distance of five miles farther — twenty miles from Dublin — you find yourself upon the Bog of Allen. Words cannot describe the overwhelming sensations that are produced by the contrast in the aspect of the scene of dreariness and desolation that now presents itself, and every where surrounds you. To comprehend them it must be seen. Imagine yourself — or, as it was with me, that you had gone down for a couple of hours to the cabin, and then returned upon deck — imagine yourself, then, suddenly transported from the delightful scenes I have described, to a wild dreary waste, covered with patches of gorse and dingy brown heath, alternating with the black surface of the bog, or with some slimy morass; and no other marks of inhabitation or of cultivation, save here and there an insulated hovel, its roof barely raised above the soil, in which it appears to be, and not infrequently is, imbedded, to which is attached occasionally a small stripe of grass or corn. Such is the general aspect of the unreclaimed portions of this bog.
On perceiving one of those wretched huts near the bank of the Canal, I took the opportunity of our boat’s passing through a double lock, to step ashore and examine it. On doing so, it appeared to me to be inconceivable how human beings were able to exist in such habitations, which struck me as being many degrees worse than the rock houses which I had seen on the banks of the Loire near Saumur in France, which are literally caves, not unlike our coal vaults, cut out of the solid rock, but which, in comparison of these miserable hovels, may be considered as comfortable dwellings.
In the construction of the hut in question, a turf bank, in a dry situation, had been selected, in which a pit had been sunk to the depth of some five or six feet, in the form of a parallelogram, of from ten to twelve feet in length, by eight or nine in breadth. A portion of the bank, on the outside of one of the sides of this parallelogram, had been cut away, thus leaving a wall, through which a door or opening was made. This formed the body of the dwelling. A few shingles or slips of bog-wood formed the frame-work of the roof, the covering of which was partly straw, and partly heath, or other materials drawn from the bog. For letting out the smoke there was merely an opening in the roof, with a basket without a bottom, at the top by way of chimney. Such was the dwelling or cottage of a turfcutter, a fair specimen of many others, on the Bog of Allen.
On returning to the boat, I asked one of the passengers — a medical gentleman going to Tullamore — how it was possible that the poor men and their families inhabiting these huts could contrive to exist in such habitations; and whether they were not subject to agues and intermittent fevers from the perpetual moisture that must exude from every part of their dwellings.
“Nothing of the sort, I assure you,” he replied; ” they in general enjoy admirable health; and I know of no complaint to which they are particularly liable, except,” he added, laughing, “it be to that of hunger occasionally.”
“To what causes, then do you ascribe their exemption from the diseases incident to such situations?”
“Indeed, I know of no other, unless it be the antiseptic quality of our bogs.”
This way of accounting for this circumstance was far from satisfactory to me. For although we find that peat is powerfully antiseptic, quoad the preservation of dead bodies, non constat, that it has analogous properties with respect to the living subject; and if I was to conclude that this absence from disease, in such circumstances, is ascribable to any local causes, I should say that it is mainly owing to the high elevation of these bogs, which, in every part of them, allows a free circulation of air. Of this circumstance I was not previously aware, imagining that bogs being chiefly formed by the growth and decay of aquatic plants, through a succession of ages, must necessarily be in low situations. Such, however, is not the case with the Bog of Allen — nor, I believe, with most of the bogs in Ireland. The Bog of Allen is, in fact, a high table land, raised at its highest elevation, about two hundred and seventy feet above the Liffey, at low water, in Dublin; and stretches, from the latter place, across the King’s County, to the Shannon; and, beyond it, in a direction east and west, into the counties of Galway and Roscommon; and, laterally, spreads through the counties of Meath and Westmeath to the north; and into the Queen’s County and Tipperary to the south.
It had, in ancient times, been covered with forests, green fields, and probably with cultivated grounds, as may be inferred from the quantities of fine timber, chiefly fir and oak, along with the remains of animals, and of articles indicative of human habitation, which are every where found beneath its surface. It is a singular peculiarity in it, however, that while it is a known preservative of some substances, it is no less remarkable for its corrosive qualities in the destruction of others. Thus, although the bodies of fir and oak trees are found in it in perfect preservation, yet the bark of them has been wholly consumed. It is the same with regard to the vegetable mould, which must have covered the ground where vegetation had existed; for it, also, has wholly disappeared, and, as may be seen, along the banks of the Canal, wherever the turf has been cut away at various depths from the surface, we invariably find only clay or gravel at the bottom.
The only probable solution as to the causes of the formation of these bogs is, that the numerous streams which traversed the higher grounds, were, in many places, choked up by the falling of timber, which grew on their banks, across the current; and from the accumulation of other matter thus also arrested, a rank accumulation sprung up, which, in process of time, enveloped the whole of those districts, where the foregoing causes combined to produce it. In low or confined situations, we find, where water to some depth is pent up, only the lake or the morass; because in them the agencies of sun and air, required to call forth the species of vegetation that forms the peat of the bog is wanting. This solution of these formations carries with it an additional presumption of its correctness, from the circumstance that some of our principal rivers have their sources in these bogs. Thus, the river Boyne, and, I believe, the Barrow, have their respective sources in the Bog of Allen. At the summit level of the Grand Canal the principal streams by which it is supplied have the same origin.
When we mention the Bog of Allen, we must not understand thereby one continued or connected surface of bog, but a series of bogs, which, however they may have been united formerly, are at present, for the most part, insulated, and separated from each other by the intervention of large districts of cultivated and inclosed lands, including hills, valleys, towns, and villages; and such bogs are, of course, the property of many different proprietors.
In ancient times the bog of Allen was computed to contain 1,000,000 of acres. At present, it does not exceed 300,000; and even this quantity is rapidly diminishing under the hand of cultivation; and, in all probability, the day is not far distant, when the whole of these wastes will be reclaimed; and this, perhaps once one of the fairest portions of Ireland, be restored to its pristine state. To this end the Grand Canal and also the Royal Canal which traverses the counties of Meath, Westmeath and Longford, in its passage, also, to the Shannon, materially contribute. A large breadth of drainage has been effected since their completion; and a corresponding extent of land has been thereby brought into cultivation.
To these ends, also, the humble labours of the turf-cutter have been essentially aiding. Like the backwoodsmen of America, these men are in these wastes the pioneers of improvement. The history of their operations, as given to me by a gentleman on board, is as follows. The turf-cutter takes a tract of bog, some one or two acres, at as moderate a rent as he can — generally, I believe, at from twenty to thirty shillings per acre (Irish). His next step is the erection of a dwelling, commonly of the kind I have described. He then commences turf-cutting, for which he has a ready market in Dublin; to which place a vast number of boats, of about sixty tons burden each, are constantly plying on these Canals in the conveyance of this article. Our turf-cutter, if he has been successful in his speculation in the outset, after cutting away a certain extent of bog, and arriving at the substratum of clay, will probably unite to his business of turf-cutter that of brickmaker also; having for this latter article likewise a sure market in the metropolis. During these different processes, or perhaps only in concert with one of them, he has, year by year, been bringing portions of his holding into cultivation; or he may, all along, have perhaps made this last his chief object. With him the pinching time is the first two or three years of his lease — during this period he has to struggle hard. But if he can contrive to pay his rent, or has an indulgent landlord, and is industrious, he will be able to top the hill, and in the end become, in all likelihood, a man of some substance. But if, as is too frequently the case, he allows his rent to get materially in arrear, he probably falls into the gripe of some merciless landshark, who, perhaps at the very moment he has brought his holding into a state of improvement that would insure his future independence, by the summary process of ejectment, drives him out of his possession, and turns him adrift on the wide world, to — if he has the heart for it — commence his speculation afresh.
From The Dublin Penny Journal (conducted by P Dixon Hardy MRIA) Vol IV No 168 September 19, 1835