November 25, 2005
Warm glow of Irish peat takes edge off oil woes
By Paul Hoskins
KNOCKVICAR (Reuters) - As an autumn gale assails his
hilltop cottage, Pepijn Martius sits beside a peat-fired stove,
savoring the earthy smell and glowing warmth that has cost him
little more than a sore back.
"For my pocket it's much better," said the 27-year-old
Dutchman. "If I would heat with oil or gas I would spend
probably quadruple the amount of money that I spend on peat."
"And it keeps me warm twice," he adds, referring to the
physical labor involved in harvesting the dark, carbon-rich
earth which is the first stage in the formation of coal.
The clumps of peat, or turf, are dug from Ireland's bogs --
waterlogged land formed after the last Ice Age. They must be
turned regularly and stacked to dry before hauling them home.
It's a time-consuming task but soaring oil prices mean a
new generation is rediscovering the tradition.
Irish-born Martius reckons 150 euros buys enough peat to
run his central heating and provide hot water for a year -- a
fraction of Ireland's average annual domestic gas bill which,
after a recent 25 percent price hike, is set to hit 946 euros.
A short, bumpy ride from his home in County Roscommon is
the source of his energy: a blustery bog where the only respite
for chilled bones comes from a black, 8-foot wall of earth
dividing the original field from years of peat digging below.
Here, despite using mechanical cutters, owner Jimmy
McLoughlin is struggling to meet demand.
"Up to about five years ago it was down to nearly nil but
the oil price changed all that," said McLoughlin. "I didn't
have enough turf this year for people."
"SQUELCH AND SLAP"
The 52-year-old farmer charges 12 euros for cutting a row
which contains about 1,000 peat bricks. For an extra fee he'll
turn, dry and deliver but Martius prefers to do that himself.
"It adds a kind of quality to your life," says the hotel
worker. "It's the outdoors and you're working for your fuel."
Those with memories of a less affluent island have a
different, but no less romantic, view of what Irish poet Seamus
Heaney called "the squelch and slap of soggy peat."
The Nobel Laureate often exploits the discovery of human
remains in "the display-case peat" to delve into Ireland's
troubled past and history's cruel, cyclical nature.
John P. Flanagan, 80, is one of thousands of workers who
spent World War Two, or "The Emergency" as it is known in
Ireland, digging peat by hand to keep trains running and
bakers' ovens alight after coal imports dried up.
"There'd be 40 men working on this bank here and another 30
... over there," he says, pointing across the deserted field,
near McLoughlin's plot, with a turf spade known as a "slean."
Peat has been used for fuel since prehistoric times but it
wasn't until the 18th century that deforestation, spurred by
British shipbuilding, made it Ireland's major source of fuel.
By the 1840s, when the Great Famine killed an estimated 1
million people, peat was often the only source of heat.
Small wonder that Heaney's "kind, black butter" plays such
an important part in the national consciousness.
"I was quite impressed with the way people talk about it,"
said Martius. "It's part of their lives."
In the nearby midland town of Lanesborough sits a more
modern manifestation of peat's significance and of a postwar
policy to reduce Ireland's dependence on imported energy.
Opened in 2004, the 100-megawatt Lough Ree power station is
one of two new peat-fired plants belonging to the state-owned
Electricity Supply Board (ESB), which has been generating power
from peat since the 1950s.
"Strategically, of course, they worked out very well and
the 1970s proved that with the oil crisis when peat power
stations came into their own," said station manager Pat
A 15-year contract with state peat producer Bord Na Mona
that caps price rises gives ESB customers some protection from
oil prices that have roughly doubled since 2003.
From the roof of Lough Ree it's easy to see why there's
little chance of a breakdown in the supply chain that feeds its
furnaces with 800,000 tons of peat annually. No pipelines or
oil tankers, just a small train ferrying fuel from the bogs.
Such large-scale exploitation has forced Bord na Mona to
diversify into renewable energy to secure its future.
"There's a finite amount of peat on the bogs that's viably
harvestable -- 15 years is all these stations have," said
Treanor. "At night, with the weather like this now, wind energy
probably already meets 20, 30 percent of the whole
For environmentalists, it's too little, too late.
"Bogs are a huge store of carbon dioxide so if you do start
cutting and burning them you're actually releasing a lot of
greenhouse gas into the atmosphere," says Caroline Hurley of
the Irish Peatland Conservation Council (IPCC).
The bogs also provide a haven for vulnerable birds,
particularly waders and ground nesters like the golden plover
and red grouse, and to plants like butterworts and bladderworts
which have adapted to the poor soil by becoming carnivores.
But peat's economic importance to the traditionally
depressed midlands means Hurley faces an uphill battle: "I
don't think people are worried about burning peat to be honest
... they are only too happy to use a cheaper substitute."
Given that Ireland is 17 percent bog land -- a proportion
only exceeded by Finland, Canada and Indonesia -- it is not
easy to persuade small-scale farmers of the environmental
"I depend on it at certain times of the year when there
isn't any other income," says McLoughlin.
Or, in the words of one Irish proverb: "He who has water
and peat on his own farm has the world his own way."