Peat and Ireland


Ireland by many is known to be an ecologically and energy-efficient place. Ireland has earned this reputation despite its lack of natural resources because of the impressive lack of energy waste created. Although one may think that this is due to the small population size of 5.5 million, this is not necessarily the case. In fact the most pollution that comes from the country is from peat.

Peat is a deep brown natural material formed from moss creating a deposit of acidic, boggy ground. This deposit is dug, dried and used as fuel. You can find this outside almost every grocery type store in the country to be used for fuel to heat homes.  Peat may be considered a form of renewable energy due to its ability to grow back at a millimeter per year, however,  it acts as a carbon sink. The peat takes in around 30 percent of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, even more so than a forest does. When it is burned, it releases all of the carbon it had absorbed into the atmosphere. This causes devastating long-term effects on climate change. The carbon that is emitted reacts with the oxygen in the air creating carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, so when it is emitted into the atmosphere it adds to the thermal blanket which continues to heat up the earth affecting climate in totality.

Sphagnum Moss

When you stand on peat it feels as our guide Tom said, “like you might just sink right into the ground as if it were quick sand.” Luckily the earth does not suck you down into it but this was an accurate way of describing the buoyant feeling of the ground. Peat starts as moss known as sphagnum. This decomposes over many years and eventually turns into something that looks like soil. The moss is able to absorb so much water that you can ring it out like a sponge. Sphagnum’s ability to retain water is what gives the ground this feeling. In fact, it can hold such a large amount of water that during the first World War it was used as a bandage for the wounded.

While the people of Ireland are quite proud of being environmentally friendly, it was quite interesting to see how many people still burn peat as a source of heat in their homes.


Mussels, Sheep, and Peat Oh My !

Ireland is a country of many different landscapes and resources that its people rely on to survive. One of the best demonstrations of this is at the Killary Fjord where a sheep farm sits next to a mussel farm on a beautiful yet harsh landscape. A large part of Ireland is dominated by large turf bogs, a landscape that not all animals can survive in, you won’t find many horses or cattle there because they cannot get the nutrients that they need from this land. Sheep however seem to thrive here, getting all the nutrients they need eating the moss and grassy tops of the bog lands. The Killary Sheep Farm is a working farm that has over 500 sheep on its land grazing the mountain side.Not far down the road is The Killary Mussel Farm, another working farm that grows and harvest mussels that are sold locally in town. This beautiful landscape is perfect for the sheep and mussels who need specific environments to thrive, also providing farmers with the fuel to heat their homes, cheap and easily accessible.

The sheep graze freely over the mountainside and are checked on daily by the farmers and the sheepdogs who herd them where they need to go with skill. Tom, the farmer, calls out to his dog Silvia  “AWAY” and Silvia goes right, corralling the sheep to one side and herding them with precision and patience. The sheep are sheared in the summer when their wool becomes long and thick, this keeps them healthy and happy, Tom says never uses an electric shaver but instead goes for the harder but safer sheers that don’t cut as close to the sheep’s skin. Tom, uses turf like many others in rural Ireland to heat his home. There is a turf bog right on the property that he has been cutting for 13 years.

Tom Shearing One of his Sheep

Down the road on the water is the Killary Mussel Farm, yet another environment providing food for the local people. The environment to grow mussels must be very specific, they need the brackish water found in the fjord to be able to grow so many. This place is perfect for the mussels as it is for the sheep and easily accessible to the mussel farmers. Mussels on barrels in the water spawn and attach to ropes that are pulled from the water harvested and cleaned. Mussels are sold to only local markets and restaurants for around three euros a kilo,  much more than if sold to plants. When asked about toxins in the water like red algae, also known as red tide, the farmers said they ensure that the quality of the mussels is good by sampling water every Monday and sending it to a Marine Institute to check for toxins. Over all, Killary Fjord is an important environment for many of the local people providing both food, fuel and a source of income for local farmers.

Ropes of Mussels growing at Killary Mussel Farm

What’s Turf?

“My charger won’t work!” says someone on the trip panicked at least once a day. Inevitably almost every time they’ve just forgotten to switch on the outlet, something we’re not used to doing in America. Ireland seems to take energy seriously, all of its outlets turn off and on saving electricity, the last hotel we stayed at even had you put your room key into a socket to enable lights to turn on so that you couldn’t forget to turn them off when you leave. Small things like this can make a large impact when implemented over an entire country and are a good step towards sustainability and conserving energy.

Another unfamiliar sight to many on the trip are the abundance of wind turbines throughout the countryside, doing cartwheels above the trees. Producing energy in a way that’s better for the environment. Ireland as of 2017 had over 2,000 megawatts of wind power with wind turbines providing 23% of the country’s electric power.

Wind Turbines

It’s not all perfect however, all over Ireland many people, especially in rural areas, are burning turf as a source of heat for their homes. With little tree cover in the country many say turf is the only material easily accessible to them to  heat their homes with. Turf or peat is built up over thousands of years by wet moss compacting over time. Much of Ireland is covered by these turf bogs, easily accessed on family’s land dug up by farmers as a cheap source of fuel. It is dug out of the ground and left to dry out, shriveling up into small, course, black bricks that can be burnt. The problem with this is that turf is a “carbon sink” holding in a large amount of co2, 30% of carbon in the world is stored in peat according to one of tour guides Anthony.  When burned the carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. The government has made moves to try and get people to stop this practice but for many it’s their best access to fuel and they are unwilling or unable to stop the practice. Stopping would mean importing oil or gas because there are no natural gas sources or pipelines in these areas, and this would be costly and also unsustainable.

Dried Turf

Many Irish people are aware and conscientious of the effects of turf burning and care a lot about the environment. They say that on such a small scale, as is the case in many rural areas, only taking what they need does not release enough co2 to make a large impact. People have many different views on the subject, all aware of the consequences and with different view points depending on their lives but make a general consensus. “It’s done here on such a small scale that it’s okay, it’s large scale industrial businesses that would be the problem” is the quote I heard, with little variation, from multiple different farmers who use turf. 

A Turf Bog

A Civil War Issue

While driving through the west coast of Ireland, it was evident that rural Ireland uses wind turbines and turf as their main sources of energy.  Looking out the bus window, I saw miles of wind turbines generating power.  Wind turbines are efficient but they haven’t always been used in Ireland. Throughout Ireland’s history, they relied on cutting and burning turf as the main energy source. Recently, cutting turf as an energy source has been called into question after environmental issues were brought up about burning peat.

Burning turf has been used as fuel to heat people’s homes for the majority of Ireland’s history dating back centuries ago. Many farmers lived on bogland which is where the turf is cut. The farmers would use a sléan to remove the peat and leave it out to dry throughout the summer. Since peat is made up of 90% water, the turf bricks would shrink in size as they dry. Once the turf was dry, it would be burned in a fire to heat the house and to cook with. This practice is still used today by farmers and many people in Ireland to heat their homes. Although using peat as fuel was feasible because it was accessible, it presents a danger to the environment.

A majority of the world’s CO2 is stored in the turf from bog lands. When the turf is burned, that stored CO2 is released into the atmosphere. At the Céide Fields, our tour guide explained, if the CO2 is released into the air it is very dangerous to the environment, therefore, peat land should be protected. On the other hand, we met people who rely on peat as their main fuel source. These people, including Farmer Tom (pictured above), do not think the government should stop them from burning the peat because they as a small farm do not make a large impact on the environment. Tom explained, “The government cannot ban burning peat because it would start a civil war.” But, he does believe the big machines that cut turf are bad for the environment because they can do more damage in one day than he has over 13 years. Although cutting turf has yet to be banned, the government incentivizes farmers to stop cutting turf by offering them monetary compensation. There has yet to be a clear plan for cutting turf going forward since it has been a part of the culture in Ireland for many centuries.  


A Simple Life in the Traditional Irish Home

Imagine yourself living in Ireland in the late 1800s—completely vulnerable to the elements with only yourself to get you through the cold, wet winters. You would most likely have a family of eight to twenty siblings, all living in the house with your parents. Your home would be made of thick stone walls with small windows to help keep in the warmth during the winters. The roof, covered in thatch acts as a thermal blanket, ventilating the smoke from your hearth and keeping the rain out.

You would walk into the heart of the home and be immersed with the scent of smoky peat burning from the hearth. The hearth was what kept the space dry and you warm. It was how you would cook all of your food. It would be the only stationary element in the home. Stories would be told with neighbors and friends around the fire to make the dreaded winters less miserable.

Door to children’s bedroom that would be reached by a ladder.

At night you would be snuggled up with the rest of your siblings in one of the three small bedrooms the home had. You would be fortunate to get a bed next to the door so that you would not have to climb over your siblings to escape. While there were no stairs because of the needed space in the living area, there were ladders. Essential to get to the bedrooms that would be a story above the ground. The only bedroom on the ground floor was your parents room. Their bedroom would be positioned on the wall that had the fire-place on the other side. This would be their source of heat. Your warmth would come from your siblings and the little bit of heat that would be floating up into your room.

People become wrapped up in the commotion of modern-day society. It is the simple things such as stone walls, a thatched roof and a hearth that as Dearbhaill, our guide says, “Young people are looking for meaning through authenticity” in order to live a fulfilling life. The simple life as such has led to many happy lives for the Irish as you see today since many people are still living this way.

Ask Pete: Should People Burn Peat?

Ireland offers different options when it comes to fuel and energy. One hot topic is the burning of turf. Turf is blocks of peat from ancient bogs that for centuries rural residents have dried and burned to heat their homes.

Because turf is a sponge for CO2, people have mixed opinions on whether or not this fuel should be utilized. For centuries, people living in rural neighborhoods have burned turf to heat their homes. Others, including Anthony, our guide from the Ceide Fields said: “Burning turf is negative for the environment because turf holds CO2 so when it is burned, it releases those damaging qualities into the air.” Turf retains water, acid, and moisture so people need a lot of this resource to last throughout winter. Peat is an important resource to consider when looking at energy options inside and outside of Ireland but it is also necessary to note that there are many pros and cons to burning this fuel. No one can deny the beneficial and damaging effects of burning turf and how those effects alter the environment.

A student is hard at work, learning tips and tricks for collecting turf.

One location where peat can be found is the Atlantic blanket bog land. This prehistoric landscape is where environmentalists can find Sphagnum moss, also referred to as peat moss. It grows a mere one millimeter every year and despite its slow, gradual growth, this moss does not die down. It does not die down because of the collected water, which comes from rain. The moss transforms to turf, which is spread on the ground and the sun naturally dries it out over the hot summer time. This prepares the resource to be burned for the winter time.

Sphagnum moss is acidic and does a great job at preserving everything!

The turf controversy aside, Ireland also demonstrates an understanding and practice of energy conservation. One effort Ireland makes towards energy conservation was demonstrated in the hotel rooms in Spiddal. In order to turn on the hallway, bedroom, and bathroom lights, the room key needed to be slid into the socket by the door. This invention makes an effort to conserve energy by making sure lights are not when a person is not home. Loads of energy is wasted by people who leave lights on when they are not home.

Altogether, Ireland makes efforts to conserve energy and use their resources wisely, although these efforts are not perfect and can be always improved.

Fueling Fire: The Burning of Peat for Energy

Turf at the Killary Sheep Farm

A common, yet controversial source of energy in Ireland is peat, or “turf”, a sort of soil made up of decaying matter. As discussed by our bus driver and tour guide Joe, most people burn peat to heat their homes, particularly during the winter months. The popularity of this energy method was made clear by the number of peat bricks lying in fields as we drove by. There would be rows of what looked like dirt blocks ordered side by side or piled together. At Craggaunowen, our guide Stiofàn explained that the people who lived there hundreds of years ago would also burn peat to cook meals, so the turf was used as a source of energy.

So what exactly is peat?

This source of energy is not available everywhere. Peat is collected from bogland. To cut turf, a person would first remove the surface layer of grass from the ground with a shovel. A rectangular shaped tool called a slain is then pushed into the soft ground, and when it is pulled out, a brick of peat is extracted. These bricks of peat are then laid out in the field, either stacked together in a “teepee” form or flattened rows. The sun will dry the peat, causing each brick to shrink, and the timeline of this process depends on the weather – for example, if it is a rainier season the peat will take longer to dry.

Peat drying in “teepee” form, at the Killary Sheep Farm

There have been critiques of burning peat for energy because of its negative impact on the environment; burning peat releases CO2 into the atmosphere, which destroys the ozone layer and contributes to climate change. A single brick of peat will only burn for 15 minutes or so, which means that vast amounts of peat must be dried in order to last one home an entire winter.

Despite the controversy surrounding the use of peat, it still appears to be widely used by many Irish people. The tour guide at Céide Fields even discussed this issue because some of the peat there was being cut and used for energy. He admitted that peat contributes to climate change, but said that “it’s really the large scale peat burning that causes the problem”, so essentially he argued that the peat burning there was not an issue.

A Traditional Way of Living

Cnoc Suain

Our host Dearbhail welcomed us to her home in Cnoc Suain, and she was gracious enough to explain the history of the house and its culture. This location clearly has a very traditional way of life, based upon the ways of living from a couple hundred years ago. The cottage was built in 1845 in the design of one main, central room with four bedrooms. Two of these bedrooms had entrances much higher up than the ground floor, so the children would get up to their rooms by leaning a ladder against the wall and climbing up. The average family had about eight to twenty children, so the bedrooms would often be crowded. There was no electricity or running water until about 1980, and the cottage is three and a half miles from any shops, doctors, or banks. The flooring of the cottage would be dirt, so the family would often put rush – a reed-like plant which grows in water – down on the dirt inside. This would keep people’s feet cleaner because they didn’t wear shoes inside, and scented herbs would also be placed on the reeds to be crushed underfoot.

Meals in this home would be cooked over a fire created by burning peat. There was a crane which would hold pots over the fire, and as a sort of “oven”, a pot would be placed on coals and more coals would be placed on top of it. The peat itself, small brick-shaped slabs of dried organic matter, is collected from the fields outside the cottage. Our second host, Charlie, explained that they would use a tool called a slain to harvest peat from the ground, after removing the top layer of grass. These bricks of peat would be laid out in the sun to dry, causing them to shrink and eventually be used for fuel. One of these peat bricks would only burn for fifteen minutes, so large amounts of peat would need to be collected for the family to survive the winter. These peat fires would need to burn constantly at all times of the day, as it both heated the home and cooked the food.

The culture of this sort of home, particularly in the past, was very community-oriented. It was considered a “rambling house” because people from around town would gather at the fire to share stories and music during the winter. This was important for the Gaelic culture because the children would be absorbing the music and stories even after they went to bed.

Dearbhail and Charlie work hard to preserve and educate about this traditional way of life.

The Muddy Bog

A Sleán for cutting turf

I walked down the muddy steps, one step, two-step then I walked on a thin wooden platform and I had to catch my balance, wow that was slippery. I caught my balance and I thought to myself how lucky I was that I did not slip and fall into the muddy bog in front of my professors and classmates. Tom handed me a two-sided spade called a sleán (pronounced slawn), which is used to slice blocks of peat from the bog. A bog is a wetland that accumulates peat, which is a deposit of dead plants. A bog is formed when a lake or land with high precipitation slowly begins to fill with plant debris, then new plants grow on the decomposed plants. Bogs create a refuge for a wide range of plants, birds and invertebrate species and are commonly used for grazing sheep and cattle. As Tom handed me the sleán I angled it into the muddy bog, slowly and gently I cut off part of the bog.

Turf drying

Then I gently picked up the sleán and placed the muggy block known as turf (dried sod) onto the grass outside the bog. After placing five or six sods of turf onto the grass they were leaned up against each other in a teepee shape and were laid out in the sun to dry; this is called footing the turf. Once the turf is dry, it is brought into homes or stored in sheds, this turf is then used as fuel to heat up homes. While turf is able to provide heat, are many negative aspects to using bogs as a main source of energy. At the Killary Sheep farm I was told that bogs are partly renewable energy they take hundreds of years to develop, and will not be ready to harvest in one person’s lifetime. Once the habitat is destroyed it can take centuries for the bog to recover from disturbances. Not only does this destroy the habitat of many species but turf also heavily fuels climate change. The turf consists of water, and organic carbon, which was built up over thousands of years and when the turf is suddenly exposed to the air, it decomposes and turns into carbon dioxide which is then released into the atmosphere. Besides the bogs taking a long time to actually grow, bogs can also be a major fire hazard. Peat fires can burn for quite a long time especially if oxygen is present. Is it really worth destroying the earth just to heat up one household? As I placed the cube of turf onto the grass I thought about how it is now going to take over 100 years just to regrow the few cubes of turf I removed from the ground, it will heat a household for a few hours but is that really worth it?

The burning turf

Energy from the Bogland

The first time I heard the term “bog” used after my arrival in Ireland was while I was sitting on a bus, listening to our driver, Joe, talk to us about the surroundings. When he mentioned the bog, I found myself confused, as my initial thought was “Bog? I don’t see a swamp around here…” My eyes were looking at lush green fields with some trees lining the roads and large hedges covering stone walls. None of these things were what I associated with the word “bog”.

It wouldn’t be until a few days later that I fully understood what all these Irish people meant when they referred to the bog. This understanding also came to me while sitting on a bus, rolling through the Irish landscape. Only this time, we passed a field that had several small, brown rectangles that looked like bricks, arranged in tiny tee-pee shapes. Our driver, Desmond, referred to the bricks as turf. He then explained the process of how turf is made.

Turf being cut in the bog.

The bogs were formed during the Neolithic Age after people settled the land. When settling the land, they cleared trees. Previously the trees had caught the rainfall before it reached the ground floor, but with the ground fully exposed, coupled with high amounts of rainfall, the land became waterlogged. When the land became waterlogged there was also a lack of oxygen, which caused partial decaying of the plants that covered the top of the soil. This process continues and accumulates over time, taking about one thousand years to form one meter of bog.

Turf is often sold as briquettes, pictured here.

Now, the bog covers a large portion of Ireland. The turf is cut from the bogland and dried. Once it is fully dried, the Irish people then utilize the turf to heat their homes, burning it in place of wood or coal in their fireplaces. Walking in to many places in Ireland, you’re greeted with the unforgettable scent of turf burning. The scent reminded me of a tobacco barn on a chilly fall day in Kentucky–it reminded me of home. Likewise, turf is not merely a major source of energy for the Irish people, but is a symbol of home as well.