Sunday, November 28, 2010

Tales from the Bog

Four years ago, when we had only been living on this boggy hillside outside Galway city for 6 months, one day in April, I got a phone call from the Gardai (Irish police).
'Aaah, Hallo, is that Brian Nolan?'
'Yes, this is he. Who's this?'.
'This is the Guards!'
Instant stocktake occurred in my brain. My son 8, was safe in school. My 2 daughters, the more likely suspects, were also both safe in School. My wife, was at work. My criminal past came rushing back to me, a veritable train-wreck of petty crime. How could they possibly know about my unpaid parking ticket in Tullamore in 1992? Or the time I set fire to the 'banned' bonefire at the Stoney Brennan festival in Loughrea in 1975? Maybe it was the time I borrowed Jack Martin's 20 year old Mini for a thristic joy-ride in 1981? Hmm, what could possibly be wrong?
'How can I help you Guard?' I replied, trying to sound confident, but really full of trepidation, as anyone who receives a phone call from the 'authorities' is, by whom one is considered guilty until let off the hook.
'Do you live at Paddys Cross, Barna?'
'Yes I do?' Shoot. He knows where I live and that I have a car parked round back that isn't taxed.
'Is there anyone in the house now?' Blast, he is there now at the house, going to tow the car and serve a search warrant for the 2 bottles of Poteen under me bed.
'No Guard, there's no one in the house, and I'm at work in Galway' Hah, nothing they can do if  there's no one home. I could sleep in my mother-in-laws house for a week or so, y'know, 'til the heat is off.
'Why?' I ask sheepishly. Just a hint, thats all I need. Jeez, thats it, the feckin' dog isn't licenced! Blast it, the last of the free rangers on Barna bog, caught at last. Poor Puff, probably have her in the dog-catchers van now, and the Paddy wagon is there, waiting for me. Probably spotted the dog on Satelite feed from NASA. The Guards are gone all high-tech now, wouldn't put it past them. Why don't they licence cats? The bog is feckin' alive with feral cats, escapees from mollycuddlin' matrons in Knocknacarra and Rahoon. Note to self, call local TD and try to get Cat Licences on the national agenda. €10 a year for each cat in the country would pull us out of recession.
'Your xxxx aaa aaaa on fire' the guard replied
'Sorry Guard, what was that you said?' I was distracted by a cat crossing the road in front of my car, missed him, dammit.
'Your House is on Fire!!!'
'What? How? Who? How bad is it? Is the dog ok?'
'Well the house isn't exactly on fire...'
'Oh thank God!'
'The whole mountain is...., like, on fire that is!'
'The whole place is ablaze. You'd best get out here, fast as you can.'
And so began my first Bog Fire experience.

When I got home, driving through a thick and choking fog of smoke, the whole mountain was indeed on fire, or rather, the whole bog was. 'Seems some idiot farmer in an effort to clear some furze and heather on his holding, set a controlled fire to clear the nuisance weeds and improve his land. Though illegal to do so, it is not uncommon. However our idiot hadn't reckoned on the sudden change in weather and a gusting gale had came out of nowhere, as it often does on this western atlantic coast and it fanned the small brush fire, like a blacksmith with a bellows, within minutes it had become a roaring freight-train inferno, which rose up on the horizon and set off across the mile or so of soggy, boggy hillside, straight towards us. In a matter of fifteen minutes it had blazed a track a 1/4 mile wide, straight to our little hamlet of houses on the hillside at Aille.

A bog-fire is a force to be reckoned with. Terrifyingly fast, it burned everything in its path, trees, bushes, garden sheds, bicycles, fences, hedges, lawns, birds nests, rabbits warrens and the the extension on our neighbors house. My house was thankfully ok, but the fire had come within 10 feet of the house and thankfully stopped just 5 feet from the recently filled oil-tank for our home heat. All the lovely 30 foot tall scots pine trees and rampant rhodedondron bushes around the houses were gone, in a flash and a burst of blazing fire, gone in seconds in front of us, exploding 20, 30 feet into the air, gone in a flash. There was nothing anyone could do, poof! Gone! Left behind the still-travelling fire was a blackened smouldering expanse of devastation, worthy of a description in McCarthy's 'The Road'.

I rushed next door, where my neighbors were distraught. The fire had run up an ornamental shrub beside their house, set fire to their garden shed, caught hold in the plastic soffit of the eaves of the main building and was now burning merrily away under the roof. As I arrived, the abiding memory of the fire met me. Rill and Tina were holding each other, crying, clutching a few treasures, a laptop, hand-bags, a TV. Bill was nowhere to be seen 'Wheres Bill?' I shouted. Suddenly, Bill emerged from the house, coughing and choking, dragging their terrified dog behind him, pulling the terrified, old dog along by the belt he'd taken from around his waist, and as a consequence, Bills pants were down around his ankles! Quite a scene! Easily the most memorable sight of the whole fire, frightening then, but amusing now, in retrospect.

Worryingly, the fire in their eave was now smoking out through the roof tiles. There was no water pressure. Not a drop in the taps. The garden hose dripped when it should have showered. I ran back and forth with buckets of water from a small tank at the back of my house and we tried to hold the fire back but to no avail. By the time the fire engine arrived (having had to come across the city at rush-hour, and secure several other houses in danger) the whole back of the house, a new extension, was badly damaged. They quickly got it under control and slowly moved along the road, securing the remnants of other several fires near houses on our side of the road, while also ensuring the now sated fire didn't jump the road to grow again and devastate another village.

Fires sprang up all over the mountain, intermittently blazing up before being doused by the now-blackfaced firemen, as the night dragged on and the wind grew and lulled. The firemen worked tirelessly at the heavy work of beating the flames and mouldering embers all across the bog. I remember in one surreal moment seeing a cluster of them at the back of one of the fire tenders, in the dark, talking among themselves as they took a water-break, their blackened faces invisible in the night, with just the glowing ends of their fags floating in mid-air to show where the men stood.

By 3am the next moring, some 12 hours after the fire started, the Fire Chief finally declared the fire out and the fleet of tenders went home, leaving us to wonder and breathe relief in the midst of a blackened, dead, foul-smelling landscape that defied description. The mountain smoked and smouldered for a full week afterwards as the turf under the surface embered away, slowly being quenched by the dampness of the underlying bog.

Mary and I were so disapointed. Our house and our lifestyle had been in jeapordy. We never thought for one minute that something so inherently wet as a bog could burn at all. For weeks, nothing moved in the dead bog. No birds, no foxes, hares or rabbits, not even the feral cats. The bog was stunned into quietude.

Later as we came to understand and appreciate our narrow escape, we learned that clearing the top 'dead' vegetation comprising heathers, sedges and grasses as well as furze and gorse by fire is common everywhere bogs are grazed. Seasonally, Spring and Summer, the bog is quite verdant and farmers get good grazing for cattle, particularly the rough breeds favoured here in the west of Ireland. After each 5 or 6 years of grazing the bog develops a dead brown under growth, an impenetrable cover which chokes the lights access to the smaller grasses below the top cover. Burning this 'dross' off is the only practicable way to clear it and renew the healthy grasses below. And despite the Green Party's attempts to curtail it, bog-burning is still an annual event, though usually on a smaller scale.

Amazingly within 2 months of our bog fire, the bright green shoots of new grass grew into the blackened bogscape. By August the entire hillside behind us was ablaze not with fire, but with green grass, flowers, and yes, birds, frogs, newtss and insects. Within 2 years you couldn't have guessed it had happened at all, save for the blackened skeletons of the Scots pine that march along the horizon where the sky touches the bog.

I have wandered the boggy hillside often since then, marvelling at the bogs powers of renewal and regeneration. The birdlife is amazingly diverse, pheasants, rooks, magpies, ravens, cuckoos, hawks, snipe and many smaller birds are all back rearing their young. Hares, rabbits and foxes leave trails that point towards healthy populations. The bog cotton this past June, or Ceann Amhain as the locals call them, whitened the whole hillside in a riot of waving white. The heather was in abundant flower all August. The cows and their calves graze the hillside, back and forth, obviously savouring the delicious bog grass. This autumn the blackberries, sloes and hawes were so bountiful that the birds are well catered for no matter what the winter brings.

It got me thinking, what else could be sustained from such a bog and from such a life-cycle?

Tourism is an obvious industry that could thrive in the bog. tourism of a special sort, walkers, dreamers, folks with an hour or a day to kill and a willingness to get out on the land and close to nature. I had visited the rather fascinating wind-farm at Inverin (see photo) where 7,000 homes derive their electricity from 5 beautifuly elegant turbines in the bog. The turbines make a sound, as they turn, but it was not loud, unless you stoop to listen under the softly whooshing vanes and frankly, the bog itself is full of strange noises. If anything, the slender white towers lend the whole place a Quixotic feel.

I also have been to see Cnoc Suain, the bog interpretative centre in Spiddal where one can see first-hand the flora and fauna and tradition of a bog community. The 16th century clochan village has been lovingly restored and now provides employment and education, with very little impact on the environment.

Turf Reeks on the bog roads are rapidly being depleted by farmers bringing in the now dried sods of turf, some for their own use and others for sale to folks who still use turf as their main fuel, for heat and for cooking.

The practice of bringing a sod of turf to school was almost universal in country areas, as the only heat in most 2-and 3-room rural national schools was an open fire, fed by donations of a pupil-brought sod of turf each month. (My dads school, Duniry in Galway, was heated this way until 1970).

In Waterford some schools had cast iron stoves as co-incidentally Stanley stoves is a Waterford brand and though it was 'the poor man's AGA', it served the kitchens of Ireland well for over a century, cooking other icons like Brown Bread, Soda Bread, Griddle Cakes, Champ, Boxty, Irish Breakfasts, Lamb Stew and freshly caught Mackeral with aplomb! Stanley amazingly is still made in Waterford (see Their 'range' of ranges and stoves is still popular and with the rise in oil, gas and electricity prices, their future is...ahem.. 'glowing'!

As for the lowly 'sod of turf', the bogs of Ireland are now ecologically protected as areas of Special Scientific Interest. Like the Amazon basin not enough is know about our bogs. Bog oak Carvings dating from 5,000 BC now grace art galleries and homes worldwide (see ).

And for those suffering from Acne, Psoriasis and other skin diseases another iconic Irish brand 'ÓG', have just launched a range of Turf-based Body Masks, (see ).

So, from the ashes of a turf-fire, or from a raging bog-fire, much like the Phoenix, so much good can come!