Monday, 2 May 2016

Curlews caught in the middle.

Today is my last "work" day in Ireland before I get to Dublin, apart from a radio interview tomorrow for Mooney Goes Wild.  As you can tell if you've been following me, bogs have been a big feature of this part of the Midlands.  Last night someone challenged me by saying - why is it different to what you did to get coal?  The industrialization of England destroyed vast areas and opencast mines in S Wales are just as bad to look at. An argument that needs addressing because it is true. There are the obvious answers - such as times have changed - really changed.  We know much more about how our activities affect the planet - and we have not just local but international obligations to protect the environment. So the milieu in which we make decisions is totally different.  What seemed a good use of resources in the past has shifted as the atmosphere fills with greenhouse gases and the diversity of life diminishes. Just because we did it then doesn't mean we have the right to carry on.

So how will Ireland get its fuel if peat burning stops? (Which I doubt very much!) Gas is a more energy efficient fossil fuel than peat, by a very long way, and alternative sources are emerging all the time.  I really don't like the term "green energy" it is a green-washing phrase.  There is no such thing  as a totally environmentally friendly way to produce power - they all have damaging effects - no free lunch - but some are certainly better than others.  Wind farms and solar farms, wave power and barrages come with their own baggage, but it is lighter than fossil fuels if dealt with well, but not cost free. Lots of people are working on this and I know it is difficult, but Ireland could be the leading light for Europe by laying aside peat and turning to the future, which will no doubt be a moisture of many forms of energy depending on location.  Peat is a fuel of the past, and that is a large part of the problem - the past speaks loud in Ireland.

This goes to the heart of the problem.  Tradition is a powerful force, it is linked in to a memory of days gone by when people cut their turf by hand and worked the land with a countryman's heart (and it was usually men). Many, many people will tell you their parents and grandparents knew the wildlife and understood the seasons in a way that is alien today.  This understanding was laced with folktales and old stories about the way nature informs and warns humanity.  In a talk I gave yesterday one middle aged woman said when her mother heard a curlew she would go around the house waving a goose feather  (used as feather dusters) - as the call of the curlew was associated with the souls of drowned sailors.  Others nodded - they remembered that too. Help waft the souls out of the house and on towards heaven. The curlew, the waterways and the bog were interlinked. And the image of the men hand cutting turf on their patch, labouring away, stacking the "black butter" that Seamus Heaney refers to - "melting and opening underfoot," is alive and thriving in the Irish imagination. Peat is part of Irelad's memory but the memory of curlews is slipping away so fast, and if they are remembered there is no political purchase attached to them.

I remember traditional peat cutting well.  I have strong memories of visiting my uncle and aunt in Letterkenny in the 1960s and going with my dad and uncle to see turf cutting on the slopes of Muckinish Mountain. I remember the men bent over and the skill of slicing the turf with strange looking spades.  I remember them chatting next to the neatly stacked sods and then going to the pub for a Guinness and my dad saying to me later - try to remember this, it won't last for ever.

My dear uncle has gone, and his plot on Muckinish.  Modern Ireland is not like that anymore.  Few cut by hand, it is done by a machine now. That link to working the land by hand is far less, but I can totally understand the family traditions stretching back through  generations.  Those are important memories, and if properly regulated the individual plots still have a place  in Ireland.  The problem is,
this has been scaled up out of all proportion from a family heating their home to a nation feeding power stations.  They are not the same thing.  The family stack is not the same as the trucks of peat railroaded out to be burnt in furnaces.

Yesterday I went out early to see some bog that still had a pair of curlews on it.  They were hanging on in a small section with peat diggers closing in fast from both sides.  Their call was tinged, for me, with desperation.  There is no way many of these birds that are settled in bogs that are continuing to be cut will survive the disturbance as the machines close in.

So Ireland has to decide what is important and what they want to remember and what they are happy to let go. Peat has a powerful place in Irish identity, it is political dynamite - people will loudly and vigorous defend this right to cut turf. But the curlew part of the tradition, the bird that serenaded the turf cutter, has faded away.  Does Ireland have a place for curlews for future generations? If so, how can they be treasured as a part of Irish tradition as much as cutting turf? In this land where tradition and modernity sit side by side, curlews are squeezed out. They are the forgotten part of the past, can they find their way back into the  lives and loves of Ireland again? If so, they do have a future.

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