But attitudes have changed and nowadays bogs are looked on as being of huge environmental value, places that can tell us a great deal about our past and homes of nature.
Rural people have an ingrained affinity with the bog which provided fuel to keep home fires burning, while experiences on the peatlands have inspired balladmakers and poets, not least Seamus Heaney.
But, the amount of turf used by rural dwellers is only a fraction of that commercially exploited by Bord na Mona since the 1930s, as is evidenced by the huge swathes of cutaway bogland sprawled across the midlands.
Groups such as the Irish Peatland Conservation Council (IPCC) have been campaigning to save what remains of our boglands and Bord na Mona has now committed to restoring and conserving bogs under its control. Underneath each bog is a unique combination of soil types and nutrients. These determine what a bog can be used for after its peat has been harvested. Very often, peat cannot be harvested from parts of the bog and some peaty areas are left.
Each cutaway bog requires a variety of approaches to get the best use from the land: some areas are suitable for forestry, some for grassland and some for wetland and other wildlife habitats. The mineral composition of some areas is hostile to certain plants and a haven for others. As more bogs cease production, Bord na Móna has a significant opportunity to develop land to the benefit of wildlife, the environment and communities.
In 2009, with the Irish Peatland Conservation Council, Laois County Council, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and local people, the company began to restore Abbeyleix bog. Bord na Móna engineers surveyed the bog and drains were blocked at over 2,000 strategic points. Other preserved as examples of raised bog are in Clara, Mongan and Raheenmore, Co Offaly.
Seventy-five years of work by Bord na Mona, its present activities and plans for the future will be highlighted at a major exhibition in the Office of Public Works HQ, in St Stephens Green, Dublin, for three weeks starting on September 14.
The Turf Development Board (TDB) was established in 1934 to develop Ireland’s peat resources. Its first managing director was Todd Andrews, a leading figure in early Fianna Fáil governments.
Andrews had ambitious plans and in 1935 visited Germany and Russia where peat industries were thriving. He decided that mechanical, not hand production, was the way forward and wanted to use peat to generate electricity. World War II intervened to slow down some of these plans, but in 1946 the TDB became a commercial company, Bord na Móna.
The Kildare Hand Won Turf Scheme was critical to the growth of the TDB into Bord na Móna. The Kildare scheme recruited thousands during the war. As well as producing essential fuel, it helped revitalise the economic and social life of the midlands.
Thousands of men migrated from all over Ireland to work there, cutting turf for Irish homes, hospitals and businesses. Machines eventually took over the turf-cutting, but the feats of some legendary manual turf-cutters have become part of the folklore of the midland bogs.
A Kerryman, Christy Daly, earned titles such as Ireland’s Greatest Turfcutter and Sleansman of the Millennium. He worked in the Bog of Allen in 1944, and his natural talent as a turf-cutter soon singled him out.
Christy had developed his bog skills as a boy growing up in the Kilcummin and Gneeveguilla areas of east Kerry and was described by his contemporaries in the midlands as a ‘human machine’, establishing records that have never been broken. In July 1945, he cut 600 cubic metres of turf in 48 hours, regarded as a remarkable feat.
When timed by TDB engineers, he was recorded as throwing up sods at a rate of 98 per minute, equal to an output of around 600 tonnes of dry turf in a week.
“Which means that this amazing young man had cut at the rate of one ton of raw turf every five minutes for six, eight-hour days, surely a record that will never be broken,” An Slan, the TDB journal, reported.
Christy left the Kildare bogs soon afterwards and emigrated to England where he died in 1973.
A poem dedicated to Christy by Valentine Trodd, called Blue Allen, starts as follows: “Kavanagh was lost to potato drills, I suffered a darker fate, I dug the turf of Allen From early light till late.
My boots were sodden useless things, Protection from the slane, As we dragged the flesh off Allen Vein by dark brown vein.”