The peat sods lay spread on a field, at the end of which was a mound of earth the color of dark chocolate. It was the edge of a bog, a habitat thousands of years in the making. A mechanised cutter with steel claws had gouged and sliced some of it into chunks that now covered an area the size of a football pitch. Enough, once dried and bagged, to heat a house for an Irish winter.
Some environmentalists would consider this tableau in County Kildare – one replicated across rural Ireland at this time of year – akin to a crime scene, a mad, destructive assault on a precious natural resource, turning a carbon sink into a smoky fuel.
Ned Phillips, 49, who did the gouging, disagreed. “I’ll not stop cutting turf here no matter what law they pass. It’s our tradition. We’re doing no harm here.” It was his mother’s dying wish that he continue a tradition dating back centuries, a wish he intends to honor, even though the family’s patch of bog is now part of a conservation area. “I’ll fight till my death.”
Fiona Conlon, a fellow turf cutter, appealed for understanding. “People think we’re being thugs or radicals. We’re not heathens. It’s pride. We believe in what we do. My home feels like home because of the turf fire. The warmth and the glow – that’s a real sense of comfort.”
Ireland’s government, in contrast, is feeling a scorching burn. An attempt to curb the sale and distribution of turf, also known as peat, has backfired, triggering uproar in parliament, splitting the ruling coalition and fueling a narrative of urban elites versus rural poor. Eamon Ryan, the Green party leader and environment minister, has been forced into a partial retreat. The taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said there would be no ban on turf sales this year.
In policy terms curbing the commercial cutting and burning of turf was supposed to be “low hanging fruit”, an overdue crackdown on a practice harmful to health and the environment. Instead, it turned into a cautionary tale about populism, energy prices, Vladimir Putin and just transition to a green economy, a combustible nexus that is playing out across much of Europe.
Soggy peatlands formed by the accumulation of decayed vegetation cover much of Ireland’s midlands. Lacking coal and woods, not to mention electricity, Irish people survived for centuries by draining bogs and using peat as fuel. Storytelling by a blazing hearth embodied the national identity. From the 1930s a semi-state company, Bord na Móna, extracted peat on an industrial scale, a source of patriotic pride.
In the 1990s attitudes began to change. Fuel peat is more harmful than coal, generating less energy when burned while producing higher carbon emissions. Burning smoky fuels was banned in Dublin to reduce winter smog, though has been allowed to continue in many smaller towns and rural areas. In 2018 Bord na Móna announced it was closing 17 of its “active bogs” and would close the remaining 45 to commercial harvesting within seven years.
Families, thought to number several thousand, that live near the remaining bogs are still allowed to cut turf for domestic use in accordance with traditional “turbary rights”. Commercial contractors with mechanical equipment do the cutting for many such families and sell the surplus with little or no regulation or taxation. About 100,000 households, many in old, draughty dwellings, use turf for heating, according to some estimates.
Every hectare of drained peatland emits two tons of carbon per annum. Peat, along with imported coal and other smokey fuels, is also blamed for air pollution that kills 1,300 people each year. Successive governments have tried and failed to rein in commercial turf operators. “It’s a real political failure to tackle a very stinging nettle,” said Seamus Boland, head of Irish Rural Link, an advocacy group for disadvantaged areas.
One reason is cultural. “There is a lot of emotional attachment to turf burning,” said John Sweeney, a climate expert and geography professor at Maynooth University. “The idea that you can’t have a home without a blazing hearth is something we have to get over in Ireland. We have to recognise the damage far exceeds the emotional benefits.”
The other reason is financial. Contractors risk losing livelihoods. Families that heat homes with peat fear retrofitting, with costs of thousands of euros, and a switch to much pricier alternative energy sources. “I don’t want to destroy the whole world but I don’t want to be poor either,” said John Dore, 62, who lives by the country’s largest raised bog, the Bog of Allen in County Kildare.
Soaring global energy costs and uncertainty over Russia’s oil and gas exports to western Europe have strengthened the conviction of Dore, a spokesperson for the Kildare Turf Cutters Association, to keep burning turf. “I never felt so happy to have a shed full of turf. I don’t care what Putin does with his gas, we’re independent.”
Other turf advocates also feel emboldened. “We are a small country at the end of a very small line when it comes to gas or diesel. When we have a fuel source of our own now is not the time to attack it. Jesus, it doesn’t make sense at all,” said Michael Fitzmaurice, an independent member of the Dáil (Ireland’s lower house of Parliament) and chair of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association.
There is consensus in Ireland that the climate crisis is real – deniers get no traction. Nor do populists, as a rule. However, the battle over turf has exposed rural grievances that echo supporters of anti-establishment politicians in Britain, the continent and the US.
For Ryan, the environment minister, turf should have been just a skirmish on the way to bigger battles over farming, transport and renewable energy that will determine Ireland’s struggling climate action plan. He targeted commercial contractors, not households, who retained the right to cut and share turf.
Yet the Dáil erupted, with independent rural deputies and the main opposition party, Sinn Féin, accusing the government of violating traditional rights and condemning people to fuel poverty. Ryan’s coalition partners also turned on him. Leo Varadkar, the Fine Gael leader and tánaiste, or deputy prime minister, said removing turf cutting from rural Ireland was like pasta removing from Italians or wine from the French. The comment drew widespread criticism. “The production of wine and pasta doesn’t kill people. It’s a very misleading analogy,” said Sweeney, the climate expert.
“The debate has been twisted,” said Tristram Whyte, of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council. He said contractors and some politicians were muddying things by suggesting grandmothers could be arrested for burning a bit of peat.
Florence Renou-Wilson, a research and peatland expert at University College Dublin, said the science was clear. Bogs, when left intact, benefited the climate, biodiversity and human health. Peat extraction “bled out” bogs, degrading air and water quality and emitting carbon. “It has all these bad local and global effects. It’s not rocket science; people have understood this is a precious resource for their community.”
The state should pay turf cutters to restore bogs and fund retrofitting of homes that rely on turf for heating, said Renou-Wilson. “This is a resource that has been mismanaged. We need to get our act together.” Boland, the head of Irish Rural Link, agreed. “The only way to stop turf burning is to provide a way for households to change their systems.”
There is a government scheme to retrofit 500,000 homes by 2030, with an additional scheme for households in energy poverty, but delays have created a backlog.
There is another obstacle. Many turf cutters eye authority with suspicion. Just as storytellers of old chronicled resistance to landlords and redcoats, today’s turf cutters weave their own story. Previous governments have sought to take control of bogs with compulsory purchase orders and compensation schemes, only to break their promises, they claim.
Some openly cut turf in special areas of conservation despite aerial surveillance and regular warning letters to desist. “I’m not worried about it but it’s threat after threat after threat – your head is just so fried with it,” said Colm Higgins, 56, a plasterer who cuts in Mouds Bog, a protected part of the Bog of Allen. “It’s the wildlife crowd flexing their muscles and hoping we’ll go away. We’re not going away.”
His partner, Fiona Conlon, an IT tutor, said Irish governments had surrendered the sugar beet industry, fishing rights and other assets to European diktats. “Now it’s turf. We’re being left with nothing. It’s like they don’t want you to own anything or have a sense of independence.”
It wasn’t about heating or even money, it was about identity, said Conlon. People helped one another cut turf, competed for the best sods, had some craic – it was a way of life, she said. “It’s part of our heritage. I love the bog. You’re out in the fresh air getting exercise, you’re with your neighbors. It’s your own tradition and pride and I feel that’s being robbed from us. I have forefathers and foremothers that fought for this country. We’re not going to roll over.”