once lay on the northern edge of the Nephin Range, near the
town of Bellacorick. The peat was dredged up and fed into a
massive power plant beside the massive strip mine. In 2007,
the Bellacorick plant’s iconic cooling tower was demolished, all
but ending the era of industrial-scale peat-fired electricity generation in this lonely corner of Ireland.
Which is a good thing, because peat, like other fossil fuels,
is a tremendously dirty fuel source. It is also quite energy-poor;
for comparison, peat is about one-fourth as energy dense as
natural gas, meaning it takes around four tons of peat to generate the same number of BTUs as a ton of natural gas. In addition, the burning of peat releases almost one and a half times
as much carbon per kilowatt as natural gas.
The corollary is that bogs are one of Earth’s most potent
terrestrial carbon sinks. A single hectare of two-meter-deep
bog is capable of sequestering eight thousand tons of carbon
dioxide — roughly as much as is emitted by seventeen hundred
cars annually. Though they cover only 3 percent of the planet’s
surface, peat bogs lock away roughly one-quarter of the planet’s
land-bound carbon, accumulating more carbon dioxide than all
the world’s tropical rainforests.
In addition to sponging up carbon dioxide, Ireland’s bogs have
also absorbed the corpus of Ireland’s natural and human history.
Remains of extinct species such as the great Irish elk have been
hauled from their depths, uncannily preserved. Human artifacts
and so-called “bog bodies” have also been exhumed. One of the latter is Clonycavan Man, a body pulled from a bog in County Meath,
north of Dublin. Because of his immaculately preserved skin and
hair, the workers who found him in an industrial sieve thought he
might be a modern murder victim. But carbon dating revealed that
the remains were those of a man who lived twenty-three hundred
years ago. In his hair, scientists found a kind of primitive hair gel
made of pine resin and oils native to Spain and France, suggesting that he was probably a man of wealth. Other telltale marks on
his body hinted at a violent demise. His nose was smashed in and
his head split with a sharp implement. Perhaps he was a murder
victim after all.
A FEW MINUTES after my own wrestling match with the bog, I
saw a figure a hundred or so yards up the trail. The man, clad in
Wellington boots and a black stocking cap, was driving a herd of a
dozen or so sheep across the soggy terrain. I picked up the pace in
an attempt to catch up. The man was clearly in a hurry, racing daylight. He took long, loping strides and clawed at the stony ground
with a gnarled wood sta=. I looked up the mountainside and could
see where he was aimed—a low spot on the ridgeline, five hundred to a thousand vertical feet above where we stood.
When I caught up with him, I said hello, and he replied in
kind. “What part of the world are you from?” he asked. His three
border collies paced nervously at his feet, eager to continue their
“California,” I replied.
“Oh, that’s a good place,” he said. “And you’ve come to
another good place.”