You could see if from the plane. Ireland didn’t look to me as green as it should.
And, sure enough, as we soon learned, Ireland has been in something of a drought, with little or no rain from April on into May. Which turned out to be good for us. From Monday, when we arrived, through Thursday, we enjoyed sunny and balmy (upper 60’s/low 70’s) days. Just gorgeous.
On Tuesday evening, as we headed out to dinner, there was smoke in the air and the distinct smell of peat. Turns out that there are fires raging throughout the country. Gorse fires. Heather fires. Hill grass. Sedge fires. Forests. And some of those fires – like the Connemara fire that was smoking up Galway – are burning on the peat bogs. Thus the smell of peat.
Which I actually like. In moderation. Years ago, I stuck my head in a poor farmer cottage - this was at a replica ye olde Irish village – where the turf fire was authentically burning in the authentic low-ceilinged, windowless main room. One breath and I felt I had contracted black lung. As my grandmother used to say, “If Ireland were so great, we wouldn’t have all had to come over here.” And there you had it. A daily diet of praties while breathing intense peat smoke no doubt drove many an Irishman and woman to Amerikay.
Yet a bit of the aroma of peat is quite pleasant. I keep meaning to buy one of those ceramic thatched cottages that you can burn a pellet of peat in so that, come next winter, I can have a bit of peat in the background when I drink me Barry’s tea.
For Ireland, peat isn’t just a pleasant smell wafting from a tiny ceramic cottage. It’s:
…a cheap source of energy; at its simplest it involves no more than digging by hand. Ireland, which has bogs full of the stuff, uses it for 6% of its energy. (Source: The Economist)
“No more than digging by hand.” Hah!
We took an excellent tour of Connemara on Wednesday, and our driver (a native) pulled off at a peat bog and talked about what a grand time they’d had as kids helping their father foot the turf. We were, of course, incredulous that something as backbreaking as digging up and footing turves might be fun. Does this look like fun to you? An Irish friend later confirmed that it was part of the no fun zone of her childhood when she and her sibs went to their grandparents’ farm during the summer, and they were required to participate in peat gathering. It sounds to me like apple-picking: the first few apples are fun, but pretty soon that bushel basket starts to look like the Grand Canyon. How are we ever going to fill that? The good news is that much of the peat gathering is now mechanized. (That said, you still do see folks out there working by hand.)
Anyway, our driver told us that none of his kids had ever had to cut turf, and that he himself now bought his turf rather than gather his own. (At least some of the country’s peat bogs are commons: you just go in and take what you want.)
So peat, while not exactly a renewable resource, is cheap (if you don’t count labor costs) and smells good (if you have a home with some ventilation):
But peat is also one of the dirtiest fuels available, emitting 23% more carbon dioxide than coal. Ireland is unusual among developed countries in burning it for energy on an industrial scale. A geological precursor to coal, it has been used on the island for at least 1,000 years. But it may at last be on its way out as Ireland turns to another energy source of which it has unlimited quantities: wind.
Ah, the wind! Which today accounts for 25% of Irish energy consumption. Nice going on making your energy renewable, while we fantasize about bringing back coal mining!
Anyway, we experienced the wind first hand on Saturday of our trip, when the weather had turned and we got caught out in a crosswise monsoon that soaked us all, and had the completely inefficient dryer in our rented house running fulltime for two+ hours to bring our clothing down to an acceptably damp level.
And, on our jaunt through Connemara, we saw some of the wind turbines that, once they’re all up and running will be generating 3% of Ireland’s energy needs. That’s the plan, anyway. The Galway fires – in the Cloosh Valley Forest – were threatening some of the turbines.
I don’t know how that resolved – couldn’t find it in the news – but Ireland will keep moving towards wind power, looking to be able to meet 100% of domestic demand by 2030, and already in the export business. They have cable connections for exporting to Britain, and are planning for a cable to the continent.
That will leave the peatlands to those who don’t heat with electric or something else. Which means that, by man or machine, there will still be those out hunter-gathering to keep their turf fires burning. Perhaps not having much fun, decidedly causing more pollution, but, in small quantities, enjoying the wonderful smell of peat.