Image: Monica de Bath, Túr Feamainne, 67x73cm, watercolour on paper
From the 1930s, the newly independent Irish Free State, later the Republic of Ireland, implemented large-scale infrastructure projects to provide electricity to the country, including the Rural Electrification Scheme and, most important for our purposes, the large-scale drainage and exploitation of the bogs. This commenced with the Turf Development Board in 1933, which would become Bord na Mona (BnM) under the Turf Development Act of 1946.
In the 1940s, BnM industrialized the process of peat extraction, and in the 1950s-1960s built several peat-fired power plants across the midlands and west in partnership with the Electricity Supply Board, the world’s first national energy utility. These efforts are best understood in the context of postcolonial nation-building and development, giving rise to a “modern” form of social life in the previously “underdeveloped” rural midlands – this included the building of worker villages, schools, and other social infrastructures.
Since the 1980s, the peat industry has been in decline but it is only in the past decade that the direction of the post-peat transition has taken a clearer form led by the Irish state. BnM, rebranded as a “climate solutions company,” is now involved in a range of public-private partnerships with global private actors from energy, tech and finance sectors, rapidly seeking to develop large-scale wind energy, solar parks, biogas plants, battery storage, carbon sequestration, and energy-intensive facilities like data centres.
While the Irish state is committed to a just transition, these ‘green’ projects provide few local jobs or opportunities for local development. The impulse to make these “wasted” post-extractive bogs productive and “green” also carries with it a profound displacement of existing cultures and ways of life – including the banning of peat-based energy cultures and community-led projects of heritage protection, bog rehabilitation and repair that have existed in the bogs since the start of the industry’s decline in the 1980s and 1990s.
This project is a collaboration between Patrick Bresnihan, Patrick Brodie and Larry Fullam. Larry is a co-founder and organiser with Creative Rathangan Meitheal (CRM), a small community group based in Rathangan, Co, Kildare. CRM draws on perspectives and practices from visual art, history, and environmental science, as well as local experiences and knowledge, to consider, and ideally intervene in, the future of the bogs.
Bresnihan is currently working on an Irish Research Council (IRC) funded project with Fullam called ‘A Midlands Retrospective: Energy, Modernisation and the Bogs’. This involves a combination of oral history interviews with former workers and residents in the Midlands, archival work and fieldwork.
The research project for Intersecting Energy Cultures (IEC) connects this work with five years of collaboration between Bresnihan and Brodie on the intersections of digital and energy systems in Ireland since the onset of the country’s “data centre boom” in the early-2010s. This work is concerned with the role of Ireland’s boglands in the wider social transformations occurring under the ostensible green transition.
A large part of the funding for the IRC project is for the design and publication of a short book in collaboration with a designer and photographer who are also committed to the questions and aims of the project. We have also considered making a radio documentary. Radio documentary has a particular cultural value in Ireland – Irish people listen to the radio, and there are several venues we could target including national broadcaster and smaller, independent digital radio platforms.
We are interested in learning from others in the IEC network about methods and approaches for making our research more politically effective in challenging the kinds of green-tech, FDI-led developments outlined above. There is a strong consensus about the benefits of this model of development and its inevitability, which makes it hard to challenge. What we encounter in our fieldwork is often a sense of powerlessness in the face of ‘green’, market-led and large-scale development projects. Where there is conflict or resistance it is often localized, under-resourced and unable to articulate with other campaigns to form a broader social movement of political platform. With this project, we’re encouraged to think about our research and outputs as organizing tools, helping to articulate across different, contentious elements of environmental politics in Ireland.