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Social History {Series 2}

Ryan Tubridy Episode - The Peat Industry in Ireland

Brief history of the peat industry in Ireland
By Donal Clarke 

Summary
Peatlands have been exploited in Ireland for over a thousand years. From the 17th century there was pressure to develop bogs, seen as wastelands, for agriculture. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the emphasis changed to encouraging the development of Ireland’s peatlands for fuel and improving the quality of turf as a fuel. The Irish Free State Government in the 1930s formed the Turf Development Board for these purposes, it later became Bord na Móna. World War II saw major projects to encourage turf production and following the war, programmes were introduced for a substantial increase in mechanical peat production and the use of peat in the generation of electricity. Presently, three peat-fired electricity stations consume 3.8 million tonnes of milled peat supplied by Bord na Móna per annum. Recent figures show that, in addition to Bord na Móna, there are some 30 enterprises engaged in moss peat production, with a similar number of sod peat contractors.

1 Introduction
Peatlands in Ireland have traditionally been viewed as wastelands and sources of poverty. A 19th  century account describes the people who lived near a Kildare peatland as “miserable and half-starved spectres who inhabited this dreary waste”. C.S. Andrews said that “the bog itself in the Irish mind was a symbol of barrenness”. For three centuries a major object of Irish public and philanthropic policy was the reclamation of bogs, from 1716 onwards a series of Acts were passed by the Irish parliament to encourage peatland reclamation. One such Act passed in 1731, set out to “Encourage the Improvement of Barren and waste Land, and Boggs”. In that year the Dublin Society (later Royal Dublin Society) was founded and actively encouraged the drainage of peatlands. Between 1823 and 1875 eighteen bills were presented to the British parliament to encourage the reclamation of bogs in Ireland. This ‘crusade’ was largely aimed at the conversion of peatlands to farmland. A major milestone in this was the publication between 1810 and 1814, under authority of an Act of the British parliament, of four reports delineating all the major bogs of Ireland and recommending how they might be drained and converted for agriculture. In practice, the main use of peatlands in Ireland has been not for agriculture but as an indigenous fuel resource, ranging from hand-cut turf to large-scale mechanisation and milled peat production. This paper outlines the use of peat as a fuel and the use of moss peat as a litter and in horticulture. 

2 Development of sod-peat as a fuel resource

2.1. Early developments
There is evidence that the use of turf for heating in Ireland goes back well over a thousand years. By the17th century turf was widely used and by the late eighteenth century it was the main fuel in Ireland. During the 19th century a number of methods were tried to improve the quality and consistency of turf. By the end of the 19th  century however, peat was competing with English coal and because of its inconsistency, lack of density, and high water content, the use of turf became confined to areas close to the peatlands. In the early 1870s a ‘fuel crisis’ brought about by “the cost and scarcity of coal” increased interest in finding ways to improve the qualities of peat for fuel. A Commission was subsequently led by Alderman Purdon to investigate methods of turf production in other countries, such as the Netherlands, Bavaria, Prussia, Bohemia, France and England. 

2.2 The early20th  century
In the early 20th century turf of poor quality was used in Dublin and imported from surrounding counties. For example, in 1912 some 15,000 tonnes was transported by the Grand Canal from Kildare. In 1917 the British Fuel Research Board appointed a committee (under the chairmanship of Sir John Purser Griffith) to make recommendations on improving the winning, preparation and use of peat as a fuel. In its report, the Committee estimated the total quantities of coal used in Ireland as 4.7 million tonnes and the quantity of turf used as 6 million tonnes (the calorific equivalent of 3.4 million tonnes of coal). The Committee also recommended experiments in using electric machinery for the harvesting and saving of turf. Meanwhile, in 1919 the Dáil (the Irish parliament) commissioned a report on peat as part of a comprehensive “Commission of Enquiry into the Resources and Industries of Ireland”. This report recommended experimenting with the use of peat for electricity and the acquisition by the State of all the large bogs in the country.

The first Free State governments took no action regarding peat due to unrest and economic depression and the laissez faire philosophy of early administrations. In 1924 Sir John Purser Griffith decided to implement at his own expense the recommendations of his Committee’s 1921 Report, and purchased a bog at Turraun, Co Offaly. He imported German peat excavators, and built a peatfired power station and an electrical network to power the German equipment. Because excavators mix peat from different depths of peat their use results in a more consistent product than hand-won turf, and this enabled Griffith to establish a distribution network in Dublin. 

2.3 Post 1932: establishment of the Turf Development Board
In the early 1930s Fianna Fáil had made electoral promises to develop Ireland’s bogs. Frank Aiken developed a scheme for the expansion of turf production and in 1933 C.S. ‘Todd’ Andrews was appointed to the Department of Industry and Commerce to implement the scheme. The objectives of the scheme were to stimulate private turf production, establish standards for density and moisture content, fix prices and organise distribution. Co-operative societies for the marketing of turf were formed under the aegis of the IAOS.

In 1934 the Turf Development Board (TDB) was formed “to develop and improve the Turf Industry..” and “..to operate and drain bogs..” Following a visit to German and Russian peat-producing areas by a Government delegation in 1935, proposals were agreed by the Government for bog mechanisation on the German model. In 1936 the Turf (Use and Development) Act was passed, giving the Minister for Industry and Commerce compulsory purchase powers on behalf of the TDB. In 1936 the TDB took over Turraun from Griffith, and purchased large bogs at Clonsast near Portarlington, Co. Laois and Lyrecrumpane in Kerry. The latter bogs were drained and developed for use with German excavating machines otherwise known as ‘baggers’.

2.4 World War II: indigenous fuel in a time of need
In 1941 coal imports for domestic use fell drastically. Hugo Flinn T.D. was appointed Turf Controller and under his direction four major projects promoted the saving and distribution of turf:
• A County Council scheme was established whereby each Council took responsibility for the production of turf. This scheme produced over three million tonnes of turf in the period to its termination in 1947.
• A major Government campaign was organised to encourage private turf production; the Turf
Development Board handled the publicity and marketing.
• A crash expansion programme on the large bogs of Kildare and adjacent counties, the ‘Kildare Scheme’, was entrusted to the Turf Development Board. This scheme involved the drainage of 24,000 acres of bog and the building of fourteen residential camps to house the workers. The scheme produced some 600,000 tonnes of turf in the period to its ending in 1947.
• The Turf Development Board produced high-grade machine turf at its three bogs and this was allocated to cheap fuel schemes for the urban poor. The TDB also re-started Lullymore briquette factory (see below) and the briquettes were allocated to priority industries and the railway system.

In total, as a result of these schemes, during the war “no-one died of cold … or had to eat un-cooked food”.

2.5 Bord na Móna and the Turf Development Programmes
The experience during the war re-enforced the Irish State’s commitment to developing the country’s bogs.In 1944 the TDB was asked to devise and submit a comprehensive programme. The outcome was the transformation in 1946 of the TDB into Bord na Móna and a Government commitment, through a White Paper, to a major plan (later referred to as the ‘First Development Plan’). The plan provided for two ESB turf-fired power stations, the development of 24 bogs to produce over a million tonnes of sod-peat per
annum, the building of a moss peat litter factory and the establishment of a peat research station.

This programme was supplemented in 1950 by a ‘Second Development Programme’ which provided for four additional power stations, a further substantial increase in sod turf production, and major targets for milled peat production. The sod turf production is summarised in Table 1. 

Table 1. Estimated total production of sod turf in selected years

Year

Millions of Tonnes per annum

18th century

5

19th century

5

1921

6

1926

6

1933

3

1941

5

1946

4

1950

3

1982

1

1995

1

2003

<1

 

Following the oil shortages in 1979, the Turf Development Act 1981 provided for a scheme of State grants for private turf producers. Production under the Scheme reached a peak in 1990 of over 1.4 million tonnes per annum. During the period of this Government Scheme (which was administered by Bord na Móna, production rose from 350,000 tonnes in 1983 to 1.4 million tonnes. During the same period Bord na Móna’s own production of sod turf declined from 0.7 million tonnes to virtually zero. It was estimated that total sod turf production in 2003 was 0.6 million tonnes with a turnover of ?38 million. 

3 Briquettes
Some of the earliest experiments in compressing peat into denser briquettes with a high calorific value took place in Ireland. Briquettes were produced in Kilberry Co Kildare in 1855, in Derrylea near Portarlington in 1866 and again in Kilberry in 1906.

In 1933 Professor Pierce Purcell, who had advised Griffith in developing Turraun, bought Lullymore bog. He then formed the Peat Fuel Company which drained the bog, introduced the Peco system of milled peat production, and built the Lullymore briquette factory which opened in 1936. All this was achieved with Government financial assistance. The project got into financial difficulty and in 1939 the assets were transferred to the Turf Development Board.

During the 1950s the original Lullymore briquette factory was refurbished to increase its capacity. When the Electricity Supply Board announced a cutback in 1956 in its proposed building of peat-fired power stations, Bord na Móna decided to switch the output of some of the related bogs to briquette production and two additional briquette factories were commissioned: Derrinlough in 1960 and Croghan in 1961. As part of the ‘Third Development Programme’ a further factory was built in Littleton, Co Tipperary and commissioned in 1981. Due to falling demand, Lullymore briquette factory was closed in 1992 and Croghan in 2000. 

4 Electricity from peat
The possibilities of generating electricity from peat were examined by the two 1921 enquiries. In 1937 the Department of Industry and Commerce decided that peat shouldbe used for the generation of electricity. When the Electricity Supply Boarddemurred, Sean Lemass said the Government was placing a brick wall around the country and Irish fuelhad to be used. In 1938 a decision was made to build a turf-fired power station at Portarlington. Becauseof the intervening war, the station did not come on stream until 1950.

In the early 1950s it was decided to switch from producing electricity from sod turf to milled peat. Between 1950 and 1967 sod peat power stations with a capacity of 117 MW and milled peat stations with a capacity of 290 MW were commissioned.

During the 1950s, as part of the ‘Second Development Programme’, the Electricity Supply Board was obliged by the Government to build four turf-fired power stations on the western seaboard to use turf produced by local farmers and entrepreneurs. These stations were commissioned in 1957 and were built for solely socio-economic reasons. Following on the Yom Kippur War and the subsequent oil embargo in 1973/74 a ‘Third Development Programme’ was approved in 1974 which led to the commissioning of further milled peat power stations contributing 130 MW of electricity.

In 1988 and 1994 the Portarlington and Allenwood turf generating stations were closed, and during the 1990s and the early years of the 21st century all of the original milled peat stations were closed. In 2000 and 2005 three new power stations with a total capacity of 370 MW were commissioned. 

5 Moss peat
The upper layers of raised bogs consist of lighter moss or sphagnum peat which makes for poor fuel. From the 1870s onwards a market developed for the use of these upper layers or ‘peat-moss litter’ as livestock bedding. Ryan (1907) lists some six Irish enterprises devoted to the harvesting of moss peat and its baling in adjacent factories. At that time Dutch companies trying to organise the British market for peat moss litter felt threatened by competition from Ireland. In 1921 the Fuel Research Board Report listed eight peat moss litter enterprises, three in what is now Northern Ireland, and the rest in Counties Offaly, Meath and Kildare. The Dáil Report estimated the output of peat moss litter in 1921 at about 50,000 tonnes per annum.

Demand for peat moss litter fell during the 1930s and shortages during World War II increased costs, so that by 1945 production was minimal. In 1954 peat moss was still predominantly used as animal litter, while its use in mushroom casing was just developing, and other horticultural uses were at the experimental stage. Bord na Móna established a peat moss litter factory at Kilberry, Co Kildare in 1947. The company further developed its markets for the use of moss peat in horticulture during the 1960s and was joined by a number of competitors including: Erin Peat, Birr 1959; Clover Peat Products, Dungannon c.1975; Bulrush Horticulture, Magherafelt 1979; Harte Peat, Clones 1987; and Westland Horticulture, Dungannon 1988. In 2003 it was estimated that Irish moss peat producers sold 2.6 million cubic metres of horticultural-grade peat with an estimated total turnover of €48 million. The producers included Bord na Móna, three medium-sized companies and some 30 smaller producers. 

6 Conclusion
The development of peatlands in Ireland began as a crusade to clear barren wastelands and exploit them predominantly for agricultural land and fuel. It continued as a campaign predominantly aimed towards energy self-sufficiency and later towards maintaining indigenous energy. Initially a by-product of fuel peat, moss peat is now a valued component of the horticulture industry.

In more recent years society has become conscious of the many values inherent in peatlands. This has resulted in the conservation of pristine and ecologically significant peatlands and attempts to restore and rehabilitate cutaway boglands. The peat industries have adapted to these changes and comply with designations and planning guidelines. The peat industry currently makes a useful contribution to the economies of the island and continues to serve as an important source of local employment.

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