Texas Tech University

Bogland: Land and Labor in Nineteenth-Century Ireland

Mary L. Mullen

Melting and opening underfoot,

Missing its last definition

By millions of years

They'll never dig coal here,

—Seamus Heaney, "Bogland"

In a famous scene in Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent (1800), the scheming Irish servant, Thady McQuirk, warns the new Lady Rackrent that she is not showing proper respect for the family property, saying: "But, my lady, you must not quarrel with any part or parcel of Allyballycarricko'shauglin, for you don't know how many hundred years that same bit of bog has been in the family." [1] Like any proper English heiress beginning to question her marriage to an Irish adventurer—as well as the strange idiom and practices of the Irish, more generally— she responds by laughing (at least she doesn't cry).

Within the novel, this scene illustrates Thady's local attachment, his provincial celebration of the Rackrent family and their ever-diminishing lands. But the description of this "bit of bog" also provides an opportunity to muse on the larger question of land and labor in nineteenth-century Ireland and England, one that also speaks to the challenge of thinking across categories: Literature, Social Justice, and the Environment. A symbol of Irish backwardness, bogs are organic entities that supposedly illustrate real cultural and material conditions: that Irish incompatibility with labor, development, and improvement requires English government and control. In this particular scene, the very thing that is supposed to suggest stability and garner respect—property passed down through many generations of a family—becomes a joke in an Irish context because it refers to bogs. "That same bit of bog"(and its ridiculous name) is just one more example of the Rackrent family's inability to improve the land—their backwardness.

Unlike land that supports agriculture and is therefore subject to 'improvement,' bogs accumulate material—expanding without progressing. While we think of improvement as a relatively vague term meaning advancement, development, or progress, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, improvement suggested particular 'modernizing' agricultural practices that sought to transform rural life in the name of increased production. Associated with enclosure, in particular, improvement carried with it the belief that "profitable agricultural methods are . . . an essential component of the moral and properly fulfilled life," while mere subsistence was "debased." [2] Connecting land and labor to profit, improvement discourse valued land in terms of its potential to produce rather than its stability over time.

Although Irish bogs were defined in part by the fact that they were "incapable of reclamation," they nevertheless were subject to various improvement schemes. [3] The author of Castle Rackrent, Maria Edgeworth's father launched one such scheme on his estate in Longford, working to reclaim bog land by constructing portable railways that could transport clay from the drained bog. [4] In the early nineteenth-century, the assumption was that the only way to make a bog profitable was to turn it into farmland. English writer, Harriet Martineau, imagines a slightly different improvement scheme in a 1852 study, "Peatal Aggression," that articulates the problem with bogs—they destroy trees and provide shelter to criminals—only to suggest a solution: the Irish Peat Company that industriously extracts peat from the bog for fuel. But even her celebration of such industry is interrupted by the exciting, but unprofitable, discovery of the useless remnants of the past that the bog contains—mummies of "an ancient race," cupboards from an old house, children's toys from long ago. [5] Even in this improvement narrative self-consciously oriented towards profit and development, the bog's preservation of relics—its resistance to modernization—provides the narrative energy of the account.

Hardly surprising, the newly-independent Irish republic embraced modernity in part by redefining the Irish bog as a site of industrial development rather than stagnation, establishing the Turf Development board in 1934 (named Bord na Móna in 1946) to create efficient methods to mine peat from the bogs. [6] Today, Bord na Móna exemplifies intensifying neoliberal logics, defining their work as "a new contract with nature" that combines innovation, sustainability, and biodiversity—all in the name of profit, of course. [7] While the contract may be "new" and the language may be different, Bord na Móna demonstrates how successful—and how engrained—18th and 19th-century improvement logics are. The 'proper' and 'modern' relationship to the land is one that yields profit rather than that which enables subsistence, life, or stability. Thady's attachment to the "same bit of bog" continues to be woefully misguided in postcolonial Ireland.

I recount this all-too-brief history of the bog to show that the labor that we tend to value is that which makes different types of land, different landscapes, different climates, and different cultures legible in terms of a universal logic: profit. Moreover, I suggest that progress, in a colonial regime, means extraction from and exploitation of the land rather than the stability of land over time. But the Irish bogs' resistance to development—in cultural representations as well as in material history—also tell a different story. Despite the assumption that we all value improvement, that which resists improvement and endures beyond its proper historical moment is not only exciting and energizing, but also valuable. The mummies, cupboards, and toys might not yield profit, but they certainly highlight the treasures that are so important to everyday life but impossible to account for in discourses of improvement.

 Bog Body



[1] Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent (28).

[2] Helen O'Connell, Ireland and the Fiction of Improvement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) 3.

[3] The Irish Peasant: A Sociological Study, Ed. A Guardian of the Poor, London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1892) 151.

[4] For more on the specifics of these improvement schemes, see Charles Carson, Technology and the Big House in Ireland c. 1800-c. 1930 (Amherst: Cambria Press, 2009).

[5] "Peatal Aggression" Household Words (18 September 1852) reprinted in Harriet Martineau and the Irish Question: Condition of Post-famine Ireland ed. Deborah A. Logan (Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2012) 154.

[6] Eric Zuelow, Making Ireland Irish: Tourism and National Identity Since the Irish Civil War (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2009) 213

[7] Http://Www.Bordnamona.Ie/Our-Company/Vision-Mission-Values/