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When man first set foot in Ireland vast peat bogs covered about one seventh of the land, these places were devoid of hunting or agricultural potential, they were treacherous places to be avoided.It was probably not long before it was discovered that the half rotted moss beneath the bog made an excellent fuel when dried. The vast deposits had been accumulating since the time of the last ice age, and was to become a major fuel source used for many centuries, in fact it is still used today and generates a considerable amount of the country's electricity requirment.It is used for home heating but on a much smaller scale than in previous times. Today peat covers 17% of the country, ranking 3rd in the world behind Finland (33%) and Canada (18%)

After the ice age Ireland would have been roughly the size and shape it is today, much of it would have acquired a covering of pine forests, vast low lying areas especially in the central midlands filled with melt water and became lakes, these lakes were almost totally devoid of nutrition and most plants found their conditions hostile to development. One exception being the Sphagnum mosses of which there are over three hundred species, ranging in colour from light green to dark red, all broadly similar in structure, the mosses grew on the surface of the still lakes in massive rafts, the metabolic process of the plant exudes acid after a time this brings the pH value of the water to 5, a level which prohibits the growth of other plants, eventually the entire surface of the lake would have been covered.

The dense rafts also prevented oxygen reaching the water; the net effect was that as the plants lower down in the rafts died they did not decay but remained floating suspended by the air trapped within their cells, over the millennia the mosses filled the lakes and ponds totally, and in many cases their surface are today significantly higher than the original lake surface.

Peat is cut into rectangular blocks with a specially designed spade, the spade would have been made by the local blacksmith and different patterns of spades evolved. The blocks when cut contain as much as 90% water, they are laid out on the surface of the bog to dry, stacks of drying peat have been a familiar site in Ireland since prehistoric times, since the advent of machine cutting it is rarely seen today although some people still cut by hand

In June 1946 the government of Ireland established Bord na Mona to extract and process peat on a commercial scale, mainly from The Bog of Allen in the midlands, the company operate narrow gauge railways to carry the peat from the bogs, many are in the midlands, although their largest system is in County Donegal where they have 1,931 Km (1,200 miles) of 910 mm (3 Ft) track. The combined Bord na Mona railway system is one of the largest industrial railway systems in Europe. The company's main product is 'Peat Briquettes' which is peat compressed into conveniently sized blocks, they also produce 'Moss Peat' a potting compost, as well as supplying several peat powered power stations.

It is estimated that Ireland has about 25 years supply of peat left, when a bog becomes exhausted it is planted with trees and shrubs and usually is designated a nature reserve.

Today you can learn the story of the extraction of Irish peat in Clonmacnoise, County Offaly there the Clonmacnoise and West Offaly Railway operate tours around part of the bog.

Visit Bord na Mona's web site.