Peatlands represent a living history book. The raised bogs of the midlands are thought to have formed more than 10,000 years ago. To date, more than 4,000 archaeological sites and several hundred artifacts have been identified within Irish raised bogs. These same bogs preserve long–term records of environmental change offering particular insight into this island’s vegetation and climate history. Clara Bog tells a story of the land that shaped its people and the people that shaped the land. We know that hunter-gatherer communities lived near Clara in the period 6500 – 7000 BC. At Clara, the first evidence of forest clearance appears about 2300 BC. The story from here on is one of continuing expansion of agriculture.
Among the archaeological discoveries in raised bogs in Ireland are the ‘Bog Bodies’. These Iron Age (500 BC – 500 AD) human remains are thought to be the victims of human sacrifice as they have been discovered along ancient tribal boundaries. Over 100 bodies have been discovered worldwide, the oldest is over 2000 years old – Old Croghan Man found only 12 miles from Clara is perhaps the most famous Irish bog body. Bog butter, usually enclosed in a wooden vessel or wicker basket has also been found in our bogs.
Uses of peat
In Ireland peat has been used for fuel from earliest times cut by hand until the mid-20th Century using traditional tools. The activity of turf cutting and stacking became a truly social activity reflected also in the songs, stories and poems recited round the homely turf fire. Bogs were important areas for harvesting berries and for hunting, while the margins supported agriculture. The habitat is entirely dependent on a living mat of Sphagnum Moss which is the dominant plant in wetlands such as Clara Bog. Dried Sphagnum Moss was used as bedding for both humans and animals. It has also been used by the northern native peoples as a natural nappy. With its valuable antiseptic properties and amazing absorbency it was used in bandages in World War I. Some claim that it is a cure for corns!!
In the 17th Century peat became an important fuel source. Families harvested peat for themselves. Turf had become the major source of fuel. By 1750 nearly all the local woods of Clara had also been exploited, while increasingly bogs were reclaimed for farming. In 1810 when Clara Bog reached its maximum extent, there were few settlements round Clara Bog. However the building of roads across and around the area made the bog more accessible for exploitation. At the beginning of the 20th Century there were still a number of people living in thatched cottages around the bog and many depended on the selling of peat locally for a living.
Energy and Fuel
Mechanical cutting was introduced to Ireland in the mid-20th Century forever changing the quantities of peat cut. The development of the peat industry in Ireland led to much of our raised bogs across the midlands being exploited for peat extraction. The Turf Development Board was set up in 1934. During ‘The Emergency’ of World War II vast quantities of turf was taken from the midlands and shipped to the Phoenix Park as Dublin faced huge fuel shortages. In the early years of the Irish Republic State many of our raised bog habitats were sacrificed for cheap fuel in the form of turf. Bord na Móna was set up after World War II by the government to cut peat by mechanical means. Peat began to be used to generate electricity for our every growing population. Today two peat burning power stations remain – Lough Ree Power Station and West Offaly Power Station. The rest of the power stations use: oil, gas, hydro-energy, and wind.
It is estimated that half of Ireland’s raised bogs were destroyed between 1814 – 1946. It is estimated that 85% of our peatlands have been lost. Approximately 50% of the intact oceanic raised bog systems of Europe are found here in Ireland. As with much of the raised bogs in Ireland, some of Clara Bog has been lost. Now only part of the central bog at Clara and a fragment of the eastern bog remain with over half of the original bog being cut away in the last three centuries. The reduction of our peatlands has resulted in the loss of plants and animals associated with our bogs. Degradation of Clara Bog has resulted in the loss of species such as The Greenland White Fronted Goose, which no longer overwinter here. Despite the loss of habitat, Clara is the largest relatively intact raised bog remaining in Ireland east of the River Shannon.
In 1983 Bord na Mona purchased a 440 hectare section of the site intending to develop it for peat production. The process of inserting drains began which was met with public protest. Further drainage was halted and the bog was purchased by the statutory nature conservation, now the National Parks and Wildlife service in 1986 and was declared a National Nature Reserve in 1987. Large scale research projects have been carried out by both Irish and Dutch research institutes since 1989. The results were published in 2002 and include studies of the geological, hydrological and ecological investigations. As a result, Clara Bog is probably the best researched bog of its type in the world.
Restoration work began to take place with the insertion of approximately 6000 small peat dams into the drains. This was initially done by hand and then machine between 1993 – 1996. Under the 1992 European Habitats Directive the State is required to protect various species and natural habitats, including active raised bog, which are of international importance by designating areas as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). Clara Bog is protected under a number of national and international designations including National Nature Reserve, Special Area of Conservation, Natural Heritage Area and Ramsar Wetland Site. Although industrial peat extraction has ceased at Clara Bog, peat cutting for domestic use has continued until relatively recently. Today profile studies of raised bog ecosystems continue at Clara Bog. An interpretive centre for Clara Bog was opened in the town on the Ballycumber Road in 2010. In addition to this a 1 km looped timber boardwalk was constructed along the Clara – Rahan road in 2012 and information boards were erected along the boardwalk to attract visitors to the site for recreational and educational purposes.