Approximately 87% of Achill Island is peat bog. On our first trip to the island in 2013 we paid a visit to the peat cuttings at Tonatanvally, which lie on the eastern boundary of Doogort East Bog, a natural heritage area.
The road that runs north to south through Tonatanvally rises and falls with the undulating ground surface, as if the tarmac has been rolled our across the bog like a rug. Occasionally there is a short stretch of track to the left or right, just enough distance for people to park a car and load up their turf. Turbary or the right of private individuals to cut turf for domestic use has been carried on for centuries in rural Ireland but it is now being phased out and not without controversy and protest. The annual turf harvest is a family occasion and it is a common sight to see a couple of cars pulled up and two or three generations cutting, stacking or bagging the small rectangular bars of peat. A picnic with a flask of tea completes the ritual.
Large stacks of harvested turf featured in many of Paul Henry’s paintings. When we visited Tonatanvally the peat was stacked in little tepee formations or it had already been put in silage or animal feed bags, which were in turn stacked in an ad hoc fashion. These stacks of colourful plastic sacks stood out in stark contrast with their surroundings, not at all like the harmonious palette of hues and textures observed by Paul Henry. The new form of bagged turf stack is clearly becoming a norm. It provides a new motif for an artist.
In addition to the stacked and bagged turf, the cuttings offer further interest both in plan and section. A considerable physical and chronological depth is exposed in the face of the cuttings. Each individually owned plot is marked out by a fence, wooden pegs or by long established cuttings. There is occasional mechanical wreckage from harvesting apparatus, long since rusted and overgrown. The most noticeable vegetation during our visit was bog cotton. It produced a beautiful visual effect as it danced in the wind. We will hopefully get to return to some bog locations on our 2014 visit.