Peatlands and Poetry

A Bog’s Life is taking a literary turn this month to coincide with the inaugural Hinterland Festival of Literature and Arts being held in Kells at the end of June, which features a guided walk with the Girley Bog Meitheal, and a reading of Seamus Heaney’s Bogland poem. A growing awareness of the cultural value of peatlands is reflected in recent articles, books, and art projects, which explore the bog as a locale not only for ecologists, botanists and other researchers, but also as inspiration for artists, writers, poets, and all who visit these places.


The poem stone at Girley Bog

Writing on literary geography (which draws on fictional accounts in literature and poetry as a source of knowledge about the environment) and the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Dianne Meredith notes: “Poetic license may stretch description of a landscape beyond the confines of measurable reality, bringing to light a stronger objectivity, inclusive not only of the physical environment, but also of the social, psychological, and historical climate” [1]. Thought, memory, and identity are shaped by landscapes, and local peatlands can contribute to our sense of identity, reflecting our culture, and the often intense relationships we have with these places. With these ideas in mind, what follows is a selection of poems and images inspired by my walks on Girley Bog, drawing on the writings and imagination of others.

old bog road

“Had I the chance to wander back, Or own a king’s abode.
I’d sooner see the hawthorn tree, By the Old Bog Road.”

Teresa Brayton

The experience of wandering and walking in the outdoors helps us escape the everyday routines of work and duty, and reading poetry also helps us go beyond the language and experience of the everyday – to think more deeply about the grand themes and narratives of our lives, and step out of the fray from time to time. These themes that impact us all – the passage of time, cycles of birth and decay, stagnation and change, truth and beauty – play out in startling brilliance on Ireland’s bogs. They are embodied in the substance of the peat, and made manifest in the multitude of interactions on the bog – between land and water, flora and fauna, light and darkness, and past and future.

Seamus Heaney said “I can’t think of a case where poems changed the world, but what they do is they change people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world”. While words are not always enough to convey a landscape’s diversity, richness and depth, it is equally true that “if you have the words there’s always a chance you will find the way” [2].

Come, as Walt Whitman invites, and “loafe with me on the grass… loose the stop from your throat… Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes“.

collage cricket

“In mid-wood silence, … how sweet to be, Where all the noises that on peace intrude, Come from the chittering cricket, bird and bee, Whose songs have charms to sweeten solitude”
John Clare


“Without a brush
The willow paints the wind”

collage loaf

“I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.”
Walt Whitman

collage frog

“How dreary – to be – somebody! How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June – To an admiring Bog!”
Emily Dickinson


“We are resolved into the supreme air, We are made one with what we touch and see,
With our heart’s blood each crimson sun is fair,
With our young lives each spring-impassioned tree Flames into green,
The wildest beasts that range the moor our kinsmen are,
All life is one, and all is change”
Oscar Wilde

collage heaney

“I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells 
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss”
Seamus Heaney


“I’m truly sorry man’s dominion, has broken nature’s social union, An’ justifies that ill opinion, which mak’s thee startle, At me, thy poor earth-born companion an’ fellow-mortal!”
Robert Burns

collage moon

“Therefore let the moon shine on thee in thy solitary walk…”
William Wordsworth
“Smile O voluptuous cool-breath-d earth!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!”
Walt Whitman


“Along this road
Is none but I
This autumn eve”

collage moss

“That was moss-gathering.
But something always went out of me when I dug loose those carpets
Of green, or plunged to my elbows in the spongy yellowish moss of the marshes:
As if I had broken the natural order of things in that swampland;
Disturbed some rhythm, old and of vast importance.
As if I had commited, against the whole scheme of life, a desecration”
Theodore Roethke


“My peace is there in the receding mist…”
Samuel Beckett

collage asphodel 2

“Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel.
Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
Than labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar;
O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.”
Alfred Tennyson

[1] MEREDITH, Dianne. Landscape or Mindscape? Seamus Heaney’s Bogs. Irish Geography, [S.l.], v. 32, n. 2, p. 126-134, jan. 2015. ISSN 1939-4055. Available at: Irish Geography.

[2] Irish Times, ‘Walk on air against your better judgment’: Heaney on life, poetry, God and Ireland, Irish Times, Aug 30, 2013.

A conference in Cork this July, Trans-disciplinary Conversations on Peatlands, will bring together diverse scholars and practitioners, to explore areas where science, art, and the humanities coalesce and mingle to transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries. The aim is to improve knowledge, understanding and collaboration between disciplines, and create innovative thinking and solutions to the challenges of conserving peatlands and using their resources wisely. Book your place at this link.

Read more about ‘The Ecological and Cultural Futures of Peatlands’ here.