The backdrop to this year’s local elections was not auspicious for Pippa Hackett, a Green party activist who lives in Ireland’s rural Midlands.
For as long as anyone around here can remember, harvesting peat to burn for electricity was the backbone of the local economy. Now growing environmental concerns have led to the practice being wound down.
Stripping peat from the ground not only reduces a vital carbon store. When it burns, the smoke from the dense brown organic matter does more harm to the air than coal. Climatologists say the move to stop extracting the fuel from the ground is long overdue, but in a region that lacks other major industries, that has significant economic implications.
Campaigning on environmental grounds in a place threatened with big job cuts, Hackett faced a major challenge. The area is dominated by larger, more established parties. Some locals claimed she hadn’t a hope of becoming a local councillor, dismissing her as a “brave woman” for even trying.
Yet after a nerve-racking count, she defied the odds to take the sixth and final seat for her area in Offaly county council, the first time the Greens had won a seat in the county.
I met Hackett, 45, in a quiet golf club located by a canal towpath near the tiny Offaly town of Daingean, about 50 miles west of Dublin. Generations here have made their living from peat. The Green agenda is still a minority interest, she concedes.
Yet she found people “coming around” to the idea that the environment is important and that something must be done about climate change. “People are more in tune with this issue in this area than maybe others had given credit for.”
On the campaign trail she travelled hundreds of miles, knocking on doors to seek votes from families facing the prospect of work being lost. “They accept it, but with mixed emotions,” she says. “I think it’s a mixture of anger and sadness, pining for time gone by. But they’re left in a sort of limbo.”
The tensions around the looming closure of Ireland’s bogs are a microcosm of a conflict playing out across many parts of the world: the need to confront the existential threat of global warming, versus the costs borne by those left behind.
For policymakers, it is a balancing act: can state-backed jobs that damage the environment be replaced with jobs that don’t? And what is lost in the drive to advance new activity as an older enterprise with its own distinct history and culture dies out?
Hackett and her husband run an organic farm near Geashill, an Offaly village. She grew up in Mayo, western Ireland, and studied agriculture in Britain. She signed up for the Greens around the time of the last general election, in 2016.
“I read the manifesto and found myself nodding. I joined soon after that.” The party has no more than 40 activists in the area, she adds. The biggest political force locally is Fianna Fáil, the centrist party that dominated Irish politics for most of the 20th century. “That’s a hard thing to chip into.”
In this area, spongy dark bogs dominate the landscape, the ancient legacy of vegetation absorbed into ground thousands of years ago as ice-age lakes receded and dried up. The bogs were often viewed as wastelands, unsuitable for agriculture. But this soggy terrain also occupies a special place in the Irish imagination, inspiring generations of painters and other artists.
It features notably in the work of the late Séamus Heaney, the Nobel laureate poet, for whom it provided a link to the country’s deep past. “We have no prairies,” he wrote in “Bogland” (1969). “Our unfenced country/ Is bog that keeps crusting/ Between the sights of the sun . . . The ground itself is kind, black butter/ Melting and opening underfoot.”
The big employer in the Midlands has long been Bord na Móna, a state-owned company that harvests peat from the bogs. Dug from the ground in rectangular slabs, the stuff had long been the staple fuel in Ireland for cooking and heating homes. But the company — established under a different name by the government in the early 1930s — industrialised the process.
Its aim was twofold: to create jobs in an economic black spot where there were few alternative opportunities for stable work; and to bolster national energy security. The fledgling Irish free state, which gained independence from Britain in 1922, lacked indigenous coal and oil.
A history of Bord na Móna by Donal Clarke notes that Todd Andrews, the Irish war of independence veteran who was the company’s founding father, saw peat development as a patriotic endeavour. “He viewed the turf industry as a way of life and as ‘a crusade rather than a commercial project’. For him ‘the very existence of the waste boglands’ was ‘an affront to our national pride.’”
Bord na Móna has been criticised for years by environmentalists for ravaging bogs that are a natural carbon sink, and a crucial habitat for plants and animals. But in company heartlands the fuel was seen as “brown gold”, providing vital income.
Harvesting increased radically when coal imports collapsed during the second world war, with peat the only fuel widely available in Ireland. “No one died of cold,” Andrews wrote later. In the lean postwar years of the 1950s, when a failing economy spurred rampant emigration, the company even built villages and housing estates for workers.
Generations here made their living with the company, milling peat that is still transported from isolated bogs on a bespoke rail network that extends for 700km, carrying fuel from nine counties to three power stations. In the company’s heyday there was work for more than 7,000 people, many from the same families, as sons followed fathers into the company.
Johnnie Dunne, 64, who runs a community employment office in Daingean, near several company bogs, recalls there was “good money” to be made when his brothers and uncle worked for Bord na Móna. Local men would gather at 6.30am to be taken by lorry into the bogs. “Practically everybody in this whole community benefited from Bord na Móna. All my family worked for it — and it made a big difference,” he says.
“They were all good jobs to the ordinary local guy who went maybe to secondary school and after the age of 16 or 17 moved into those jobs. They wouldn’t become very well off but they got better off and the standard of living improved. That was important. Your ordinary guy was able to have a few bob in his pocket.”
Almost a century after it was founded, Bord na Móna retains an outsized influence in the Midlands. It has 2,000 direct employees and another 2,000 in support industries. But a changing climate has disrupted the company, which remains Ireland’s biggest fossil fuel provider. This year it is making a quarter of its staff redundant as it curtails harvesting, all part of an effort to stop taking peat from the ground by 2025 or 2026.
But it could happen sooner. In recent days, planners struck down a proposal to convert a peat power station to co-fuelling with imported biomass from next year, calling into question the company’s strategy and threatening hundreds more jobs.
In a bid to maintain employment, the company is stepping up investment in wind and solar power, and in recycling. But the move away from peat has amplified anxiety about the decline of villages and towns that Bord na Móna helped to sustain for decades. For Midlanders, the shift is momentous. “Unfortunately, times are changing — and we have to change with it,” says Dunne.
The man in command of Bord na Móna’s “extremely painful” retreat from harvesting is Tom Donnellan, a former Alcatel-Lucent executive who became managing director of the company in the spring of 2018 after working for 20 years in France and the US.
Donnellan, who is from County Clare on Ireland’s western coast, took the job on the basis that he would manage the transition away from peat and oversee the company’s bid to develop replacement jobs in renewable energy and other sectors.
Soon after joining Bord na Móna, he pushed to bring forward its plan to stop using peat for energy to 2028, instead of 2030. The workforce will be cut this year by 500, and a similar number of ancillary jobs is also likely to go. “Any job layoffs are difficult and we’re very careful not to try and sugar-coat that,” Donnellan says.
Ireland ranks among the worst in the developed world at reducing carbon emissions and adopting renewable energy, according to research by Germanwatch, an environmental campaign group based in Bonn. The country will miss its international emission-cutting targets for 2020.
Leo Varadkar, the prime minister, admitted recently that the country must now play catch-up: “Climate action is not an area where we have a lot of credibility at the moment and that’s something we need to change so that we have credibility in talking to other countries.”
Bord na Móna’s move from peat has the government’s imprimatur — no state-owned company could go down the road of large-scale job cuts without political approval at the highest level. But it still represents an abrupt break from the past for the company, something Donnellan describes as a “culture shock” for its workers.
“It’s still difficult for people who have worked 40 years in this company — they’re there, I come across them every day — or 45 years, people who have spent all their lives here. When you tell them, ‘We’re getting out of peat,’ they understand it and they get it, but it’s still a shock to them.”
He is sitting in a sparse, isolated office in the middle of a vast cutaway bog at Mount Lucas, near Daingean. The peat here is long gone, stripped back relentlessly in 50 years of harvesting.
In 2014, Bord na Móna established a wind farm on the site that is now home to 28 huge white turbines. Swirling and swooshing in the air, they are visible from miles away.
Pointing out of the window, Donnellan says the rotating blades reflect a testing transition to green from brown energy. The company, which built Ireland’s first commercial wind farm in 1992, plans to open another 13.
“We see an opportunity in renewables. We have 200,000 acres of land, a lot of it in reasonably remote areas. We have a capability to deliver large-scale projects,” he says. “Someone was harvesting peat here a number of years ago and now we’re producing renewable electricity, which is powering tens of thousands of homes.”
We jump into his car, driving beneath the rotating turbines to another new venture — a pilot freshwater fish farm that could yet herald Bord na Móna’s entry into the food business. In circular ponds dug into the ground, the company is breeding thousands of trout and perch. The aim is to assess whether duckweed grown in the boglands can act as a natural filter to clean the water, keeping costs down.
This complex scheme remains unproven, although Donnellan sees potential for hundreds of jobs by tapping into growing global demand for farmed fish.
“You could be into processing, flavouring, smoking, packaging, freezing — and it would be clearly for the export market. We anticipate that could provide between 200 and 1,000 jobs, depending on where it landed.”
Donnellan’s ambition is received with scepticism among some workers. “It’s hard to see it working now, I’ll be honest,” says Finian O’Neill, a seasonal peat miller since 2008 and a representative for Siptu, Ireland’s largest trade union.
For 42 years his father worked for Bord na Móna; his uncle for 26 years. “The company keeps saying there is a future in the company . . . It’s probably hard to see that when you’re on the ground and you’re looking at peat areas closing.”
Bord na Móna produced more than six million tonnes of peat in 2013, a peak year. Last year it harvested just two million tonnes. O’Neill sees the impact in his own job, noting that harvesting continues only in five local bogs where once 11 were in operation. “You’re not talking many guys [left working] then.”
Aged 53 and conscious that the workforce is depleting rapidly, he was not tempted by the redundancy deal that ultimately was oversubscribed with applications from more than 600 workers.
“You’re better off having a few pound coming in every other week,” he says. “Someone my age has to work until they’re 67, I think. There’s still 14 years out there and the older you are it’s harder to get a bit of work.”
People worry about the “replacement factor” for lost jobs, O’Neill adds. “A majority [working] in Bord na Móna are not afraid of [tackling] climate change and they honestly do believe it’s for the better [to act] . . . It’s just that it’s hitting rural Ireland harder than it’s hitting Dublin.”
Concern here is all the greater because the jobless rate remains Ireland’s second-highest. In the first quarter of 2019, unemployment in the region — comprising Offaly and neighbouring counties Laois, Westmeath and Longford — was 6.2 per cent, compared with 4.5 per cent throughout the country.
Although Ireland has bounced back strongly from the 2008 economic crash, there is little to be seen in the Midlands of the investment surge that has drawn legions of global companies to Dublin, Cork and Galway.
With shops shuttered and buildings derelict on its main thoroughfare, Daingean still bears the scars of crisis. Enda Scully, owner of the remaining grocery shop, tells how his parents bought it in the late 1980s after moving from Laois. Listing several businesses that have closed in recent years, he describes a place that increasingly seems like a “ghost town” at night.
“On a winter’s evening after 6pm the only lights on in this street are ourselves and the Italian chipper,” he says. “Thirty years ago there were six or seven shops, eight pubs, there was a clothes shop, a fruit and vegetable shop, a petrol station, and nearly anybody employed in the area was employed with Bord na Móna. It was a bustling economy.”
Scully laments the failure to draw in new employers. “There is plenty of opportunity to bring investment in but there’s nothing coming.” The busiest times now in his shop are after 6.30am as commuters stop for snacks on the way out of Daingean, and in the evening as they return.
Of the diminished number of remaining Bord na Móna workers in the locality, he knows many who “will be finishing up” soon. “A lot of those are part-time farmers that needed the extra few pound.”
Finian O’Neill, the seasonal peat miller, says the loss of such jobs intensifies anger about the closure of post offices and the lack of other rural amenities such as broadband, a hot issue for Varadkar amid controversy over plans to spend up to €3bn on a drive to bring high-speed internet to 540,000 rural properties that still don’t have it.
“People you’re friends with and people you work with, they’re devastated at losing local services, and local services being so slow to upgrade.”
An Post, the state-owned mail company, says 26 Offaly post offices have closed since 1984. In a recent retrenchment, five post offices closed in the county; 18 remain.
Similar trends are evident in the bar trade, with the closure of 1,500 mainly rural pubs around the country linked to a campaign against drink driving. Industry data show that 37 Offaly pubs closed between 2005 and 2017, a decline close to 23 per cent — above the 17 per cent national average.
Standing in the garden centre she opened just outside Daingean three years ago, Annette McNamee explains how a restaurant she ran for 23 years went bust in the last recession.
“You have to dig deep, get up and keep going.” Situated by the side of a busy road into the town, the new business trades well. But she senses gnawing worries in the community at redundancies from the company. “I get a despair. You don’t get it openly,” she says. “It’s easy if you’re affluent to talk climate change.”
In June, Ireland’s government produced a new climate plan to hit 2030 emissions targets, necessitating a 2 per cent cut each year for a decade. As well as pledging to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 and oil and gas burners in new homes, the plan confirms Bord na Móna’s accelerated 2028 deadline to stop peat-fired electricity generation and replace it with renewable biomass fuel.
(The government has pledged to keep the 2028 target “under review”, says a spokesman for the climate action ministry.)
But Bord na Móna’s critics, of which there are many, argue that it should stop harvesting earlier to protect what remains of the peatlands. Professor John Sweeney, a retired Maynooth University climatologist who has contributed to the reports of the UN intergovernmental panel on climate change, argues that the current cut-off date is much too late.
“By 2028 the data is quite significant. Most of the peat will be gone by then. That’s too far into the future,” he says.
Aside from the high level of emissions from burning peat, there is also concern that cutting deeper into the bogs fans a biodiversity emergency that threatens the unique but fragile local ecosystem. Sweeney is blunt.
“I would call it environmental vandalism,” he says. “The combined impact . . . is to greatly exacerbate the difficulties of Ireland meeting its emission requirements. But also I would say it exacerbates that destruction of valuable carbon stores in the Irish environment which are the envy of Europe . . .
“For the next five generations, effectively, you’re destroying that carbon store which has acted for the past thousands of years to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. So it’s kind of ratcheting up the effect by taking it off first and then burning it.”
Donnellan insists Bord na Móna has confronted the truth, saying the company is not trying to hold back the tide. “We could become climate-change deniers and say, ‘There’s nothing wrong with this, and it’s good, and [the peat] is nice brown cuddly stuff’ and all that.
Or we could face reality,” he says. “I think critics of the company would like us to stop peat in the morning and I don’t think they will stop criticising until we do. We have taken the view that we’re really accelerating it, reinventing ourselves. We need some time to do that.”
For Sweeney, the Irish peatlands are now a critical test case for the development of a “just transition” to support people directly affected by climate change; something that will become increasingly necessary as the world moves away from fossil fuels.
“This is where [that] theme is going to be played out in Ireland — perhaps more in the Bord na Móna context than almost any part of Europe, apart from coal-mining. So it’s crucial that we get it right.”
Sweeney suggests money from the current public subsidy for peat power generation could be diverted to retrain workers to retrofit old housing to make it more energy efficient, a key strand of Varadkar’s new climate action plan. Money from new carbon taxes could also be recycled back into such projects, he adds.
“I’m quite sympathetic to the plight of Bord na Móna workers. They shouldn’t be just thrown on the dole — and there is finance currently available that would enable them not to be rendered impoverished and to enable money to flow into those midland communities.”
Pippa Hackett, the new Green councillor, says there remains little clarity over what might follow the closure of the peatlands. On polling day in May, as voters cast ballots after an exhausting campaign, she described some local embitterment at the Greens and their environmental agenda but little by way of direct animosity.
“Speaking to people on the doorsteps who work with Bord na Móna, there’s a lovely loyalty to the company among them. They’ve been employed there for generations and I think a certain percentage of them feel quite sad that it is coming to an end. They understand the reasons why but there has to be a section that are angry that they have been left like this.”
Arthur Beesley is the FT’s Ireland correspondent