Profitless Bog- The impact of energy generation on the landscape of the Midlands. By Fergal MacCabe

‘….The lean road flung over profitless bog,

Where only a snipe could nest…

…..The soft and dreary midlands, with their tame canals,

Wallow between sea and sea, remote from adventure….’

‘Dublin Made Me’      Donagh MacDonagh

Lumcloon

Once a month, my uncle Billy Holohan who was the Assistant County Engineer for West Offaly, would come to Tullamore to report to his superior, the County Engineer Tom Duggan, in the courthouse. 

After the meeting he would sometimes pick me up from my mother’s house in Clonminch and bring me to stay with himself and his wife Nell in Gallen Lodge in Ferbane. The highlight of the journey, for both of us, was an inspection of the progress on the construction of the two cooling towers of Lumcloon Power Station.

We watched as immense rings of slim, angled columns emerged and were tied together by large circular bands to form the base from which the structures would rise. Over the next few years we marvelled at the gradual ascent of the elegantly modulated shapes, first curving inwards and then subtly outwards to form a lip. Billy tried to explain to me the structural engineering concepts behind the design, but as a small boy I could only marvel at the height and sheer scale of the undertaking.

An impression of the proposed mills at Leamanaghan. Very high and very prolific. Our thanks to Kenneth Smyth for this picture.

Leamanaghan Castle

Unusually for an engineer, Billy had a deep interest in history. He brought me along on his site inspections and introduced me to Clonmacnoise and Sier Kieran. His favourite stop on our return journey to Tullamore was Leamanaghan where we roamed amongst the remains of the Monastery. He delighted in showing me the hoof mark inside the gate of the school which marked the passage of St Manchan’s stolen cow and  then brought me over the fields to St Mella’s Kell which I still believe is one of the most romantic spots in Ireland.

Lemanaghan Castle, top left. This was where the Annals of Clonmacnoise was completed. The castle was demolished in the 1950s as was Kilcolgan nearby to provide filler. Courtesy of Offaly Archives

Then in 1959, in an act which was deeply symbolic of Ireland in that peculiar time between economic stagnation and rapid growth, Leamanaghan Castle was bulldozed to provide hardcore for works at Lumcloon Power Station. The Castle, which was derelict but still substantial, had been the ancestral home of the Mac Coghlans. Cardinal Rinuccini had stayed there (or more likely nearby Kilcolgan, also demolished) during his time as Papal Nuncio to the Confederation of Kilkenny and the Annals of Clonmacnoise were translated into English in the house. I was dumbfounded but hadn’t the courage to ask Billy whether it was the ESB or the County Council who were responsible.

Cooling towers of the old economy, so succesful for Offaly from the 1950s to the 2000s in regard to employment.

The Cooling Towers

The cooling towers were completed and over the years, became part of the public perception of the Midland landscape.

Driving westwards you knew you were approaching Kildare and Offaly when the Allenwood towers became visible, then Portarlington and Rhode emerged with Lumcloon in the far distance. Their harmonic shapes complemented Croghan, Endrim and Bellair hills and provided  points of vertical interest in an otherwise soft and dreary plain. The bogs, which had been perceived for centuries as profitless and impassable were now a proud testimony to national energy self-sufficiency and local technological advance.  

However, with the passage of time, what was originally considered a solution, became a problem and peat extraction began to be wound down with grievous personal and economic consequences which are still being felt. The Power Stations were closed, their towers and buildings demolished and their sites converted to other uses. 

Portarlington was the second last to go. At 10.30 on the morning of the 4th of April 1997, the cooling tower that had taken three years to build and stood for forty seven years, vanished in three seconds at the hands of an English demolition expert who already had many redundant cooling towers on his c.v..

Futile last minute efforts to save it were led by the Heritage Council and a local preservation group organised by Progressive Democrat Senator, Cathy Honan.  Architect Gerard Carty of Clonbullogue, now a director of the world famous Grafton Architects, wrote in protest that the Power Station was  ‘A monument to those visionaries who grafted a semi-industrial outlook onto the principally agricultural psyche of the Midlands’.  Their protests crumbled in the face of the ESB’s assertion that  ’ It was built for power generation and that function is over’.

The crowds watching the spectacle of the demolition were serenaded by local accordionist Louis Melia who played his composition ’The Tower I Loved So Well’  during the countdown to the explosion. 

An era had ended and the advent of wind power was at hand.

Wind Turbines

Because of the absence of nearby dwellings but with existing connections to the national grid, the Midland bogs were identified very early on as first choice locations for large scale wind energy generation. But, whatever about their ecological impacts, the visual impacts of turbines can be a lot more substantial than those of cooling towers.

Unlike one or two isolated towers, turbines spread haphazardly over large areas of the landscape. Though man-made, their scale and large array results in their being read as part of the natural landscape itself- which can be visually disturbing. As the blades rotate in different cycles, they can often cause visual irritation, even from very far away. The scale of the turbines can be incongruous and though they are generally no higher than the former cooling towers, there are a lot more of them. All in all, their visual impacts are significant and often unassimilable. But then, maybe the cooling towers were also, but in the 1950s any development was welcome, while today’s affluence allows us to make choices.

But whether it is cooling towers or turbines, the greatest sensitivity should always be shown when their development impinges on historic sites. Leamonaghan paid a price for the construction of Lumcloon and shouldn’t be put in the firing line a second time.

The old world that was partly destroyed in the 1950s.But the shrine at Lemanaghan survived in its original locus. A remarkable survival in its locale. Ballycumber castle was used for filler as was Kilcolgan. So much for heritage in 1920s to 1960s Ireland. Heritage was in a linguistic form only and divorced from real life. So much empty platitudes.

A Flashpoint

With the imminent lodgement by Bord na Mona of its proposal for a 17-turbine wind farm with blade heights of up to 220 m, the bogland island of Leamanaghan with its ancient monastery and graveyard will be in the forefront of the conflict between architectural heritage and power generation. Preliminary images show turbines dominating its surrounding landscape on its northern side.

However, just as in the 1950s, the likelihood is that national energy needs will trump all other considerations- particularly in the light of the recent correspondence from the Office of the Planning Regulator directing the Council to dramatically increase Offaly’s megawatt production.

This should not mean that the vulnerable character of Leamanaghan be disregarded, but that the most careful consideration needs to be given to the interface between it and the future wind farm. As one of the most sensitive locations in Offaly (and also to make restitution for the shameful razing of the Castle) the balance of the argument should favour the protection of its history and beauty.

The windmills of the past or a message of hope. Lemanaghan 120 years ago before the data centres and when most things were in the head of the local person and not in the Cloud. Courtesy of Offaly Archives

A Return to Profitless Bog?

As wind replaces peat extraction, it is not unthinkable that it may in turn be replaced by a less visually obtrusive or ecologically harmful form of energy production.Turbines last for about twenty years before they need replacement and a point may come when this is no longer economical.

In March of this year the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe declared that ‘Nuclear energy can be a critical component of a decarbonised energy system for those member states that choose to consider it as a part of their sustainable development and climate change strategy’. It will be interesting to see how other European countries respond to the technological advances which are now delivering safer nuclear energy.

I wonder if in seventy- or eighty-years’ time, as the last of the turbines come down and the land gently recedes back into its ancient role of profitless bog abounding in nesting snipe, will a small and nostalgic group emerge to campaign for the preservation of the remaining few of these iconic structures?

With thanks to Fergal MacCabe

Fergal MacCabe 

September 2021

Text: Fergal MacCabe

Pics and captions: Offaly History

The Earliest Arrivals/Humans in Offaly. By John Dolan

Dealing with time periods that trace back thousands and hundreds of thousands of years can be difficult to handle because of the range of dating systems used such as BC, AD, CE etc. For this blog dates will be recorded as BP – before present. This is to avoid conflicting terminology and confusion.

Simplistic timelines for early Irish human occupation up to the historic period are:

Mesolithic (Hunter Gatherers) 10,000 – 6,000 Before Present

Neolithic (Farming) 6,000 – 4,500 BP

Copper and Bronze Age 4,500 – 2,500 BP

Iron Age 2,500 BP – 400 AD

What mechanisms are there for identifying dates that trace back into the distant past? A number of research mechanisms are used. Firstly, land base studies include Greenland ice analysis, then lake sediment analysis and lastly radiocarbon dating.  Newer research methods include undersea marine geological data which would include marine landforms and sediment cores.  It is not possible to extract dates from stone tools/weapons unless there are associated artefacts that can be radiocarbon dated.

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Sir Edmund Spenser and Croghan Hill -a Damascus moment? By Dr Mary O’Connor

When renowned Offaly archaeologist Caimin O’Brien, cited Sir Edmund Spenser’s inclusion of a verse on Croghan Hill in his most famous poem, The Faerie Queene, in Stories from a Sacred Landscape: from Croghan Hill to Clonmacnoise; the curiosity bells began to ring.  This was an amazing revelation and posed questions as to how Spenser was familiar with Croghan Hill and its religious history? Had he visited the area? When did he visit? What were the circumstances pertaining to his visit? And latterly, the question arose as to whether it was possible that this visit influenced him in some distinctive way? And furthermore, whether that influence was positive or negative?

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Saint Manchan’s Shrine – Art and Devotion in 12th Century Ireland

‘A rich and dazzling Celtic bewilderment, a perpetual challenge to the eyes and a perpetual delight.’ T.D. Kendrick (Archaeologia 86, 1936)

Saint Manchan’s shrine is one of the most remarkable survivals from Ireland’s medieval past, having been safely kept and venerated in the same locality since its creation in the early twelfth century. This masterpiece of medieval art is now proudly and reverently displayed in the rural parish church of Boher in County Offaly, not far from its original home at the ancient church site of Lemanaghan. St Manchan’s shrine is a gabled-reliquary, taking the shape of steeply pitched roof or tent, and is fitted with carrying rings, which enabled it to be carried in procession by two bearers using poles. It is not only the largest reliquary surviving from medieval Ireland but is also the only remaining example of its type. It enshrines what are believed to be the bones of its eponymous saint, St Manchan, whose death is recorded in AD 664.

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Crannógs in County Offaly. By John Dolan

While Offaly has a huge range of Early Christian church and monastic sites it would not have been noted for crannogs, unlike its neighbour in Co. Westmeath.  Surprisingly, Offaly has 13 crannog sites recorded in the National Monuments database, however they are in many ways different from the usual picture of the small, man-made island in a lake. Many of these crannogs are located close to natural esker and drumlin routeways and survive as wetland settlements in or close to bogs.  One third of Offaly is covered by peatland.

Crannogs in Ireland.

The name crannog is obviously the Irish names of ‘crann’ for tree and ‘óg’ in this case referring to small and not young.  But we will see that ‘small tree’ does not account for the size and scale of wood used in the construction of these lake dwellings which are generally in open bodies of water.

There is no agreed figure for the number of crannogs in Ireland.  Some have suggested 1,200 over the whole country while others take the number over 2,000!  Crannogs were constructed in the sixth and seventh centuries and occupied and used up to the end of the seventeenth century.  As a monument in the landscape that has changed considerably with the reduction in water, lake and river levels, along with the drying out of the bogs since the Middle Ages, it is only by accident that a new crannog is discovered. Continue reading

New history in old Tullamore bottles – Egan’s, Tullamore DEW, Stirling and more besides. By Noel Guerin

I started collecting bottles a little over a year ago, interested in their origins and local history. I’ve picked a small collection of the type of breweriana bottles that were used in the day to day lives of the people of Tullamore and surrounding towns in the late 19th and early 20th century. I’ve provided a brief description of the types of bottles I’ve mentioned. Most of the dates provided are approximate and offered with the best knowledge I have at this moment. As I get more accurate information, the dates will be reviewed. I started off with some basic background information on bottles.

Carbonised mineral bottle   It is widely known amongst bottle collectors that Joseph Priestly discovered how to make carbonised mineral water in 1772. It was prepared by dissolving carbon dioxide in water. By 1860, it had become easier to manufacture and was being flavoured with fruit syrups, lemons and limes. It was retailed by grocers, wine and spirit merchants, as well as chemists. At first the new drink was stored in earthenware bottles, but the gas escaped through the skin and so the drink became flat. Manufacturers switched to glass bottles. However, corks were still used to seal the carbonised mineral water drinks, and if they were allowed to dry out, they tended to loosen which allowed the gas to escape. If the bottles were stored on their side, this was less likely to happen.

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The Round Towers of County Offaly. By John Dolan

It is unclear where the idea for a Round Tower came from, little research has been carried out on their origins. There were a few examples of cylindrical towers in northern Italy, the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna is an example. European churches had started to connect bell towers and crypts to their churches between the 900 – 1,100AD. These towers were built stand-alone and later joined to other church buildings. But European bell towers were nearly all rectangular.

What was happening in Ireland?

In Ireland churches continued to be built as small rectangular buildings, single celled with one doorway and perhaps a window or two. Irish church buildings changed from wood to stone during the 8th century. However, monasteries blossomed as locations of education, agriculture, metal and wood working, vellum production, with their skills retained in-house or shared with other church establishments. External trade and travel with Europe were a regular occurrence. Most monasteries had wealthy, secular sponsors who were frequently related to the abbot or bishop. Monasteries also acquired lands and other riches e.g., wealth from pilgrimages and relics.

Round Towers enhanced the prestige and wealth of the monastery as they created a huge visual impact. Round Towers were to see and be seen, similar to some of the buildings built in the time of the Celtic Tiger. Continue reading

The Dowris Hoard. By John Dolan

Bronze Age Ireland

The Irish Bronze Age dates from approximately 2500BC to 500BC. The period is characterised by the wealth of new, innovative and exciting metalworking techniques. The population of Bronze Age Ireland was highly organised. This period was a time of extraordinary wealth and international exchanges between Ireland, Britain, central Europe and Spain. Among the exceptional Irish hoards discovered in the Late Bronze Age are the great gold hoard from Mooghaun North in County Clare which contained in excess of 146 gold items and the Dowris Hoard in County Offaly with a minimum of 218 bronze objects. The end of the Late Bronze Age came with the arrival of the Iron Age and brought an end to the manufacture of Dowris bronzes.

The Dowris Hoard was discovered on the grounds of Whigsborough House, Fivealley just north of Birr, Co Offaly. Whigsborough House is now called Dowris House, is a listed building, and contains 10 bedrooms, 6 reception rooms and a library.  The Dowris bronzes have been dated to 900 – 600BC, the Late Bronze Age period.  These bronzes are of European significance due to the quality of the metal, the skills of the workmanship and the size of the find. Continue reading

The Vikings in Offaly. By John Dolan

Our traditional view of the Vikings in Ireland was established by our early primary and secondary schooling. We were aware that the Vikings commenced raiding in 795 AD by their raid on Rathlin Island. Eventually they settled in a few areas around our coastline. However, most of the country was within reach of Viking raiding parties. One of the primary bases from which Viking raids emerged was from the city of Limerick. Limerick provided a springboard for raids up the Shannon, affecting areas on either side of the river.

These raids were on church monasteries resulted in the slaughter of monks and workers in the monasteries. It also appears that the Vikings knew exactly where these monasteries were located and regularly their arrival coincided when particular religious events were underway.  From other evidence they were after people, cattle and very occasionally the gold and silver in the monasteries.  People were regularly taken to be sold at slaves. The largest such raid was carried out at Howth in the year 821 AD where over 600 females were taken away by ship for slavery. In later times Dublin became the largest Viking slave centre in Western Europe; Kiev in Ukraine was their largest slave centre in the East.

Les pirates normands au IXe siècle by Évariste-Vital Luminais (1894), Musée Anne de Beaujeu, Moulin

Les pirates normands au IXe siècle by Évariste-Vital Luminais (1894), Musée Anne de Beaujeu, Moulin

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The Story of Bog Butter. By John Dolan

Bog butters are large white or yellow waxy deposits regularly discovered within the peat bogs of Ireland and Scotland. They represent an extraordinary survival of prehistoric and later agricultural products, comprising the largest deposits of fat found anywhere in nature. Often found in wooden containers or wrapped in animal bladders, they are considered to have been buried intentionally by past farming communities. While previous analysis has determined that Irish bog butters derive from dairy fat, their precise characterisation could not be achieved due to chemical compositional alterations during burial in subsequent years. They generally produce a distinctive, pungent and offensive smell.

The largest Irish example weighed 23kg (50lbs) from a find in the Galtee Mountains in 1826.  Bog Butter is primarily held in the National Museum with some held by local museums.

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