Turfed out: closures cast shadow over Midlands

A once-thriving way of life is dying as peat production winds down in the Midlands. With two ESB plants facing sudden closure, Kim Bielenberg reports on the enormous social costs

Bleak outlook: Tom Egan and Sean Craven, at Lough Boora, Co Offaly. Photo by Mark Condren
Bleak outlook: Tom Egan and Sean Craven, at Lough Boora, Co Offaly. Photo by Mark Condren
Anger at vague plans: Bord na Móna worker Pat Cox. Photo by Mark Condren
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

It was an industry and a way of life that grew rapidly in an emergency in the 1940s, and now another emergency in the not-too-distant future has sealed its fate.

The harvesting of turf on a mass scale across the Midlands became a necessity in World War II as Ireland faced a dire shortage of fuel. It was the de Valera plan to keep the home fires burning, as Hitler laid waste to the Continent.

Workers from all over the country gathered in billet camps, along the bogs of Kildare, Offaly and other parts of the Midlands, and out of this wartime necessity Bord na Móna was born.

Peat would not only be the fuel in the hearth, it would also generate electricity at new power stations. New housing estates were built, schools and churches opened, and in the turf boom that followed, football and hurling teams flourished.

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Anger at vague plans: Bord na Móna worker Pat Cox. Photo by Mark Condren
Anger at vague plans: Bord na Móna worker Pat Cox. Photo by Mark Condren

As the sporting historian Paul Rouse, himself a former Offaly football manager, has noted, clubs were run and teams were picked in the shadows of the vast power station towers - and amid the swirling dust of milled peat.

But now the old bog roads are going quiet again, left to the birds and the blooming heather, or are used by young commuters to convey them to the big towns and cities where the work is - Athlone, Tullamore or even the Dublin.

The future calamity of climate change and Government attempts to combat it are finally bringing a once-thriving way of life to an end. By necessity, the environmentally damaging practice of peat harvesting, peat burning and electricity generation will soon cease.

As well as the environmental cost of burning and extracting turf, there are also enormous economic costs. According to Professor John Fitzgerald of the Climate Change Advisory Council, three turf-burning power stations receive a subsidy from the taxpayer of €100m per year.

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But will the Government be able to face up to the enormous social costs of the job losses, as workers and the towns and communities that depend on them face an uncertain future?

The Government launched a PR offensive this week, sending three ministers to turf country to talk about the workers' future in a "just transition".

But Bord na Móna lifers such as Seamus Barron, who spent decades working on the bogs, said: "They are just talking fancy words that sound good on television."

In recent days, the ESB announced that it is to close two of its peat-fired electricity generation plants in the Midlands at the end of next year.

The plants, located at Shannonbridge in west Offaly and Lanesboro on Lough Ree, currently burn two million tonnes of peat per year supplied by Bord na Móna.

Up to 80 ESB workers make their living at the two plants, but of much more immediate concern is the fate of the Bord na Móna workers who supply the power stations with fuel.

Without power stations to burn the fuel, there is little requirement to harvest peat anymore.

"We all knew the end was coming, but nobody expected that it would come in such a sudden way," says Tom Egan, who first joined Bord na Móna in 1980, and now runs the Lough Boora Parklands on a decommissioned bog in west Offaly.

"I think people around here had been conditioned to expect a gradual wind-down over a period of 10 years. With many of the workforce in their 50s, they could see out their working life over that time.

"The suddenness of the power station closures has left a lot of people in a quandary. A lot of people would still have kids in school or college," says Egan.

"All of a sudden you are looking at extinction as far as employment is concerned."

In one of the more positive developments, Egan and other members of the local community near Boora set about returning the bog - once buzzing with peat-harvesting machines and locomotives - to its natural state over the past two decades.

Hulking old trains

There are walking trails and cycle paths through a conservation area with a sculpture park, and hulking old trains and other remnants of the bogland industry. Initiatives such as this are welcomed locally, but they can only maintain a small number of jobs.

Don O'Boyle, who reluctantly took voluntary redundancy from the board in August at the age of 59, shows me the vast old workshop where he used to be foreman.

Early in his career, the workshop was bustling as machinery was maintained and fixed, but now the hangar-like structure is almost empty.

Next to the workshop are surviving Nissen huts where the early Bord na Móna workers lived.

Many of the men who came to work here in the 1940s and 1950s were of hardy farming stock from the West of Ireland.

There are plenty of stories of hopeful workers from Dublin turning up to avail of work opportunities.

Finding the demanding work too strenuous, after just a few days they walked home to the capital and were never seen again.

While conditions in the early camps were primitive, from the 1950s the workers were housed in well-appointed ringed estates, designed by the architect Frank Gibney, with distinctive arches - and large green spaces where children could play.

The Government now hopes to provide new employment in the area through a programme of retrofitting houses across the Midlands region.

But there is widespread scepticism about whether Bord na Móna workers will be able to do these jobs. And it all seems like an after-thought.

Sean Craven, who worked for 43 years for Bord na Móna, says: "It is very hard to see a guy who worked on the bog with a certain skillset and suddenly expecting him to go and retrofit a house."

Former Workplace Relations Commission chief Kieran Mulvey has been appointed as the first 'Just Transition Commissioner' to help provide employment.

But there is anger in the region that vague plans for renewal are being announced just as the two power plants prepare to close without preparations already put in place.

In Lanesboro in Co Longford, where one of the power stations is closing, Bord na Móna worker Pat Cox says: "There is no plan already in process to train Bord na Móna workers in retrofitting."

Cox, who is a SIPTU shop steward in the company, says he is unsure what he will do if his job ends in a year's time.

The laboratory worker says: "Most of the people who work here are committed to the area, and I have kids in school. It would not be practical to relocate."

Shopkeepers, publicans and small-business people are concerned about the main industries, the power station and Bord na Móna, shutting down operations.

Fianna Fáil councillor Joe Flaherty, who grew up in the town, contrasts the prospect of the closures with the bustling ESB and Bord na Móna industries of the past.

"Lanesboro once considered itself the Irish New York, a melting pot, because people came from all over to work here.

"I remember we had a parade through the town, and there were families from every county in Ireland."

Surveying the estate where the families of Bord na Móna workers grew up, Flaherty says: "It was a fantastic start in life, and a strong community with a strong football club and athletics club.

Marginalised county

"Bord na Móna brought people with a variety of skills, and among the generations that grew up here there are engineers, scientists, actors and chancers."

Flaherty says that Longford has become one of the most marginalised counties in the country, and economic recovery has been slow to arrive.

In Lanesboro, there are local initiatives to attract jobs when the power plant closes and the peat workers are laid off.

Newsagent Joe O'Brien, part of a collaboration group hoping to attract enterprises, says that among the projects that could be started up locally are a national gerontology centre and a food production hub.

Hairdresser Margaret Gillen grew up in a Bord na Móna family as the daughter of an electrician who worked there for decades. She sees the closures as an enormous blow.

She says the two big interlinked industries - peat harvesting and the power station - have been the lifeblood of Lanesboro, helping with sponsorship of everything from the Tidy Towns to the Christmas lights.

"My main worry is for the workers in their 30s, 40s and 50s who have a living wage, which will soon be gone. They reared their families locally, shopped locally and socialised locally.

"When the living wage ends and they have to go elsewhere, it is bound to have a knock-on effect on the other businesses in the town."

The hairdresser acknowledges that something must be done about climate change, but says politicians in Dublin are out of touch.

"These people in offices like Leo Varadkar should come down and live in a rural community. Let him get up in the morning, wash himself, cook his own dinner, do his own shopping, drive his own car in the depths of winter - on the minimum wage."

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