Useless Terrain: The Ballynagrenia and Ballinderry Bog

Joseph Heffernan

A Country Road, A Tree, Evening – We follow the path ahead of us stretching off into the distance with no end in sight.

Every hectare of drained peatland emits two tonnes of carbon a year. Known peatlands only cover about 3% of the world’s land surface, but they store at least twice as much carbon as all of Earth’s standing forests. Cutting turf for fuel has been practiced for centuries, and communities have established a strong cultural identity through turf cutting. Today it is estimated that 100,000 households in Ireland use turf for heating.

Useless Terrain is a project that proposes a new form of cultural tradition, one that provides communal care for the local ecosystem. It explores the exhaustion of turf in rural Ireland, focusing on hyper-industrialised land and the productivity of a vital ecosystem. It is a holistic restoration of the Ballynagrenia and Ballinderry Bog in County Westmeath, designing a walkway that determines a 10,000-year journey around the bog, as it ever-so-slowly repairs itself from violent colonial and industrial scarring. The project is told through a conceptual drawing practice that waits, watches and records the return of this vital ecosystem. The consistent drawing process navigates the unrelenting passing of time and the steady moving and breathing of the bog alongside a ten-kilometre boardwalk that determines a new relationship and ritual the people have with the terrain. I believe there is a strong connection between the passing of time, the layering, observation, storytelling and mark-making that embodies the bog. The drawings also show a personal relationship to the bog: the work has been drawn by my own hand as opposed to a machine. The illustrations tell a story. I wanted to speak to the storytelling culture embedded in Ireland and the boglands. I looked at many iterations of bog storytelling: old folklore stories, myths and legends, and modernist poets such as Seamus Heaney. Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot strongly characterised the project, expressing itself in the monotony of waiting bog restoration requires and the human relationship to the land. In Waiting for Godot, we, the audience, are hopelessly hopeful for a resolution to a problem that seems beyond our grasp; this reading of Beckett is much like our relationship with the bog, the vast breadth of time restoration seems a futile endeavour. Re-drawing the land seems to perpetuate this hopeless hopefulness.

The entire site covers 249 hectares of raised bog, circumnavigated by a 10-kilometre walkway. The Ballynagrenia and Ballinderry bog is the largest of the raised bogs near Moate, County Westmeath, a place my family emigrated from.
The walkway peels off into a vast pool of water, 1000 years in the future, birch trees grow freely in the green, mossy wetland. A healthier fen-like environment, with herons and otters returning to the bog. Dragonflies hover above the humid pool preying on frog spawn that clump on the surface, in reeds and tall grasses.
A route vanishes into a singular hazel wall with a viewing window stretching the length of the wall, framing the bog, watching, waiting.
Ghostly bog bodies, buried and pickled deep in the bog have been walked over for centuries. The land stores life, mystery and chemical change, a preserver of ancient history. The bog has been used as a burial site for millennia, with many sacrificial burials being trapped between two worlds, preserved and pickled in the acidic terrain.
Ireland was once a heavily forested Island, with large oak, beach and alder trees populating much of the country. The deforestation campaign instigated by the British to convert the island into fruitful farmland changed the Irish ecosystem forever. A lot of the woods harvested from Ireland were used for shipbuilding to add to British fleets.

Joseph Heffernan is an architecture student at the Royal College of Art. You can see more of his work on the RCA’s online Graduate Show 2022.