By Peter Newell
When we were children in the 1950’s, one of the red-letter days was St. John’s Day, better known as Bonefire Night. There was much excitement and great competition among we school children as to which group would have the biggest, brightest fire. For several days before the much-awaited night, the whole place would be a hive of activity collecting fuel for the fire.
Some people contributed turf, more gave scraps of timber, but the most prized material of all was Bog Deal. Bog deal is the remains of the forests of Ireland that covered the country many years ago. There was an abundance of it in the local bogs close to where we lived, namely Barana, and other townlands around the district. To a child’s eye catching a glimpse of these ancient forms bursting through the bog land, would resemble the backdrop of a ghost story. Some had grotesque shapes and were extraordinarily heavy to carry, so the donkey and cart would be brought into service to assist with the collection of the more awkward specimens. Sometimes our group of gatherers would get lemonade and sweets, but always we had a great time heaving and pulling these giant forms from our bog lands.
As the years rolled on, and we all grew up and moved away or stayed put, the importance of bog deal decreased significantly in our lives, unless a great stump of it got in our way while trying to clear land or cut turf. It’s ironic though, how something that was held in such regard in your youth, returns to mean something in your adult life bringing with it a warm memory of childhood.
This happened for me in the 1970’s, when my sister married in Lanesboro, Co. Longford. Her new husband, John Casey, had a brother Michael who happened to have a very artistic and creative side to him. Where we could only see fuel for our fire, Michael was able to recognise art. He had travelled a good deal and had returned to live in Carrick-on-Shannon. Sometime later he bought land near a place called Barley Harbour on the east shore of Lough Ree near Newtowncashel in Co. Longford. There he began to dig the foundation for what he hoped to be a new art studio.
It was just beneath the surface that he came across something that hindered his progress. He dug carefully around the obstruction and it turned out to be a giant Bog Yew tree trunk, and being as artistic as he was, he saw shapes and forms in the gnarled wooden block before him. He proceeded to get expert advice on how to handle this ancient wood, and how to properly and slowly dry it out. With his artistic side well and truly fired up, Michael began to sculpt and carved an altar, tabernacle and a bishop’s chair from the giant tree trunk. In effect, he succeeded in turning bog wood carving into an art form.
As well as being an extraordinary artist, Michael also had a head for commerce. He not only turned bog wood carving into an art form, he also turned it into a thriving business. Bord na Móna showed a keen interest in his new sculptures and material, and agreed to salvage bog wood for his use. They also gave him a permanent exhibition centre in their offices on Baggot Street. In return, Michael set up classes in selecting the wood and carving it into various interpretations.
Some of Michael’s pieces have gone far and wide and it’s now possible to see examples of his work internationally. One very striking piece called Ainmhí na Spéire is located at Dublin Airport, welcoming and bidding farewell to thousands of travellers daily. He also installed pieces called Sea Wall at Achill, Cúchulainn on Horseback and one very interesting one commissioned by the nuns of the Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise. It depicts the shape of both dioceses in bog wood joined together using steel bars. The list of his works goes on and on with each one depicting and meaning something different to each viewer, but all doing so through a medium that had lain in wait for centuries.
We children could only see a way to win our Bonefire Night competition, but it turned out that our Bog Deal became a Big Deal for someone else too.
Note: This article originally appeared in our Winter 2018 Newsletter.