Art - Bog Wood
Bogwood is a form of timber unique to the ancient peat bogs of Ireland. The unique acidic conditions of the peat bog helped preserve giant trees that formed the great oak forests of Ireland thousands of years ago. The bogs themselves formed as rotting vegetation collected in swamps where it was broken down by micro-organisms. Timber that fell into the swamps sank slowly, and was gradually buried beneath semisolid layers of peat. The low pH levels acted as a preservative, effectively 'pickling' the wood and preventing it from rotting. As the bogs have been reclaimed for agriculture or exploited for fuel, huge trees have been thrown up. These trees, miraculously preserved, have lain underneath a blanket of peat for thousands of years and are greatly prized as raw material for sculptors. Carbon dating has shown some pieces of bogwood to be over 4000 years old.
Historically, bogwood was greatly prized for its durability, especially as it was often the only timber to which people had access in the early 19th Century. An elaborate and specialised vocabulary grew up around bog timber, and its many uses and associated crafts. It was often used as a structural material for houses; for centuries the roof timbers of tenant houses were made almost entirely of bog oak and bog pine, because the timber of the appropriate size for roof timber was not available outside of the large estates. It was often used in larger buildings such as churches.
Interestingly, bogwood was also commonly used in the malting of bog wood rope; this craft dates back thousands of years. The wood was shredded, then beaten until flexible then woven with a 'twister' to produce very strong two-ply ropes about 2cm thick these were mostly used for cording wooden beds. These cords sold in lengths of about 20m for 10d in 1802.
Bog yew was greatly prized for furniture being similar to rosewood but more durable, superior in beauty, firmness and texture.
Bog oak is black, and very hard. However it tends to decay after long exposure to the air, so traditionally it was used in damp situations, such as for waterworks. Bog pine -usually called fir - is much more common, and was used in building and the making of furniture of all sorts. When bog wood is dug out it is sometimes quite soft, but when it dries it becomes as hard as iron. It was widely used for making wooden vessels and tubs. Bog oak was especially favoured for making butter vessels and pine churns while oak skimmers were used for skimming cream from milk.
Its high resin content made bogwood suitable for lighting fires or as deal torches. Dramatic uses of these torches include that of salmon spearing by night. This was common in County Galway. The fish were lured and dazzled by the blazing light and then speared.
Bog wood lies buried beneath the bog, and there is a very particular method for finding it; a visit is made to the bog early in the morning, while the dew is still on the ground. A place where the dew evaporates quickly suggests buried timber. Once the place is located the nature of the timber is explored using a long metal probe. The experienced hand can not only tell if the wood is sound, but also its dimensions and orientation. Buried trees can also be detected by noting places where fallen snow or frost quickly disappears.
During heavy frost the bog is traversed and the buried log staked out. A bog hole is opened along the site of the log. The turf cut away then lets the operator raise the timber. Getting a tree out requires a lot of labour; cutting bog timber requires a special axe with a long narrow blade.
The use of bog timber for making artistic pieces goes back at least 150 years. Bog wood as raw material for a piece of sculpture poses great challenges for an artist. The timber gives its own directions. It suggests its own shapes, and it is the great gift of the artist to be able to follow and enhance the natural forms suggested in the wood.