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Peat takes the heat in Co Antrim museum exhibition you’re sure to dig

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Artists Stuart A Robinson and Bob Speers with (centre) Colin Agnew

Artists Stuart A Robinson and Bob Speers with (centre) Colin Agnew

One of Bob Speer's creations

One of Bob Speer's creations

One of Bob's paintings

One of Bob's paintings

One of Bobby's Bogland Series of paintings

One of Bobby's Bogland Series of paintings

Artist Bob Speers. Credit: James Hughes

Artist Bob Speers. Credit: James Hughes

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Artists Stuart A Robinson and Bob Speers with (centre) Colin Agnew

A 77-year-old artist and musician has launched a new exhibition designed to raise awareness of the importance and beauty of Northern Ireland’s bogs, many of which are coming under increasing threat from climate change.

Bob Speers, from Co Antrim, who is an acclaimed folk singer, is using his rediscovered skills as a painter to capture the “magic and mysticism” of peatlands on canvas for the Ballymena exhibition, entitled The Rattlin’ Bog, which also features photographs by Stuart A Robinson, who chronicled the restoration of the tropical ravine at Belfast’s Botanic Gardens.

Bogs famously held a lifelong fascination for Northern Ireland’s Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, who often wrote about them; in his home village of Bellaghy in Co Derry, a statue, The Turf Man, is inspired by Digging, a piece from his book Death Of A Naturalist.

In Bogland, Heaney referred to “the skeleton of the great Irish elk taken out of the peat” and he also highlighted the preservative effect of the bogs with the discovery of 100-year-old butter which was still “salty and white”.

In another work, Tollund Man, Heaney wrote about a mummified corpse found in Denmark, which was one of hundreds of bog bodies recovered from peat bogs across Europe — some of them victims of ritual sacrifices — and he drew parallels between the killings and murders in Northern Ireland.

It’s estimated that one sixth of the island of Ireland (1.2m hectares) is covered in blanket and raised bogs, relatively more than any European country apart from Finland.

Horticulturist Colin Agnew, who is the curator of the exhibition, says the seeds were sown for the three-month event, after serendipitous conversations with Bob and Stuart.

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He explains: “I was in Bob’s scullery to hear a song or two that he had written and he just happened to mention that he had rekindled his love of abstract art. He showed me a painting of a blanket bog and the colours had me hooked immediately.

“I got the Mid-Antrim Museum at The Braid in Ballymena interested in the idea of an exhibition of his paintings, but just a few months later I bumped into Stuart, whom I knew from his work on the ravine, and he told me his latest project was photographing bogs.

“I thought it was too good a chance to miss and the idea came to mind of a marriage of the pictures and paintings in an exhibition.”

Bob rambled across a number of bogs looking for his inspiration and he has incorporated small pieces of material from each one in his paintings.

Bob says bogs like Dungonnell in the Antrim Hills, near his home, are special places, where many people like him have spiritual experiences.

He adds: “They’re very peaceful and you can find yourself released into a different world, particularly if you’re walking over the peatland on your own.”

Colin, Bob and Stuart, together with friends, completed a lot of field trips over the wetlands, such as Toner’s bog near Heaney’s homeplace.

“Almost without fail on every one of our outings something magical happened,” says Colin.

“One outstanding memory is of Bob on a beautiful summer’s evening on Dungonnell bog making the call of the curlew, a bird which we were lamenting wasn’t commonplace any more. Within minutes there were five curlews circling above. It was an epiphany.”

The exhibition will include a video about the evolution of bogs in Co Antrim, particularly one near Randalstown where Colin’s father cut peat “for a lifetime”.

What’s more, Professor Jonathan Pilcher from Queen’s University Belfast will give a talk focusing on the academic and historic aspects of bogs.

A musical evening is also planned.

Horticulturists say peatlands are a unique part of the natural environment here and are home to plant species which aren’t found anywhere else, providing food, shelter and breeding habitats for many animal species too.

Colin says: “For many, the moss, as it is commonly known, has been an integral part of rural life for generations.

“It was once a valuable fuel source which was cut, dried and stored for winter burning, resulting in an earthy smell and a warm glow around many a hearth and home.”

In the 18th century, peat was essential in the finishing process of linen, on which the economy of Northern Ireland had a significant dependence.

Colin says: “Peat remains the main growing medium for all the major horticultural plant producers in Europe.

“However, this is planned to be phased out by 2030, ten years after peat for amateur use will be phased out too.

“The moves, especially in relation to the mass harvesting of peatland for compost, are essential to preserve the bogs and to save the natural habitat of birds. The biodiversity is being destroyed in many cases.”

Colin says undrained bogs comprise 95% to 98% water and can be treacherous, adding: “Drainage is essential in order to enable access for cutting. Because of these drainage measures, environmental issues have arisen.

“Since 2003, areas of damaged bog in Northern Ireland have been designated Special Areas of Conservation, preventing further peat harvesting.”

Colin hopes his exhibition will help people see that everyone has a responsibility as custodians of the planet to preserve the environment and to appreciate the crucial role of bogs in the carbon cycle.

A number of places such as Peatlands Park near Loughgall and the Bog Meadows Nature Reserve in Belfast are already playing a major part in spreading the environmental message about bogs, but Colin says more needs to be done.

Sadly, of course, bogs have become all too well known in a distressingly different way in Northern Ireland, as a grim spin-off of the Troubles.

Television audiences became used to seeing specialist teams with huge diggers searching massive areas of peatland such as Bragan bog near Emyvale in Co Monaghan, where

it’s thought one victim,

Columba McVeigh, was secretly buried, but his body is yet to be found.

The Rattlin’ Bog, which takes its name from an Irish folk song, runs until September 10 at the Mid-Antrim Museum at The Braid in Ballymena. For more information on Bobby, see www.bobspeers.co.uk. For information on Stuart, see www.stuartarobinson.com


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