T.U.R.F. (Transitional Understandings of Rural Futures) started in 2011 to activate a cultural space, examine the regulation of peat bog in Ireland and the decision-making process on the designation of habitats, the loss of property rights and the future economic value of raised bogs as carbon sinks.

sm.The last Turf cut by the Harrigans in 2011 before the Ban was implimented. -1

Deirdre O’Mahony, The last turf cut by Colm and John Harrigan before EU Natura 2000 legislation was implemented in 2012, digital archival photograph, 2013

The EU Habitats Directive came into force in Ireland in 2012 making cutting turf illegal on raised peat bogs in Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). The Turf Cutters and Contractors Association (TCCA) is a voluntary group based in the west of Ireland opposed to the directive to outlaw turf cutting on family bogs representing some of the 20,000 domestic turf cutter families threatened with the loss of Turbary rights; that is the right of private individuals to cut turf for domestic use. An  archive  designed to reflect the complexity of power relations connecting the bogs and their owners with national and EU special regulatory agencies and policies was built up over several years and a process of exchange, called Mind Meitheal held in Galway in early 2012, providing space for the local knowledge of domestic turf-cutters to engage with scientific, cultural, legislative, governance, social science and human rights knowledge. Within this space, where all participants had parity, new understandings were negotiated and shared and used in a report submitted to the Irish State and the EU by the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association. This work was exhibited in various venues between 2012 and 2014

AIRTIME for Tense Limerick City Gallery of Art Curated by Helen Carey 2012


AIRTIME LCGA, Photograph  Deirdre O'Mahony 2012

Airtime was a short film of interviews about how the implementation of the Natura 2000 Habitats Directive would impact on people with turbary (turf cutting) rights; the stories and voices that were neither consulted or heard as areas of raised peatland were designated Special Areas of Conservation between 2011 and 2012.  The interviews took place at the National Peatlands Council in Athlone over a three-day period in the Harbour Bay Hotel, Athlone in Februrary 2012. The Airtime 18-minute film was exhibited in a group exhibition TENSE at Limerick City Gallery of Art a month later.

LABOUR AND LOCKOUT Limerick City Gallery of Art Curated by Helen Carey 2013  

4 PhotographLetters ProhibitingTurf Cutting

Deirdre O'Mahony, Colm and John Harrigan's kitchen, archival inkjet print 2013.

The T.U.R.F. installation for LABOUR AND LOCKOUT comprised of selected works from the permanent collection set alongside a film work Rothach, by filmmaker Vivienne Dick, an archive of press cilppings kept by turf cutter Tom Ward, photographs and documentary film by Deirdre O'Mahony and a turf stack made by Colm Harrigan who is now prohibited from cutting turf by hand on his raised peat bog.

Images of the West remain symbolically potent in Irish culture and are central to the public mediation of the West of Ireland as a tourism and cultural destination. Rural landscapes are in transition from sites for food production to culture and leisure sites. Within rural development policy, access to nature via the rural landscape is increasingly seen as necessary to the health and well-being of urban populations as well as providing economic revenue for unproductive landscapes. This installation is intended as both a reflection upon and a reminder of the social, cultural and emotional attachments that underlie present day conflicts around land and the regulation of the landscape, specifically the conflict around turf cutting.

The Irish State has a long history of top down decision-making when it comes to the implemention of EU directives and legislation. Nature is no longer a local affair, what happens in internationally significant landscapes like the raised peatlands and bogs of Ireland is open to scrutiny on a global stage, particularly when the care of the local environment is linked to EU fines and penalties. The American Writer J.B.Jackson argues that there is an inevitable tension between aesthetic and cultivator’s perspectives on landscape[1]. He reminds us that the conflict between the social landscape and the natural landscape is not simply confined to groups; it is also within each of us; we enjoy the experience of nature yet we crave the social contact of community. Given that paradox, he argues that no landscape can be exclusively devoted to fostering or prioritising any one identity above another.This installation is an invitation to think about place, space and landscape, consider the relationship between the works and how they mirror different attitudes and perspectives. It is intended that it perform as an active mode of cultural reflection rather than a nostalgic reminder of a purer past.

2 TURFInstallation LCGA 2013

T.U.R.F. archive and new film and photographic works by O'Mahony, Photograph courtesy of Limerick City Gallery 2013

Vivienne Dick’s work Rothach, which could be taken as a poetic, meditation on the barren landscape of the west of Ireland, slowly and subtly points to the complexity of rural life, mixing the poetic with the prosaic. Another, equally bleak constructed landscape, Paul Henry’s The Old Woman, her face turned to the ground reflects a different form of aesthetic gaze; one that is less concerned with  the faces of those who actually worked the land. Achill Landscape by Eva Hamilton is a painting I grew up with and as a child. I was fascinated by its modernity - the marks, gestures and forms were an abstract and speculative space for the imagination that played an important part in my decision to become an artist. Now, as an adult, I see the empathy between Hamilton and her subjects, also present in Sarah Purser’s Man with Muck Rake. Both artists point to the reality of life within the landscape without exoticizing their subjects. Equally resistant to the seduction of the picturesque is E.M Rorke Dickey’s Untitled painting of farm buildings which indicate his background as a printmaker - the decorative marks allude to the invisible craft skills and tacit knowledge of cultivation and animal husbandry. This is set alongside a landscape by an unknown artist from LCGA’s collection an unsentimental rendering of rural life.

5 Detail Turf installation LCGA2013

T.U.R.F. archive and new film and photographic works by O'Mahony, Photograph courtasy of Limerick City Gallery 2013


The archive and artworks trace some of the actors, legacies, power relations and institutions connecting the bogs with social, economic and legislative space and includes reports commissioned by conservation and state agencies, academic research and turf cutter Tom Ward‘s collection of press cuttings. A second T.U.R.F. Mind Meitheal took place during the LAND LABOUR CAPITAL conference which ran from 26 - 28th September 2013.

Click here to see the T.U.R.F. film with the Harrigan Family and Tom Ward   

A review of the exhibition by Joanne Laws can be found here.

smTom Ward turning his turf Sat. 13 July 2013

Tom Ward turning his turf on 13 July 2013, in defiance of the European Habitats directive which came into effect in 2012.  Tom cut his turf in Kilsallagh bog, plot number 000285 and he wanted this and other photographs distributed as widely as possible in order to force the State to take action against him. Photograph Deirdre O'Mahony used in Lucy Lippard's essay, "Place and Histories – Writing Other People’s Memories” The Intelligence of Place, Topographies and Poetics, ed. Jeff Malplas.

Other TURF related Projects

Group exhibition including Anthony Haughey, Deirdre O'Mahony, Mark Curran, Deirdre Power, Jennie Guy, Brian Duggan
Contemporary Art Responses for 1913 Lockout Centenary curated by Helen Carey/Mockingbird Arts with Pallas Projects/Studios

Slow Prototypes 4: From Turf to Tools

Turf to Tools: Slow Prototypes 4 asks questions that are deeply pertinent to engaging stakeholders in strategic planning for public places, bridging the intersection of art, dialogical aesthetic practice and social applications.  I was invited by the director of SSW Nuno Sacramento, to do a 2-week residency in Scotland in August 2014 for the final strand of Slow Prototypes - Turf to Tools. This project brought together Eden Jolly (UK), Head technician at the SSC foundry in collaboration with master craftsman Darrel Markewitz (CA). Artist and 'writer' Maxime Hourani (LB) and I were also invited to respond.

This project considered the procurement of materials (bog Iron) within the landscape, which will be smelted, a tool forged and used to dig peat. It is a simple, effective way of examining issues of land access, corporate ownership of the commons, preservation of ancient habitats, sustainability of natural resources, and the environmental impact of SSW. By asking questions - already prompted for me by T.U.R.F., around collaboration, the exchange of skills, aesthetic and cultural hierarchies, land access, corporate ownership of the commons, preservation of ancient habitats and sustainability of natural resources. The time on the residency in Scotland provided  an opportunity to deepen my understanding and enhance existing work by comparing what Chantal Mouffe calls the “chains of equivalence” in the regulation and management of “natural” habitats across Europe. allow me to make links with other artists/agencies/curators working in an international context, and contribute to a broader discourse on the issues, effects and affects arising from landscape and land use today beyond Ireland. It is an opportunity to further develop my practice and work with artists who share my conceptual interests.

SSW commissioned a text about the project and how it relates to practices in Ireland. Text available to download here.

This residency was generously supported by an Arts Council Travel and Training Award in 2014.

[1] i John Brinkerhoff Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984) 12.