Photographer Tina Claffey tells how she became enchanted with Ireland’s bogs
IT WAS a bleak, grey, damp November day spent on a midlands bog but for photographer, Tina Claffey ( inset), it was magical.
The wilderness of the raised bogs that were on her doorstep in Birr, Co Offaly held a fascination for her equal to the vast plateaus of Botswana, where she had spent almost nine years of her life.
Her companion on this occasion was John Sheahan of The Dubliners. They paused intermittently to play a tune or share some of the poetry he had written, inspired by the bog.
They were collaborating on a programme for TG4’s Imeall that married Tina’s collection of photographs from various bogs and peatlands and Sheahan’s poetry inspired by them.
The encounter and her work photographing the wonders of Irish wetlands were the inspiration for her book, TTapestry of Life — Ireland’s bogs and wetlands as never seen before with poetry by Sheahan.
“I was spending a lot of time on the bog, having started in 2012 when I went for a walk with John Feehan — the renowned geologist, botanist and author — who wrote the foreword,” she said.
This walk in Killaun Bog was a reawakening to the enchanted world of Irish bogs and their flora and fauna.
Growing up in Birr, the bog didn’t always hold the enchantment that now captivates her.
They were a place of work, of long summer days spent footing and stacking turf.
But she says she was entrenched in the natural world, from a young age, through her dad, John, to whom the book is dedicated.
“He was very influential when it came to my love of nature. Just stopping and observing and slowing down to look at the little things,” she says.
“But my memories of the bog weren’t great. We had a small little plot and my dad used to hand cut the turf so a lot of our summers were spent footing it, stacking it and bringing it home.
“There were good times as well but I never associated the bog with being a wild place.” Tina studied photography and printmaking at the Crawford College of Art & Design in Cork.
Some years later, while working on a 10-day fashion shoot for bridal wear in Kenya, she was hooked and resolved to return to Africa.
An opportunity did arise a couple of months later and she spent a year photographically documenting PhD research on flamingos in Botswana by fellow Irishman, Graham McCullough.
After a 10-month stint back home, she returned to Botswana and worked in the safari industry for the next eight years.
“When I came back in 2009 I was very lost because I had spent so much time in these amazing areas that back in Birr I just felt uninspired and down in myself.
“Then I went for a walk with John Feehan and he opened up a whole world to meme and revealed the bog as a wilderness on a miniature scale, these tiny little plants and insects that have adapted to their environment,” she said.
After that walk with Feehan in 2012, she began to return to the bogs frequently and slowly built up a library of images through the seasons of most of the bogs in the midlands.
“Every bog I went to had a different feel to it. I loved the early morning and the late evening, the seasonal change, it blew my mind really that this wilderness was right on my doorstep but I didn’t even know it was there and I’m still discovering new things,” she added.
Following an exhibition of her work, Tina was approached by TG4 in 2013 to feature her work on the programme Imeall in which she was interviewed by John Sheahan.
“A lot of John’s poetry stemmed from the bog and they thought it would be a nice feature to combine the two, John’s poetry and my photography, and it would appeal to the young and the old.
“But when I went for a walk with him, it was my most memorable day on the bog. He’d stop every few minutes and take the whistle out of his jacket and stop and play a tune. We’d go along and he’d be asking me questions and he’d stop again. He was just such as fountain of poetry and prose.”
One of the poems was ‘Tapestry of Light’ which she borrowed for the title.
“When I read it, it was so fitting of what I tried to achieve with my images,” she recalls.
Tina approached Connemara-based publishers, Artisan House, who agreed to publish her book.
She then set about trying to fundraise the €24,000 or so it would take to realise her idea.
“I was literally knocking on doors and the National Parks and Wildlife Service came onboard as the biggest sponsor with its ‘The Living Bog’ project, which was trying to promote raised bogs,” she said.
She also received funding from the Dutch Federation of Conservation of Irish Bogs and its founder Matthijs Schouten, recognised as the father of bog conservation.
Other sponsors include Coillte, RPS, Laois, Offaly and Tipperary County Councils, the Environmental Protection Agency, Abbeyleix Bog Project Volunteers, Grant Engineering and Mimi Doran and Brendan Phelan.
Even at that, it still left a shortfall of around €10,000 for a 1,500 print run and 75 special editions — that are already sold out — so it won’t be a profit-making enterprise.
“I’m just excited to have the book out there to raise awareness about how precious these bogs are and I’m really proud of it,” she said.
“The wilderness in the bog is just as important as the Kalahari where I worked in Africa and it’s so important that it’s preserved.
“There is more awareness now but I think the more the community can get out into the bog, the more they’ll realise what we have and how we have to look after it.”