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Erris Home Nature Trail

A good year for Bog Cotton

I was standing in the middle of the bog that covers Benwee Head on the Children of Lir Loop Walk in one of the most scenic places in Mayo talking to a local man as he put in a late evening shift saving the turf.

My eyes followed the flowing sea of white tufts quivering in the gentle breeze all the way down the hill, to the cliff edge, where the Bog Cotton appeared to almost join with the puffy cumulus clouds set against the deep blue sky over Broadhaven Bay.

Only the calm Atlantic waters of Broadhaven shimmering in the late evening sunshine broke the perfect symmetry between the white clouds and the fluffy cotton heads swaying in the breeze on the bog that covers Benwee Head (An Bhinn Bhuí) which is part of the Children of Lir Loop Walk.

“It’s good for nothing – if it was any use it would be all gone by now,” the turf-saver quipped, eyeing the acres of fluffy white bog cotton swaying in the late May sunshine, as our conversation turned to the possible uses for Bog Cotton.

I knew from a previous conversation with an old farmer many years ago that he was only partly right. Today, bog cotton is considered useless, but in days gone by it was never wasted by the farming community.

As late as 100 years ago, Bog Cotton had a variety of uses.

The Bog Cotton on Benwee Head, Co Mayo, creates an almost perfect symetery with the fluffy white clouds over Broadhaven Bay. Photo: Anthony Hickey
The Bog Cotton on Benwee Head, Co Mayo, creates an almost perfect symmetry with the fluffy white clouds over Broadhaven Bay. Photo: Anthony Hickey

It was used as a feather substitute in stuffing a pillow or other clothes. Sheep, cattle, and geese are also partial to it tender stem and in harder times it came in handy as a fodder supplement.

Bog Cotton mixed with 25% wool or cotton made a fabric that was used in the manufacture of cloth, carpets, and roofing felt.

However, unlike the cotton is grown in the USA and other hot countries for use in the textile industry our native plant belonging to the family Cyperaceae is not strong enough lacking the tensile strength to justify any commercial use nowadays.

Bog Cotton poetry

Bog Cotton has inspired some of Ireland’s foremost poets over the centuries.

In her beautiful poem, Bog Cotton On The Red Bog, Charlotte Grace O’Brien (1845–1909) evokes the beauty of the bog as seen by the birds as they fly overhead.

O Strong-winged birds from over the moorland dark,
On this June day, what have you seen?
Where have you been?”
Where, oh! where
The golden yellow asphodel makes its boggy home,
And far and near,
Spreading in broad bands of silvery silky foam
O’er the moorland drear,
The slender-stemmed bog cotton bends in waves of light,
Shaking out its shining tufts for its own delight,
There, oh! there
We have been.

Bog Cotton growing near Muingdoran, Geesala, Co Mayo. Photo: Anthony Hickey
Bog Cotton growing near Muingdoran, Geesala, Co Mayo. Photo: Anthony Hickey

Born in Limerick, Charlotte Grace O’Brien, a great humanitarian, wrote the poem after a visit to Foynes in June 1895. She was the daughter of William Smith O’Brien (1803–1864),  Conservative MP for County Limerick, and leader of the Young Irelander movement.

Belfast-poet, Michael Longley, draws inspiration from Desert Flowers by Keith Douglas (1920–1944) in his poem, Bog Cotton.

Let me make room for bog cotton, a desert flower –
Keith Douglas, I nearly repeat what you were saying
When you apostrophised the poppies of Flanders
And the death of poetry there: that was in Egypt
Among the sandy soldiers of another war.

(It hangs on by a thread, denser than thistledown,
Reluctant to fly, a weather vane that traces
The flow of cloud shadow over monotonous bog –
And useless too, though it might well bring to mind
The plumpness of pillows, the staunching of wounds,

Rags torn from a petticoat and soaked in water
And tied to the bushes around some holy well
As though to make a hospital of the landscape –
Cures and medicines as far as the horizon
Which nobody harvests except with the eye.)

You saw that beyond the thirstier desert flowers
There fell hundreds of thousands of poppy petals
Magnified to blood stains by the middle distance
Or through the still unfocused sights of a rifle —
And Isaac Rosenberg wore one behind his ear.

Tufts of Bog Cotton swaying in a gentle May breeze in Muingdoran, Geesala, Co Mayo. Photo: Anthony Hickey
Tufts of Bog Cotton swaying in a gentle May breeze in Muingdoran, Geesala, Co Mayo. Photo: Anthony Hickey

Born in Belfast in 1939, Michael Longley has published nine collections of poetry including Gorse Fires (1991), winner of the Whitbread Poetry Award. His most recent collection is A Hundred Doors (2011). His Collected Poems appeared in 2006.

Keith Douglas was an English poet noted for his war poetry during the Second World War who died, aged 24, during the Normandy landings to free Europe from the tyranny of Hitler’s Germany.

A native plant

Bog Cotton (Eriophorum angustifolium), commonly known as Cottongrass, and Ceannbhán in Irish, is a native plant and flowers from April to May.

It comprises four species that grow in Ireland although only two grow in bogland.

Common Cotton-grass is the most widespread in Mayo and grows in bogs and wetlands. Hares’ tail Cotton-grass grows in drier parts of the bog and is one of the main colonisers of drained cutaway bogland.

Common Cotton-grass has cotton-like flower heads on a single stalk which makes it different to the Hare’s tail cotton grass which has a single tuft, like the tail of a hare.

By Anthony Hickey

Follow writer and photographer, Anthony Hickey, as he travels around his native Co. Mayo, Ireland.

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