Bog Bursts

Read before the Dublin Natualists Field Club, 9th February, 1897

(The following is a reprint of the description of a bog burst and the damage caused by such a disaster in Co. Kerry in 1896 (including the death of a Donelly family). Other such bursts have occurred in different counties over the years. Brief information on these occurences in other counties can be seen by clicking on the link for that county. The Kerry description, is however, the most detailed and informative. All refs mentioned are as in Dr. Praegers paper. Also, Lewis, 1837 makes reference to a bog movement in Addergoole parish, Co. Mayo he does not mention a year, but it is most likely the Bog of Addergoole, Dunmore movement of 1745 referred to here)

In the early hours of the morning of 28th December, 1896, the Knocknageeha bog, situated at the head, of the Ownacree valley, seven miles N .N .E. of Headford, near Killarney burst, and discharged a fluid mass, which, pouring down the valley of the Ownacree, devastated the surrounding country in its course.

Without loss of time the Royal Dublin Society appointed a committee consisting of Professor W. J. Sollas, Dr. A. F. Dixon, Mr. A D. Delap, and myself, to investigate and to report on the phenomenon. The Committee left Dublin on the afternoon of Friday, January 2nd, and devoted the following three days to the work.

Our report was presented to the Society on 2oth January. This evening I can best bring the subject under your notice by reading extracts from that report, and exhibiting on the screen maps and sections of the place, and photographs taken by Dr. Dixon, adding such comments as maybe necessary for their elucidation.

A dry summer had been followed by a wet autumn, and about nightfall on. December 27th, a heavy downpour of rain set in, accompanied by a south-easterly gale. Somewhere between two and three o’clock the following morning the edge of the bog, which overlooks the Ownacree valley, gave way and liberated a vast flood of peat and water. There was no immediate warning of the catastrophe, and no one witnessed the actual rupture.

Although the outburst was clearly not instantaneous, it evidently proceeded with great rapidity: as is witnessed by the circumstances of a lamentable loss of life. The bog gave way along the line of a turf-cutting from 4 to 10 feet deep, parallel to which, and about 300 yards below it, runs the Kingwilliamstown road. A small stream, coming from the bog, passes under this road. Close by this stream, on the lower side of the road, was situated the house of Cornelius Donelly, Lord Kenmare’s quarry steward; it was of the ordinary type, of one storey, with walls of rubble masonry and a thatched roof; it stood about 12 feet below the level of the road, and at a short distance from it, the intervening space being occupied by a garden. The house was entirely swept away; Cornelius Donelly, his wife, and family of six children all perished; the bodies of some of them, and those: of their live-stock, together with articles of furniture, were carried down the valley, and were found at various points along the course of the flood, a portion of one of the beds being picked up; a few days later, in the Lake of Killarney – fourteen miles away. From the fact that the whole family perished, and that those bodies which were recovered were without clothing, it would appear that the rapidity with which the flood rose was so great as to afford them no chance of escape.

After bursting from the face of the turf-cutting already mentioned, the first obstacle the flood encountered was the road leading to Kingwilliamstown ; it overwhelmed this for a width of a quarter of a mile, and; continued its course to the road to Killarney; a short distance below, pouring, as it passed, a small cataract of mud into the old quarry at the crossroads. The Carraundalkeen, a small streamlet, tributary to the Ownacree, passes under the Killarney road, through a culvert about 8 feet by 5 feet; this was speedily blocked with masses of turf, and the rising flood poured across the road, carrying away the tall hedges on both sides that stood in its course on its eastern side. On both this and the Kingwilliamstown road huge masses of the more coherent upper crust of the bog were left stranded. A short distance further down, on the northern side of the Carraundulkeen valley, is situated a valuable limestone quarry, which the flood filled to a depth of 15 or 20 feet; as it impinged on the lower corner of the entrance, it surged up in a great wave 3 or 4 feet above the highest level within the quarry, which is marked as a horizontal line along the quarry walls. Beyond the quarry it continued down the valley for a straight run of three-quarters of a mile, to enter, almost at right angles, the valley of the Ownacree or Quagmire river. Checked, as it encountered, the opposing side of this valley, the flood rose along its middle line, where its velocity was greatest,8 feet above its sides. A small cottage stands near by, and its floor is 5 feet below the maximum height of the flood. It owes its escape to the fact that it is situated about 100 yards on one side of of the middle line of the flow. After entering the main valley, the flood continued its career for a mile and a half to Annagh Bridge, where the Ownacree meanders through flat bog and meadows. These, and the road which crosses the bridge, were inundated, and the muddy fluid broadened out into a black lake, half a mile in length by 600 yards in breadth. A breach was made in the road close beside the bridge. On the margin of the submerged flat stands the cottage of Jeremiah Lyne; he and his family had a narrow escape. The flood, on its downward course, encountered the back of the cottage, and rose against it 5 feet, sweeping two haycocks, which stood behind the house, round to the gable. The family were awakened by water pouring in. They were unable to unbar the door owing to the pressure of 3 feet of fluid, and escaped by climbing through the window and wading to higher ground.

Below Annagh Bridge, the force of the flood was less felt. At Barraduff Bridge, “Sixmile Bridge” of the Ordnance map, where the Ownacree joins the Beheenagh river, the Ownacree is 20 feet wide, and the flood rose 8 feet; below the junction the stream is 30 to 50feet wide, and the flood rose 6 feet; at Six-mile Bridge it rose to the top of the arches, 10 feet above its normal level ; at the bridge, two miles below Headford, the level of the flood was about 4 feet above the stream; and finally at Flesk Bridge, near the Lake of Killarney; one foot.

The flood attained its maximum height during its first great outburst in the dark hours of Monday morning. At daybreak, the roaring flood of black fluid, bearing on its surface huge masses of the lighter crust of the bog, had already become confined to the central portions of the valley, but still ran cross the road and over the site of Donnelly’s house. The flow, which continued .with constantly diminishing violence for the whole of Monday, was not regular; but intermittent, swelling and diminishing as fresh portions of the bog gave way, and slid down walls into the torrent. Every fresh outburst was accompanied by, loud noises, likened by bystanders to the booming of big guns or the rumbling of thunder. Over the sides of the valley the settlement of the peaty part of the fluid had already taken place, and, as drainage continued, it ceased somewhat in consistency. The disruption of masses of bog continued at intervals down to Friday; January 1st. When we visited the scene on Saturday, January 2nd the flow had lost its torrential character, but a turbid stream, many times increased beyond its usual volume, occupied the river bed. ,”Mr. James Barbour, who visited the place on Saturday, January 8th, reports that one could then have stepped across the stream, so that by this time it must have shrunk to nearly its usual size.

The district in which the bog is situated forms the southern, portion of a high and undulating area of Coal-measures, generally bog-covered, and attaining a height of over 1200 feet, some miles to the north-west; That part of thee bog in which the outburst took place is about 750 feet above the sea.

Mr. Leonard, Lord Kenmare’s agent, states that on visiting the bog at mid-day on Monday, about eight hours after the outburst, its surface for about a mile above the site of the turf-cutting was no longer convex but level.

The flood has left behind it, in the upper portion of the valley, a deposit of peat averaging 3 feet in thickness, here as everywhere contrasted by its black colour with the grass land or other surface on which it rests. Its compact convex margin, like that of outpoured oatmeal porridge, often 2 feet in height, serves equally well to define it; so it was an easy task to determine and map the high-water level of the flood. The surface of the deposit was everywhere broken by great roots and trunks of Scotch Firs, which in their enormous numbers, bore convincing testimony to the evisceration which the bog had undergone. The appearance of this extensive sea of black peat, with its protruding stumps of blackened trees, overlying fertile fields, was a sight melancholy in the extreme.

The presence of so much floating timber in the waters of the flood must have greatly enhanced its destructive power. One of the largest of those trees, a huge stump with roots 12 feet across, was seen lying some distance up the course of a tributary stream, and on top of its overhanging bank, at a distance of two and a half miles from the scene of the outbreak.

The lamentable fate which overtook the Donelly family has already been alluded to. Many farmers suffered serious loss by the tearing up and washing away of their potato-pits, which were situated near the banks of the stream. The filling up of the limestone quarry is a serious inconvenience; for, although the work of clearing out has already commenced, and it will ultimately be worked as before, it must remain useless for some time. No other quarry exists in the neighbourhood, and lime is the only manure in universal demand. The roads can be cleared without much difficulty : the breaches made in them are not serious. The farmers will feel the loss of their land. On most of the holdings the best land was situated along the river banks, and in the upper portions of the valley, this is now covered to a depth of 3 feet with a solid layer of peat.

According to the enquiries made by the police, in the four townlands which occupy the east bank of the river between the scene of the outburst and a point a little below Annagh Bridge, close to 300 acres of land have been buried. The tenants being all small holders, the loss of their best grazing land has ruined them.

Strange and contradictory rumours are prevalent among the peasantry as to whether any symptoms of the approaching catastrophe were noticed. Sergeant King, R.I.C. states positively that he and other officers on patrol heard rumbling noises some days before the occurrence. Further it is certain that some of the peasantry were so alarmed by the sounds, which they attributed to the banshees that the parish priest was sent for to pray with several families.

The evidence as to whether the actual bursting of the bog was accompanied by sounds is conflicting. Some state that they were awakened by a loud roar ; others including Mr. MacSweeney of Quarry Lodge, slept as usual. But, this negative evidence is of little or no value ; for in one instance the flood passed within fifty years of a cottage, breaking down and sweeping away the trees of the adjacent haggard, without arousing the occupants.

Bog-Bursts with special reference to the Recent Disaster in Co. Kerry, Ireland
By R. Lloyd Praeger, B.E.