Ancient Ireland had many forested areas and when felled the roots remained. Those sites are mainly the boglands of today.
The bogwood was easiest detected in these bogs in the early morning as it was known that the morning dew didn’t rest on the section of the bog where the bogwood lay below. Other weather conditions helped detection too, when mist covered the bog the timber gatherers would look for any section that was free of mist as this was another method. Poles were used to detect the precise location and size of the bogwood.
Records show there were many bogwood artists in 1850’s in Ireland. By 1861 there was a separate trade section for Bog Oak Manufacturers in the Dublin directory. Nassau Street seemed to hold a lot of bog oak artists from the 1850’s with one still operating there in 1949.
As well as having the well-known artists and furniture makers; bog oak was used in the earlier days for domestic and cooking utensils and local people also made their furniture with it. Many people used bogwood for couples and ribs of houses. All types of items were made from bog oak including walking sticks, jewellery, brooches, furniture, tea pots and ornaments, many with intricate carvings. An example of this is an armchair listed in a catalogue in 1851 with fruit and foliage and grotesque figures carved on it which was made by three poor working men, it took them eight months of unlimited hours to make it for the Great Exhibition. Pieces were also made for the Queen, King George IV and other royalty.
The trade in bogwood followed generations in some of the well-known artists families but by the late 1880’s there was a decline in the interest for bogwood items. Many of these past items can be seen in our national museums today.
The local bogs in Inishowen where Mary lives, are used for fuel and in the process of turf cutting a ‘Fulach Fiadh’ was found, this was a wooden trough that was used for cooking. The bogwood Mary uses has come to the surface due to this turf cutting and is over 6,000 years old, it is full of history. The bogwood found in these bogs consists of Bog Oak, Bog Fir (Yew) and Bog Deal and so this is the range Mary works with, there is more Bog Deal available and less Yew.
Once the bogwood is brought back, Mary stores it in an open shelter and lets it dry naturally; this can take between 4 and 6 years. When the bog oak is first taken from the bogs it gives a brown hue but once it meets the oxygen, the wood takes on an ebony colour. Once it has dried the wood takes on a deeper black colour.
When dry, Mary begins to remove the dead wood with a mallet and chisel and from this stage she finds an abstract shape or an idea of an image and works with that to develop it further. Mary says “When I number the sculpture I give it a name but I don’t share this with my customers because I like them to tell me what they see in the sculpture, as everyone sees the sculptures differently”. This work is very time consuming but as Mary says “I love working with the piece to see what comes from it”. Once she has got the shape she sands it carefully to the desired form. Mary then coats it with linseed oil a couple of times over several days and finishes the piece off with beeswax, Mary makes her own beeswax polish for this purpose. Mary would usually have several sculptures on the go in the workshop at the one time.
In Mary’s family history, her grandfather, would have used the bogwood to sell as firewood. He would chop it up until his cart was full and the next morning he would go to Moville which was 15 miles away with his horse and cart. He wouldn’t leave Moville until the last piece of firewood was sold. As Mary says “It would be interesting to know what he thought of what I am now able to create with wood from the same bogland”.
As can be seen from above, these Bogwood Sculptures are a testimony to the history of Ireland.