Seán Kelly (B. London 2000) is an Irish photographer and visual artist based in Offaly and Dublin, Ireland. Originally from rural Offaly, his practice focuses on documenting the ongoing changes to his native Midlands as peat harvesting, an industry that is historically important for the area, albeit harmful for the environment, comes to a permanent end in the era of climate change. He combines documentary photography with interview audio, moving image work, archive images and personal anecdotes to examine and document the ongoing changes as Ireland moves towards a more sustainable future in the Anthropocene.
The Irish landscape is made up of 134 million hectares of bogland, equating to 16.2 per cent of the Island of Ireland. Peat, the fossil fuel making up this bogland, has been cut, dried and used as a fuel for centuries and while it has been essential for the survival of many rural Irish people, it has now become a problem in the age of the Anthropocene. When burned, peat ( turf) releases carbon dioxide, which is contributing to climate change. Now in 2023, industrial scale peat extraction has ended and private turf cutting looks set to end in the coming years. Taken from a wider long-term body of work, this work examines the remnants of the harvested boglands.
Peat (turf) has been cut from Ireland’s bogs and burned for centuries, but now in the era of the Anthropocene and climate change, this environmentally harmful practice must come to an end. Industrial scale peat harvesting has already been phased out by Bord na Móna and small-scale turf cutting will soon follow, this is a major change to rural Irish life and it is an ongoing crisis. This thesis examines the role of photography in this era of major historical change for rural Ireland. Initially the concepts of the Anthropocene and Capitalocene are introduced, followed by a brief history of the Irish peat industry and Bord na Móna. These concepts are then applied to archival commercial photographic work and contemporary fine art and documentary photography in order to examine the different perspectives and arguments surrounding the end of turf cutting. A section also focuses on how promotional photography was used in post-colonial Ireland to create a sense of national pride in turf cutting and power generation. The main outcomes were to find out what role photography can play in this crisis and to further inform my own documentary photographic practice. In my research, I found that the primary role of photography in the Irish turf crisis is to document – to document the traditions surrounding turf and the ways of life in rural Ireland before they must come to an inevitable end and also to document the destruction caused to the landscape by the peat industry.