By Richard Allen

When I was a youngster, in Northern Ireland, I used to go to the moss on a summer’s evening to help cut the turf, which was stacked and dried for use as winter fuel. It was hard work for the adults, but great fun for us. The turf was cut from a bank, which cut two tiers into the landscape, one of them several feet below the other. You could jump off the high one and land on the springy ground below.

One of the old, abandoned banks had, at its foot, a pool of water, like a peaty Becher’s Brook. That was the advanced jump. You needed a long run-up before taking-off, and a lot of faith in your athleticism. The sights and sounds in the moss were captivating. There were frogs and dragonflies around black pools of water, fly-traps which you could spring for amusement with a blade of grass, curlews crying overhead. Aside from high-leaping young ‘uns, there were few human-made sounds, only the pleasing crunch and squelch of the L-shaped spade into the turf, or the tractor’s gentle, idling engine.

In those days, most houses around our way burned turf, wood or coal. Coal was delivered by a coal merchant, who would deposit sack after sack of coal and slack with a clatter into the coal shed, raising a plume of black dust skyward. In the winter months you had to go out in the rain to fill a coal scuttle, bracing yourself for the first stinging slap of wind and rain across your cheek. The reward was a beautiful, crackling open fire, which spat and hissed when wet coal was thrown on.

That was a long time ago. The turf-cutting tradition continues, but not so much. A lot of us moved away. And like many an Irish diaspora that went before us, we imbue our memories with dewy sentiment. As this blog shows. Those who stayed faced the reality of back-breaking labour, miserable weather, soot and smoke, cussing the tractor which defied engineering logic by never starting unless you shouted at it.

Turf and coal were largely replaced by kerosene burners. It’s a lot less romantic, but there’s no hard slog with them. A lorry replenishes your plastic tank. The temperature is controlled by a timer and thermostat. It works well.

But there are still problems. Oil is expensive. We rely heavily upon imports for fuel. The gas network will reach only so far. We don’t have a culture of using gas mains: many people may not like the idea of it and it’s also a fossil fuel (though one with lower carbon emissions than heating oil). We rely heavily on private transport. We’re also hit by unemployment, rising prices and economic stagnation.  

All of this means that a lot of Northern Irish homes are in fuel poverty and we have a high-carbon culture of domestic heating and transport.

How do we tackle this?

The Committee on Climate Change recently called the environment minister to set targets on reducing carbon emissions. As part of the UK we are obliged to reduce emissions but, since we don’t have any specific targets for Northern Ireland, it is hard to legislate or to encourage. Since agriculture is a large part of the economy, there’s perhaps some scope there for improvement. Maybe the housing stock can benefit from insulation. Lower-carbon transport may help. But where will the investment come from?

Although fuel is expensive, there are many people who prefer an open fire or an oil burner. And that’s a position not to be mocked but understood (during last year’s cold snap, when oil pipes froze and boilers stopped working, the open fire came back into its own to keep at least one room warm). We’ve had so many troubles over the years. It becomes instinctive to defend yourself, your way of life. Even well-meaning advice can sound like other people telling you what to do. 

There are many who can’t relate to climate change, or to carbon emissions. It’s not part of the daily conversation. Other problems in Northern Ireland are more immediately challenging. The common ground for government, town councils, communities and householders is money. So no matter what context you want to put it in – reducing carbon emissions, or simply making our homes less expensive to heat – it comes down to energy efficiency.