In Armagh 2009



Sloshing through
a traditional muck

A bog is a place with a heavy history. One obscured by its water's own density. Anything that falls beneath the surface and into the thick layers of moss and mud is preserved, like a pickle, by the area's acidic waters.

In Northern Ireland, where rainfall is heavy and lake basins drain slowly, bogland once prevailed. Squirrels and badgers ran along the banks, and turf cutters carved up sod for use as fuel and horse bedding. With a rise in agriculture and development over the past hundred years, some of that wetland has vanished, but what remains is a habitat self-preserving in nature.

In effect, a bogland functions as a sort of soggy time capsule, inside which the remnants of plants, animals and even people have been found. From numerous bogs, excavators have uncovered bodies, some bearing perspicuous wounds that have solved long-forgotten mysteries.

Northern Ireland's Environment and Heritage Service reported that in Northern Ireland alone, 25 bodies have been discovered in the region's bogs since the early 19th century: In 1804, a man was found submerged in a Londonberry County bog, his head severed from his body. Everything from his woolen coat to the dagger that may have done him in was ensconced alongside him.

In less dismal cases, decades-old butter has been unearthed, no doubt buried with some confidence in the land's refrigeration capabilities and rumored to retain its edibility.

In the last five years, in a government-protected stretch of bogland called Peatlands Park in Dungannon, a resurgence of bodies has appeared in the park's antiquated waters. Usually found wearing wetsuits, and always with snorkels and flippers, these contemporary bog bodies are different from those of any 18th or 19th century finds, in that they are very much alive. In an anomalous sight amid the peat, these muddied figures have been seen struggling through what might otherwise seem impenetrable goo.

startlineA look down the 60-meter bog trench.

The swamp swimmers are competitors in the annual Northern Ireland Bog Snorkelling Championships, by which contestants must tread twice across a 60-yard stretch of mucky bog drain in the quickest time possible.

Peatlands Park, a lowland bog composed of 97 percent water, participates in National Bog Day each year to raise awareness of its preserved bogland. Originally, the July 26 event consisted of the standard crop of nature preservationists, face painters and ice cream vendors.

But assistant park warden Colin Gates, a good-natured nature-lover, wanted to go beyond promotional fairs and fliers and truly immerse people in the muck: "I thought if we brought bog snorkelling over, we could get people literally into the bog," he proclaimed with a smile.

His plan worked. Inspired by an annual bog snorkelling competition that began in Wales in 1986 and is home to the sport's world championships, Gates facilitated the first event of its kind in Northern Ireland. And in the five years since its inception, Gates boasted he has had to turn contestants away every year due to the high volume of applicants. Apparently people enjoy swimming through crud.

Bog snorkelling betrays convention (Paul Connolly featured it on the cover of his book, The World's Weirdest Sports) and in some ways defies function. Among other constraints, swimmers are barred from using standard swimming techniques and are relegated to doggy paddling and other types of frantic leg thrashing. Snorkels are mandatory, and though the plastic tubes are designed to aide breathing, in this context they can overflow with mud and peat, which can trickle into a swimmer's lungs. Anyone who removes his or her snorkel is disqualified.

At this year's race, dozens of people, grouped by men, women, juniors, relay and fun run, plunged themselves into the airless five-foot-deep swimming aisle to traverse the bog's dark waters. A morning that started with sunshine evolved into a blustery afternoon for any outdoor sporting event, and the colorful flags strung along the raceway only slightly tempered the rolling clouds.

A raucous radio announcer sporting a bush of curly blond hair and outfitted in an electric blue Hawaiian shirt, which was unbuttoned enough to reveal another tuft of curly hair on his chest?gave a booming narration of the event, backed by a blaring country music soundtrack.

"If he swallows, folks, that's the end of it," the announcer warned glibly, as one of the day's first men's division snorkellers struggled up the bog drain.

Swimmers warmed-up throughout the day in a small mud hole, dubbed the "Bog Jacuzzi," which flanked the bog drain. Some slid inside to unwind after they raced. Others cannonballed into the hole, sending fat drips of dirt onto unfortunate observers.

Around noon, two of the men's swimmers, Colin Bankhead and Nick Clarke, both robust-looking athletes from Belfast, were stretching along the bank, preparing to wetsuit-up for the race. Though they touted themselves as avid sportsmen, it was each man's first time bog snorkelling. "This sport was the next logical step," said Clarke. "It just looks a bit shitty in there."

"The problem with me is, I'm stupid," Bankhead explained. "I don't think about things?I just do them."

"And I just follow him," joked Clarke.

Bankhead added, "We wear our hearts on our sleeves and our snorkels on our heads."

One by one, the racers splashed through the bog. And if it weren't for the dull discoloration of the water and the awkward movement of limbs through it, it might have looked like a regular swimming competition. Muddy snorkellers plodded post-race across the wood-chipped ground.

washmeA man is hosed off after a dip in the Bog Jacuzzi.

A high-pressure hose was set up nearby to blast away the peat, but many seemed to languish in the dirtiness. The racers' hair clumped up into earthen helmets, and those who didn't wipe their faces wore specks of dirt like thick whiskers. Still, none seemed inhibited. Everyone was a mess.

"It's good for the skin," said women's champion, Emma Kerr, of Loughgall, whose teeth beamed out from the layers of dirt on her face. "It's nice and soft, not rotten at all."

Sixteen-year-old racer Jonathon Hilliard, who won the junior division three years in a row and was competing this year in the men's division, gave a less uplifting report of the bog: "With all the debris floating around you can't see more than one or two feet in front of you," he said. "It's very thick water, and there're scorpions in there."

The crowd came and went in trickles (usually with each outburst of rain), delivered by a small train that ran from the race site to the park entrance. Oonagh Lynch, a park volunteer, estimated that around 1,000 people showed up altogether.

Around 2 p.m. a heavy rain started to fall and the wind kicked up, taking with it a large white tent that served as the changing room. The tent was ripped up from its moorings, and after making a few complete rolls across the bog's ramparts, came to a dejected stop on its side. Snorkellers rushed around grabbing up their belongings, and a man who had been changing inside stood in his underwear, looking surprised.

In some sports, a torrential downpour might be cause to call-off a race but in this case the rain only fueled the ambience. As women's champion Kerr explained, "Nothing would ever happen here if we stopped whenever it rained."