At the top of Shaas Mountain, the views over the slopes to Lough Allen usually steal the show. But there has been a rival attraction since late June that locals are calling the floating forest.
lusters of rogue evergreens dot the slopes as if they randomly took root away from the main plantation further up.
They are actually part of that forest but they floated downhill, perfectly upright, on slabs of ground wrenched from the mountain top by a flood of peat and water. The effects of the landslide are still being felt by the community two months on.
A geological survey team taking ground-penetrating radar readings of the peaty gloop deposited on the slopes say it is up to six metres deep in places. Watch out for crevices, they warn. It’s a long way down to a sticky end.
At the bottom of the mountain, 79-year-old Mary McVeigh was checking on her daughter’s beehives when she saw what she thought was a flock of her neighbour’s sheep trundling towards her.
“I saw a big white ball coming down the mountain. I said I better check the gates so they don’t go too far,” she recalls of the evening of Sunday, June 28. “And then I heard it. It was like thunder roaring.”
What McVeigh witnessed was hundreds of thousands of tonnes of peat rushing down the mountain, following the course of the local river and whipping its waters into a torrent of white foam.
She watched incredulously as it sped past her haggard, turned at her neighbour’s house, rounded the front of her property and rolled on towards Drumkeeran village.
John O’Donnell, McVeigh’s neighbour, took her phonecall and heard the word “flood” with concern but no great panic.
“The river has flooded before but I got a fright when I saw this,” he says of arriving at the property to find a thick blanket of what looked to him like lava lying around the house. “I never in my life saw anything like it.”
Even now, two months and much clearing up later, the many trees around the property, including prized ancient alders, are stained black and bedraggled.
Across the river, Paul and Marie O’Donnell and their five children watched from their living room window as the great black soup swept by.
They built on a height, an awkward site that left Marie’s heart in her mouth more than once as the kids whizzed down it on trikes and bikes.
“My mother insisted we build high,” says Paul, pointing out his home place down the lane. “All her life she talked about the flood that came in on top of them before I was born. She’s a wise woman.”
Luckily, Mary Jo Gallagher’s home escaped harm but she spent an anxious night with Paul and the family, fearful of what she might see when she got back down the lane next morning.
She points to the bend in the river opposite her front door. “When the water comes fast, it can’t make it around and shoots straight out at the house,” she says. “We were fortunate.”
It was indeed fortunate that the landslide took the route of the Differagh River, which channelled it through the Co Leitrim countryside for 6.5km. Otherwise, the flow could have spread out in all directions, possibly taking homes and lives with it.
As it is, the damage to surrounding lands is severe, with fields smothered in layers of puréed peat a metre deep. Drains dug decades ago to stop the land flooding are blocked, so fields that escaped the peat are sopping even before the winter rains begin.
Fences are down, grazing is gone and meadows maintained for environmental schemes are destroyed.
The 450 young birch, alder and ash trees Paul O’Donnell planted under the Glas scheme are marooned in a sea of black. Wet and dirty hay bales sit forlornly in their fields, unusable now even for bedding.
The river and its streams are full of sediment, their banks broken and their fish life threatened. Lough Allen, into which the Differagh flows, has blobs of peat bobbing in its shallows and strewn over its sandy shores.
Tarmac was torn from the surface of small roads, two bridges were inundated and one, nearly a century old, crumbled.
Another, the Dawn of Hope bridge, sits halfway up the mountain, providing a vital crossing over a deep gorge for more than 150 years.
Its stone arch became blocked solid with fallen trees while thousands of tonnes of peat piled up behind. Fear that it would give way and unleash an even greater slide prompted the emergency construction of a new concrete bridge in front of it. Water can now get through but the peat remains stuck, keeping the new structure under constant pressure. As winter rains swell the peat, that pressure will increase.
“It’s a big concern,” says Des McHugh, chairman of the Irish Farmers’ Association in Leitrim. “People are wondering how stable the rest of the mountain is and if more of it is going to give way.”
His concerns are reflected in a preliminary report by the consulting engineers RPS, who estimated that 180,000 cubic metres of dislodged peat and other materials were still lying loose on the mountain and “anticipated to slip further”.
If you were to pack all that into 20ft shipping containers, you would need 5,000 of them.
RPS are on a six-week deadline to produce a further report, advising what work should be prioritised. Leitrim County Council says that could mean building banks, barriers, holding ponds or other structures to stabilise the situation while the longer-term clean-up and restoration project is planned.
A working group comprising the council, several government departments and agencies such as the National Parks and Wildlife Service and Inland Fisheries Ireland have met several times to plot the way ahead.
The cost of remedial works will run into the millions – but how many millions, nobody is prepared to predict.
They said after meeting last week: “The group also discussed the scale of the costs incurred to date and those arising in the future which will require significant financial support for Leitrim County Council.”
Des McHugh says the 25 farmers directly affected understand there is no quick fix. They were able to invoke force majeure to apply for their farm payments and hope the arrangement will be extended for as long as needed.
“No-one was hurt and that’s the main thing but what do you do with all this?” he says, referring to the layers of mushy peat all around.
“Even if you were to dig it up and take it all away in trucks, where do you take it to? Do we try and dig it into the soil? We just don’t know. It’s not the priority at the moment, I accept that, but there’ll have to be a lot of thought put into coming up with a solution.”
What caused the slide
The landowners, and the wider community, are also looking for answers as to what caused the slide.
Torrential rain certainly played a part. Dr Mary Bourke, a geologist with Trinity College Dublin and one of a team of scientists from several universities who are studying the incident, said heavy rain can swell peat like a balloon to the point where it explodes, a phenomenon called a ‘bog burst’.
Another likely explanation is the weather extremes the area experienced in the months before the slide. Leitrim, like most of the rest of the country, had a prolonged drought and exceptionally warm temperatures in spring and early summer, followed by relentless rain.
“When the peat dries out, it shrinks and you get these what we call tensional fractures,” says Dr Bourke.
“They’re long cracks that act as an open culvert for the rain to go down into the peat. So now you’ve got an accelerated pathway for moisture in the peat, which will increase the weight of the peat but also it will act like a lubricating layer at the base of the peat, and the peat will just slide off it.”
Contributory factors are also being examined, chiefly the impact of commercial forestry and windfarms, both of which are contentious developments, not only in this part of Leitrim but all over the county and among communities in similar terrain throughout the country. Draining, digging and levelling land for such projects can have a destabilising effect.
This is not the first landslide in the region. In September 2008, a similar incident occurred at the site of a windfarm development on Corry Mountain, on the far side of Drumkeerin, opposite Shaas. That time the Owengar River, which joins the Differagh, was badly affected, as was Lough Allen.
In December 2016, tragedy struck when a landslide on Kilronan Mountain in neighbouring Co Roscommon killed 37-year-old Paddy McCaffrey as he worked on the construction of a windfarm.
In 2003, two incidents, at Pollatomish, Co Mayo, and at Derrybrien, Co Galway, caused major damage to property, infrastructure and wildlife.
Pollatomish was particularly distressing, with 40 individual slides occurring in one day, forcing dozens of households to evacuate and ploughing up a graveyard.
Derrybrien continues to cause controversy to this day, with Ireland currently accumulating millions of euro in daily penalties from the European Court of Justice for failure to have adequate environmental assessments on the site carried out before or since the windfarm was granted planning permission.
Those two incidents led the Geological Survey of Ireland (GSI), the state’s earth science agency, to produce a report and set up a landslide database.
The report, published in 2006, emphasised the “paucity of knowledge and understanding of such landslides and bogslides in Ireland”.
The database now holds information on more than 2,500 landslides, both ancient and recent, large and small, concentrated mainly in the west, northwest and southwest but also the east, where mountainous Co Wicklow stands out as particularly susceptible.
A landslide susceptibility map for the entire country has also been developed but Dr Bourke, who is acclaimed for her studies of the surface of Mars, says much more work is required.
Disturbance by windfarm construction, drainage for commercial forestry and intensive grazing can all weaken hillside land and leave it vulnerable to landslides.
But Dr Bourke says early surveys at Shaas Mountain show the land to have been in a robust condition which, she says, makes it all the more alarming how much of it spilled down the mountain side.
It points the finger more firmly at the weather extremes and raises worrying questions for the future as climate change increases their frequency.
“It’s a really interesting and very important event for understanding and hopefully helping to mitigate any such future events because there’s increased likelihood of them happening under a changing climate,” she says.
“The more we know about why events like Shaas Mountain landslide happened, the better we can predict where and when it might happen again.”
But to do that, she says we also need to know our land in much greater detail. Precise topographical surveys are scarce in Ireland, where mapping is often based on survey points 20 metres apart.
It doesn’t sound a lot, but in the UK, every centimetre of the land mass has been mapped by highly sensitive airborne technology so no potential hazard escapes detection.
While data alone could not have prevented the fatal train derailment caused by a landslide in northeast Scotland last month, Dr Bourke says it is an essential base to work from.
“I work on Mars and I have better resolution for sites on Mars than I do for places in Ireland,” she says.
Back at the foot of Shaas Mountain, space also comes to Paul Gallagher’s mind as he surveys a field where the peat has lain untouched for two months, a thin crust forming on its contorted ripples and folds, covering a bizarre sponge and goo consistency beneath.
“It’s like what you’d imagine a lunar landscape to be,” he says. “I don’t think anyone really knows how we’ll get it back to normal.”