Sphagnum Moss to the Rescue

Needle work deptartment

Women sewing bandages for injured soldiers during WWI

Irish Bogs contain an abundance of a particular type of moss known as sphagnum which has antiseptic and absorbent qualities. During WWI, this moss was gathered by female volunteers across the country and then sewn into cloth dressings which were sent to hospitals on the continent for the war wounded.

UCD Special Collections holds the reports of the Irish War Hospital Supply organisation which managed the collection of sphagnum moss from bogs all over the country. This organisation was led by women and depended on female volunteers, mostly of the upper classes. The husbands, fathers and brothers of these women would have been members of the Irish regiments of the British Army, such as the Royal Irish Rifles, The Dublin Fusiliers, The Connacht Rangers, Ulster Division or the Munster Fusiliers.

Moss packing room

Sphagnum moss packing room

Regional depots were established where the moss was separated, washed and packaged. It was then sent to the main Irish depot which was located in the Royal College of Science for Ireland on Merrion Street.

‘The sphagnum moss, utilised in the making of the sphagnum dressings in the depot, has been collected and to a large extent dried and picked free of foreign matter by voluntary workers in the country, who are registered members of the depot. During the year, 1171 sacks of moss have been received from 200 collectors, the greater proportion being supplied by 76 regular workers. The activities of this department are entirely dependent on this supply of material.’ – 1915-16 report

The moss was divided into three grades. Grade one moss was used for surgical pads, grade two moss was used for dysentery pads and grade three was used to fill pillows and cushions.

The 1917-18 report contains an essay by the RCScI’s professor of botany, Thomas Johnson on the properties of sphagnum which made it suitable for use as a dressing for wounds and explains why there is an abundance of this moss in Ireland.

The bogs of Ireland, with sphagnum as their basis, cover one seventh of its surface, there being one square mile of bog to every 1,000 people in the island. Sphagnum owes its medical utilisation to its structure. The main stem carries tufts of two to five short branches. The branches are well clothed with leaves and are the chief absorbing organs. In addition to its absorbing power sphagnum acts as a deodoriser and an antiseptic. No doubt the acidity of the dressing comes into play in antisepsis.’

The reports name members of the Irish War Hospital Supply organisation’s committee. Notably, all but one were female. It also names the collectors from all over the country. The moss was sewn into cloth dressings in the depot by the volunteers and then prepared for distribution. The hospitals across Europe and beyond to which dressings were sent are listed. These include hospitals in France, Belgium, Italy, India, Egypt, Iraq and Greece as well as England and Ireland.

It is interesting to note that this effort in support of the British army during the Great War was happening in Dublin and throughout the country during 1916, a time in Irish history mostly associated with the Easter rising and nationalism.

  • This post was researched and written by Evelyn Flanagan, Head of Special Collections, UCD Special Collections.

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