Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Old Road


There are a great many traditions in Ireland relating to 'the old road'. Some of them even refer to genuine roads that once took their winding way through the quiet countryside, but have now softened back into grass and overhanging trees. Roads like that over the Leaca Ban between Cork and Kerry, which in my father's time was (just) navigable in a lively car with a sense of adventure, but which is now for hikers only.

Most, however, refer to other-worldly roads, routes to strange places which only appear at certain times of year, when the moon is full, approaching Hallow-E'en or the summer solstice. Roads which, if taken, lead to the camp of the Fianna or the court of the High Kings, or even to Tir na n'Og itself.

A particular favourite of mine is The Secret Road, which, it is said, can be seen on moonlit nights leading across the Bog of Allen in the centre of Ireland. The warriors of old stride along this road with their wolfhounds padding alongside. They won't harm you if you meet them - but it's as well to keep a hold of a crust of bread in your pocket to link you to your own world.

I was reminded of all these legends yesterday when we discovered that the Gearagh had become dry once more and was revealing its secrets. We are fortunate enough to live alongside this wonderful place, which is a flooded river valley and the remains of a very rare type of habitat, an alluvial forest. It's now an international Ramsar site of much importance, but to tell you the truth, I still mourn for what it once was. When I was very young indeed, it was still an unflooded river valley and a place full of magic and secrets. At this wide point, the river Lee spread across half a mile or more of the low-lying landscape and created tiny tree-covered islands, meandering river channels, a fairy world. My father used to tell me that the moonshiners made their brew on these tiny islands and I imagine they did - I can remember seeing rickety handmade bridges linking one to another. But there were communities living in this river valley too, who made their way around and to firm ground by the use of little flat-bottomed boats.

Then, it was decided to flood the valley. Electricity was the cry, wonderful progress. Young as I was, I was horrified. What would happen to the trees, the little houses, the farm where we always got our Christmas tree, the ruined castle? Would the animals be saved? I was reassured on all these points, but it didn't help to be told that they would blow up the castle before flooding the valley. My father, being an adventurous sort, made several sallies out on to the increasing lake, painting a pole red and white so that anyone who saw him would think he had a right to be there. I stayed home and mourned the loss of a lovely valley.

That was a long time ago. Today the Gearagh is lauded as a beautiful scenic spot and indeed it is.




That's one of the old roads, crossing the original river, although it is now just a track leading nowhere. Those aren't birds in the foreground - they're the tips of tree stumps, all that remains of the original forest. (And we're talking ORIGINAL forest here, the last remnants of the ancient woodlands which covered Ireland in prehistoric times.)


It looks rather lovely at dusk too. That pointed peak on the left in the background is Shehy, a real fairy mountain if ever there was one. The King of the Cats lives up there - Balgeary is his name.

Now we haven't had much rain for a while but I think there was more to it than that. Perhaps they decided to open the sluices down at the dam and drain more water out for some reason. Whatever. The Gearagh was almost dry, and as we went down to the old bridge, we could see the shape of the original fields, walls, lanes which had once been lined by trees.







The shapes of the little islands that I remembered from childhood were there once again, still holding their own despite so long underneath the dark water. The trees had been brutally hewn in advance of the flooding, but their stumps remained sturdily there. A tree does not forget.



Imagine what it was like when all these tiny islets were covered with a thick canopy of scrub and hazel trees and brambles and bushes. You can see how difficult it would have been to find your way between them. No wonder the police tended to leave the moonshiners strictly alone - it was said that only a Gearagh man born and bred could lead you safely through, by boat or otherwise.

The old road down through the midst of what was once a thriving community still survives (that bridge you saw is part of it). In places you can still even see remains of the tarmacadam which covered it.



But mostly it's a quiet long-ago lane, running on and on in a green tunnel to Fairyland.
'They closed the road through the woods
So many years ago
Weather and rain have undone it again
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods...'
(Thanks, Kipling!)

And then we came to the crossroads -


- where once the lane forked left to go across firm and slightly higher ground towards where we now live. It has been deep underwater for many years of course -


- but on this day (and it wasn't the full moon, it wasn't even midnight, we aren't at Hallow-E'en yet) it had miraculously returned to the air and the light and the sun.
I have not walked on this road since I was a tiny child. It was a strange and very moving experience. How did the little boreen feel, being once more in the sunlight, and feeling feet walking on its surface, and hearing voices? I talked to it, of course I talked to it. There was a lump in my throat but I talked to it. Wouldn't you have?

In case all this is getting a bit too emotional, let's air a harsh practical fact. To wit:

It is NOT a good idea to bring a small white dog into a recently flooded area for a walk.



Even if -



- she thinks -


- it's the greatest fun in the WHOLE WIDE WORLD!
Yes, she got dunked good and proper in a briskly flowing stream before being allowed back in the car. Damp patches were infinitely preferable to Eau de Rotting Weed.


It was hard to leave The Old Road. 'Stay a little longer,' it seemed to plead. 'Talk a little more. It's so long since I've heard a human voice.' But it was getting late...




so we turned for home.


And it rained that night. And next day all had disappeared back under the water. I know it's still there. I want to go down, tell it it's not forgotten, tell it it is still mourned. Maybe it will hear me from up here. If I whisper with all my heart?


Here is another lovely picture of the flooded scene as it usually appears. People flock here to take pictures. It's mentioned in tourist guides. But I still feel a lump in my throat every time I look at it.


Thank you, dearest of companions, for your amazing gift of photography. No-one but you could have done it justice.

46 comments:

Lisa W said...

Beautiful, Jo - magical.

Faren said...

So very beautiful and so very sad. I'm glad you shared.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the beautiful travelogue, jo! karen

Susan said...

This is heartbreakingly poignant. I share all of your sentiment. We live near the huge machine known as the Columbia River, between the states of Oregon to the south and Washington to the north. The beautiful Columbia River, once a strong, challenging stream filled with so many fish you could "walk across on their backs," is now a series of lakes impounded for the production of electricity. I know we need the electricity. But I mourn the taming of the river into a creature so mild it has changed the character of the winters on its banks. Where once the river could freeze across its breadth, now it lies passively all winter. Too long a comment. I love your tender soul.

Susan

Tan said...

Wow, that is spooky, that the submerged road reappeared and was still identifiable. Thanks for sharing.

Cummal Bane said...

Come to Ellan Vannin and walk the Raad ny Follian - see the island from the edge. Edges are where things happen

pacalaga said...

It's so strange to feel the pull of your spirits all the way here. I must have been a Celt in a former life. (How else to explain the red hair in the midst of a family of brunettes?) Your world is different from mine. It really is a new world over here. I can't tell if the spirits in this place have gone away, or if they don't care to mingle with us here. More likely, it's that my life is too far away from them to know they're even here.

HPNY Knits said...

spectacular photographs! and the red sweater was a nice touch. the dog thinks she is a 4-wheel drive ha? funny!

Gail R said...

I read all your entries and enjoy them, but I most fall in love with your words when you speak of days past and Ireland of old. The words and the photos take me to another place and time.

Maybe a sense of deja vu, I don't know but I love it. Thank you!

Erica said...

Breathtaking...

LaurieM said...

I just want to throw my head back and wail with you Jo.

Lynn said...

Thank you for capturing in words and pictures the sense of loss I am feeling today.

Much love from TX...

Sallie said...

Thank you so much for this post. Your words and the photos were truly magical.

Lene said...

While reading to your story in the blue light of Sunday morning with a bit of new snow on the ground I had my cup of coffee. Thank you for the company Jo!

Dez Crawford said...

Ah, Jo, once again you've broken all our hearts, but in a good way.

I completely understand the little maze of islands. Much of Louisiana bayou country is like that. It's bewitching.

There are some rare bits of alluvial forest hereabouts. If you ever visit I will show you -- the best time to see my favorite ones are January and March. The places are magical.

How I wish I could walk down that road. I can almost see shapes on it, walking with you.

Michael & Barbara said...

Thank you so much for sharing your heart and your insights. I, too, grew up on the Colombia River as another reader said. But what struck me the most was the depth of a collective and spiritual memory that is connected to land. My grandparents were born and raised in Ireland and the more I read and learn about Celtic worldviews, the more I learn about myself. This was profound and touching. Thank you.
Barbara

LizzieK8 said...

Thank you for sharing.

ambermoggie said...

Gorgeous Jo and weren't you lucky to be there at that time? Reminds Mr Mog and I of Thirlmere in the lake district where they did the same thing. Progress has its drawbacks. Richard as always your photography is out of this world and especially so with the magical roads:)
Jo enquiring minds are wondering what you will come up with yarnwise for Samhain??

kvonhard said...

Beautiful. Amazing how the history just shows itself briefly, for a moment, then hides again waiting for others to find it when it chooses to reappear and remind.

Thank you for the pictures, words, and warning about small white dogs. :-)

Thea said...

I really want to go to Ireland. Good thing I will be doing so next semester. Your writing makes me even more excited about it. I thought I was setting my expectations too high, but your writings and pictures top them by a mile. Thank you.

Barbara-Kay said...

Sigh! (A loud, Celtic sigh!) DH and I both were so glad you shared this moment in time with us. Thank you!

Kathleen C. said...

Thank you. This was a beautiful and moving tribute.
In a completely reversed, but similar, sense... our rivers and creeks around here are so low from lack of rain that I am seeing shapes and forms that are new to me. I see the places that are usually hidden. I will think of them when the rains come again and they slide back under the waters.
Like your road, they will still be there. And maybe they'll come out to play again... someday.

Angeluna said...

How poignant your description of the Gearagh. I'm so glad you could see the ghosts of it again, and thanks to your trusty and superb photographer, you could share it with us. Thank you.

jknitsmith said...

Yes, yes, I would have talked to it! Of course.

Heartbreaking and beautiful.

Brava!

Ronni said...

Thank you for sharing that. It brought tears to my eyes.

Dez Crawford said...

Jo, I was thinking of your lovely post again today and something occurred to me. The bit about your Dad painting the pole so he looked like he was an "official" taking depth?

That is exactly something I would do. :-)

MonicaPDX said...

What Susan and Barbara said. Anyone with an ounce of sensitivity who goes near the Columbia River can feel it. There are spirits there when we drive through the Columbia Gorge, especially by Bonneville Dam; by The Dalles Dam, where Celilo Falls was; during the long trip along the reservoir Lake Roosevelt; by Grand Coulee Dam; and especially if you go to the unbelievable Dry Falls - even though the latter was formed and unformed by Nature, not man. That's not even mentioning drowned valleys along other rivers, scattered across both states.

The PNW is a center of hydropower...and has a lot of ghosts around its drowning waters, and where they used to be, too. Sometimes I wonder if Coyote and Raven are laughing.

Deborah (a.k.a. Mt. Mom) said...

How poetic, Jo. Your husband's photos were wonderful -- I particularly warm to the "goin' home" shot -- but your words are the real magic. Say "hello" to the old road for me, too, eh?

Mrs J said...

Wonderful pictures and writing! We have such places near home in Yorkshire where for one reason or another the waters roll back & reveal their secrets.

Julie said...

What amazing photos and a wonderful text to go along with it. Just lovely!

Anonymous said...

What a magical story. It gave me goosebumps. I think you have some fairy blood in you =)

Susan

DeAnn said...

WOW! Very touching. How wonderful, you could see it again. Hurray for low tides, and open sluices. Even scarred it has it's memories, and it's special beauty. The needs of the many (progress)will be ever changing the face of this world. Thank you for your memories of a time past, but still fresh as yesterday.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful way to learn about my father's homeland; your journeys give me some insight into what puts the Irish in a person :)

Lesley

Tracy said...

Today has been a day about water and drought, progress and loss. Crazy Aunt Purl and the Knitting Linguist are talking about the fires in southern California, while the New York Times magazine has a powerful article about the growing water crisis in the American west. Your moving story about the Gearagh reminded me of a similar story I heard about the Quabbin Reservoir, which flooded four towns in central Massachusetts when it was created in the 1930s. So much destruction in the name of a municipal water supply, and yet there is a bright side to it all--much of the land surrounding the reservoir is so remote (no vehicles allowed) that it has become quite a pristine wilderness.

Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

Sally Anne said...

Thank you for sharing this very special place and all the history.Very beautiful and ancient as time.

Lilly said...

Your descriptions are like a poem. And I am using the photo of the Old Road as my wallpaper. Great post.

StarSpry said...

That is such a beautiful place! How very sad to think of it being covered with water.

Longhorn Diva said...

Jo...ahh. *Thank you.*

Scotlynn said...

Jo and Richard, your emotions come through so clearly. Each of you have such talent, but together...it is just magical! Have you two considered collaborating on a book about Irish Folklore? I think it would be wonderful!

Eclectichick said...

Jo! Incredible! I cannot wait for next summer! Thank you!

Em said...

I'm sure that I cannot properly express what your pictures have given me, so I will simply say "thank you" for sharing you walk, and hope that the next time you are speaking to one of the Old Places, that you tell them "hello" from me.

Craftybernie said...

Your story reminds me of Blessington Lake... I lived there in the '80s when I was 10 and always wondered what it must have been like for the families who had witnessed their valley being slowly flooded by the River Liffey.

For a few dry summers the water levels fell so low that you could see the old houses, brick walls and the bogs

One lady I spoke to was a little girl at the time. She remembered it vividly, with people being refusing to leave as the water rose around them.

I don't imagine there's many people left to talk about that time now. But it does stir up a myriad of emotions just thinking about it....

Have you documented your memory & experience with a local historical society or library?

Thank you for sharing.

Sue J said...

Jo,
I need to ask you a few questions about traveling in Ireland.
When you have time, could you email me please??
Thanks!
Sue
smjames13@yahoo.com

Artis-Anne said...

So beautifully written Jo and you reminded me of a valley here that was flooded to make a reservoir & a whole community had to leave. I remember the little village well .
When the reservoir levels are low you can see a glimpse of the valleys past life and it makes me feel a little sad, or am I just getting nostaligic with age !!

Rooie said...

Ach, and now I'm sitting at work with tears in my eyes. Beautiful writing and beautiful photography. Thank you.

Denise said...

That is one happy, muddy little dog!

What a wonderful post, Jo. Thank you.