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...'
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.