Sunday, June 05, 2016

The Way We Used To Travel

It's not usually this way round.  Normally in early June, Europe is basking in summer sunshine while we in Ireland keep the raincoats and Aran sweaters handy.  This year, however, we have been blessed with the most wonderful weather - wall to wall sunshine, clear blue skies, and everything that was held back by the long grey winter and long grey spring now bursting into life.  And in stark contrast, Europe is having appalling climatic conditions, with floods everywhere, even Paris.

The good weather won't last here, of course.  Can't do.  But the rule is, if it's there, grab the opportunity.  And that is exactly what we have been doing over this last few days.  Confided the zoo to the tender hands of best friend's kennels, and set off early one morning for points north west.  The aim was to gather images for De Nextest Book.  Yes, happy news.  The publishers loved the idea and after a hectic couple of months doing a full draft chapter for their consideration, we got the go-ahead. The working title is Follow The Old Road - that is, don't stay on the nice fast motorway or main thoroughfare, but take that tempting turning, wend your way along old laneways and see what you discover.  More, take another look at harbours, rivers, old disused railway lines, canals, tracks winding over hilltops.  Find out how our ancestors travelled and catch an echo of their history.

We visited sleepy hamlets like Shannon Harbour where once the Grand Canal ended its journey from far-flung Dublin.  Now it's a tiny place, peaceful and quiet, but once it was thronged with travellers going to and from the capital city, bustling with trade, and with stage coaches arriving and departing several times a day.  Further upriver is Shannon Bridge with its magnificent arches and a whacking great fort built in the early 19thc when invasion of England by Napoleon via Ireland was a very real threat to the Crown.

You can see the fort across the river there.  It's a renowned restaurant now - Parker's, I think.

Shannon Bridge has long been a major crossing point, because it is here that one of the old roads of Ireland, the Esker Riada or Sli Mor, intersects with the great river.  No accident that Clonmacnoise was established here when Christianity came to Ireland.  It's very likely that somewhere as powerful as a crossroads of big river and big road would have been important from time immemorial.  Where the old places of strength remained, Christianity was swift to take over.  Part of the Esker Riada - an esker, as I am sure you know, is a natural raised ridge of gravel left behind after the Ice Age - is now known as the Pilgrim Road to Clonamacnoise, but it's been in use a lot longer than that.

It's only when you really think about these places along the Shannon, that you realise what an important part they played in everyday life.  Here is the shortest or shallowest crossing place.  Here is where the canal joined the river and barges from the Midlands or Dublin could travel down to Limerick or further up the main river itself.

Here is Termonbarry, where the Royal Canal runs into the Shannon (yes, two opposing companies built the Grand and the Royal, both from Dublin to the Shannon, both aiming to corner the market). If you go down to the canal pathway underneath the little humpbacked bridges, where once horses pulled the barges through, you can see the grooves of their pulling ropes worn into the stonework over years.  The ducks still paddle on the quiet waters,  the flowers still grow on the banks, but the horses have gone. Leisure boats now enjoy the canals where once major industry flourished, wealthy people travelled to visit friends, and emigrants took the first steps towards a new life across the sea..

Met up with an old favourite of mine in Ballymahon.  Oliver Goldsmith's Deserted Village was one of the earliest poems I learned by heart (must have been about four).  He left his native land to seek fame and fortune in London and create classics like She Stoops to Conquer and The Vicar of Wakefield.  Myself, I think The Deserted Village is based half on the landscapes he knew as a child, and half on English hamlets that he saw later on in life.  There is much of both cultures in the poem.

The fine weather had brought country families out to stack - or 'stook' - their turf so that the warm wind could blow through it and dry it thoroughly before they brought it home to build a rick in the yard against the winter wet and cold.  It was interesting to see that up here in the midlands they stacked them two or three at a time crossways, and upwards.  In West Cork they tend to lean four or five together with their tops touching.

Bogs and bogland were very much on the agenda for us because I was fulfilling a long-held ambition to visit one of the most exciting places possible - somewhere you could actually reach out and touch the far distant past.

Here is a stretch of genuine Irish bogland which has been part-cleared by the Irish Turf Board (Bord na Mona).  It's very close to where we were headed.

And this is what I had waited a long time to see.  It's indoors, it's kept in the dark most of the time, access is controlled.  But that's only fitting for a building project that dates from 146 BC.  Yes, 146 BC.  That's when somebody with considerable clout directed that a massive trackway should be built right across Corlea Bog, a place already well known to people of the time as a dangerous and difficult terrain.  Not only that, but this powerful leader dictated that the trackway should be wide enough for wheeled traffic, and should be built not of just any wood, but the very best oak.  That meant felling one heck of a lot of trees protected by the Irish laws of the time.  We always treasured our trees, and the old Brehon Laws lay down the fines and punishments for damaging any of them.

But the Corlea Trackway was built, very speedily, over one winter.  Dendrochronology has established that fairly firmly.  Now what could have been the purpose, the need, the overall guiding impulse?  The site is very close to one of the narrowest crossing points of the Shannon, and directly in line between Rathcroghan, palace of Queen Maeve, and the Hill of Uisneach, the ancient ceremonial centre of Ireland.  Was it required for a particular state occasion?  For a war?  We just don't know.  Not yet anyway.

There is more of the Corlea ancient road to be discovered.  Fortunately the OPW (Office of Public Works) was able to buy some more privately-owned bogland beyond this, and that is being preserved until funding can be secured to do some more archaeological work. Because getting this stretch of it to the state you can see above was extremely expensive.  Thanks be we had a visionary government at the time, back in the 1980s, which realised the stupendous importance of the chance find during turf cutting.  Dating it back as far as the Iron Age meant it was far earlier than anyone could have imagined. Old bog roads or 'toghers', made of wood and brush, are common enough around the country, as you'd expect with so much soggy land, but usually they were made for local purposes, to enable farmers to reach their fields, or the occasional traveller to continue his journey without a major detour.  Something of the size and quality of Corlea, though, was previously unknown here.  

What is really exciting too is a reference in the ancient Irish tale, The Wooing of Etain, where Midir is set what seems to be an impossible task of bridging just such a slough,, for which he calls upon Otherworld help:

No one had ever trodden that bog before... Into the bottom of the causeway they kept putting a forest with its trunks and roots, Midir standing and urging on the host on every side.  One would think that below him all the men of the world were raising a tumult.  After that, clay and gravel and stones were placed upon the bog.  Thereafter the steward came to Eochaid and brought tidings of the vast work he had witnessed, and he said there was not on the ridge of the world a magic power that surpassed it.

There is little doubt that it is the Corlea trackway enshrined here in the legend, carried down from generation to generation through folk memory.  I can tell you, we went away from there full of excitement and energy.  What was it built for? Why, as seems apparent, was it not used for very long?  What were the actual circumstances?  Oh to go back to that time, just for an hour or two...

[Lookit, I don't know why the text has changed size, ok?  I've tried to edit it over and over, but it's in a sulk since I quoted that ancient legend.  Maybe it's trying to tell me something...?]

But we were travelling on, upwards and westwards towards the route of an old railway which once linked remote Achill Island to the rest of Ireland.  Disused for over 75 years, the track has now been given a new lease of life as the Great Western Greenway, a wonderful walking and cycling route across stunning scenery all the way from bustling Westport to beautiful Achill Sound.

In the background you can see the lovely old arches of Burrishoole Bridge.

Horses lean over the fence to pass the time of day, a constant temptation to cyclists to take a rest and enjoy the view.

Here is the old railway station at Mulrany.  The Great Western Hotel here was the most luxurious place to stay for those who could afford it back in the late 19th and early 20th century.  The hotel is still there, still luxurious, but its clientele now arrives by car.

Achill Island is one of those spectacularly beautiful places that turns your heart upside down.  Hard enough for those trying to wrest a living from the poor soil back in the 19th century, but an oasis for visitors today.

And also the ideal place to bring up your family if you happen to be a wheatear with hungry mouths to feed during the long summer days.

Know who used to live here?  Granuaile, or Grace O'Malley, the pirate queen of the West.  Not so much a pirate really, our Grace, more of a highly practical local chieftain who didn't see why strange ships loaded with good things should be allowed to pass through her territory without paying allegiance and a small fee.  Granuaile is the one who, when the English tried to take her lands away, travelled all the way to London and bearded Queen Elizabeth I in her state chambers to argue her case.  (She got her way of course - even the tough Elizabeth hadn't met anyone quite like Grania before.)

The terminus of the Great Western was here, at Achill Sound, where travellers disembarked to cross to the island and met with poor emigrants headed in the opposite direction.  It's a hostel now, and you'd have to listen with the ear of faith to hear to long-gone sound of train whistles and long-ago voices.  Where the tracks used to run is at this time of year a mass of orchids, blooming happily in a sheltered spot below the level of the sea winds.

See the six-spot burnet moths on this orchid?   One way of life gives place to another.

It was a wonderful few days, with so many things that fired the mind and got the creative urge working overtime.  

Yes, of course the knitting came too.  This is Killaloe/Ballina (one town each side of the Shannon) down nearer to Limerick on the way home.  My maternal grandfather was born near here so it was nice to sit on the wall in the sunshine and relax.  I'm working on an exceptionally complex pair of twisted-stitch socks by Caoua Coffee for Sock Madness on Ravelry.

Here they are in closeup.  The cuffs weren't too difficult, but one suspects that the main chart (which looks like a plan for a moon landing1) will require constant and unremitting attention.

Oh, speaking of knitting, there was some more fun recently, when the Fruity Knitting Podcast asked for a short video on my work and where I lived.   I was honoured and DH was willing to do the technical stuff, so we chose a nice location overlooking the sea in West Cork. After that, Andrea and Andrew did miracles with the clip, even sorting out the sound of the sea breeze, which was surprisingly loud!

You can see the podcast on Fruity Knitting.  It's a fairly lengthy episode (the work those two put into it is amazing!)  but I come in at around 19.5 mins into the piece.

Here is one picture you won't see on the podcast.  'Troushka ran off along the beach in pursuit of another dog and flatly refused to return to the car.  In the end, the only way to restrain her was to take off my exquisitely handcrafted Boo Knits lace shawl and use it as a temporary leash!  I have to say the silk (and the lacework) survived the ordeal very well.  As did 'Troushka, who never holds grudges, bless her.

Plenty of work to be done in the months ahead.  O'Brien Press are hoping to see a (fairly) completed manuscript by the early autumn and we all know how quickly the weeks and months slip by.  Back to the grindstone!