When we purchased our little acre in West Cavan we were novice gardeners but we soon found out that in our townland we were thought to have enviable gardening soil. It was rich in peat and while that is highly acidic it also is very fertile. The blackberries and nettles that flourished confirmed that local opinion. The peat rich bog land hosts a wealth of natural flora. My personal favorite is seeing the appearance each spring of bog cotton, which most certainly does seem like the fiber that fed the engines of the Industrial Revolution. This plant is completely rural though.
There is a sort of saucer shaped dip in the southwestern corner of the field where a previous owner had harvested turf to burn for fuel. We have never done this but there are plenty of locals who have turf rights to cut sods from the bogs on common land on Boleybrack. Handcutting and ‘footing’ of the sods is still done in the early summer and the turf is stacked to air dry before being carted home for a family’s consumption.
Machine harvestings has become outlawed on blanket bog which is now conserved. The blanket bog on Cuilcagh Mountain National Park has been brought back into good heart with the help of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark. Harvesting had adversely affected water run off into the lower lying land in counties Cavan and Fermanagh. Flooding became more prevalent in the underground caverns that zigzag beneath the international boundary between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Conservation management measures create a win-win for natural habitat and humans who can be affected by flash flooding. Apart from being used for home heating there is another product from the bogs.
Turf Stacks near Cavan Burren Forrest
When we started to create our garden on this peat rich acre we needed to deal with one problem – drainage. In came the JCB. In the course of creating a series of ditches for rain run off the digger also unearthed some bog oak. Both bog oak and bog fir have macerated and been preserved for thousands of years in peat. One of the first human residents might have used a flint axe to fell that tree. Or perhaps weather or other non-human agents topple the preserved wood that has been buried for thousands of years.
This naturally hard wood is used by Irish sculptors to create many works of art and jewellry. Welsh born artist Idris Bowen is just one artist who uses this material to create unique carvings that are inspired by Irish myth and Celtic legend. http://www.irishtwistedspirit.com/celtic-pate.html
The moorland bogs that surround our part of the Cavan section of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark is rich in legend and lore. Coming across the Bellavally Gap one dark night we spotted a will o’the wisp, a spectral light darting across the lonely moor. Now there may be a scientific explanation (escaping methane?) or it might be fairies. Or perhaps it was the ghost of a murdered maid servant whose perfected preserved body was accidentally exhumed by turf cutters fifty years after her disappearance!
The moors high up on Cuilcagh and the other mountains along this border feed those underground caverns that I mentioned criss-cross this international border. The mighty River Shannon has its source in those underground caverns in County Fermanagh before it bubbles up on the Cavan side of the border at Shannon Pot.
This cauldron shaped ‘pot’ is alive with Ireland’s own creation myth where it is Síannan, rather than Eve, who is hungry for knowledge. In this case she seeks the salmon of wisdom, the oldest animal on earth, who is key to knowledge rather than a fruit on tree. There are trees in Ireland’s legend, too, but they are nuts of wisdom from the hazel that fed the salmon.
I’ll close with a poem I wrote after that JCB departed from the acre and I was left to ponder the three bog oak logs that had been unearthed.
This is what is made by
time, temperature, water,
the patience of insect life
under the cover of peat
its acidity burnishing
earth’s black gold.
When the man with his
mechanical digger exhumed
the three bog oak logs
and shook me
by the shoulders.
Eternity is not hard won
or over in an instant.
What means the millennia
that was in the making?
Now the light and air
gives the appearance
of brittle bark
but let them stand in the rain -
their heart is ancient
and indissoluble as
In the Ireland -land of mists and rainbows, holy wells and magical woods you enter the realm of fairy.
They are known by many names - ’thin places’, thresholds between the worlds, fairy portals, liminal spaces. Ireland has many power places that draw on how whisper thin is the division between ‘our world’ and the fairy world. Some people refer to the Good Folk as the Little People or leprechauns who have a rather jolly reputation. Fairies (or faeries) are earth elementals. They were originally the Tuatha de Danaan, the mythic people who lived in Old Ireland who, after being defeated by the invading Milesians at the Second Battle of Moytura, went to ground (or underground).
They are often referred to as the sidhe, pronounced shee. Everyone has probably heard and shuddered just to be reminded of the legend of the banshee, but really the word is just a transliteration of the Irish word for fairy woman.
The Tuatha de Danaan first appeared on Slieve Anieran on the Cavan/Leitrim border. After they were defeated the legend shows that they headed back to this part of Erin to their original homeplace. Being earth elementals it makes this part of Ireland particularly fertile fairy hunting ground.
The photo I’ve posted was taken in the Cavan Burren Forest, which is a part of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, which is the first international, cross-border park in the world to earn this UNESCO designation.
The Geopark is in County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland and County Fermanagh in the Republic of Ireland. The Cavan Burren Forest has many examples of Bronze Age and Iron Age megaliths, cairns, dolmens, portal tombs and wedge tombs.
Burren means stony place in Irish. The Cavan Burren has been had human occupation since the first hunter gatheers left evidence of their flint tools on the shore of Lough MacNean. The geology of the landscape – limesetone, sandstone, mudstone and other sedimentary rock makes for a wildishly beautiful scenery. Those early ancestors made amazing burials. Amidst the lush and biodiverse flora and fauna you are likely to sense those ‘earth elementals’ or fairies.
The Calf Hut dolmen is an example of how people have adapted and worked with the landscape. Landscape is never standing still. It’s a work in constant progress. This dolmen started out as a portal tomb with the entrance at what some would consider ‘the back’ of it. A farmer adapted this collapsed tomb as a shelter for when his cow calved. ‘Hence the name ‘calf hut.’
Walking around the Cavan Burren Forest, the sense of the ancients brushing up against us in our modern day is palpable.
Real Irish Country Living:
You are now entering our Townland
“I’m heading back to rurality,”my first Irish boss Prin would say when he took his leave from my workplace in the town. The town had a thousand souls. It had banks, a few shops and other amenities – a library, a theatre/arts centre, cottage hospital, a sculpture studios and ‘resource centre.’ It was a friendly place where you would hear the familiar Leitrim “How ya?” as you walked down the main street about your business.
It was hardly the heaving metropolis we’d left behind when we moved to Ireland. And that was exactly what we needed.
Of course, when Prin was leaving ‘town’ he was announcing his imminent departure for his ‘townland.’ For anyone who has Irish heritage and does a ‘roots trip’ to Ireland, knowing your family townland is really important information. Towns may have administrative or economic significance, but if your ancestors were uprooted from the Irish countryside then that elusive piece of information may be the deal breaker on your ancestor hunt.
Let’s get this straight. A townland is NOT a town. It’s more like a hamlet, or a cluster of neighbouring dwellings that is in the Irish countryside that fringes the towns with their shops, banks, schools and other points of local focus. Towns have an administrative and economic function. Townlands are where Irish country living actually happens!
Townlands are uniquely Irish. In the townland were Tony and I settled there are four houses and a barn on one side of Lough Moneen and four houses, a cottage and another barn on the other. Before the mass immigration of the 1940s and 1950s there were scores of people living in the townlands surrounding our home village.
To add to the confusion our townland has an anglicized spelling on the house deeds but an Irish spelling on the Ordinance Survey maps! For folks who are on an Irish heritage trail this can compound the problems when they are trying to find an ancestral grave or the church where they may find the vital record to confirm family anecdote. This is where genealogical hunts in Ireland can get frustrating.
But it is in the Irish place names that you discern the beauty and personality of these remote places. Place names are so rich that they have a whole genre in Irish poetry, dindshenchas, that includes that particular Irish place’s folklore, sometimes right back to medieval times.
Just translating our townland underlines it’s unique ecology. We live in ‘the briary place’; it certainly applies to our acre! But those blackberries attest to the soil fertility, which we have benefited from as we developed our organic garden and cultivated our vegetables in a polytunnel.
There is a term in Irish literature that refers to women as ‘wildish.’ Our bit of Irish country life has that wildish element – from the south-westerly winds that sometimes rampage in from the Atlantic over Knocknarea, the drama of the aurora borealis reflected in the water of Lough Allen, the constant shifting of cloud and light and precipitation over Arigna or Cuilcagh mountains.
I could no more go back to city living – the traffic, the constant background noise, the crowds and hasty pace – then I could turn back the years. We have lived for ten years now and I am still learning new things, still having my eyes opened and heart moved by this magical sacred landscape. Irish country living – where Irish folklore comes alive in the very stones – is where my heart has truly come home.
In the first few years here I tried to do a ‘biodiversity survey’ just of the species I spotted along our lane. We have rare red squirrel as well as long eared bats, badgers, deer and pygmy shrew. That’s just the fauna. When I started on the flora I gave up when I passed eighty!
My partner has written elsewhere describing our little parcel of Ireland as an ‘acre of diamonds.’ In this blog I’m going to share some of that precious quality – the beauty, the peace, the inspiration both raw and rarefied – with you.
And yet no other corner of this land
offers in shape and colour all I need
for sight to torch the mind with living light.
John Hewitt, 1907-1987, “The Glens”
I am blessed to live in the loveliest of places. The light here in this corner of the land of Ireland Is, as Hewitt writes, a living light that invites the experience of delight.
It is, I think, a place that will remain largely untouched by the rollercoaster of progress. It offers me its shape- the rolling hills and drumlins- and the colour – ever changing – for the insight I long to receive and express.
In folk tales of Ireland it is told that the magical people called the Tuatha de Danaan arrived on the mountain where I look out at each morning from our small cottage living room window. Slieve Anierin, or Iron Mountain, is a magical landscape, especially in the early morning when the mist rises from the earth as the sun moves to bless the land with warmth.
The Tuatha de Danaan were called the Shining Ones and the exemplify the living light in the land. As the legend tells us, after being defeated at Moytura they literally went to ground and live in the fairy forts and raths that are scattered over the Irish landscape. The legacy of their magical light which is heart felt is especially strong in this part of the world.
The purpose of taking a vacation, or holiday (holy day) as we call it in Ireland, is to connect with a sense of wholeness. A vacation or holiday offers the possibility to see the beauty within yourself. It occurs on a day when you feel whole and the shape and colours of your life are reflected all around you. I
The part of Ireland has the pervasive spirit of those Beautiful People the Tuatha de Danaan who were driven underground. That is a metaphor that resonates with many a person’s life story. Many people find that they lock away their own light. If you decide to have a wholistic holiday or vacation, the attitude one journeys with can become infused by the living light of this place, and inspire you with delight. Delight is a great souvenir.
The ability to see the living light requires that you receive your sight. The eye of the heart looks onto Creation and is said most aptly by American poet e.e. cummings:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping green spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes.
e.e. cummings is looking through the experience of the living light. This moves from inside out. I requires a certain kind of stillness of mind and a certain kind of willingness to be colourful.
I invite you to come to this corner of Ireland so that it might offer you what you need. What we all need in these changing times is a kind of certainty. There can be certainty experienced within the journey to who we are as the wonder tale that is a living light.
This storyteller will tell you that this living light is all around you waiting for you to see it and feel it and be it. Some places invite your awareness of this living light more than others. Such is the corner of this island of Ireland where I live in awe of the amazing shapes and colours; all that is needed is for me to have the sight and allow that living light to touch my mind and delight my heart.
The Playbank – aka the Dog Mountain
In 2001 I found myself settling in an unexpected area of the world. It only goes to show that when some intuition tells to stop or turn left that you should always obey that instinct. We thought we were heading for one place but along the way were beguiled by another, quite different, but ultimately the absolute correct location for us.
Ten years ago in the wake of 9/11 I found myself emigrating from England to Ireland. This was my second country move, since I was born in the United States. My partner, Tony Cuckson, and I had lived in cities all our adult lives; but we were small town bred and we both had a hankering for space, a garden that was not 8” x 10” concrete, some quiet to be able to contemplate and have the spiritual growth that is characteristic of the middle years onwards. There had been a family bereavement in 2000 that had prompted us to question, “ What are we waiting for?”
Tony had gone ahead the week before with a van load of our belongings and the two dogs. It was autumn equinox at 4:55 that morning in 2001; I was just waking up to get myself and our feline household goddess Sophie ready for boarding the 6am train out of Leeds, West Yorkshire.
The first leg of our journey was on the spectacular and justifiably acclaimed Leeds-Settle-Carlisle railway line. By our first change of trains in Carlisle Sophie’s mournful meowing had simmered down to the occasional sob. However, all the Scots travelling to Glasgow made such a fuss over her that she began to think this emigration lark was okay. We changed again in Glasgow for the train to the Stranraer ferry. We smoothly sailed into Belfast Harbour where Tony’s twin brother Jeff picked us up.
A brief comfort stop at Jeff’s home in Holywood and we only had another two hours to go to arrive at our new home (which we then thought was just temporary) in Dowra, Co. Cavan. Tony had organised a rental house that was beside the River Shannon. As we travelled along the R207 for the last ten kilometres I was blown away by the beauty of Cuilcagh Mountain and the Playbank. Dusk was just settling. I was utterly enchanted by their indigo profiles. Fourteen hours from setting off Sophie and I arrived and had a happy reunion with Tony and our dogs Murphy and Pippin.
The region, previously sight unseen, bewitched me and I am still under the sway of its spell. I have heartfelt gratitude for which ever angel, faerie, goddess or deva lead us to find this home. Having spent the previous forty-five years as a nomad (first house move was at three-months old), the Land decided that it wanted to keep me. I’m grateful that the Land decided to like me, tough love me and cherish my spirit over this past decade.
I live in a place of ever shifting light and shadow, a place where diverse species thrive and delight the eye, ear and nose. This is a place of borders – being less than three miles as the crow flies with Northern Ireland and County Fermanagh. Half the village is in Leitrim and the rest in Cavan. Therefore we are also straddle the ancient kingdoms of Ulster and Connaught. It is a land of liminal places – holy wells and sweat houses, megaliths and powerful myth.
This is a very mystical part of Ireland and this area marks the boundary between the ancient kingdoms of Ulster and Connaught. There are rumours that there are the remnants in the village of the old earthwork fortification called the Black Pig’s Dyke. We are also in a little known kingdom of Briefne that is associated with the O’Rourke and Maguire clans.
We live four miles from the Shannon Pot, the very source of the River Shannon and also the home of the Salmon of Wisdom. It feels as if we have most assuredly arrived at the source. Living here and being nurtured in this landscape has lead me to become a tour guide to share with visitors to this mystic part of Ireland. Because, let me tell you, there are fairies in ‘them thar hills!’
Locals often refer to the family acreage a The Homeplace. For someone’s whose family skittered around various American states over several generations, this is is an alien concept. Although to my knowledge there are no atavistic blood tying me to this part of Planet Earth, the Earth itself has embraced me as if to say, ” This is your Home. This is your Place. You are Welcome.”
The Road to Our Homeplace