The celebrated Irish writer, John McGahern, lived and is buried close to the little house my parents have been slowly, slowly renovating over many years, in Co. Leitrim.
In his memoir, published the year before he died, in 2006, McGahern described the landscape of the area, so I thought I'd share a quote from it, which shows not only his deep connection to the land but an intimate knowledge of its seasons and the life brimming in the ancient hedgerows.
‘The soil in Leitrim is poor, in places no more than an inch deep. Underneath is daub, a blue-grey modelling clay, or channel, a compacted gravel. Neither can absorb the heavy rainfall. Rich crops of rushes and wiry grasses keep the thin clay from being washed away. The fields between the lakes are small, separated by thick hedges of whitethorn, ash, blackthorn, alder, sally, rowan, wild cherry, green oak, sycamore, and the lanes that link them under the Iron Mountains are narrow, often with high banks. The hedges are the glory of these small fields, especially when the hawthorn foams into streams of blossom each May and June. The sally is the first tree to green and the first to wither, and the rowan berries are an astonishing orange in the light from the lakes every September.
These hedges are full of mice and insects and small birds, and sparrowhawks can be seen hunting all through the day. In their branches the wild woodbine and dog rose give off a deep fragrance in summer evenings, and on their banks grow the foxglove, the wild strawberry, primrose and fern and vetch among the crawling briars. The beaten pass the otter takes between the lakes can be traced along these banks and hedges, and in quiet places on the edge of the lakes are the little lawns speckled with fish bones and blue crayfish shells where the otter feeds and trains her young. Here and there surprising islands of rich green limestone are to be found. Among the rushes and wiry grasses also grow the wild orchid and the windflower.
The very poorness of the soil saved these fields when old hedges and great trees were being levelled throughout Europe for factory farming, and, amazingly, amid unrelenting change, these fields have hardly changed at all since I ran and played and worked in them as a boy.’
On Wednesday evening, we walked some of these high-banked lanes gathering an armful of wildflowers - some old favourites and some whose names we were unsure of. We also carefully picked a handful of tiny, wild strawberries. Or 'Fairy Strawberries' as Sábha re-named them.
When the rain came down the following afternoon, we spent some time learning about Common Self-Heal, Meadowsweet, St. John's Wort, Horsetail and several types of the vetch promised to us by McGahern. I was amazed by the diversity we found along such a short stretch of road.
I'm no expert on wildflowers, but I think I'll always favour them over cultivated flowers. They just feel more precious somehow, even though they cost nothing. Like tiny miracles on the side of the road.
I live in an urban area and even though we 'get out into nature' often, I don't think I've ever seen such variety and abundance in one place before. I can't wait to go back.
Oh, and don't you think that this could be the perfect spot for a writer to set up camp:
I was recently accepted onto a mentorship programme for people who want to write Irish language children's books, which I was absolutely thrilled about. Now, I've found out that I was paired with my favourite publisher of Irish language children's books so I'm extra excited to get started. I believe all that may just mean I have the perfect excuse to steal away to this secret spot under the Iron Mountains as much as possible!