Thursday 23 March 2017

Walk of the Week: Rathdrum Woods, Co Wicklow

Christopher Somerville

On a hazy grey afternoon with mist on the Wicklow hills, Charles Stewart Parnell stared out from his plinth in Rathdrum's Parnell Park, a dewdrop on the end of his fine bronze nose. Nearby, a gentleman of uncompromising aspect was selling crockery from the back of a van.

We wished him luck and set out through Rathdrum, an old-fashioned shopping town where folk greet each other with the easy familiarity of those who've known each other all their lives.

A bunch of youngsters were fooling around the lanes on a motorised scooter. "The Famine graveyard? Down that lane and through the gate, mister." A walled shrine marks the spot. With nearby graveyards filled to overflowing, Famine victims were put to rest by the thousand in this field. At other times, people too poor to afford a churchyard plot were buried here.

This afternoon, the sloping, hummocky field was full of the smell of pine trees and the murmur of softly rushing water. An old Mass path led us on, following horseshoe prints and boot marks in among the muted sounds and colours of Ballygannon Wood.

Above dense thickets of holly climbed tall oaks, their crowns were insubstantial and misty in the day's low grey light. A rider, encountered at a crossing of tracks, loomed twice his size like a giant in a dream. There was something dream-like about the whole wood this afternoon, in fact, as though we had stepped through time's wall into a parallel, but not dissimilar, world.

Plucking and savouring juicy little bilberries, we went on beside the trickle of a tributary stream, down through the lower section of Ballygannon Wood and over a muddle of cut trees lying like green-haired maidens in a swoon across the track.

A noble idea is in process here. In response to late 20th-century fears that swathes of native woodlands were being recklessly felled, 16 'People's Millennium Forests', including Ballygannon Wood, were bought to be restored and "dedicated forever to the people of Ireland".

A native broad-leaved tree has been planted for every household in Ireland. How very much we need these woods to survive today's quick-buck imperatives.

Down in the depths of the wood we found the fast-rushing, slate-green torrent of the Avonmore River. There was a loud, chattery babble from the water-smoothed pebbles forming low islets midstream and along the undercut banks.

As we pushed our way through thickets of gorse and silver birch in already fading light, I wondered if this was the wide Avonmore in that lovely old song that goes to the tune of 'For Ireland, I'll Not Say Her Name', which Cathy Jordan of Dervish sings so beautifully.

"There's a home by the wide Avonmore, That will sweep o'er the broad open sea, And wide rivers their waves wash ashore, Whilst bulrushes wave to the breeze..."

It's hard to come by facts about the poet who wrote this bittersweet love song, dense with yearning for a happy home and hearth.

"Like a sick man that longs for the dawn, I do long for the light of her smile..."

If conjectures ever can be facts, then the songsmith was a Kerry schoolmaster, one Finneen Scannell, around the turn of the 19th century. Finneen had reason to yearn -- he hesitated too long to declare his love to his sweetheart, and returned home to find that his brother had married her instead.

Bittersweet indeed. But that didn't prevent me singing it to the splash and rumble of the river as we turned back home along the wide Avonmore.

csomerville@independent.ie

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