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Dark thorn of the plum kind


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I had inquired at the eclectic Secret Book and Record Store on Wicklow Street, Dublin, about an old Ceirnini Claddaigh recording of The Lass of Aughrim by Dolly MacMahon, a famous traditional singer.

This was during the Bloomsday weekend - although Joyce quotes the ballad in the story, The Dead, from Dubliners - rather than any event during the peregrinations of the advertising salesman Leopold B.

Those who may have viewed John Huston's marvellous film will remember the song as sung by Frank Patterson, although the sean-nos style is quite different and I recall some varying opinions about the air.

That's for another discussion and far from field hedgerows (what's left of them) and the state of the blackthorn, blossom of spring frosts gone and harbinger of dark fruit to come, and recall another Connemara song, An Draighnean Donn: "Ta mo ghra-sa mar bhlat a n-airne ar an draighnean donn (my love is like the flower in the dark blackthorn)."

William Cobbett's "thorn of the plum kind" (Prunus spinosa) had put out dense clusters of flowers in spring and, come August to October, will display firm, rounded blue-black plums called sloes, of purple bloom and bitter flesh, which can become an essential ingredient in an interesting liquor.

Cobbett, who was a fearless Englishman and a friend of Ireland, came to our shores in 1834 with the plan of writing a book on Anglo-Irish relations, but he died before its completion. Much of his work survived, however, powerful denunciations of the conditions he witnessed in pre-famine Ireland. Some targets of his pen were tithes, absentee landlords and the Act of Union.

Fame had come to Cobbett, a Westminster MP, from a book of travels through Britain called Rural Rides. His Irish experiences may be found in Cobbett in Ireland: A Warning to England published in 1984 (Lawrence and Wishart).

These past unsettled days have seen swallows resting from insect gathering, a complacent jackdaw shaking its feathers as it left a chimney pot and young woodpigeons in laundered livery eagerly probing a fresh sward.

I don't have a blackthorn to hand - hazel and ash-plant to fall back on - but I remember the thorns in house hall-stands, with firm handgrips, usually carried by uncles.

I once lived in a townland called Rathdrinagh (a fort of thorns) and thought of Heaney's poem about Mad Sweeney who was tormented by the dense growths which bespeak of darkness and fierceness but also of the strength and power of women. I did not have great fortune there and wondered if I had cut a stick at the wrong time - May or November - when 'lunantishees', the thorn's protectors, can cause problems.

The lunan is the leannan sidhe or fairy lover who can seduce men, who before expiring, however, may acquire poetic inspiration! This hedgerow symbol of female beauty carries a price and it is no surprise its Ogham consonant means sulphur - so some care is required when seeking to cut a stout cudgel "to banish ghosts and goblins on the rocky road to Dublin". It should last a lifetime.

Sunday Independent