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Mossy skulls and city's wild weeds

Country Matters




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More than a quarter of a century after the bloody Battle of Aughrim on July 12, 1691, a number of big timber barrels containing moss-covered human skulls stood on the Liffey quayside awaiting shipment to England.

These mortal remains of thousands of soldiers of a defeated army had been cleared from the fields of the Horse Ridge where more than 6,000 Jacobite and Wlliamite troops had perished, and were awaiting a final humiliation of being ground down to make agricultural fertiliser. There were an estimated 4,000 Irish dead left on the field. The fatal casualties of Orange William's army were buried.

In 1726, a Dublin naturalist named Caleb Threlkeld noted the skulls while he was preparing a treatise on the flora of the city which became an original reference guide to plants growing on its green places, streets and back alleys.

Wild plants take root from wind-blown seeds and those passed through the intestines of animals. Old streetscapes of ruined buildings, crumbling walls and patches of waste ground can be homes to mini worlds of nature, the haunts of insects and birds.

In Dublin more than 50 years ago cattle arriving from Meath and the midlands to sales yards at Prussia Street were subsequently driven on the hoof to the North Wall for shipment to Britain. The beasts brought the countryside with them in their stomachs and left much of it behind for corporation street cleaners. Keen gardeners also helped themselves; horse manure was especially prized by rose growers.

Pasture plants such as greater and ribwort plantain, common eyebright, red bartsia, white clover and scarlet pimpernel are still evident today on waste ground with cow parsley, hogweed, wood avens and Herb Robert. Little space remains barren except where herbicides have been sprayed and where, as it was said of the horse of Attila the Hun (the 'Scourge of God'), grass never grew again where it had halted. The banks of the canals are rich in meadowsweet, lady's smock, yellow flag and wild angelica. Ragwort puts up yellow mops and wild oats and barley sprout from path fissures. Many other species arrived with grain shipments to the Guinness brewery.

One notable plant came from the Himalayas, Pere David's buddleja, the 'butterfly bush' which is widespread and popular because of its perfumed flowers and attraction to colourful Red Admirals, Peacocks and Painted Ladies. Its fingers of purple flowers consist of hundreds of drinking cups of nectar for bumble bees as well as butterflies.

Sunday Independent