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Walk of the Week: Cullahill mountain, Laois/Kilkenny


'My father would have brought the cows up and down this path," said Vincent O'Sullivan, pointing up the slope of Cullahill Mountain.

The narrow track, newly provided with steps by workers of the Rural Social Scheme, rose steeply through the bare hazel woods -- more steeply than one could imagine a clumsy herd of cattle negotiating safely.

Up it climbed the merry men and women of Laois who'd come out to show us their favourite walk -- Noel Mooney and Ann Lanigan, Kieran Holland and G Phelan, and brothers Vincent and Liam O'Sullivan, organic farmers and dedicated enthusiasts for their native countryside.

At the crest of the mountains the wind blew cold and harsh. The Slieve Bloom mountains in the north west veiled their charms under smoking, slaty clouds; so did the Comeraghs and Galtees away in the south west, the Blackstairs and Wicklow Hills to the east. "You'll have to come back on a beautiful day in summer and take it all in," said Ann Lanigan. But we didn't begrudge the Clerk of the Weather his sulks today.

"A monument bush," said Liam O'Sullivan, indicating a cone of dry stones enclosing an ancient whitethorn. "There's precious few of these in Ireland. It's to commemorate Cormac Fitzpatrick of Cullahill Castle -- you see it there below." The broken tooth of the castle stood up from chequerboard fields.

"Fitzpatrick wouldn't submit when Cromwell's men came, so they sacked the castle, chased him up here and cut him down with swords."

Near the monument rose the shaggy walled mound of a rath, its wind-crippled thorn trees footed in a scurf of neatly nibbled shells where pigmy shrews had feasted on the kernels of haw berries.

We walked the high curve of Cullahill's escarpment and dropped down into a crooked roadway. The mossy remains of houses, half hidden in the ash thickets, lay long abandoned -- but not so long that their former inhabitants had faded out of local memory.

"Bridget Holland," mused Liam, his hand on a curlicued gate. "People would come here to play cards. There was always a great smell of currant bread, and she'd a name for the best apple pie anywhere around."

A tight cluster of empty cottages behind Mrs Holland's house held empty fire grates, stone flagged floors, a rusty scythe blade, a scatter of pig's knuckle bones hidden in the roof lintel.

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"Murphys and Whelans lived here. Murphy would come in, take off his boots, put his feet up on his wife's lap, and she'd darn his socks for him, still on his feet."

On into Kilkenny and cloud-topped Binnianea Forest. Deep among the trees we found the tumbledown house where the O'Sullivans' grandfather had been born, seventh son of a seventh son. His own son was a curer of toothache -- an inconvenience at harvest time, said Liam, because of the interruptions that swollen-cheeked sufferers would cause as they came begging for a touch of his healing hands in those pre-Health Service days.

Back in Laois we passed the new house being built where Zulu Murphy had once farmed (he'd served in the Boer War) and descended an old walled Mass path. Only a generation ago, the farm wife had climbed this boreen daily from the milking pastures below with a full bucket on her head, balanced on a pile of her own waist-length hair.

A haunting and poignant image to carry from the mountain to the wider world below.


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