Walk of the Week: Mesolithic Loop, Lough Boora, Co Offaly
The mute swan came in low over Lough Boora and slivered its reflection into a million shards as it ploughed a furrow along the water. It was a dramatic image to start our walk through the boglands of Lough Boora.
The afternoon lay hot and windy under a mackerel sky as we set off along the causeway between the lakes. Strange shapes rose on our right, huge minimalist sculptures installed in the bog as part of the process of creating recreational parkland out of what was a scene of devastation not so long ago.
In the mid-20th century, Lough Boora was a 100-acre lake surrounded by bog, one of dozens such lakes in Co Offaly alone, a winking eye among thousands sprinkled across the great raised bogs of the Midlands. Then the turf-burning Ferbane power station began operating, the lake was drained and the bogs were stripped bare to feed its Moloch mouth.
Bord na Móna reckoned to harvest a million tonnes of dried milled peat every year from bogs with productive 'lives' (ironic term) of up to 50 years. When cutting ceased here at Lough Boora, 5,000 acres of cutaway bog lay open, a sludgy Passchendaele of a place.
Strolling along the paths this afternoon, it was hard to credit the former devastation. Buttercups and bird's-foot trefoil spattered the trackside verges among big heart-shaped leaves of butterbur. Dun and olive-coloured heather stretched away, patched with silver birch scrub and powdered with seedheads of bog cotton as white and feathery as swan's down.
Former drainage channels that had run like suppurating scars through the body of the bog were linear lakes of green water where electric-blue damselflies hovered. A big hare got up and went bounding away, its white scut bouncing as though a head of bog cotton had suddenly received the power of frantic movement.
Such are the new landscapes that are coming into being wherever the old commercially exhausted bogs are being restored for nature, and for leisure activities too: angling and bird watching, cycling and -- naturally -- walking.
We came to the Mesolithic site out in the heart of the bog. There wasn't much of an archaeological nature to see, but imagination did the job with a little prompting from the information boards. It was Joe Craven of Kilcormac, digging on the east edge of the lake in 1977, who unearthed what was thought at first to be a stone roadway. It was actually a storm beach on the shore of what had been an enormous Ice Age lake, and scattered along it were the charcoal heaps of hearths tended by hunter-gatherers some 9,000 years ago -- only about 1,000 years after the glaciers retreated. Nothing so rooted in deep time past had been suspected.
Around the hearths archaeologists found a whole mass of artefacts, including more than 400 blades of chert and flint, stone spear points, axe heads and the burnt bones of wild pig, hare, red deer, fish and birds.
Everything spoke of a hand-to-mouth existence for our ancestors, of a precarious hold on life in a world of water pools and lightly greened-over rubble heaps left behind by the retreating glaciers.
At least they didn't have the bogs to contend with -- those were only in their infancy, slowly growing as sphagnum moss took over from plants that couldn't reach down through the ever-thickening layers of peat to the life-giving water.
Beyond the Mesolithic site we entered a landscape of wide grasslands sown with clover and wheat to nourish a tiny and endangered population of grey partridges. Lough Boora Parklands are the only stronghold of Ireland's rarest resident breeding bird. The plump little scuttlers were well hidden today, but we did get a fine sighting of a beautiful fallow deer on our way back to the sculpture trail.
Kids were clambering joyfully all over the stones of Eileen MacDonagh's 'Boora Pyramid'. They swung off the upraised arm of Naomi Seki's 'A Tree in a Sculpture' and scurried through the twisty wicker tunnels of Patrick Dougherty's 'Ruaille Buaille'.
My favourite was the 'Sky-Train', an old rusty bog train which the installation artist Mike Bulfin had set across a mound in a wonderful cartoonish curve. Sitting in the engine-driver's seat and going choo-choo-choo seemed like the most natural way in the world to end this memorable walk in the Offaly boglands.