IF ONE WERE TO listen to the naysayers and the woebegoners, it might seem that Ireland at the present time is a place of unrelieved gloom and doom, surviving in a climate of moaning and negativity. Yet, positivity is all around us, especially in the voluntary work of ordinary people in creatively contributing to the quality of life of all of us.
For a refreshing confirmation of this, just go for a walk in Glenbawn. Here, in a naturally beautiful area, a voluntary group has been working over a period of ten years, in restoring, and opening up to the public, an environmental gem.
Glenbawn (the White Glen) is situated in the townsland of Loughtally (Loch an tSaile - “The Salt Water Pond”) just two miles from the village of Marlfield. The site itself is a steeply wooded incline overlooking the Suir. The people of Marlfield have long known it as “The Rock”, more accurately “Malcolm’s Rock.” The older Gaelic-speaking people called it Dhun Uí Fhaoláin (“O’Phelan’s Fortress or Stronghold”). The Ó Fhaoláins were the ancient family of the area, described as Princes of the Decies. The Cistercian Abbey at Inishlounaght was founded in 1187 under the auspices of King Donald O’Brien and Malachy Ó Fhaoláin.
(All my translations have been taken from “The Place-names of Decies” itself an invaluable work in the voluntary recording of old Gaelic names by the Very Revd. P. Canon Power).
The slopes of Glenbawn were enhanced by the planting of many beautiful specimens of trees, with a variety of shrubs in the underplanting, when the area became part of the Bagwell Estate, from the mid 18th to the mid 20th centuries. Many of the deciduous parkland trees and trees in the groves of the estate are still extant.
Two of the Bagwell women, Henrietta and Fanny, were very enthusiastic planters of trees, and it is to their vision that we enjoy this beautiful landscape today. It was a very long-distance vision, because when they planted their saplings, they knew they would never live long enough to see the maturing of their work.
Glenbawn was criss-crossed with a maze of paths and tracks, all sensitively sited into the curvature of the terrain, all easily walkable, all leading down to the banks of the Suir. (The return walk is all uphill). The landscaping was probably inspired by the great English landscape gardener, Capability Browne. He believed in imitating nature in landscaping, rather than the very formal, geometric style then in vogue on The Continent.
Over the centuries, the paths and tracks were overgrown by brambles and invading laurel. Storms and time and neglect took their toll. And then, about ten years ago, a number of people met in Clonmel. They all shared an interest in the river and in conserving and enhancing the environs of the waterway, and in making access for the public as easy and as enjoyable as possible.
This meeting led to the formation of the Two Bridges Partnership - Forest and Parks Ltd. The bridges of the title are the Convent (Grenane) Bridge and Knocklofty Bridge. The partnership came largely from the Marlfield Village Community Association and the Workmens’ Boat Club in Irishtown, amongst other interested people.
The decision, taken by this small group, to restore the walking paths and tracks at Glenbawn could have been an overwhelming challenge, both in its concept and in its organisation. There was the task of ownership, of funding, of negotiating with interested parties, Coillte, County Council, FÁS and various state and environmental bodies. Above all, nothing could have been done without the wholehearted co-operation of adjoining landowners, a co-operation, together with some funding, that is warmly acknowledged by the partnership.
Having achieved, over time, that necessary amalgam between the official and the voluntary, the partnership started the hard physical slog. The participants in a FÁS programme, under the direction of Simon Molloy, have been steadily clearing the overgrowth. This has been augmented by the voluntary work of members of the Committee.
In tandem with all of this work, a survey of the flora and fauna, together with the identification and mapping of the tracks has been undertaken and recorded. Even after a ten-year period on the site, some new tracks have been located. The project has also been advanced by the voluntary work of the students of a Berlin school, who have come to the area over the past few years. Their accommodation has been arranged by the partnership.
Working with the natural environment, is always subject to the vagaries of nature itself. The storms of recent years have brought down many of the older trees, all of which have had to be removed. The work is ongoing, and in a way never-ending, but the achievements are already there to be enjoyed; a lovely tranquil, restorative walk under the magnificent trees, with a distant view of the Knockmealdowns, and a near-view of Knocklofty Bridge and the river, all framed in a setting which the originial planters of the trees must have envisaged in their minds eye.
And here, although they will not thank me for it, I feel I must name the members of the committee whose own vision and dedication deserves recording: Michael Boland, Joe Burke, Shay Hurley, Bernard Lennon, Michael O’Keeffe and Paddy O’Keeffe.
God Bless their work!