Remembering a sunny day

When two of my German teenage granddaaughters spent sometime in Clonmel last summer, they told me that the very first place they wanted to see was the 'deserted village'. I knew that this deserted village had no connection with Goldsmith's 'Deserted Village' in the midlands. It was not really a village at all, but scattered clusters of ruined houses in the beautiful valley of Glenary in the Comerage foothills.

When two of my German teenage granddaaughters spent sometime in Clonmel last summer, they told me that the very first place they wanted to see was the 'deserted village'. I knew that this deserted village had no connection with Goldsmith's 'Deserted Village' in the midlands. It was not really a village at all, but scattered clusters of ruined houses in the beautiful valley of Glenary in the Comerage foothills.

They had spent much time in the hills when they were small children, picking blackberries, playing hide-and-seek, sliding over damp rocks into streams; shrieking with excitement, laughing with joy and pleasure.

So, one very sunny, very warm day in late August, we walked to Glenary. We did not go directly over the hills at Scrouthea, but via Kilmacomma, and the old wandering track which had once been the main access to the village.

We took this route because it is now only accessible in a very dry summer.

In other seasons of the year (and even in a rainy summer) it is deeply rutted, flooded, overgrown, with patches of the most viscous mud, from which it becomes difficult to extract any walking boot.

There were five of us, two grandparents, a daughter, the two granddaughters, all walking single-file through the narrow boreen, holding to one side the long brambles, to allow each other to pass.

Pennyworth filled the chinks in the old loose stone walls; masses of foxgloves grew on the clay-banks.

I did what I normally do - I gave a running commentary on the history and geography of the terrain. Even long suffering daughter now knows that making visual eye-contact to tell me to 'shut up' no longer works.

I told them where, well over a century ago, the Baggs family lived on the turn of the boreen. No evidence of their home now remains, except a modern gate which replaced the old wooden-gate entrance to their farmyard.

We took a left turn, by-passing the track to the stream, where stepping stones lead to another track and Hogan's house on the north-facing side of the valley, now Coillte woodland.

There were no bumps in the landscape which could be identifiedl as once the homes of the O'Gormans and the Houlihans. Time and luxuriant summer growth had blotted them out. But a little further on, having crossed a dry gully, which becomes a raging streamlet in winter, we came to our first identifiable clochan, the ruins of a housing cluster where once the Lyons, the Maguires, the Hallihans and the Currans lived.

The clochan was a feature of the Comeraghs, groupings of houses which shared a common entrace or a farmyard. These were a feature of the Highlands of Scotland, obliterated when the lairds, in converting their lands into sheep-walks, evicted their tenants in the infamous 'Clearances' of the 18th century. And thus began the significant and influential Scottish communities in Canada.

Granddaughters, thoughtful and silent, stepped over mounds of loose stones to look at old fireplaces, now filled with ash sapplings, and stood in the gaping doorway of what was once Elly Gorman's barn, for a photograph.

From here on the boreen narrows and containing walls have collapsed, but we did make our way to the still identifiable (and only just) clochan, the group of houses which belonged to the Burkes, the Mulcahys and the Healys.

Tom Burke was the last inhabitant of the valley. He was a gentleman, well known to us hill-walkers, who would call whenever we passed by. His house was picture-postcard; thatched roof, white walls, red door, surrounded by tall hollyhocks. With his dog, Jess, for company, he lived there until the early 1960s and was only a few days in hospital when he died.

The community of which he was a member numbered 56 im the census of 1901, most of whom spoke only Irish. The Burkes and the Ireland family, living higher up the hillside, spoke English.

The valley children went to Russellstown school. The Ireland children, climbed the hill, walked over the Old Bridge and attended the Model School in Western Road. Jessie Ireland, the last of the family, was postmistress in Kilmeaden where she died about ten years ago.

We had to take a detour through the small sloping fields to reach the last house, Walshes, where Sycamores now grow through what was once a roof.

So how, Oma, granddaughters asked (when I had stopped my spiel) "do you know all of this?" Well, I researched old estate records, I told them, but most of what I know is what Ben Guiry told me. He put names on the dots on my map. He knows more about this valley (and other Comeragh valleys) than anybody else alive. He knows the habitations, the land divisions, the traditions, the customs; he even knows the ghosts, I said.

"The ghosts", said granddaughters with a shiver. So I told them about the most feared ghost, the very big white dog that comes silently out of the mists and has always been a messenger of death and tragedy.

It will be just my luck, I thought, if some white mongrel, escaping from its owner, will jump over a ditch and spoil my scary atmospheric apple-cart. But none did.

We were all strangely quiet (even me) as we retraced our steps over the old tracks. Warmed by the sun, and wrapped in the tranquility, the peace, the beauty, the sadness and the sweetness of this unique place, we reached Kilmacomma again in complete silence.

And something tells me that the memory of Glenary will find a place in the recesses of granddaughters' memories, to be recalled again when they are much older. Just as it has stayed in the forefront of my memory, to be recalled durng these bleak winter days.