IT WAS A COLD FROSTY morning in January, but as a bright sun rose in a low eastern sky, the frost melted, the mist over the river dissipated, and the Suir Valley was filled with a golden light. It was one of those days when, decades ago, while working and child-rearing, I would have told myself that it would be so good to go for a long walk in the hills.
But that was impossible. Work had to be done. Children were coming from school, hungry for a hot meal. The laundry was knee-high. The ironing was head-high. The windows were covered in a layer of dust. These were all the small tyrannies of life; the things that had to be done; the tasks that needed to be completed; the responsibilities of earning a crust.
On that recent January morning, now freed from all of those imperatives, there were other inhibitions: the twinge in the hip; the depleted (age-related) energy; the stinging cold. And the weather forecasts! The swirling isobars on the TV weather charts told of gales and ice and snow and flooding. The lot! And there was the competing comfort of the insulation in which we are all now cosseted, the warmth and brightness of home.
But after an inner argument with myself (will I? won’t I?) I went for a walk in that lovely country of the Comeragh foothills so convenient for us who live in Clonmel. And it was glorious.
My route took me on a track through the woods on Canon Hill, over an area where the storms of last January and February uprooted swathes of trees. Then I came to a more open area where a steep downhill incline opened up a view of the rich farmland underneath, bordered by Mount Neill. The air was clear, the sun was bright and I could see the rocky summit, known to Clonmel people as Bagwell’s Folly.
The folly, now long collapsed, took the form of a small observatory built by the Bagwells of Marlfield to mark the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. The entire area of the summit is surrounded by a band of coppiced oak, now happily preserved as a special feature, by Coillte. Just to the right of where I stood in the woodland, the village of Marlfield was lit up by a low sun. And I recalled how influential the Cistercian Abbey of Inishlounaght has been on the story of this landscape.
According to the Cistercian historian, Fr. Colmcille Conway (of Clonmel), place-names such as Kilnamack, Kilmanahan, Kilmacomma, Kilronan, have their origins in the Cille - the small oratories, the tiny chapels, built by the monks. Every morning, some monks would cross the Suir to farm their very substantial land-holdings on the southern side of the river. They built the cille so that they could observe their several periods of daily prayer, without the necessity of returning to the monastery. In time, Kilronan, especially, would appear to have grown into a separate parish church, the ruin of which still stands.
A diversion from the track in the woodland took me to an old boreen, external to the wood, and once the route taken by the “hill people” to their work in Clonmel. A short walk to the ridge and there before me lay the splendid landscape of Tipperary’s Golden Vale. On that clear January day, I could see the source of the Suir in the Devil’s Bit and the grey bulk of the Rock of Cashel, with its nearby wooded ringworks which probably predated the Rock itself. In the town below me, the old towers of the Friary, and Old St. Mary’s, and the spires of St. Mary’s (Irishtown) and Ss. Peter & Paul’s still dominated the architectural skyline.
I turned southwards again and walked the boreen towards Glenary Valley, where the January sun had not penetrated and the small fields, enclosed in lose stone walls, were still frost-white. It is a place much loved by one of my German grandchildren. “It’s so romantic,” she says. But life must have been very hard for the 50 people who are recorded as living there in the 1901 census. Now the valley is deserted. I recalled, with nostalgia, the last inhabitant, that truly charming gentleman, Tom Burke...
By now I had reached the road, and the final loop in my circular walk. My route took me by the boundardy of Glen Abbey, where copses of beech were bathed in a sort of winter purple glow. I reached the summit on the road, and the view opened up again to the snow-topped Knockmealdowns, the Galtees and the Suir, now reflecting a setting sun. I told myself that January wasn’t as wicked a month as they say it is, especially if you take it by the scruff of the neck and challenge it.
But these high spirits were deflated as I walked downhill to Caherbaun. The deep roadside ditch had become an ugly elongated dump. I counted four plastic dustbins, filled with garbage, deposits of cans and bottles on an industrial scale, and mounds of domestic garbage.
And I wondered why we, with a history of fighting and dying for Ireland, of singing and weeping into our beer about its beauties, are so destructive of our countryside. Have we inherited some toxic recessive gene, some inherent nasty blind-spot, that makes us so insensitive to our unique and very accessible environmental heritage:? Does anybody know.