Who would have thought that a book of 375 pages could be written about the annual picking of the wild whorts crop (pronounced “hurts” in some areas of south Tipperary)? Who would have thought that such a book could encompass the scholarly, the scientific, the economic, the social, the recreational, story of an activity in a time and place in recent Irish history?
Improbable as it may seem, such a book has been written and copiously illustrated, by Michael J. Conry under the title “Picking Bilberries, Fraocháns and Whorts in Ireland.” It is sub-titled “The Human Story,” and primarily that is what it is - the story of generations of people who harvested nature’s abundant crops, available freely. And while this book concentrates on the whort crop other harvestings included, in season, elderberry (blossoms and fruit), blackberries, damsons, sloes, crab apples and berried holly at Christmastime. Activities which are light-years removed from the vulgar extravagances of the Celtic Tiger years!
This is a charming, easily readable, un-put-downable book, especially if one comes of a generation with the inherited memory of the picking of the whort crop which once grew in profusion in sunny upland valleys and on the ditches of boreens and the lower moorland of our hills and mountains. Although it is now grown commercially, it is an endangered species in its wild state, because of the dense growth of Sitka Spruce and Lodgepole pine in our national woodlands, a destiny which is unsympathetic to any undergrowth.
Michael J. Conry, the author of this fascinating book, is a scientist, who has already written many scholarly texts on soils and related subjects. His writings have taken him easily from the academic and the scientific into the traditional, the local and the practical, in his studies on grinding stones, culm crushing, fencing, dancing and landscape. And the same delightful mix is taken into his book on bilberries/fraocháns/whorts. He looks at the botany, and health-giving properties. (We now expensively import the berries and add them to our morning cereal in the belief that they are “good for us.” And they are!).
The variety of names by which the berry is known is explored: baleberry, heatherberry, whinberry in Ulster, fraochán and bilberry in north Leinster, whorts (hurts) and whortleberry in Munster, with variations on county borders and even between nearby towns and villages.
The areas of harvesting cover the highlands of south Wicklow, the Blackstairs, Slievenamon, the Comeraghs, Galtees and Knockmealdowns, and even the precise valleys and woodlands which were most productive for pickers. And for this reader, it is the pickers and the dealers who “make” this unique book; their stories and experiences, their photographs, their families, their enterprise and their resourcefulness.
In this area of research the author has contributed a most valuable contribution to the knowledge of the social historians of the future. Why did people devote their summers to harvesting a fruit which was not easily accessible and which required long walks and climbs (and, as in the case of some Carrick-on-Suir harvesters, a boat journey on the Suir)? Because many were poor, and the money they made put food on the table, winter boots on children, schoolbooks in schoolbags.
There were, of course, the incidental pleasures: the sunshine (when the sun shone!), the fresh air in attractive countrysides, the companionship. Some families from Carrick actually camped (in make-shift tents) in the vicinity of the whort-friendly Gurteen Woods in Kilsheelan. Grandparents “minded” the young children, and prepared the evening meal while parents and older children harvested.
There were, of course, the hazards: the occasional wasps’ nest, and the possibility of children “getting lost.” The picture of the nest, something with which most of us would be unfamiliar, is a thing of beauty in its construction, a multi-coloured piece of sculpture.
The occupants of streets in towns, and sections of townslands, had their own special picking grounds. The Old Bridge in Clonmel favoured Canon Hill and Glenary, where every year, I pick a few handfuls of now very scarce whorts, which I freeze, and from which I make a pie at Christmas, convincing myself that I am recapturing the smell of summer.
Then there were the buyers, the Prendergasts of Kilsheelan, the Holloways of Carrick-on-Suir, the Kavanaghs of Parnell Street and the Smiths of O’Neill Street in Clonmel. The produce, when cleaned and packed, was collected and shipped by Tipperary Products - the Grubbs of Castlegrace. The export market in Britain was particularly good during World War I and again there were boom market years during the 1940s.
Almost every page of this book is illustrated by pictures, old photographs of children and families, of smiling weddings, and of old men and women remembering their whort-harvesting youthful days. Michael J. Conry has done a remarkable job in the collection of these pictures (many of the people who have now died) and in recording their stories.
This is a book to make you laugh and cry. It is both factual and it is sentimental. But, above all, it is a record of enterprising people, who availed of opportunities and made their lives better. As such, it is a social document which should find its place on the local history shelves of every public library.
(‘Picking Bilberries, Fraocháns and Whorts in Ireland - A Human Story’ by Michael J. Conry. Published with the financial support of Kilsaran Concrete).