Introduction to an Unknown Mountain
If you like your landscapes to rise up and assault the eye with purple crags and white cumulus clouds above solitary thatched cottages, a dark Atlantic and a rich black bog, then Paul Henry has them well documented on canvas and the West still has them in reality. The Slieve Bloom mountains are not representative of this type of experience, being low gentle hills, that straddle part of the Laois and Offaly border and are, some may say, mercifully unimpressive to the tourist routes that pass to the south and south-west. Few visitors have yet been drawn into the area and this Cotswold-like backwater has remained relatively undisturbed. Unusually attractive villages circle the base of the mountain and stand guard over the entrances to its valleys, while huge commercial forests protect the secrets of the mountain. The battles, the burials, the abandoned villages, the unnamed waterfalls and the half believed, half forgotten, folklore, these are the ghosts of the midland mountains hiding in the silence of the hill-folds and valleys.
But more than this, there is a variety of life in the Slieve Blooms. In summer the luxuriant growth of forest and heather supports a diverse animal population and, always in the background, the muffled sound of running water or the whine of the chain-saw deep in the forest. Below, the villages continue a routine that has changed little over the years. Tractors are repaired at the local garage, provisions are collected at the general store, conversations are conducted from cars halted in the middle of the road, children come and go from school.
Yet this timeless quality belies the speed with which the folklore of the area is disappearing. Little has been committed to paper, and those who knew of life in the mountains before the forests came are becoming more difficult to find and their memories less clear as they try to recall the past. To the academic and the curious day-tripper this may well be an intolerable and deplorable situation; to the romantic with his head-in-the-clouds, and to the explorer, this uncharted haven may well prove the answer to their prayer ~or a quiet sort of place to spend a few idle days.
In a working capacity my first memories of the Slieve Blooms were during the hot summer of 1974 looking for one of a series of waterfalls that had been variously located by local foresters as being somewhere up the GlenbaTrow Valley above the village of Rosenallis. Burton and Speak would have thought little of this journey; to our little party (I was accompanied by Brian Healion and Kathleen Creagh from Rosenallis) as we were forced by the encroaching forest to pick our way in wellingtons up the river bed itself, it was charged with unknown dangers. As we followed the stream up toward its source we discovered hidden pools amidst increasingly noisy rapids, huge boulders that must have been thrown during 'flash floods' of great intensity and, eventually, the hissing waterfall itself.
To us, the sight of this cascade had the same impact as a sudden encounter with any of the great waterfalls of the world would make, and as we corrected in pencil the errors in the Ordnance Survey Sheet, we were already discussing the next weekend's incursion to find the old mill and the smaller waterfalls further up the valley. Over the next week in one way and another I was to discover the explanation for the flexible bow in the leg's of many foresters in these parts. Years of dropping from one planting furrow to the next will develop this natural suspension!
To the genuinely interested, locals will make available a confusion of information. For example, the forester who led us to the mill also led us on unsuccessful attempts to find 'Grants Cave up on the Capard Ridge above the Glenbarrow River (Grant, a highwayman had been hanged without revealing the cave he swore contained enough treasure to "buy the whole of Laois and Offaly"). It's up there somewhere; a group of locals swore they found it a few years ago but no one could ever get a torch or candle to give light beyond a certain depth. The 'Hermits Cell', is supposed to lie only a few hundred yards into the forest above our waterfall, but we never did get round to looking for it. The 'cell' is supposed to be a small cave with barred entrance to house a tenant of the Capard Estate who refused to pay rent. Some say he was mad already, some say he turned mad with the conditions. The story differs, but he was seen by too many people for it to be untrue. And French muskets found in long abandoned cottages and Hugenot coins unearthed by forestry workers recently planting above the Glen-barrow Valley support the theory of a battle at the base of the valley and the remains of a defeated army scrambling up the river.
Nicholas Dunne is the last farmer you will meet before
entering the Glenbarrow Valley and he will tell you of times when people
lived in the mountain and when the mill was still grinding local corn
for bread. Days when the journey to Mass was a trek that lasted from six
in the morning until six at night and when winter could get so bad that
a horse and cart could not enter the valley are still recalled. In these
conditions a death would necessitate the coffin being carried many miles
off the mountain, shoulder high. On this same mountainside the massive
antlers of an Irish Giant Deer were found preserved in the bog. They now
hang in the hall of Capard House, a monument to those huge noble beasts
that could stand up to ten feet to the tips of its horns and were finally
driven from Ireland when the rich grasslands became broken by the frosts
of over 10,000 years ago.
But a word of advice. I have told you almost nothing, the real stories you have to get yourselves; and no better place to start than the pubs of Cadamstown, Clonaslee, Rosenallis or Kinnitty. But then why should the stranger believe the stories told by locals, hidden in the shadows of the back bar of pubs like Giltraps? To what extent should you heed the end of that local rhyme;
However, patient observation will yield its own returns, but only with more than a little luck will you see the wheeling circles of the hen harriers searching for prey high above the mountainside. If you listen for that metalic tinkle of chains in the forest then you might observe the gentle strength of those massive forestry horses dragging logs from places machinery cannot reach. But only when attempting to take a short-cut on a prohibited forestry road in the dead of night will you be frightened out of your skin, skidding your car to a halt beneath the -dark mass of a fully grown stag. And as the lights hit his startled staring eyes will you see him wink knowingly in that second before he turns and disappears into the blackness of the forest?
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