I read somewhere recently about the restorative power of bluebells, namely seeing a sea of them in the woods. It must have been part of one of the Sunday supplements. I’ve been reading English-language newspapers again – the kind that smell of newsprint. I’d forgotten what that was like.
And then, barely a week later, a mate told me about the bluebells and the wild garlic in Killinthomas Woods, Co. Kildare. Sadly, I was too early for the full blue, but what I saw had promise. Lots of promise. I could smell the wild garlic – gorgeous. [The featured photo is of Killinthomas in bloom by local photographer Karen Wade – with thanks.]
I didn’t pick any though. I’m a tad superstitious and wouldn’t want to test the old adage that it’s unlucky to have bluebells in the house. Even as a kid, I never picked them for fear I’d be nabbed by the goblins. And I’m still here. That’s all that counts for proof these days. As we walked one of the paths, we spotted some fairy gardens. I assume it is some sort of local initiative, one that passed me by but apparently it’s been around for years.
Not playing favourites or anything, I liked the fact that Gabriella’s is made from all-natural materials. What a talented woodcarver she is. Now that I’ve rediscovered my inner child, I’m planning on making one of my own. I remembered one I’d seen in the churchyard in the village at home and things slowly began to make sense. Of course, the fairies would come out during lockdown.
I was taken with the huts, too. I can see one of those coming in useful back in the village. Somewhere I could go to get away from the place I went to get away. Yes, it’s all making sense.
As we walked, we saw signs for a camp. I had no idea what the ruins were or why they were notable. I didn’t make the connection to the bog we’d passed on the drive over. Further reading told me of the Turf Camps, built back in the day to house the men who came from all over Ireland to cut turf in the bog. Pinhole Obscura did a piece on it back in 2014 – they got beyond the Do not Enter signs and found the story.
Back in 1940s Ireland, work was scarce. Scarcer than coal. Sean Lemass, then Minister for Industry and Commerce, found a way to remedy both scarcities – send men to cut turf in the Bog of Allen and ship it to Dublin. With plenty of labour and too few beds, turf camps were set up to house the migrant workers. Bord na Móna has a wonderful extract on its Living History site that tells of what life was like in the camps.
The meals consisted of a breakfast with rashers, sausages and some black pudding. Fried eggs were served only on Fridays. Dinner was usually stew and potatoes, with the occasional ham and cabbage (A rare delicacy!). On leaving for the bog in the morning the tea boys were supplied with rations of tea, depending on how many men they had to look after. It was their job to light a fire and boil the cans. Each man received a ration of uncut bread and butter. That was their lunch. If they could pick up some rashers etc. in the local shop, they could do a fry on the stoves in the huts.
Many’s a local woman found a husband at the Sunday night dances organised to keep the lads entertained. It’s a fascinating read. I hadn’t realised that the nearby village of Coill Dubh was purpose-built to house the families of the workers in the camps. Who knew? I have fond memories of a trip to the bog with my dad many moons ago and still love the smell of a turf fire.
It wasn’t until later, though, passing through the village of Rathangan, that my day was really made. We stopped at the bridge to have a look-see at the canal – I’ve a canal thing going right now – and spotted a memorial to local poet William A. Byrne.
Byrne had the dubious fame of succeeding the executed Thomas McDonagh as assistant professor of English at UCD in 1916. Those must have been weird shoes to fill. I can only find one of his poems online, strangely titled The Boglands and not The Purple Heather as the plaque says. I wonder if this is a case of one mistake being replicated on the Net.
Kathleen Benson wrote him up for the Kildare History Journal back in 2016 and had this to say:
Poet, lecturer and scholar of many literatures, the brilliance of his mind impressed all who came to know him. At the age of three he was reading and at the age of nine he was writing his first poem. During college days he won many exhibitions and no student passed through college halls with higher marks or greater distinction. He went to Cambridge in 1915 and took an Honours degree with such brilliance that he was selected for the Chair of English at Friburg. War intervened and the Chair was not filled. He was also entitled to become Tutor to the Royal family, but being a Catholic this he declined.
What a guy. If you have a copy of The Village, I’d love to read it.
I’m grateful for the gift that keeps on giving, that innate curiosity, that need to know more. It can unravel the smallest piece of information into a complete learning experience.