(by Gerry Moss, from IMC Newsletter Spring 1998)
A little crag in Co. Cavan, the charming local people, and the effects of rural depopulation.
‘They are going, going, going, from the valleys and the hills,
they are leaving, far behind them, heathery moors and mountain rills,
all the wealth of hawthorn hedges, where the brown thrush sways and trills.’
I first visited The Playbank nearly twenty years ago, while on a cycling trip in the area with my wife. We left our bikes at the first cottage in the lane and rambled on up the long boreen towards the McNiff farm. As luck would have it Mrs. McNiff was at the farm-gate, surveying the countryside spread out before her, while her sons hovered protectively in the background. A tiny woman, with lively eyes and a light step that belied her eighty-odd years of age, then, as every other time I met her, she was wearing a navy blue pinafore dotted with white florettes, the sleeves of her cardigan rolled up, the hair tied back neatly in a bun, the epitome of the rural woman-of -the-house of byegone days. Within minutes of meeting her we were invited up to the house for a cup of tea, the first of many such invitations. The house was small, snug and well-kept. A fire was burning brightly on the hearth and a black kettle, quietly singing, hung from a crook in the chimney-nook. This ever-ready kettle was the hall-mark of the McNiff household, for they were all inveterate tea-drinkers. In latter years they scorned the use of a tea-pot, the tea-leaves being spooned directly into a mug, followed by water from the boiling kettle. We were never allowed pass by the door at the end of a day’s climbing without an invitation to come in for a mug of this refreshing brew and, as often as not, would come away carrying armfuls of freshly-cut rhubarb as a parting gift. At first sight it would seem that the route to the crag, which ran through their farmyard, was an invasion of their privacy but, rather than resenting our intrusion, they welcomed it. They showed great interest in all that was happening at the crag and in all visitors to it. During the mid-eighties we held several week-end meets to The Playbank, camping on a little site at the top of the hill-field, courtesy of the McNiffs.
After a lapse of several years I visited the crag again in 1992, in the company of Liam, who been there previously, and Emily and Frank, for whom it was a first visit. Outwardly things in Moneenterriff looked the same : the pillars of the farm-gate had received their annual coat of whitewash, the cottage roof had been newly painted and the two dogs came forward as usual to greet us (it was always two: one old, one young; one all tail-wagging and welcoming, one all bark and bluster). But there had been changes. Mrs. McNiff had died, God rest her and, with her passing, the sons had scattered. Only one remained now, a quiet, easy spoken man, he had returned from twenty years of working in Cricklewood to nurse his mother through her last years. He chided us gently for not bringing the car into the yard, then, throwing on a jacket, stepped out along the path with us. Before parting from us he extracted a promise that we would call in for a drop of tea on our way out.
We had a good day, opening up a new section of the crag, with everyone putting up at least one route and it was a tired bunch that wended it’s way down to the house as dusk fell. The dogs heralded our approach and he was there, framed in the doorway, as we entered the yard. A fire blazed brightly on the hearth but the black kettle was gone, a gleaming electric kettle, flanked by a row of mugs, now gracing the dresser.
"I’ll leave you to do the honours, Emily, for you’ll have the woman’s touch" he said, with all the naive innocence of your rural bachelor, "the tea-caddy and biscuits are on the dresser and the spoons are in the drawer."
Sitting himself down then, he proceeded to entertain the men with stories of life in Cricklewood, happily unaware of the storm in a tea-cup brewing in the corner behind him: of the dagger looks being directed at the back of his head; the furrowed brow; the pursed lips and the little nose very much out-of-joint. I tried not to smirk too broadly as a mug of tea was slammed down on the table in front of me, but can I help it if I have a sunny disposition?
"It’s just soooh difficult to get decent staff now-a-days," I murmured gleefully, as she swept past in high dudgeon. My, but that really was ‘the cup that cheers’. The two lads, meanwhile, had slipped into their roles with consummate ease. Frank, having declared himself to be totally exhausted, was sprawled full length on the sofa, a mug on the floor by his head, a plate piled high with Mikado biscuits balanced delicately on his stomach. With an impressive display of the tenacity and grit for which he is renowned, he rallied sufficiently to launch an attack on the biscuits, not ceasing in his labours until the plate was clean as a whistle. Where does he put it all?
Liam, having commandeered a throne-like chair in the corner, surveyed the room from this lofty vantage point with an air of gravitas, gracing the chair with sartorial, nay, princely elegance: the purple anorak draped tastefully over the shoulders in the manner of an episcopal cape; the legs comfortably crossed; the hand holding the mug raised as though in benediction, with the little finger, cocked imperiously, pointing sternly, reprovingly, across the room in my direction.
"Well, now, but that was a real lifesaver, just what the doctor ordered," I said slyly, making a great show of draining the mug.
"Sure, you’ll have another one so," the good man promptly responded, taking the bait.
"Ah, no, sure we would’ent dream of putting you to all that trouble," I protested meekly, carefully avoiding any eye-contact with her warship.
"No trouble at all, Gerry" he assured me, earnestly, "Emily, would you ever stick the kettle on, like a good wee girl, and break out some more biscuits for these hungry men."
"The next time I come up here I’m going to buy that man a bloody tea-pot" she fumed, as I eased the car down the boreen.
"A kind thought and sure to be appreciated," I agreed soothingly, anxious to pour oil on troubled waters (always the peace-maker, the bridge-builder, the extender of outstretched arms, that’s me. A pure model for the job in the park). "You know," I added thoughtfully, "that’s a decent man back there, with a snug little house to boot."
"Who knows", I continued, with growing enthusiasm, "if a body was to play their cards right they might end up pouring his tea on a regular basis. Listen, tell you what, I’ll go halves with you on the tea-pot."
If my steering was a little erratic over the next few miles, it may have been down to the pot-holed nature of the Cavan roads – but that’s not how I remember it. I must show you my scars, sometime….
Four years were to pass before I returned again, this time with Sean. They had not been good years for Moneenterriff. The first cottage inside the gate was unoccupied now and already showing visible signs of decay. The second house, which had been abandoned a few years earlier, was little more than a ruin, the chimneys sporting whimsical bonnets of leafy fern; the sagging doorway a gaping wound; the blank windows gazing sadly, reproachfully, out over Glengevlin. The gate-pillars of the McNiff farm had lost their pristine whiteness, no smoke issued from the chimney and, ominously, no dogs came to meet us, as we approached the house with growing apprehension. All the curtains were drawn; there was no answer to my hesitant knocking, no sign of life. Crestfallen, we moved on.
There were no cattle on the hill field, no fresh cow-pats way-marking the little trail leading to the rough grazing on the open mountain. We met no-one, saw no-one, there was no movement anywhere, only that all-pervading quiet that Joseph Campbell has dubbed ‘the silence of unlaboured fields ‘.
"Where are the country people gone? Where are the sun-dark faces now?
The love that kept the quiet hearth, The strength that steered the heavy plough"…
The picture is the same all over the up-lands of Cavan, Leitrim and Sligo; the little hill-farms are being abandoned and whole communities, a whole way of life, is disappearing as the old people die off and the young people opt out of the struggle to wrest a living from poor, marginal land. And, as the hill-folk retreat, the trees advance. Everywhere, on all sides, stands of Sitka Spruce and Lodgepole Pine creep relentlessly forward, enveloping the little fields, the low stone walls, the old dwellings, the ancient trackways. Smothering whole town-lands under a carpet of green, like a latter-day blanket bog.
Trouble is, you see, hawthorn hedges aside, there is little enough wealth to be found in the likes of Moneenterriff. It is only in places like this that EU farm subsidies begin to make any sense. The reality is, however, that money will always follow money and it comes as no surprise to learn that the bulk of the grants go to the cattle ranches and the beef barons of the lush midlands. Campbell summed it up well, all those years ago:
|‘Grasslands and lowing herds are good, |
But better human flesh and blood!’
All the buzz, all the enthusiasm, had gone out of the day. It was difficult to contemplate doing anything, to shake off the feeling of despondency and settle down to the climbing. But coping with rock is a bit like coping with a spoiled child – it will not be satisfied with anything less than one’s full attention. Slowly, imperceptibly, we were drawn into things and became absorbed in the climbing as the day passed. In the heel of the hunt we had a good day, repeating some of the older lines and even managing to put up one new one, a spunky little HVS.
I was delighted, as we descended, to see a thin spiral of smoke rising from the chimney of the house. With quickening step we approached the front door, which was half ajar. The room was in semi-darkness, the only light coming from some embers glowing in the grate, the remains of a handful of kindling. A chair was pulled up close to the fire and a figure was slumped in it, fast asleep, a cap pulled down over his eyes. Perhaps it was a combination of poor light and faulty memory, but he seemed older, smaller, than any of the brothers as I recalled them. I knocked loudly on the open door; he slumbered on. I advanced boldly into the room and rapped sharply on the table; his sleep continued, undisturbed. I shook him gently by the shoulder; there was no interruption in his deep, easy breathing. I stood there, shuffling from one foot to the other, undecided as to what to do. I was convinced he had been sitting there awaiting our return and to go without exchanging greetings would seem churlish and unkind. But he seemed so vulnerable, so child-like, wrapped in this deep slumber, that I was reluctant to startle him by waking him abruptly. I wish I could say that I dealt with the situation decisively, resolved it satisfactorily but, in truth, I did what I usually do when on unsure ground – took the line of least resistance, left him to his dreams and tip-toed uneasily away, closing the door softly, regretfully, behind me.
I have not been back since. Somehow, conditions just never seemed right, during 1997, for a quick raid North. I am determined to return this year, however, come rain, come shine. There is much to bring one back. Almost a mile of the crag is, as yet, untouched, with many possibilities beckoning. It is unlikely that any of the routes here will ever make the headlines, but the scope for hours of climbing pleasure is enormous. Aside from all of this, I would dearly love to know how goes the world with the McNiffs. For they are as much part and parcel of The Playbank experience as the rock itself.
Nature’s gentlemen – the salt of the earth.
The climbs described:
Full details of this gritstone crag can be found in ‘Rock climbs in Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan and Fermanagh’. A snip at a fiver, it contains details of such esoteric gems as Monastir Sink, Tormore and Rosskeeragh Point. We concentrated our attention on the extreme right-hand end of the crag. See sketch below.
|1. Byrne’s Shirt.||12m. Severe.|
|A bit dodgy, this one.|
|Start. 2m.up the right hand side of the gully at the foot of the corner. Climb the corner, treating the blocks with care.|
|E.Hackett, G.Moss. 20/6/92.|
|2. Blueshirts.||18 m. VS(4C).|
|Sustained and well protected.|
|Start. Below and right of the groove on the left edge of the face. Climb, trending slightly right, then back left to gain a ledge at the foot of the groove, which is followed to the top.|
|G.M. E.H. 20/6/92.|
|3. National Front.*||20m. VS(4C).|
|‘A touch of the master’s hand’. A scrappy start leads to a fine finish.|
|Five meters to the right of Blueshirts a pillar lies against the upper section of the right-facing wall, with a thin crack on it’s left-hand side. The climb takes this crack. |
Start. 2m. right of Blueshirts. Scramble diagonally right over blocks to reach the foot of a steep ramp. Climb this and step right to gain the crack, which is followed with increasing difficulty.
|F. Winder, L. Convery. 20/6/92.|
|4. Filthy Bourgeois.*||20m. H.Severe.|
|A milder version of the previous route.|
|Start. As for National Front. Climb as for that route until it is possible to move right to climb the crack on the right-hand side of the pillar.|
|LC. FW. 20/6/92.|
|5. Running Dogs.||16m. Severe.|
|An exposed and airy finish.|
|Start. At the foot of a narrow vegetated gully about 8 m. right of the start of Filthy Bourgeois. Bridge up and step left onto a good ledge. Climb diagonally left to the base of the deep, clean crack, which is followed to the top.|
|GM. EH. 20/6/92.|
|6. Pillar of the establishment.||18m. HVS 5a|
|Start. About 10m right of Running Dogs, on a ledge below a huge vertical flake, which is reached by scrambling in from the left. Climb the flake to a ledge two-thirds of the way up. Make a long step right into the niche on the face. Climb the crack in the overhang, crux and continue more easily to the top.|
|GM. S. McMahon. 21/9/96|
*These two names are provisional.