Memory Lane

(by Gerry Moss, from IMC Newsletter Winter 2002)
The "privatisation" of a mountain path in Wicklow.

Oh, sad for me Glen Aora, where I have friends no more,
For lowly lie the rafters and the lintels of the door.
The friends have all departed, the hearth-stone’s black and cold,
And sturdy grows the nettle on the place beloved of old.
Neil Munro.

There is a pleasant, leafy little boreen that starts near an old farmhouse at the back of Glendaloch church. Though little used nowadays it would, at one time, have been an important access route for those with grazing and turbary rights on the slopes of Brockagh mountain. Cool and shady in summer, well-sheltered in winter, one of the delights of this narrow trail is the sense of peace and tranquillity it bestows as you follow it beneath the trees, winding your way between low, mossy walls and grassy banks peppered with primroses.

Less than a mile from its start the track leaves the fields behind and is subsumed briefly by a stretch of forestry plantation, but it breaks away again and turns uphill toward the ridge, an airy, open, grassy road now, flanked on either side by waist-high ferns that change from emerald green in spring to burnished bronze in winter.

Just before the track turns uphill there was, at one time, a narrow footpath deviating from it, contouring along the side of the hill, the only access route to a lonely cottage, a mile further up the glen. Away back, in the 1950’s, this cottage was occupied by an elderly bachelor, living out his life on his own, as so many did, and still do, in isolated homes all over rural Ireland. Whenever I went that way on a Sunday morning I would meet him, making his way slowly down the path, heading for the second Mass in Glendaloch. He was a grand character: small, elf-like, with cheeks as red as rosy apples and eyes as blue and clear as a summer sky. Always in good spirits, always smiling and always keen to stop for a few minutes chat, he was the sort of person you could take to instantly.

There came a day when I walked the path and he didn’t appear, so, fearing he might be laid up, I decided to give him a shout. His cottage stood at the edge of the forest, in a little clearing awash with purple foxgloves. The cottage was old; a small, stone-walled, thatched cabin, with just the one room and just the one door. It was looking a bit the worse for wear, with a pronounced sag in the centre of the roof and the window frames crumbling with dry rot.

Receiving no answer to my knocking I lifted the latch and put my head in around the door (to say that the door was unlocked would be misleading, for it had never known a lock, nor any reason for one). He wasn’t at home. I thought at first that I must have missed him somewhere along the way, for all his belongings were there, intact.

But when I stepped inside, the dust, the cobwebs and the cold, damp air told a different story. He was gone – and he wouldn’t be coming back. And I remember standing there, struck by how pitifully few were the possessions he had left behind – so little to show for a life-time spent in this, his ancestral home. I remember too, the stillness, the deep, almost sepulchral silence and the keen sense of loss and sadness I felt as I surveyed the little room.

The furnishing was Spartan in its frugality – light years away from the comfort and clutter of today’s homes. There was a fire-place at one end of the room and his bed, screened by a low wooden partition, at the other. The stump of a candle, jammed into a milk bottle, rested on a shelf by the head of the bed. A rickety table and chair occupied pride of place in the centre of the flagged floor, while a wooden press, adorned by a battered teapot and some crockery, stood against the wall. A black kettle and a small pot sat on the hearth; beside them, a bucket for drawing water from the well. Above the fire-place, with a little sprig of blessed palm peeping out from behind it, hung a picture of the Sacred Heart, the glass cracked and smoke-stained. The only thing on the mantel-piece was a small, half-empty bottle of pills, remedy for whatever ailment afflicted the poor man in his last years. A metal holy-water font (a souvenir of the Eucharistic Congress in 1932), was affixed to the door-jamb: the little bowl was dry and dust-lined, but its rim gleamed softly, polished by years of faithful usage.

But the saddest, most poignant sight of all, was his old cap hanging from a nail on the back of the door. The last thing to be donned before he stepped out into the world. I had never seen him without it. He may, as a boy, have skipped barefooted along the path to school; as a man, he never went anywhere bareheaded, winter or summer.

Under what circumstances he parted from his home for the last time we’ll never know, but I hope it was with dignity, and I hope it was without pain.

Within a short time the little cabin, as though grieving for its master, gave up the ghost. The roof tumbled in, the windows tumbled out, and the nettles thronged, thick and tall, about the cottage door. Then the forestry workers stepped in, ploughed and planted over the clearing and path and soon all trace of the tiny homestead and the life it had nourished vanished beneath the flourishing forest.

But life goes on. The main track was still there, so I, like others, continued to use it, while heading for Tonlegee and points beyond. Then, in November of last year, along with other Club members, I attended a first-aid course at the Community Centre in the grounds of Glendaloch church. During our lunch break we decided to go for a walk in the forest. But you know how it is with forest roads – short on vistas, short on variety, you see one, you see them all. So I suggested we make a loop walk of it, and return to the church via the boreen. But when we arrived at the gate where it joined the forest road, the first thing to catch the eye was a new sign, ‘NO TRESPASSING’.

At my urging we agreed to ignore the notice and, crossing the gate, we took to the lane. Thereafter we enjoyed one of the few pleasures the month of November grants us – that of wading through a shallow sea of fallen leaves, our senses invigorated by the crackle and crunch every stride elicited from the multi-coloured carpet beneath our feet. Our pleasure was short-lived. As we were passing the entrance to the farmhouse a young man appeared and accosted us. "You shouldn’t be here" he said, "you’re trespassing. This lane has been privatised" I protested that I had been using it, man and boy, for fifty years, but he was adamant. "Not anymore, you won’t. It’s been privatised" We were pressed for time and couldn’t stop to argue, so we moved on. A couple of hundred yards further on there is a modern bungalow below the lane. This house has always kept a pack of unruly dogs and, true to form, they appeared, yapping, snarling, yelping. But this time the woman of the house came hot on their heels, arms akimbo, every bit as truculent as the dogs. "You have no right to be on that lane" she shouted, "it’s been privatised". She had the term off pat. Just like him. Someone had schooled them well.

Just how you go about privatising a pathway is beyond me. Perhaps the IFA run courses and seminars on the subject, or perhaps they were just chancing their arms. Some might say it’s no big deal, after all, you can always use the forest road to by-pass the section of the lane that is closed. Aye, and you can always substitute chalk for cheese. Besides, what if, at some future stage, the powers-that-be are strapped for cash and decide to sell off the forest land? What if it becomes privatised? Don’t tell me it couldn’t happen.

It’s not as though this was an isolated case. Down through the years, in various parts of the country, I have been threatened with blackthorn sticks, shotguns and half-wild hounds, for merely presuming to walk where generations have trod before me. I know of many wonderful little paths that have been lost to us, in places as near as Glenasmole, Glencullen and Glencree, and as far afield as Gougane Barra and the Ox Mountains. As, indeed, I’m sure many of you do too. Trouble is, you see, as older generations die off and the younger people opt more and more for mechanised transport, the old pathways to school, to church, or to the village, become neglected and overgrown. Eventually they are fenced off and claimed by the local landowners, always keen to enlarge their little empires.

They do things differently elsewhere. In Britain, and many European countries, they see these old paths for what they are, important links to the past, part of their national heritage. Something to be protected, preserved and cherished. Above all, something to be used and enjoyed by the people.

We are lagging far behind in such matters, but perhaps we do have some grounds for optimism, however. The other day, in my local newsagents in Bray, I spotted a little booklet ‘Ten walks in the district of Enniskerry’. A simple, black-and-white affair, in the same format as our own Newsletter, but on heavier quality paper, it is published privately by locals, and sells for the modest sum of five Euro. Most of the walks I already knew of, though some sections were new to me. Included within these pages are details of some lovely little Mass paths, famine roads and footbridges, backed up by maps and drawings. I have come across similar booklets and leaflets in various towns and villages around the country, all privately published, (special mention should be made here of ‘Bladhma’, Tom Joyce’s delightful little book on Slieve Bloom – a real labour of love).

An increasing awareness among people in rural Ireland of the benefits and pleasures of off-road walking has a lot to do with this show of initiative. There is cause for hope here: local knowledge and local enthusiasm may yet save the day.