It was a sunny October day just a few days ago when I entered a forest preserve in Castleblayney, Ireland just off the grounds of the Hope Castle, original home of Henry Thomas Hope, a banker who had once owned the Hope Diamomd.* From the castle grounds, I strolled down a pathway from a high green hill that led me towards Black Island Forest Preserve (part of the castle estate) along the shoreline of a gleaming Lake Muckno.
I walked past a bevy of quacking mallard ducks with a few herring gulls mixed in and soon entered a dense forest looking like all of Ireland some five hundred years ago before the land was stripped for farming. Tall and dark hemlock trees, over a hundred years old, stood in rows some forty feet high. I could readily imagine a group of Celtic warriors huddled around a campfire. These delightful groves of woods reminded me somewhat of the Muir Woods in California. One senses a familial relationship among these trees whose roots intertwine deep within the rich, black soil. It is no small wonder that the Celtic tribesmen considered forests to be sacred and had rituals that fostered a Druidic respect.
Farther along, I heard the rustle of a beech tree’s leaves blowing in a gentle breeze. Here and there, right at the shoreline, grew several clusters of red cedars which the ancient Celts used as pointy spikes around crannogs (islands) to defend themselves against enemies like the fearful Norsemen who raided Ireland in the late 700’s. Recently their boat docks and piers have been excavated along the river Liffey in Dublin.
I sat down on rock surrounded with vines of wild currants and blackberries to look across at the distant Hope Castle and rolling green fields beyond. These estate woods certainly help preserve a small piece of ancient Ireland in the midst of a modern, technological society.
More and more forests preserves** have been established throughout the Emerald Isle to help remind engineers, bankers, and even farmers of their ancient roots. Indeed, Ireland has its own national park system modeled after the American park system.
A bit farther along as I meandered along a side trail that led me through a thick forest undercover of tall bracken ferns that must have served as bedding for the Celts in their forest huts. Surely, they caught many a trout and picked handfuls of berries to their delight. But I wonder if they ever got stung by nettle bushes mixed in with the blackberry vines?
I stopped for a rest to admire the rich variety of forest birds like colorful bullfinches and light tan robins and tweeting sparrows. I came to a clearing in the woods to be stunned by a large gray Hooded Crow with a white breast standing on a rock. He was much larger than our American black crows. I fact, he was so large that I at first mistook him for some kind of hawk.
Wild parts of Ireland are indeed full of delightful surprises. Clumps of forests grow in the midst of farmlands whose potato and wheat fields have their own wild edges high and low. The countryside has many narrow two-rutted roads that can lead modern Irishmen and tourists alike away from the cares of the day.
I left the forest to re-enter the streets of Castleblayney busy with cars, trucks, and buses quite thankful that I had been refreshed by wild Nature that serves as a perfect example of not only a coexistence in space, but more importantly as a coexistence in the dimensions of time.
* The beautiful steel-blue Hope diamond was never actually in the castle. It is currently housed in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
**Newer Irish forests preserves include Glenveagh National Park, County Donegal, Coole Park, County Galway, Wicklow Mountains National Park, County Wicklow, Ballycroy National Park in County Mayo to mention a few.
Richard Fleck is author of Spirit Mound: a novel of ancient Ireland, 2005 now unfortunately out of print.