18 September 2017

Blackberry picking in autumn
in fields beside the rectory

Ripening blackberries above the rectory garden walls in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

The blackberries are ripening in the fields in the glebe land behind and beside the Rectory in Askeaton.

Sunday afternoon [17 September 2017] was almost like a summer’s day, with warm, bright sunshine and blue skies. After two church services – in Saint Mary’s, Askeaton, and Saint Brendan’s, Kilnaughtin – two of us went picking blackberries in the warm autumn sunshine.

They are growing high on the other sides of the walls of the rectory garden, and many of them are now in full fruit, plump, juicy and ready for eating.

I was surprised earlier this summer when I was at High Leigh in Hoddesdon for the USPG conference, and noticed during my walks in the countryside that the blackberries were already ripening at that early stage on the laneways and by the roadside in East Anglia.

But as we were picking the blackberries yesterday, I was reminded of childhood days at this time of the year in the 1950s or the 1960s, picking blackberries in the laneways and narrow roads close to my grandmother’s farm outside Cappoquin, Co Waterford, and the childhood joys that stayed with me as an adult in more recent years picking blackberrries before Michaelmas and the end of the blackberry-picking season in Kilcoole or Greystones in Co Wicklow, or along Cross in Hand Lane in Lichfield.

I was reminded too of the poem ‘Blackberry-Picking’, written in the 1960s by the late Seamus Heaney for Philip Hobsbaum.

Blackberry-Picking, by Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Source: Death of a Naturalist (1966)

Soon it will be Michaelmas, when blackberry-picking ceases (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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