23 April 2016

‘Wood banks and brakes
wash wet like lakes’ in
Virginia and Rathangan

In the Bluebell Woods in Killinthomas, near Rathangan, Co Kildare, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I usually try to go for a walk on a beach at the weekend. But on Friday afternoon [22 April 2016], on my way to Belturbet, Co Cavan, I went for a walk along the shores of Lough Ramor in Virginia, and this afternoon [23 April] I went for a walk in the bluebell woods at Killinthomas, near Rathangan, Co Kildare.

Killinthomas Woods is an area of outstanding natural beauty, developed by Kildare County Council and Coillte. It is a mixed hardwood conifer forest with very diverse flora and fauna just a mile outside Rathangan village.

In all, the wood covers about 200 acre, and throughout the wood there are 10 km of signposted walks, leading into a wide variety of ecosystems. Although the woods are managed, the biodiversity among the trees has been left undisturbed.

A carpet of bluebells in Killnthomas Woods (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In Spring and early Summer, these woods are carpeted with bluebells and wild garlic. Bluebells grow best in partially shaded areas and grow under deciduous trees. But bluebells do not do well when they are sown with other flowers and they do not like being overcrowded by other varieties.

The trees and flowers are late this Spring, and the bluebells may not be at their best until the bank holiday weekend next weekend and the beginning of May.

The trails in the wood wrap around the trees, and this afternoon, two of us set off from the car park along Father Doyle’s Walk. All the walks are signposted from the carpark and through the forest.

When we found ourselves back in the car park, we set off once again along the Camp Walk that leads onto the Bluebell Walk, which is the highlight of the forest at this time of the year. The combination of drifts of bluebells and wild garlic, primroses and celandine topped by the fresh green leaves of the mature beech trees is good for soul.

There are Bluebell woods throughout Ireland and Britain. As a species, bluebells are a common indicator for ancient woodlands, so that bluebell woods may date back to at least 1600, if not earlier.

In Springtime, bluebell woods have carpets of flowering bluebells (hyacinthoides non-scripta) underneath newly forming leaf canopies. The thicker the summer canopy, the more the competitive ground-cover is suppressed, encouraging a dense carpet of bluebells, whose leaves mature and die down by early summer.

Other common woodland plants that accompany bluebells include the yellow rattle and the anemone.

Bluebells were beloved of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Victorian poet and Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), was a regular visitor to this area. Between 1886 and 1889, Monasterevin, Co Kildare, became one of his few sanctuaries in Ireland. He stayed there on at least seven occasions, as the guest of the Cassidy sisters and, although he was free of any pastoral duties, he said Mass in the oratory, occasionally assisting the parish priest, Bishop Michael Comerford (1830-1895), at the Holy Communion.

Hopkins had a keen fondness for bluebells, and he expressed this in his poem May Magnificat:

And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes

Long before he first visited Co Kildare, Hopkins wrote in his journal on 9 May 1871:

In the little wood opposite the light they stood in blackish spreads or sheddings like spots on a snake. The heads are then like thongs and solemn in grain and grape-colour. But in the clough through the light they come in falls of sky-colour washing the brows and slacks of the ground with vein-blue, thickening at the double, vertical themselves and the young grass and brake-fern combed vertical, but the brake struck the upright of all this with winged transomes. It was a lovely sight. – The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape, made to every sense. If you draw your fingers through them they are lodged and struggle with a shock of wet heads; the long stalks rub and click and flatten to a fan on one another like your fingers themselves would when you passed the palms hard across one another, making a brittle rub and jostle like the noise of a hurdle strained by leaning against; then there is the faint honey smell and in the mouth the sweet gum when you bite them.

A year later, in the summer of 1872, Hopkins wrote of bluebells:

“I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it.”

By the shores of Lough Ramor in Virginia, Co Cavan, on Friday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

On Friday, on our way to Belturbet, two of us stopped at the Lakeside Manor Hotel in Virginia to take in the late afternoon lights on Lough Ramor.

It was warm, but every now and then the sun was partly covered by white and grey clouds that added to the silver streaks in the sky and on the lake water.

Later that evening, as we drove back from Belturbet to Dublin, there was a full moon in the sky and it reflections cast silver streaks of a very different hue across the dark waters of the lakes of Co Cavan.

Spring seems to have arrived in this part of Ireland. The bluebells should be in full bloom when April turns to May next weekend.

Evening lights on Lough Ramor in Virginia, Co Cavan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

May Magnificat, Gerard Manley Hopkins

May is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—

Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?

Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
Is it opportunest
And flowers finds soonest?

Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?—
Growth in every thing—

Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
Throstle above her nested

Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.

All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
Nature’s motherhood.

Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
How she did in her stored
Magnify the Lord.

Well but there was more than this:
Spring’s universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfed cherry

And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—

This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.

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