THERE ARE days when the old boreen is wet and damp underfoot, but when the summer comes it starts to dry so that it becomes something of an adventure to go walking there again. Then it takes on the character of a long, green arbour, a deep green tunnel where shade and shadow meet: the trees and plants and flowers pressing close on every side.
There is a kind of secrecy there, a solitude maybe that gives it the feel of some place lost in time. Earlier in the summer the foxgloves made parades on grassy banks, their purple thimbles come to life with the drowsy hum of bees, but the last of them were fading when I walked the old boreen in the green of high July.
If the foxgloves were almost gone, however, then others had taken their place, among them the familiar navelwort, its leaves round and fleshy, each with a sunken centre above the stalk, its flowery spikes creamy white, thriving in the shade of an old stone wall. Also called ‘stone navelwort its names in Irish include ‘coman leacain’ and ‘cornan caiscil’.
There is, in fact, a well-known phrase in Irish ‘Boithrin na Smaointe the ‘little road of memory’ and that’s how it was for me on that lovely July day.
IT WAS no great wonder then that I thought of my grandmother going down the boreen to visit with one of her friends, both of them getting on in years and glad of a bit of company. I thought of my uncle Jer going the way with his little white horse and cart sometimes heading for Maggie Shea’s shop on the old bog road, as he was, a route as familiar to the horse as it was to the man with the reins.
It is a lovely image: the placid white horse trotting at a leisurely pace down the long, little covert of green, the old boreen itself barely wide enough to accommodate the cart. On that long afternoon in July it was the easiest thing in the world to imagine the sound of the horse’s hooves on the track, their rhythmic rise and fall with the softest of music still.
That is the kind of place it is, of course, the old boreen: a place of echoes and memories and more. Elders thrive in the shade, hollies and brambles and ferns too, not just the familiar ferns with their feathery fronds, but Hart’s Tongues, their strap-like fronds fresh and green and undivided.
AS I walked along, there was a delicious sense of greenness everywhere, of things run rampant and wild, a speckled wood butterfly flitting merrily along as if it were in no great hurry at all. On one side of the boreen a thicket crowded green, on the other, side a field, where hay had been cut and saved.
I thought of our old neighbour, Jack, turning the hay with the pike years and years before. After the turning and the saving, the hay was made into those old domed haycocks that were such a familiar part of summer then.
Sometimes in the early sixties, someone took aerial photos of the place, black and white, of course: everything was black and white in those days. I remember the print as if it were yesterday; the hay in the tiny meadow by the house, beyond that again Jack in his hayfield with the domed cocks around him, the long line of the boreen showing too.
My mother didn’t order a copy of the print, though; she had taken down the curtains for cleaning so that the house had a bareness which did not appeal to her.
The field, known in Irish as “Cloch a Cuine” or “the cornerstone” was sometimes planted with oats, the yellow stalks ripening slowly but surely in the long summer sun. Again, I thought of the man with the sickle making the neatest strokes, the stalks falling down before him.
All of this came back to me as I made my way down the old boreen, more speckled woods flitting gracefully still. The pink of Herb Robert showed here and there, its reddish stems thin and spreading. Herb Bennet too, the blessed herb, its yellows inconspicuous in the shade.
YEARS AGO, sweets such as cloves and bull’s eyes, came in shiny gallons, the latter inevitably adapted to serve other needs when empty. An old woman who lived on the line of the boreen, made jelly in her gallon, raspberry or strawberry, serving it on a plate to visitors as a Sunday treat.
No more than a detail maybe, but this, too, is part of the story of the place, the children in particular relishing the taste, the sweet taste, of the jelly on summer afternoons.
A blackbird gave startled cry as I went by, for it seemed that he too was ready to drowse, the languor of the hour more and more palpable still. I saw him flutter in the branches, the splendour of his striking orange bill catching my eye.
I was glad, so glad, of my walk down the old boreen for it was, in its way, a stirring of memory again, a bank of golden trefoil at the gate that gave access to the field where jack made the hay long ago.