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NATURE The beauty of Lough Mask

Outdoor Living
Our own masked beauty


Country Sights and sounds
John Shelley


I was on the eastern shore of Lough Mask, where for countless years the jagged, broken limestone pavement has been scoured and pitted by wind and rain and populated by ancient thorn and plover, by wide-eyed hare and rangy, half-wild black-faced sheep.
Apart from the livestock, there are few signs of human habitation (with the exception of the apparently compulsory festoon of plastic silage wrappings, without which our countryside would now seem incomplete). This is, for the better part of it, pure, wild land.
That this limestone was laid down beneath the ocean waves long ago we can be certain. Quite how long ago is anybody’s guess. Scientists and geologists use various dating techniques in suggesting a timeframe for sub-sea limestone formation; the general consensus is 300 million years ago, during the Palaeozoic era, at the time when fish and animals were starting to make their first appearance on earth.
The notion that a few decades of research could provide accurate information from so long ago might be considered rather ambitious, to say the least, though in the absence of any preferable or more believable theory we must accept the possibility this might be correct, even if we do so with a measure of reluctance.
On paper, this Lough Mask limestone would appear to be a northerly extension of The Burren. Indeed, the great limestone sheets that dominate the geology of central and western Ireland are all interlinked and overlapping, so that it is hard to discern the attributes of one area as opposed to another by looking merely at the map. No, we should – we must – go and explore for ourselves and marvel at the building blocks of the land upon which we so depend.
The rock itself is interesting enough. A close examination of it reveals an astonishing array of past life. Some areas are massive deposits of fossils, the remains of diatom-like creatures together with corals and shells, creatures from another world.
An interesting phenomenon, one which is said to be found nowhere else in the world, is the occurrence here of large sandstone and limestone boulders called ‘erratics’, carried from afar and deposited where they now lie by retreating ice sheets.
These are common enough, but here the passage of many thousands of years has seen these boulders embedded into the rock upon which they rest, giving rise to the term ‘boulders in sockets’.
The process is simple. Limestone is alkaline by nature and easily dissolved by even lightly acidic rain – any slight depression in the rock acts as a reservoir, allowing longer periods of dissolution that gradually permit greater and greater accumulations of rainwater that in turn eat further into the rock.
Eventually this leads to the rock having the appearance of Swiss cheese, being run through with a series of holes so neatly round and straight that it is hard to imagine, upon seeing them for the first time, they were not created by some mechanical means.
While parts of the pavement are cold and bare, others are covered with a thin layer of soil, and in deep fissures time has allowed a specialised flora to become established. While the wind cuts across the bare ground these fissures offer shelter and security from the elements. Ferns and a variety of wildflowers grow there, hidden from the view of those who stick to the manmade path, but a source of discovery and wonder for any who choose to investigate.
I was there last night to enjoy the quiet, alone with the bats and the late evening birdsong, under a sky full of delicate insects, with trout jumping in the bay. I had fully meant to explore the small ash wood that had, over the course of many years, been encroaching from better land that lies to the north.
The ash boles were straight and white in the sun, with an understory of hazel, some holly and a scatter of yellow-flowered furze.
Is this not how the same wooded area was a thousand years ago? Could not Yeats have gone within to cut his hazel wand? Might the trout that splashed have been his own? I went to the lake and took it, heavy and red spotted and as lyrical as Wandering Aengus, then sat with the sun on my back to watch the evening light fade into geological time. What a place.