High in the hills

Country Sights and Sounds
Cattle waiting to be fed in the snow

“And here, too, high in the Partry Hills, are the tattered remains of their homes; four walls thrown together from local stone, timbers excavated from the surrounding bog the framework of a roof”


It was a hard road, and as I walked my heart went out to those who had walked it many years before. Back then it had been no more than a cattle track, winding and wending its trodden way over the flattest ground, the shallowest gradient. Though this necessitated the occasional steep climb it was by far the easier route; the cows know, somehow, the best way from A to B, though they cannot possibly have planned their path. To this day, no revision of the course they had chosen would make the journey easier, or more interesting.
It is at this time of year, with those long hazy days of summer little more than a memory, that the lot of a former generation is really accentuated. I refer specifically to those who herded their livestock in the hilly regions, those who kept their few beasts in the low folds of the hills through the winter months and took them to free range, upland grazing from May to October.
Way back in 1595 Edmund Spenser wrote of such people, ‘There is one use amongst them, to keep their cattle and to live themselves the most part of the year in boolies, pasturing upon the mountain and waste wild places.’
Booleying, that was the name given to the practice. Bally, or Baile, was the townland that has survived in place-names to this day: Ballyheane, Ballintubber, Ballinlough – the list is an extensive one. But the Booley, buaile, was also a temporary dwelling, where cattle herding families dwelt for the summer whilst overseeing their charges. (Estyn Evans tells us that Mayo, and Achill Island in particular, was the last pace in Ireland where this practice was in place.)
And here, too, high in the Partry Hills, are the tattered remains of their homes; four walls thrown together from local stone, timbers excavated from the surrounding bog the framework of a crude roof. Water came from the stream at the back, turf for heating and cooking from all around, food from the little corrie loughs, from the wild hills, from the occasional surplus, worn out or sick animal, and from the ridged slopes where potatoes formed a bold, green-leaved patch on a timeworn landscape.
I brought a visitor up here to where a simple cross, etched into a large, streamside boulder, marks the spot of some otherwise unrecorded event; it feels like a tragedy. The scraped stone a short distance from a thrown down cabin, the wild, windswept calamity of a workplace, the darkened shadows to the lee of the sun and the keening of the wind over the high ridge; all contribute to an atmosphere of airy desolation.
My guest was impressed with the notion that a community spent their summers up here, and selected a flat stone from one of the skeleton cottages to take home as a souvenir, ‘to fit into the fireplace’. But a few moments of contemplation saw it returned to its place. The thick peat layer would yield little enough material for building; from where had this piece come? Who had pulled it from its position and transported it to this place? Had he a wife and children? If he had, what had become of them? After carving that crude cross, had the working hand rested, weeping sweat, on this one small piece of rock? The notion was too much.
The cross, now, was carved for a stillborn child, for an orphaned quartet, by a broken man whose hopes and fears had crashed with one lost breath.
It is altogether too much. The sufferings of past generations have accumulated to form this brazenly harsh and hostile hill, with its accumulations of stone, with its hard-worked more fertile areas (now infested with rushes), and with its simple, heart-rending symbolism. † marks the spot.
If one could have life, and have it in full measure, booleying might be hard to beat. The radio newscaster tells me that cod are all but extinct. I read of radioactive particulates drifting west from North Korea. I know of protected habitats grubbed out for short-term financial gain.
The good old days weren’t always good, that much we know. But what of tomorrow? Will we make it better? No.

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