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Flooded plains of the yews

Outdoor Living

SIGNS OF THE TIMES Cong Abbey’s age is reflected in its time-weathered stones and the leaves of its gnarly old yews.

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

It would take a deluge of Cumbrian proportions to lift Carra as far as our doorstep; we console ourselves with the knowledge that this is something which has never happened before. We have a secure, comfortable and better view of the lake than we ever did. As long as it stops where it is, a few yards across the road, we will be happy.
Fed up with looking at water, we went as far as Cong to try and escape the feeling of living on an island, passing over Carrownagower and the Cong Canal (flooded as never before) and down roads that run like rivers and can barely be called roads at all. Indeed, we drove into one cavernous pothole that, had we not been travelling at sufficient speed to bounce right out the other side, might have held us ’til this day. Other cars, which I imagine must be driven by local folks in the know, circumnavigated this yawning chasm and perhaps reached their destination with their tyres and suspension intact.
Cong is, of course, very much an island village itself, being surrounded and run through by various arms and outflows where the canal turns into the river. At this time of year it holds more spawning salmon than a man on any other water might see in a lifetime. Even in the flood we found them, and in the gravel-filled tails of pools we could see the places they have spawned, yard-wide redds of turned over stones, pale on the algae-coated river bed.
We always feel awed by the abbey and wonder at the skill of the men who built it. Even the stones are art in themselves, each one being exquisitely weathered and furrowed and hand picked for this building.
The stone is local, of course, and plenty more of it remains beneath the thin soil that covers this vast area of water-washed limestone – enough to put the abbey back together and more. Yet the building is such a confusion of various works, both ancient and modern, that any attempt at restoration would today be impossible. There was a church here as long ago as the seventh century, and quite possibly, as was often the case, a religious connection to the place centuries before that. Fire consumed whatever building was in place in 1115, and in 1137 the reconstructed church suffered at the hands of a band of depredatory Munster men and was left in ruins once more.
Further repairs were necessary following subsequent assaults, and much of what we see today was put together in the 13th century with some later works. What hands placed those great stones, and for what purpose? Imagine the shock when Henry VIII moved to dissolve the Abbey and displaced the large population of abbots.
Now the roots of ivy-leaved toadflax and other rock-loving plants work slowly into the mortar and thrushes scout the once-hallowed grounds for food. Behind the abbey dark yews offer sanctuary for these and other birds.
A historical tree, the yew is long-lived and mysterious. Various ages are offered for these Cong trees, from ‘more than a hundred’ to ‘several hundred’ years. There are three trees which vie for the title of Ireland’s oldest and all of them are yews. Favourite and oldest looking is in the grounds of Crom Castle in County Fermanagh. This specimen also has the greatest estimated age of 800 years. Another tree in Maynooth College looks nowhere near the age of the first but is thought to be between 700 and 800 years old. The third, which can be found in Muckross Friary, is a mere youth of 670 years or so.
Regardless, I like to think these Cong trees ancient, and imagine that in the sculpted shade of their boughs history was made. But why the connection between the these trees and religious sites? Even today comparatively modern churches have their accompaniment of yews. It seems that this long-lived, evergreen tree was symbolic of eternity right back to the days of pagan Druidism. According to the 14th-century Book of Lismore, three lifetimes of the yew would measure the age of the world from its beginning to its end.
The Brehon laws made special mention of the yew as well. It was regarded as one of the seven Chieftains of the Forest along with such patently useful trees as apple, oak and hazel. How did the yew come to be in such auspicious company? Putting the spiritual connection aside, perhaps it was the potency the foliage and seeds when used as a poison, or the resistance of the wood to decay or insect attack. Then again, it could have been the dignified silence of the dark shade that the yew offers that made it so popular.
These days are short. With dusk came a drizzling wind to sweep us from our island village as far as the fireside. When we looked out later it was into darkness older than any tree. Beyond the steady patter of rain the world was quiet, and at peace. The floods will recede and leave flowers in their wake.