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The curse of the Land of Ire

Outdoor Living

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

I think, sometimes, of the first folks that ever found this fair land. Seafaring adventurers, they had sailed in rudimentary boats fashioned from sticks and animal hide, either from Scotland or Spain. Perhaps they chose a few fine days through which to undertake their journey, and had landed in gentle surf on one of the flat strands that punctuate our rather rocky and inhospitable coastline.
I prefer to think they had to fight, to battle that howling southwesterly we modern day residents hold dear, their fragile craft inundated by the inch-a-minute rain we hold as our own, until hurled at muddy cliffs or upon soggy saltmarsh and the ruins of their shipwreck swept away by the backwash of the mighty wave that had launched them at this island, the end of their journey.
Confronted by dense, dark woodland and hillsides dominated by gorse and bramble, thistle and thorn, they didn’t need to struggle to find a name, but called it Direland, later shortened to Ireland, the Land of Ire.
It must have been a beautiful country and I would have enjoyed seeing it so, with endless tracts of oakwood and Scot’s pine filled with animals and birds, some of which have long since disappeared. Packs of wolves roamed the countryside, but these were no threat. Perhaps our hunter-gatherer ancestors bumped into one of the native brown bears and had occasion to flee for their lives. By and large though, I have the impression that ancient Ireland must have been a place of relative comfort where an easy, if rather short living could be made.
So why the Land of Ire?
The answer comes with a peculiar, immediate urgency to those who venture to find mountain lough trout on a summer’s evening, as James and I discovered.
After driving north-northwest we parked the car at a bridge between two hills. These worked to funnel and accelerate the breeze which, being light and refreshing, we thought should put a fine ripple on the small sheet of water that lies at the head of this stream. We looked at the map once more. The upward trek would be arduous, but with a moon to light our return we knew we needn’t hurry back.
James gave a yell and swatted at the back of his neck. “He got me, the little blaggard!”
The horsefly evaded his flailing arm with ease and, having tasted blood, flew around his head with determination. When another joined it we knew it was time to set out.
Uphill was warm work, and we stopped many times, pretending to admire the view. As we climbed, the breeze died away, and as it did the midges came to life. At first there were few, and these could largely be kept at bay by the wave of a hand. Indeed, it wasn’t until we crested the final rise and our destination came into view that they really seemed to notice us. A thousand crept up behind and enveloped our heads in a hovering cloud, as if they were sizing us up while waiting for Grace.
‘Come on,’ I said, ‘they can only fly at five miles an hour. If we go faster than that we can leave them behind.’
A brisk walk ought to do it. It didn’t. Our stride lengthened into something of a canter, which appeared to achieve its end, for as we arrived at the water’s edge there was not a midge to be seen. We needn’t have worried. They were right behind us. The first few caught up even as we stood there, perspiring and breathing hard. The rest, the whole swarming plague of them, found us as James prepared to make his first cast.
Having made such effort to get here we weren’t going to be put off by a few little flies. They blackened our faces. We wiped them away by the thousand. They bit into us both, showing a definite preference for eyelids and lips, which soon became swollen and numb. The breeze disappeared and the evening sun warmed our little corrie, bringing more and more of them to life. When we took off our hats to cool down they crawled into our hair. We might have been the first good meal they ever had. How could there be so many?
In the end we were driven off. Having been drained of several pints of blood and further dehydrated from running full tilt through knee-high heather, we knew there was only one thing to do, and from the comfort of our bar stools we wondered at those early men, who found this land as a wilderness filled with beasts both great and small, and despite the bears and midges chose to make the Land of Ire their home.