In the late 1960s on regular summer holidays at my Grandmother Davis’s farm in County Leitrim, Uncle Cecil gave my brother Ivor and myself the job of leading a string of donkeys up to the turf bog on O’Donnell’s Rock, it forms the basis of this story. My mother, Ena, her brothers Cecil, Herbie, Reco and Wallace Davis feature.
At Connor’s Line we lead the donkeys off the road and into a field to get our last instructions.
Sarah O’Connor’s house, is abandoned, the lights not long gone out, where the road twists into a series of dangerous bends. It was here the destitute Famine-starved on relief work, cut straight the bends, unfinished in the chaos of that time, and visible now, only to the buzzard’s eye.
“Go straight up The Line boys. Ye can only go up, or down. But ye’re going up, aren’t ye?” The smart aleck says sensing our unease.
“It’s steep at the end, no bother for the asses. The Line goes all the way to the top. When you come out of the bushes, we’ll be waiting for ye, at the top of the Rock Road.” He points to the mountain.
We look up Connor’s Line, its bushy trace runs straight up O’Donnell’s Rock and into woodland high up. The escarpment, deceptively looking a long way away.
“Sure, if ye forget the way, boys, the asses will take ye there!” He says with a laugh.
“Don’t worry, it’s clear all the way.” Cecil, our uncle adds.
They set off on a horse and cart with creels, tools and provisions for the day, taking the gradual climb of the Rock Road, for a day drawing turf out of Rooney’s Bog. Cecil drives home in the opposite direction, to milk his cows and join us later.
We leave the road where my mother, Ena, church bound, tumbled off her chicken-stalled bike to lie unconscious on the road with the Carrick bus due, Sarah panicking to get her off the road, frantically waved the bus to a stop, then revived with a passenger’s smelling salts and a porringer of spring water in Sarah’s dark kitchen, she is recovered for the short walk home.
The path is no more than a goat track, the bushes soon close over above our heads, single file from here on. I lead the first two tethered donkeys and four others follow, their big eyes vacant. Now and again we come across a recently cut branch, our way cleared.
Splashes of dappled sunlight fall across us as we move through the green tunnel, marked more regularly by badgers and foxes. A small stream runs alongside sometimes crisscrossing the path, the air gets cool and damp as we climb. When we stop the donkeys graze on the shaded grasses and plants along the path.
It is less arduous than we expect, the donkeys more willing, as we get a measure of the walk, if not the place.
Some distance up and close to the track, “Flynn’s Line” to some, is the ruin of a family cottage of that name. It stood on five meagre acres of rough mountain land. If they made it through the famine, they didn’t stay much longer. This path, a painful shortcut scoured with human strain, was at one time in daily use by the few homesteads up on the mountain; the Colemans, the McLaughlins, and later the Sheridans, and those bringing down turf for fires in the valley. The alternative route, an easier climb but miles longer, until the Rock Road was built.
About 20 years after The Famine on a farm at the top of O’Donnell’s Rock a woman came out of Coleman’s isolated farmhouse.
“I’m goin out for turf!” she shouted back to the old man.
“I’ll bedammed if he heard me.
Blustery evening. Always blustery up on this mountain.
Agh, the stack should be, here, but.
Whaaat’s the matter way me?
What am a out for atal?
The road goes down, easier, easier, than coming up, up to this lonely place, Colema-aaa-ns, Colema, well na matter.
where am a goin? down somewhere. down The Line maybe, for to get something.
a should be getting back. where? no matter now, a rest on this ditch might help. help whaat? no matta, soft, soft, settled now, agh, the fire will go out.”
Her remains were found in 1939, in rough ground, high up near Sheridan’s place, by Land Commission men building the Rock Road through O’Donnell’s Larkfield estate to the top of the mountain. About 30 of them, breaking rock, benching out the mountain near Connor’s Line, carting and levelling stone when there came shouts amid the ringing of crow bars, picks and shovels on hard stone.
They circle the skull and remains of the poor unfortunate, thinking, famine dead. Reco Davis at sixteen, on the mountain, his first paid job, drawing stone for the road dressing with the family horse and cart; staring at the nameless remains, missing his older brother Herbie who should have been with him, but who lay mortally ill at home. The ganger called a halt for the day, sent for the Guards.
The word came back in a couple of days, most likely a servant woman missing from Coleman’s years before; the Colemans long in America, Sheridans there now, where a young Wallace Davis would take sanctuary when he ran away from his nearby Boggaun home.
We give the donkeys, and ourselves a short break, switch the lead, a slight tug on the lead rope enough to start them again. They appear the more familiar up here.
It gets much steeper as we enter the wood, cooler with little light filtering through. The path climbs through a corridor of hazel, rowan and small birch trees. Under foot rocks further slow our progress while the donkeys move with short confident steps. Rivulets of water run in and out among the rocks, wet and flecked with blue. Little grows now on the rocky path.
Confined, we know little of where we are except that we are high up on the mountain. The track is always visible a short distance ahead, always rising.
We stop at a pool to drink, then continue upwards, seeping the damp green earthy scent. We could be anywhere. Up and up we go.
There’s a shaft of light ahead, as the slope eases. We emerge, as if from a dream, into the blinding light of a summer’s mid-morning, to stand in a stone-walled field, the waiting cart up ahead in an open mountain vista. A man sits on the cart smoking, waiting.
We follow the rattling cart in our untidy line, taking in the wide boundless space of the valley and the dark hump of Benbo mountain opposite, transformed, back among the living, to join the meitheal on Rooney’s bog.
I have inserted a link to related blogs for Ena, Reco, Herbie and Wallace Davis.
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