Garret Mac Eniry, A Tale of the Munster Peasantry (The Ballyhoura Mountains)

Patrick Weston Joyce

The Ballyhoura Mountains extend for several miles on the borders of the counties of Cork and Limerick. Commencing near Charleville, they stretch away towards the east, consisting of a succession of single peaks with lone and desolate valleys lying between, covered with heath or coarse grass, where for ages the silence has been broken only by the cry of the heath-cock or the yelp of the fox echoing among the rocks that are strewn in wild confusion over the sides of the mountains. They increase gradually in height towards the eastern extremity of the range, where they are abruptly terminated by the majestic Seefin, which projecting forwards—its back to the west and its face to the rising sun—seems placed there to guard the desolate solitudes behind it.

Towards the east it overlooks a beautiful and fertile valley, through which a little river winds its peaceful course to join the Funsheon; on the west "Blackrock of the eagle" rears its front —a sheer precipice—over Lyre-na-Freaghawn, a black heath-covered glen that divides the mountains. On the south it is separated by Lyre-na-Grena the "valley of the sun," from "the Long Mountain," which stretches far away towards Glenanaar; and immediately in front, on the opposite side of the valley, rises Barna Geeha, up whose sides cultivation has crept almost to its summit. Just under the eastern face of Seefin, at its very base, and extending even a little way up the mountain steep, reposes the peaceful little village of Glenosheen.[2]

Gentle reader, go if you can on some sunny morning in summer or autumn—let it be Sunday morning if possible—to the bottom of the valley near the bank of the little stream, and when you cast your eyes up to the village and the great green hill over it, you will admit that not many places even in our own green island can produce a prettier or more cheerful prospect. There is the little hamlet, with its whitewashed cottages gleaming in the morning beams, and from each a column of curling smoke rises slowly straight up towards the blue expanse. The base of the mountain is covered with wood, and several clumps of great trees are scattered here and there through the village, so that it appears imbedded in a mass of vegetation, its pretty cottages peeping out from among the foliage. The land on each side rises gently towards the mountain, its verdure interspersed by fields of blossomed potatoes laughing with joy, or of bright yellow corn, or more beautiful still, little patches of flax clothed in their Sunday dress of light blue.[3] Seefin rises directly over the village, a perfect cone; white patches of sheep are scattered here and there over its bright sunny face; and see, far up towards the summit, that long line of cattle, just after leaving Lyre-na-Grena, where they were driven to be milked, and grazing quietly along towards Lyre-na-Freaghawn.

The only sounds that catch your ear are, the occasional crow of a cock, or the exulting cackle of a flock of geese, or the softened low of a cow may reach you, floating down the hill side; or the cry of the herdsman, as with earnest gestures he endeavours to direct the movements of the cattle. But hear that merry laugh. See, it comes from the brow of the hill where the women of the village are just coming into view, returning from Lyre-na-Grena after milking their cows. Each carries a pail in one hand and a spancel in the other, and as they approach the village, descending the steep pathway—the "Dray-road," as it is called—that leads from "The Lyre," a gabble of voices mingled with laughter floats over the village, as merry and as happy as ever rung on human ear. Observe now they arrive at the village, the group becomes thinner as they proceed down the street, and at length all again is quietness.

Happy village! Pleasant scenes of my childhood! How vividly at this moment do I behold that green hill-side, as I travel back in imagination to the days of my boyhood, when I and my little brother Robert, and our companions—all now scattered over this wide world—ranged joyful among the glens in search of birds' nests, or climbed the rocks at its summit, eager to plant ourselves on its dizzy elevation. Why did ambition tempt me to leave my peaceful home?

Why did I abandon that sunny valley, where I might have travelled gently down the vale of life, free from those ambitious aspirations, those struggles with fortune that only destroy my peace? But though exiled far from my home, my heart shall never cease to point to its loved retirement; and ever, as release from business grants me the opportunity, I shall return to wander over the scenes of my infancy, to hold communion once again with the few companions of my boyhood that remain, and to think with feelings of kindly regret on those that are gone. And when weary from the incessant struggles of life, I seek an asylum from its turmoil, grant me, oh, kind Providence, to spend my declining years in that beloved valley, and to rest at length my aged head in the grave of my fathers on the green hill of Ardpatrick.[4]

About a century and a-half ago, that part of the valley where the village now stands was almost uninhabited. It was covered with a vast forest of oaks, which not only clothed the valley, but extended more than half way up to the summits of the surrounding hills; and to this day the inhabitants will tell you, in the words of their fathers, that "a person could travel from Ardpatrick to Darra (about five miles) along the branches of the trees." No human habitation relieved the loneliness, save only one small cottage that stood near the base of the hill. It was inhabited, from times too remote for even the memory of tradition to reach, by a family named MacEniry, descendants of that princely sept that once possessed the Ballyhoura Mountains with many miles of the surrounding country. About three acres of land just in front of the house, and a small garden in the rear, had been rescued by some of the early dwellers from the grasp of the forest; the produce of these, with the assistance of a cow or two, and a few sheep and goats that browsed on the mountain side, afforded each succeeding family a means of subsistence; and they lived as happy as the days are long in the quiet of their mountain solitude.


[2] See "Sir Donall" and "The White Ladye" in Robert Dwyer Joyce's "Ballads of Irish Chivalry" for all these places commemorated in verse.

[3] Flax was grown there then (1845); but there is no flax now (1911).

[4] All this sentiment was natural enough for a young man, homesick, after leaving his native place; but sixty years or more will bring changes of feeling (April, 1911).