Monday 22 August 2016

Up the Déise!

The Déisi, no relation to Bellis perennis, were a Celtic tribe who inhabited what is now County Waterford between 1600 and 1200 years ago. Each county in Ireland has a defining nickname which serves to differentiate them from the short-necked louts who inhabit neighbouring counties. Rivalries, which previously might have been expressed in cattle-rieving and pillage, are now exposed with rather more violence on the hurling field. When the Waterford team turns out in blue and white shirts to moider the opposition, their couch-bound supporters cry "Up the Déise". I'm here today to sing the praises of the Waterford Coast, so the title could be "Along the Déise!".  We live halfway up our mountain, a generous hour from the port of Rosslare Harbour. In the Summer, ferry-boats disgorge hundreds of foreign tourists looking for the authentic Ireland of the Welcomes Brochures. After a punitive 22 hours on the ferry from Cherbourg, Catarina and Lazslo spend another 4-5 hours hammering along our crappy roads to The West in search of salmon, fiddles, round-towers and slaggin'. An hour's journey, over really crappy roads, would get them to the bottom of our lane where they would have access to 3500 ha. of unspoiled upland essentially the same as the hills of West Cork and Kerry.
If you're a woman, in the sense of the Irish proverb "Man to the hills, woman to the shore" then you can ignore the Blackstairs "Mountains" (hills really in the global scheme of things) and carry on along the N25 towards Cork and The West. But between Waterford City and Dungarvan you'll be by-passing one of Ireland's hidden treasures - the Waterford Coast [viewed above] : an infinitely interesting mix of geology, geography, history and silence. Sandy beaches interspersed with rocky coves, little glacial valleys and rugged cliffs, and always on your left The Sea in all her moods. Views of successive headlands, sea-stacks and promontory forts going grey with the distance; each one a source of mystery and wonder. You can see the rain stalking in from The West but know, in a Irish Summer, that the inevitable downpour won't last all day. A bit like Sherkin, but not so far to drive.

I've been reading By Cliff and Shore: walking the Waterford Coast by Michael Fewer, an account of his resolve to walk from the bridge over the Blackwater at Youghal, Co Cork to the bridge over the Suir in Waterford City. Copies are possible but hard to find. This account was published in 1992 and is primarily of interest to those who know, or want to know more about, the 200km between those rivers. It is consciously written in the style of Robert Lloyd Praeger's The Way That I Went (1937) which rambles over the whole island in an era before motor cars and 18-wheeler container lorries made walking on roads a sort of hell. Fewer's walks (he completed the trek in sections over nearly two years, with a variety of companions) took place 50 years after Praeger's and 25 years before the present time. I suppose it's of some interest to the largely anonymous people he met along the way, or their descendants: the farms and bars and B&Bs are identifiably described. There's something quite poignant in the knowledge that the young wans he encountered are now firmly - or more likely flabbily - middle-aged and the old farmers are probably dead.

Like all such commonplace travel books, the people met are given a back-drop of history as and when it seems to have any interest. A lot of shipwrecks feature for example; and well as sieges and slaughters from Cromwellian and Civil War times. Like Praeger, Ireland's most famous natural historian and rambler, Fewer knows his birds and hedgerow plants and it's nice to see that the thrift / sea pink Armeria maritima is still abundant (and wonderful!) along the road between Bunmahon and Annestown. Thrift is notable for its tolerance of copper in the soil, so you'd expect it to get an edge against the competition along The Copper Coast. The account serves as a snapshot of what things were like a generation ago. Fewer and his wife walk past Clonea Castle just months before it was demolished as unsafe, for example, so you can't see that any more. Perhaps more interesting is the evidence that the coast here is being continually eroded, the little winkly cliff-top paths disappear over a sharp edge in numerous places and, if you followed them today, more would have been lost. And a lot of more inland walk ways are reported as being impenetrably over-grown. That shows that there is no footfall in such places: everyone goes by car now.

But a good copy editor would have sacrificed a couple of pages of TMI about the particulars of the time and place. Nobody needs to know that two nice people once had tea and corned-dog sandwiches at Gortnadiha or had a spiffing cup of thermos coffee in Ballinagoul. It's more useful to clock where they got pints, you never know when you might need a pub.  All in all it makes retracing the walk along Coast of the Déise seem possible, and even desirable . . . navigating along a coast, as I found in my Portuguese Walk in 1989, is so easy that you don't need GPS, but a machete might be handy.

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