When we found our thrill picking bilberries on a hill
ANOTHER LIFE: THE RIDGE ABOVE US is an undistinguished lump of a hill, a long claw of Mweelrea Mountain about 300m high. There are great views from the top. A rich old man with a helicopter used to touch down there on his way to buy crab claws in Connemara. He’d stand for a while and look, and perhaps take a meditative pee.
Once, in training as a gooseherd for a Greenland expedition, I climbed the hill every morning before breakfast, my backpack heavy with rope for extra virtue. It was a slog up rushy, rocky pasture, then the mountain fence and the grassy, boggy scarp beyond. But at the crest – ah! – the world right round, from Croagh Patrick to the Bens, the islands from ’Bofin to Achill.
Where the ridge broadens out there are long-abandoned turf cuttings and little platforms of stone where the sods were dried in the wind. There would still have been heather on the hillside then, and even fraughans for a picnic at Lughnasa, on the last Sunday in July.
The Reek – Croagh Patrick – was just one location for this old Celtic festival, ending the summer with thanks for the harvest. All over Ireland people were climbing hills for Fraughan Sunday, Garland Sunday, Mountain Sunday, Domhnach Crom Dubh. And the fraughans were bilberries, blaeberries, whinberries, heatherberries, whorts or mónógs, all Vaccinium myrtillus, wild cousin of the big, cultivated blueberry, today’s antioxidant elixir.
“Berry black, with blue bloom, sweet. Mountains, heaths and woods on acid soil, abundant.” Thus a summary in the new edition of Webb’s An Irish Flora. But the map in the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora (2002) shows big blank areas for the bilberry in north Leinster and in parts of the west and midlands where the shrub grew before 1970. Urban sprawl, conifer forestry and sheep overgrazing can be blamed.
“Seventy years after the last peak in exports to Britain in the 1940s,” writes Dr Michael Conry, “it is now difficult to find enough bilberries to make a bit of jam or a bilberry pie.” Conry, a retired soil scientist with An Foras Talúntais, had the friendship and encouragement of the late and great Prof Frank Mitchell. This inspired his explorations of rural culture and folkways and handsome, self-published books such as Culm Crushers, The Carlow Fence and Corn Stacks on Stilts.
His latest, Picking Bilberries, Fraocháns and Whorts in Ireland: The Human Story (see conry-michael-books.com), is the most remarkable of all. A chronicle of Ireland’s long affair with a bountiful wild fruit, it documents in great detail some striking but near-forgotten episodes of rural survival and enterprise. Interviews with “hundreds, if not thousands of people” all over Ireland, and old pictures from their family albums, tell the story.
Bilberry-eating goes back forever: the seeds survived for archaeology in the cesspits of Viking Dublin. But in the first and second World Wars, when prices soared for bilberry exports to Britain, whole townlands of families climbed to the high woods and hillsides of southeastern Ireland, day after day for six weeks and more, suffering thorny briars, midges, face flies, wasp nests and ticks to fill their buckets and baskets. (“Bottoming the can”, we’re told, was the crucial psychological breakthrough of a slow and tedious task.)