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.)

Bought and cleaned by local dealers, the berries were shipped off within 24 hours – some 400 tons of them in 1941, an exceptionally good year (when British pilots, reportedly, found bilberry jam improved their night vision). Bilberry money paid long-standing shop bills, provided dowries and bought bicycles, boots and schoolbooks.

Why the southeastern counties, in particular, should have met the wartime demand was not simply proximity to market. Bilberries grow best in well-drained acid soil beneath a canopy of broadleaf trees – Conry shows them growing in metre-high masses beneath maturing oak trees in Derrybawn Wood at Laragh, Co Wicklow. On old estates where the big trees had been felled they also survived well among heather, gorse and scrub oak; some landlords, indeed, charged for access to the harvest.

A great many gaps in today’s map of Ireland’s bilberries correspond to the planting of conifer forest, whose dense shadow slowly overwhelmed the shrub. In my own locality this happened beside Louisburgh, where Kilgeever Hill, a pup to the Reek, now stands shorn of conifers and fraughans both. Bilberry pies and jam are still made in Ireland (not least by the neighbours of Mayo’s Bilberry Lake, near Castlebar), but the hilltop festivities now belong to the land of Dev’s comely maidens. In his 1950s classic, Irish Folk Ways, Estyn Evans could write that, while the fiddling and dancing of “Height Sunday” might have ceased on the summit of Co Down’s Slieve Croob, “numbers of young people still assemble there and frolic in the heather”. Today, one assumes, they stir no further than the back of the car.

Eye on nature

In Mullaghmore Forest Park I noticed a series of high-pitched squeaks coming from a beetle on its back. When I righted it the squeaks stopped. Was it a burying beetle?

Susan Flynn, Ballybrack, Co Dublin

From the photograph you sent, it was the burying beetle Nicrophorus vespillo. It squeaks by rubbing its elytra together, usually to call its larvae to food or to warn interlopers. I think yours was calling for help, as it often has a mate nearby.

There were at least a dozen pairs of mallard on the lake in Farmleigh in spring, yet there have been no ducklings. Could the heron that patrols the area be responsible?

Clive Geraghty, Coolmine, Dublin

The heron could have taken some ducklings, but there are other predators such as mink, fox, rats and, possibly, otters and raptors.

There seem to be a lot of ticks in my garden at the moment. As there are almost no animals – only an occasional stray cat – what are they living on?

Pádraig McGinn, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim

Ticks can live on birds, mice, rats, hedgehogs and other small mammals. The best way to control them is the keep the grass mown and remove leaf and other litter.

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or email viney@anu.ie. Please include a postal address.

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