An Irishwoman's Diary

 

IT WAS russet red, delicately poised on the branch as if it was made of a light mahogany. “Scarlet elf cup”, we were told, and we were sure we could hear the leafy footfalls of tiny little men . . .

Trish Walsh, director of Petersburg Outdoor Education Centre (OEC), was discussing the life cycle of the fungus, resembling an upturned mushroom, when she stooped to pluck what appeared to be a bit of discoloured paper or paint from among the moss.

Lobaria pulmonaria!“she declared, and on closer inspection we knew how it had earned its name. The “lungwort” or “lung lichen” resembled lung tissue so closely that medieval doctors believed it had curative properties. For Walsh, it is an indicator of clear air and an undisturbed habitat in “old-growth” forests and woodlands like those around Ashford Castle near Cong, where we spent a recent afternoon.

If it didn’t feel like a study session, that’s only because respect for the environment is such an integral part of life at Petersburg OEC on the southern shores of Lough Mask on the Galway-Mayo border. Long before the development of so-called “extreme sports” and images like that of Russian president Vladimir Putin stripping off his shirt for Komsomolskaya Pravda in the Siberian mountains, adventure activities tended to have a slightly “white macho” image.

Not quite so in Petersburg and its dozen sister centres run by vocational education committees (VECs), which have no big marketing budgets to lure the travel press. They differentiate between outdoor education and outdoor pursuits, laying much emphasis on conservation of the environment for future generations.

Which means that when one is descending a rock face known as the “pigeon hole” with Petersburg OEC instructor Brian Ward, one might spend as much time discussing the antics of an over-friendly pair of robins as the techniques of abseiling. Like Walsh, Ward knows his lichens from his fungus, and the symbiotic techniques of both, while Petersburg instructors are well familiar with the rich geological and archaeological landscape in which they work and play.

It is a landscape that extends out from the southern shores of Lough Mask and the narrow isthmus between Mask and Corrib to the Maamturk and Partry mountains westwards and the limestone plains and State forests of east Galway. The house itself has its own bit of history. Back in 1986, Co Galway’s vocational education committee (VEC) acquired the Petersburg estate, including the 18-acre Red Island on Lough Mark, from Galway County Council.

The 32 acres of farmland, including the ruins of an Anglo-Norman castle mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters, had initially been acquired by the local authority from the Land Commission. Original owners were the Lynch family, one of Galway’s tribes, who had acquired the prime land under the system known as surrender and regrant.

The house was built in 1750 and named Petersburg after one of the first residents, Peter Lynch. A chapel built in 1847 was dedicated by Charles Lynch to his wife, Elizabeth. The single condition attached to VEC acquisition was that the property should be developed as a leisure facility.

It wasn’t without considerable voluntary effort and local community support in Clonbur village. Raffles were held, and appeals extended to the US, given that one of the Lynch clan had signed the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. A Government grant secured by then junior arts minister, Éamon Ó Cuív, who lives close by in Cornamona, secured the centre’s future.

The centre employs up to 25 in full season, is open year round, and attracts student groups from several continents on a regular basis. Its field studies programme covers much of the Leaving Certificate curriculum in geography and biology, while adult visitors have an insatiable enthusiasm for environmental walks. “The beauty of this location is that we don’t have to travel too far,” Walsh explains.

The caving takes place only after the lesser Horsehoe bat comes out of hibernation however. “This is one of the last European locations for this type of bat species,” she explains. “They tend to wake up around the end of March.”

After a morning abseiling down the Clonbur woods’s aforementioned pigeon hole – where a subterranean river runs from Mask to Corrib – we were launching Canadian canoes on the limestone lakeshore. Destination was Red Island, Oileán rua. Here, a 17th-century scribe by the name of O’Duignan transcribed the battle of Moytura, where hordes of Firbolg confronted the Tuatha Dé Danann on the summit of Mount Gable.

The scribe wasn’t too impressed with the island digs provided by his employers, the O’Flaherty family, judging from a note in the margin to the effect that it was “cold” out there. The island, carpeted with trees, is now occupied by mink. Our mission was to stay dry for long enough during our paddle to complete the island’s obstacle course, and avoid the Dhobar-Chu, the “Irish crocodile” or half wolf, half fish recorded as living in Mask in Roderick O’Flaherty’s 1684 description of Iar-Connacht.

And so we did, and kayaked back across velvet waters, framed by the Partry mountains, with the silence broken only by the gulp of paddles breaking the surface. Behind us, further out, was Saint’s Island, where Ward told us of early Christian burial sites, and Earl’s Island, named after Edmund de Burgo, earl of Ulster, who was reputedly murdered there in April, 1338.

Throughout the day, there had been little pressure on any of the young charges in my company. Yet somehow Ward, who also teaches sailing during the summer at Clifden, had ensured that they were more than happy with their achievements on rock and water. “We have a philosophy here – it’s challenge by choice,” he said. It encapsulates some of the magic of Petersburg, and Mask, and explains why its visitors keep on coming back.