By Pádraig Ó Duibheannaigh
Situated on the south side of our neighbour’s hill field, the culleen – from the Irish word coillín, a little wood – was a fascinating place. In contrast to the straight lines of whitethorn hedges on either side, it spread in an irregular mass like a miniature jungle.
While the hedges had been planted by farmers from the 17th century up to the years before the Great Famine – my father said by placing haws at regular intervals in a súgán or hay rope, which was then buried – the culleen spread naturally. Perhaps its first blackthorns or hazels had sprung up from seeds or nuts deposited by wild birds and animals such as squirrels. In any case they had spread organically, joined by briars, ivy, woodbine, an occasional whitethorn and, at the edges, thistles, buttercups and mayflowers.
Naturally, the culleen fascinated us children. It was a challenge to penetrate its twilight centre, following a meandering path created in all likelihood by bullocks. In an ivy-clad tree there might be a wren’s or a pigeon’s nest, while the blackthorns had sharp-tasting sloes and the hazels produced tasty nuts that could be obtained by easy climbing. As we grew older my brother and I might snare an occasional rabbit in the adjoining field or bag one with our father’s single-barreled shotgun. One autumn day I had the rare experience of seeing a long-beaked woodcock sunning itself on a hillock by the south fringe.
In the field on the upper side of the culleen there was a ring-fort or rath that might have been fourteen hundred years old. These ring-forts were occupied by local families up to Viking times, but were then gradually abandoned. The circular banks were obviously a defensive feature, so originally they must have been much higher. Eventually the belief grew that these forts were the homes of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who, after their defeat by the Milesians, were obliged to inhabit the underground half of Ireland. In time the Tuatha Dé, who were really the gods of our Milesian ancestors, shrank in the popular imagination to become the Aos Sí or fairies.
It was exciting to stand on the fort’s earthen rim and look across the culleen at the distant bog that, thousands of years earlier, had formed in a lake left by the retreating ice sheet. By depositing accumulated rubble and clay the ice sheet had also created the drumlins, low east-west aligned hills that were a feature of the area, like the one on which the ring fort was built.
The first people who lived in this fort probably had to fell forest trees to create open space on which to grow crops and raise cattle. There would have been no culleen then and their nearest neighbours would have lived in another fort on another hill. Did those people use turf from the bog to heat their clay and wattle homes or was there sufficient timber for their fires? We will never know for certain because, apart from the circular bank, there is no trace of their existence. And there will be less trace soon.
Just as the present owner of this tract of land bulldozed the culleen to make more grazing space for his cattle, so other farmers, undeterred by fears of fairy displeasure, are leveling ring forts and removing whitethorn hedges rich in biodiversity to create bigger fields. That’s supposed to be progress, but it’s progress at the expense of the environment. At least the cutting of turf has now been restricted but in far too many places forests are replacing pastures. Compared to the culleen with its diverse, natural compliment of trees and wildlife, who wants a depressing, sterile vista of Sitka spruce?