Wild Nephin, by Seán Lysaght, Stonechat Editions, 281 pp, €19.99, ISBN: 978-0956891846
Like many people, Seán Lysaght regarded Erris and northwest Mayo as a region of forbidding emptiness, frightening in its loneliness according to Robert Lloyd Praeger in 1937. Lysaght’s more recent explorations took place in winter so he could experience “desertion and desolation” at its most extreme. Winter in Nephin, a daunting prospect for many in the wind and rain, was embraced enthusiastically by Lysaght. Wild Nephin is nature-writing at its most fervent, reading the landscape’s signatures in streams and rivulets, bog and woodland, walls and fences. The author is a poet, writer and teacher, whose Robert Lloyd Praeger: The Life of a Naturalist was published in 1998. His Eagle Country (2018), in which he walked west Mayo in search of old eagle-nesting sites, prompted him to revisit many of the places he had first explored in summertime. His elegantly written descriptions are comprehensive and insightful.
The Wild Nephin Wilderness Area and National Park is an idea borrowed from North America’s vast areas of intact, almost primeval, landscapes. In Mayo, however, the strategy has been to allow the humanised landscapes within the national park to revert to wilderness ‑ with a little help from Coillte and the National Parks and Wildlife Service: that “the wild can be human work” Lysaght sees as a formula for Nephin. The North American model is probably appropriate also as the Irish state’s earlier plantings of American sitka spruce and lodgepole pine look like a piece of “imported picturesque” which eventually will become its own natural habitat.
Wild Nephin is best read alongside Barry Dalby’s excellent 1:25,000 map of the area which contains the helpful note: “1 centimetre on the map = 250 metres on the ground. 250 metres will take c.4 minutes to walk or about 165 double paces.” It’s not clear, however, if this is useful advice for a “plashy stagger” through fallen trees and pine stumps, ponds and sodden sphagnum ‑ in places such as Glennamong, for example, Gleann na Muinge, the valley of the swampy hollows! Lysaght presents Wild Nephin as a “prose map of the landscape”, much in the style of Tim Robinson, Michael Viney, Richard Nairn, Robert Macfarlane other notable writers of nature.
Ireland hasn’t shared in the long tradition of nature-writing which historically has flourished in England. Indeed most of us growing up in the Irish countryside were largely unfamiliar with the names of vegetation and trees around us – a legacy attributed by some to the post-famine collapse of our native language with its connectedness to the natural and cultural landscape – “a farmer with no Irish is a stranger in his own land”, as Michael Viney has observed. This meaningful relationship is resurrected in many cases by Lysaght’s restorations of Irish placenames which are emblematic of local physical and biotic habitats: Coire na gCapall, Ben Gorm, Poll Dubh, Torc Shléibhe and its Mass rock, Carraig an Amharc; Birreencorragh, the Ordnance Survey version of An Birín Corrach, the uneven point; Derrybrock / Doire Bhroc, badger wood. Tamhnach na nUltaigh (field of the Ulster people) commemorates the south Ulster refugees from Orange expulsions in the 1790s. Screigiolra (Eagle Crag) is where the last golden eagle was shot in 1915, and Carraig an Iolra (the eagle’s rock) afforded golden eagles a commanding view of mountain and moorland before it was forested. Heading towards Loch na mBreac Caoch, the lake of the one-eyed trout (Lough Nambrackkeagh in the OS 1830s edition), an area with historic references to eagles, Lysaght whooped for joy at his first sighting of a juvenile golden eagle, probably on a probing sortie from Donegal where they have been reintroduced.
His lyrical writing captures the wildness and overwhelming wintry isolation of the extensive blanket bog, or “flow country”, near Ballacorick: “ … as we walked into a vast space haunted by the plaintive calls of golden plover, a landscape gradually opened up with its own peculiar geography of locháns and small lakes … a crazy paving of ponds and pools, the margins seamed with otter tracks”. A similar landscape near Roundstone in Connemara fascinated Tim Robinson for many years. In the mountains and glens of Nephin, the “last light of day was struggling in the distance behind monstrous clouds … Another night of wind and rain was forecast … A winter’s night was claiming the place, draining it of colour and warmth for all but the most exceptional explorer.”
Detailed accounts of each day’s walk are leavened with asides to amplify the experience of wild nature or cultural history. He recalls accounts by earlier travellers in the region like Richard Pococke, who reached west Mayo in 1752 and was repelled by the vast peatlandscape of Erris – “The most dismal looking country I ever saw, the greater part irreclaimable”, a landscape assessment that endures today. Our modern appraisal of landscape and “scenery” is still largely beholden to the picturesque aesthetic of the late eighteenth century.
Nephin’s sporting legacy is remembered in reflections on falconry during a day snipe-hunting with peregrines. Another day he joins a group of French hunters of woodcock “on a mission to kill things” – a modern reprise of earlier Victorian slaughters by gentry shooters in the region. He holds a soft woodcock corpse briefly, “such a slight little thing to be the object of so much effort”. His attention wanders to a greenshank feeding on the muddy edge of an inlet, and a curlew nearby; then a peregrine appears, wheeling overhead. One senses Lysaght’s preference for the living wilderness and his uneasiness around these “sporting” diversions.
The region has a sprinkling of lodges and houses, many in ruins, leftovers from the Victorian era ‑ hunting lodges and frontier farms whose “civilizing legacy” of handsome walls enclosing grassy well-drained fields were experimental efforts at improvement by landowning gentry. Altnabrocky Lodge was a Victorian angling outpost on the edge of extensive boglands which during WWII was used for safekeeping the Irish Folklore Collection, a repository (now in UCD) of much of the “precious web of meanings cast by these names over the bogs, rivers and mountains”.
There are contrasting views of wilderness in the community – for the sheep man, a mountain going wild is out of his control; for the nature lover it is a healing, recovering landscape. The National Park and the problems of rewilding the landscape are in many cases evolving processes as nature reasserts itself over misplaced coniferous planting from the 1930s, the environmental damage inflicted by foolhardy overgrazing by sheep, as well as accommodating continuing sheep-farming, and hunting, fishing and the demands of tourism on the Wild Atlantic Way. It’s a colossal management challenge.
Among the many environmental issues discussed is the state of wildlife in the region, reflected particularly in multitudes of birds which the author identifies as signals of a recovering nature. Throughout the book he repeatedly encounters ravens, hooded crows, gulls, kestrels, sparrowhawks, falcons, merlin, a buzzard, owl, and of course his reconnoitring golden eagle. “Another kestrel appears, then a raven … as if to underline the quality of this habitat, a pair of red grouse explode from the ground …” With merlin, golden plover and white-fronted geese these are headline species for conservation in the National Park. Climbing towards Ben Gorm, the calls and songs of crossbills were clear. Further on he saw a flock of fifteen meadow pipits on the rocks above him. On another day “a charm of seven goldfinches flies across the heathery bank above Casadh na Leice, announcing a life that is here, independent of phone networks and human traffic.” He mentions greenshank, siskins, a flock of sanderlings, dunlin, redshank, curlews, snipe, plover, some grouse, skylark, chiffchaff. “The stillness was an unveiling of meadow pipit and wren calls, and a few notes from a stonechat. Apart from a few honks from Glennamong’s passing ravens, the rest was silence. Swallows had deserted these upland glens, and the common sandpiper … was on its way back to the coast of West Africa.” This wildlife inventory reaches into the smallest habitats: “I stood in the shade of these trees and saw sunlight at a low angle spilling into the space of a derelict field. The tussocks were golden in that light; the space was fractured by strands of gossamer as fine as cracks in glass, as spiderlings took a lift of air to their new lives. My binoculars found these long, hairline glitters flashing as the gossamer tilted in the sunlight, with each spiderling suspended as a tiny white mote among drifts of flies.”
Crossing the northern boundary of Wild Nephin, he could see the cars on the main road ‘hermetically sealed from place and weather’ and the spell of the walks on the wild side is broken by the sight of discarded bottles and rubbish littering the roadside ‑ a shocking jolt into reality.
Patrick Duffy is emeritus professor of geography at Maynooth University.