The wilder hillside starts across the road in an irregular meadow of rocks and grass that hasn’t changed in half a century or more. It flanks the stream from a little bog cupped high under the ridge, and floods have carved a green ravine down to the stone bridge at a corner of our acre.
In the years before we drilled a well, a flood could whip out the end of the black plastic pipe that brought us water by gravity. Then I had to march up the meadow to wedge it in behind a rock and patiently nurse out the bubbles from its airlock. This could take many journeys, happy ones in spring sunshine but also slogs in winter rain that put me, as in Paul Durcan’s poem, “backside to the wind”.
A summer drought could also leave the pipe gasping. It needed a heaving of rocks to shape a new dam in the stream. To recover, I could sit on the grass and gaze out at the islands in a huge blue sea.
Grassed-over lazy beds for potatoes and corn still corduroy much of the hillside. I was moved to discover, at one of the meadow’s lichen-white rocks, a hollow the size of a pipit’s nest and in it half a dozen little stones. A small child had gathered them well over a century ago, and moss had grown to bind them into place.
The townland’s crowded pre-Famine life has left stony footprints of cabins embedded in rushes on the hillside. Walking the land with Prof Frank Mitchell, I learned to see Neolithic walls and scattered fulacht fiadh, cooking pits of the Bronze Age.
Thallabawn’s modern landmarks also fade away. One was a tall mound on the strand bearing remnants of a small monastic chapel built by early monks from Inishbofin. Their settlement, originally on grassy dunes, was carved off by the sea, then slowly undermined by spring tides and storm surges, leaving just a stony circle on the strand.
Tucked under the hillside a few kilometres north is the roofless shell of a small, steepled, long-abandoned church. Made from rubble stone and plastered with windblown sand and lime, it was built and thatched in the early 1800s for people evicted for a giant Scottish sheep ranch. Some crossed a mountain from Doo Lough Pass to attend.
I have wondered what they thought about the natural world, beyond a rough place to live in, use and survive.
In his new book Listen to the Land Speak, Manchán Magan explores the myths and magic of more settled and stable places, with histories of kingships and poets and sacred trees.
The wider Mayo has a holy mountain, Croagh Patrick, and ancient marks on a distant rock where you can stand, on the right day of the year (I’ve done it), to watch the setting sun roll down its side.
Magan’s aim, pursued with a personal passion and deep research, is “to send shards of light across the landscape, illuminating certain features and patterns, as well as old beliefs and customs that are still in people’s memories today and are encoded in the lore and in the environment”.
His travels around Ireland brought him unexpected frissons of feeling at the heart of some stone circles and a deep regard for the significance of myriad holy wells. It also confirmed his antipathy to the Christian colonisation of pagan culture.
Magan writes of St Patrick’s tactics in sabotaging the tradition of fire and sun worship that set the sacred fires of Bealtaine on the summit of Uisneach and thence to hills throughout Ireland. This, he says, was “the annual catalyst for the rebirth of the goddess and her domain of nature”.
The feminine force of nature, in conflict with patriarchal religion, is a frequent theme of the book. It’s given a different twist in writings by UCD’s Maire Ní Annracháin for the Royal Irish Academy. She examines comhbhá an dulra, the ancient idea of nature as “the female spouse of the rightful leader”, screaming or withering the crops if his rule went culpably wrong.
We still say “Mother Nature”. But the gulf in understanding of pagan beliefs is huge. Their subversion in Ireland by Christian colonialism leaves history to be written, though Magan’s book makes a good start.
In his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis nudged aside the Bible’s prescription of human “dominion” over every living thing. He urged an “ecological conversion” that seeks “a deep communion with nature”.
The pagans did that rather well, more sacred trees and all.