If there is one thing Ireland is known for it’s fairy tales and ghost stories. While tantalizing hints of small, pipe-smoking men and pots of gold are offered at the end of every rainbow, every stately mansion more than 100 years old has a resident ghost or two. I was on a week’s tour around the southeast coast of the Irish Republic and in these garden counties, ghosts and greenery seemed to go together.
Ireland’s energetic push for ecological sustainability is preserving its legendary “40 shades of green” for future generations. But underneath the bending rainbows and in between the forests, parks, and gardens, stand historic houses and ruined buildings with plenty of stories about the past to tell. From ancient corners on foggy evenings, ghosts, goblins and ghoulies still spring out of the darkness to frighten unwary visitors. Ghost-story sustainability is an old Irish tradition.
The Blackstairs Mountains on the border of County Carlow and County Wexford contain some of Ireland’s most beautiful scenery and it was here that I found Blackstairs Eco Trails run by eco-warrior Mary White. Amid fields dotted with frolicking lambs and gamboling calves, rises the misty mountain of Tomduff, a place buried in Irish folklore. Blackthorn fairy trees rise from the hedgerows and dry stone walls crisscross its fields like supernatural latticework raised by giants.
A few years back, a mining company bought mineral rights to the area and was planning to strip-mine the entire hill. Enter Mary White. She rounded up the locals and launched a campaign that saved Tomduff and the natural beauty of the countryside around it. From her home in the Old Rectory she offered to take a group of us into that countryside and show us its wonders.
We set off down what had once been a pilgrim’s path that led to sacred springs and holy wells lying hidden among the greenery. What I saw all around me was a green pastoral landscape. What Mary saw was lunch.
“Look here,” she said as she pushed back a strand of ivy to reveal blossoming wild strawberries. The greenwood, it turned out, was a pantry for those in the know. Wood sorrel, dandelion greens, pennywort, wild current, blackberries, and mushrooms, all grew in abundance, enough to feed the fairy folk and the human folk alike. Oak, ash, and beech, trees sacred to the Celts, grew everywhere.
“When you cut a tree,” Mary told us, “replace it. You’ll never see it mature but it will be a gift to the future.” But, she cautioned us, to never cut a white flowering blackthorn tree. “Blackthorn belongs to the fairies, and a broken branch in the house means a death in the family.”
Deaths in the family were all too real that night on a tour of the haunted mansion of Loftus Hall. Built on the site of an even earlier haunted house, present day Loftus owes its elegant, but abandoned, appearance to the 4th Marquis of Ely. A man of towering ambition, he bankrupted himself creating a private palace where he planned to welcome Queen Victoria. He even added an elaborate wooden staircase built by the same brothers responsible for the Grand Staircase on the ill-fated ship Titanic.
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