One of my favourite landscapes in Ireland is the boggy expanse around the Sally Gap in County Wicklow, part Wicklow Mountains National Park and part Featherbeds, so-named because of the Featherbed Mountain and the Featherbed Pass – as a child I thought this type of countryside was called The Featherbeds – in my mind I still refer to it as such.
I was there this Christmas Eve; a blisteringly cold, windy, foggy, rain-splattered day to be on high ground far up in the Wicklow Mountains, and it was just as bleak and beautiful as I remembered. This is a scenery of conflict, jewel green and straw yellow starkly contrasting with the darkest of browns and the deepest of purples; whimsical grasses colliding with resolute heathers; enduring stones engulfed by shape-shifting fogs. This is a scarred landscape; the age-old tradition of burning the bog before turf was cut has been scorched into the very fabric of the land; the ridges and deep tracts where Irish men and women cut turf for their fires are still clearly visible, etched into the mountainsides, even if the heathers and grasses and lichens have reclaimed their stronghold over their surfaces.
Light seems different up there. At this time of year, the fog and cloud cover diffuse the light, but it is unpredictable. One moment the colours shine out vividly, dazzling in their clarity; the next moment all colour seems to drain away, giving an almost unearthly glow to the muted, barely-discernable hues.
Water flows brown here; the turf-filtered streams cutting dark, undulating gashes through the land. I’ve never tried drinking the water, but somehow I know what it would taste like. If you’ve ever smelled a turf fire burning, you know what I mean.
Following the narrow, winding road from Laragh up towards the Sally Gap, I stopped to take a photo of Glenmacnass waterfall. As a child, I climbed that waterfall with my father and brother; my mother traumatised by the prospect of us slipping and tumbling down the craggy incline. Apparently not too many people stop along the road to take photographs, because when I turned around, a herd of sheep grazing on the steep slopes had wandered over, intrigued, to see what I was up to.
And then it was up onto the Featherbeds, twisting and turning with the road, stopping to get out and walk, just to feel the springy earth under my feet and the smart of the biting wind on my face, to smell the turf and listen to the wind howl and the brown streams babble. Doubling back along the road and veering off at the Sally Gap to follow the road to Roundwood was always the plan; no journey here is complete without a view of Lough Tay; the Guinness Lake.
Yes, it is referred to as The Guinness Lake because the Guinness family used to own the estate in the valley by the lake, but there’s another reason too. The lake is fed by streams running down from the bogs, so it is stained a dark brown, appearing almost black due to the volume of water. The Guinness family paid to import a beach of the whitest sand, which runs along the estate side of this lake, and which, when viewed at the right angle, resembles the head of a pint of Guinness; the frothy waves conjuring up images of a freshly-pulled pint with its creamy waves drifting slowly upward to form that thick layer at the top.
I struggle to find words to express how this part of the world affects me, because it strikes a chord far too deep for me to fully understand. My soul stirs and expands somehow, my heart aches for reasons I am unaware of and I am filled with a wistfulness, a longing, almost, for something I cannot discern. I feel deeply connected to the earth and yet cast adrift in time and place. It is the most wretchedly blissful feeling I know.
Let me leave you with one final image from my Christmas Eve travels. As I was navigating the curling, curving road through the Featherbeds, miles and miles from homesteads or anywhere that could be described as civilisation, I turned a bend to see this unexpected sight, all alone in the middle of the bog; in the middle of nowhere.
For my other Christmas post (a short one this time), see here.