The old broom knows the dark corner best

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by Mike Gallagher, Mayo & Kerry


Achill Aiteanns

The Aiteanns on Achill inhabit wastelands,

rough pastures, heaths and rocky places;

cling to sea cliffs, hillsides and the verges

of bogs; with fellow native, humankind, they

lean into salt laden winds, scratch their way up

hard-fought, steeple slopes, jealously shield

the clois, the haggard, the stripes, even

the stones; are wary of interlopers,

knotweed, rhododendron, giant cabbages

and other invasive sorts; have shared,

down centuries, the harsh infertility of

this fallow isle, pulling together its loose,

measly topsoil and enriching it with

nitrogen-bearing root nodes. On hot

Summer days, it wafts the Achill air with

coconut scent, rends the Achill air with

pops of exploding seed pods; blue-green

branchlets hug the Achill earth, snuggle it

in a canopy of rigid, furrowed thorns.


It is, as ever, a lop-sided alliance, this bargain

between man and nature – one taking, one giving:

Thatch for the widow’s cot; beaten to pulp ‘tween

mallet and stone, a bran for sheep or stock;

coppiced and pollarded and scythed, each acre

a winters feed for six hungry horses, ’twas said;

the young shoots, forage once for piebalds along

the long acre; its leaves add colour and flavour

to Irish whiskey, make wine and tea, as well.

Its besoms once Saula houses swept; foundations

for bog roads in Shraheens, too; a chimney brush

with sugawns pulled, down and up, up and down;

sprinkled sprigs kept mouse and vole at bay

from bobbed-up shoots, and seeds, soaked, rampant

fleas repelled; ash of whin, when mixed with lard

made soap that soon did dirt discard; furze blossom dye

did Easter eggs adorn and young shoots greened ribbed sock

and pretty petticoat; gorse wood was grand for kitchen tools

and garden gnomes – non-toxic and would not rot;

precious bearts from tramcock butts dried on its August

bush; scarce pollen for bees it yields through Spring; dense

cover for Warbler, Stonechat and Whinchat, too, except

the Wren which it betrays so easily on each Saint

Stephens Day; in the Achill of my youth, protection

for Sandybanks rabbits, before we went genteel

and swapped burrows for golf holes; dinner for the

Double-striped Pug moth, but refuge for diner Robin, too –

Nature’s sword, as ever, double-edged; in olden days,

a purgative; a cure for scarlet fever, jaundice, all ailments

of the spleen and nasty kidney stones; release from

horse’s worms, besides, (only half the dose for man, one would

suppose); shelter belts on sodded walls, stock-proof but, sadly,

not sheep-proof (is anything?); a barrier to mystical forces –

scatter petals at window or door to keep the fairies out; a sprig

kept under thatch or over rafter would surely bring you luck; place

a plant in the dung heap during May to multiply the crop; a garland

around the churn would ward off the evil eye and cattle chased

through aiteann would never, ever die.  And as you stagger

homeward, a spray behind your lapel would halt the certain stumble.

A twig in the feeding stall will foil sterility,

A sprig in the brides bouquet will ensure fertility,

(no mention of the groom or his ability!); and

kissing is always out, when blossoms are not about!


Cameras, smart phones all around, Dooniver, Dookinella,

Achill Sound, Ballinasally, Cloisríd, Keel, Cloughmore,

Bunacurry, Cashel, Keem, The Shore; Kildownet, Pollagh,

Dooagh, Dugort,  Croghan, Minaun, old Slievemore,

take landscape photos, catch all the action,

snap scarlet fuchsia and yellow aiteann,

sharp, cutting and lacerating,

like its Island hosts,

thorny, prickly, quick to flare,

glow warm beyond compare.