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Carrigmannon Woods by Nicola O’Hanlon

Writing.ie | Magazine | Mining Memories | Tell Your Own Story
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Nicola O'Hanlon

No matter what else was going on in the world, or at home or in school, the second I stepped inside Carrigmannon Woods, all other life outside ceased to exist. It seemed to envelope me in its magic and all my senses seemed to be heightened by it’s energy. The sap oozing out of the evergreen trees with its almost liquorice smell, the pine needles on the ground which formed a blanket for my bare feet to walk on and the rustle of the trees as the red squirrels jumped from tree top to tree top were all things that I was very familiar with but never ceased to fill me with awe. In here, in these woods, I was a fairy, a princess, an explorer or whatever I chose to be. Autumn, Winter, Summer, Spring each brought their own unique delights to discover and the woods changed so dramatically with each season that there was never time to be bored. This wonderful world was available to me right on my doorstep, in fact, right across the road from my house where I grew up.

Spring brought the beginning of new life. Snow drops would appear on the forest floor, primroses and tiny purple violets would unfold from their buds along the ditches. My particular favourite were what we called lambs tails. They grew from the buds of the willow trees, and shook and wiggled in the wind just like the tails of the new born lambs that were born at the same time of year. When they dropped off, they were replaced by furry buds and then the yellow flowers would appear. The birds were busy making nests high in the trees and I’d watch them fly back and forth with pieces of grass and straw and other plant material to make a cozy home for their eggs and later their chicks. I’d often find the cracked speckled shells of the eggs on the ground, which were thrown out of the nest when the chicks hatched. Then I’d sit below the trees and listen to the hungry cries of the baby birds as they waited for their parents birds to return with food for them. Sometimes I’d find a whole egg with the baby still inside, which had fallen from the nest. I’d be highly distressed because I knew the babies couldn’t survive outside the nest without warmth, so I’d bring the egg home and try and mother it myself, keeping it warm with a hot water bottle and a towel. I never did successfully hatch one of those eggs, but it wasn’t for the want of trying.

The first appearance of the bluebells at the entrance to the woods, signalled that one of the most beautiful spectacles your ever likely to see anywhere in the world would soon arrive in late April or early May. I never quite understood why they were called bluebells, because they were actually more purple than blue. Nevertheless, when they appeared I would sit for hours at the edge of the stream which flowed through the middle of the woods and just look at the masses of purple flowers that burst to life on the opposite side of the bank of the stream. I’d take my shoes and socks off, if in fact I was wearing any at all, slip into the cold water and skip across the stream from rock to rock till I got to the other side. I’d walk barefoot through the blooms of these wild flowers. Occasionally I would find a single white one, and I’d always imagine they were Holy Mary’s flowers, because May was the month of Our Lady. My sister and I would pick wild flowers and make a May alter in our bedroom in honour of The Virgin Mary.

Summer brought the lush green leaves and the sound of bees going from bloom to bloom collecting nectar. At this time of year, I spent most of my days hidden in the middle of the woods with my sister and sometimes our neighbours who were of a similar age. We would make tree houses or huts out of branches and leaves and of course there was great rivalry between us and them as to who could build the best one. Many a battle was fought and competitions had to determine who would become King or Queen of the woods. Time stood still and we were oblivious to the outside world, until our mother’s voice could be heard calling us home.

We would take picnics down to the stream and spend hours and hours fishing with homemade fishing rods, made from straight branches and thread and pins, and try to catch the tiny stickleback fish in the stream. Of course there was no chance in hell we were going to ever catch anything, but it didn’t matter. We were exquisitely happy on the bank of that stream, with the beams of sunlight hitting us through the trees in our own magic world. The breeze blowing the soft green leaves of the ash trees made it sound as if there were a million butterflies taking flight at once.

I would often go on adventures alone and follow the stream to the far end of the forest where there was a waterfall, and here is where the fairies lived. As delicate as spider webs, my imagination would catch sight of them when the sun shone at the right angle. I’d share my picnic with them, and sing songs for them and dance and twirl and skip and play hide and seek. Along this stretch of stream the water was deeper, almost up to my knees and I would make boats out of the honey suckle leaves for the fairies and race them against each other. Nobody saw the fairies except me because I could keep their secret…. “shhhhhh your not to tell anyone we’re here Nicky”. And I didn’t so they let me play with them whenever I wanted.

Autumn would come and the leaves would turn to fire. Such lavish, rich colour and for some reason the woods would smell different. I’d collect the leaves that fell from the trees and make leaf drawings by rubbing a crayon over a sheet of paper that I’d placed a leaf behind. Then I’d try to match its deep orange colour with my crayon. I never could though. Every leaf had its own unique shade and it was impossible to recreate it. Even the crunch of the leaves under my feet reminded me of the crackling sound of a wood fire burning.

I loved to see the puffball mushrooms appear and give them a little tap with a stick and watch the spores burst out of them like smoke. I was a little fearful of them, as my mother would always make sure to tell me not to breathe in when the smoke came out as they were poisonous and would make me sick. So a long stick was used and plenty of distance was kept while pursuing this activity. The cones from the pine trees would also start to appear on the forest floor and these would be collected and saved up to make Christmas table centers with holly and mistletoe. By October the ditches were full of plump blackberries and the birds would have a constant banquet of fresh, juicy delicious berries. Of course my sister and I would also have our fill, and we would pick pounds of them for our Grandmother so she could make blackberry jam for us. The sweet smell of fruit boiling on her cooker was unique to her house. There was nothing like nor ever will be, anything like my Nanny Josies Blackberry Jam and fresh homemade brown bread.

Even in Winter, when nothing much grows, there was magic in Carrigmannon Woods. While the weather kept me indoors quite a lot of the time, on a crisp cold day when the sun shone, I’d get my hat and coat and wellington boots on and off I’d go down to my most favourite place in the world. The light that could now penetrate the woods a little better because of the lack of leaves on the trees, seemed to give the woods an ethereal feel. The grey of the ash trees seems to shine like silver when the frost came in deep winter and the sound of the water flowing in the stream seemed louder even when the ice covered it in parts.

My playground, full of surprises, magic and wonder, ever changing yet familiar and safe. Even when childhood came to an end for me, that wonderful place remained a very special and important part of my life.

About the author

Nicola O’Hanlon lives in Wexford, she says “Writing has always been a passion of mine.  Even as a child I would scribble away for hours on end, creating stories or lyrics for songs.  Writing has become particularly relevant in my life in the last year, but the time restraints that come with being a mother to two children means I don’t write as much as I would like, but I do write when I can.  My inspiration for writing comes from my appreciation for the beautiful place I was raised and also from numerous and colourful experiences in my own life.  Clichéd I know, but it works for me.  Writing is my medicine.”

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