The Mayflies rise early in the month if the weather is any way normal. Sometimes, if Spring comes in too soon and Summer follows on, the earth begins to shrink in the heat and even the midges stay in the shade. It’s too hot to work on the bog, without shade of tree or hill and the cattle lie apart, heaving the heat at midday. May in Ireland can be hot and dry. That May, Bealtaine as it’s known in Old Irish, the first one, was the dry beginning to a long, hot summer.
I had spent several weeks each year in the west of Ireland, looking at old cottages with land, ones that were affordable, but not one met all the criteria I had set in my head. This trip was different, for I was desperate to leave London and change my life. It was a case of any reasonable dwelling with a few acres of land. This time it was going to be less of a search for perfection and more applying my vivid imagination to the most hopeless looking ruin! In the event, I settled for the last property on the list, featuring all the wrong aspects, including north-facing, wet, rush-infested land. Here stood Bealtaine Cottage and in my mind’s eye it was my dream home and smallholding.
The auctioneer, that’s Irish for Estate Agent, owned a pub in town. It was a case of going up to the bar and asking this rather old man if he had any properties for sale! It was then just a slip of the tongue to order an Irish whiskey and soda. Somewhere, in all of this confusion, a conversation developed that resulted in a short biography of sorts being delivered to the pub landlord, eloquently finished off with a heartfelt plea for an old cottage that had a little land around it. By the following evening I was relaxing, back in the lounge bar of the same pub, toasting my new home, Bealtaine Cottage. The deal was done and dusted, even using the same solicitor as the vendor, for speed of purchase! What matter the hole in the roof, no plumbing, ancient wiring and a rocky mud track that served as a lane-way! Or, for that matter, the boggy land that had no drainage, trees, or outbuildings. No matter anything! I paid the asking price and headed back to London, to hand in my resignation and pack up my worldly goods.
It was raining on the day I left London. Ireland sweltered in a heat wave, according to BBC Radio Four.
Money being at a premium, I hired a big Luton van on a four-day lease. This was early July and the intention was to collect everything that could be transported, load the van in a day and make it to the overnight crossing from Holyhead to Dublin. I drove the van all over North London, collecting my chattels here and there, from the homes of friends and family, who’d agreed to store them after I sold my house. My optimism diluted the madness of the day!
The ferry sailed at three in the morning, docking in Dublin by breakfast time and before the city stirred. The drive from Dublin would take around 3 hours. All went according to plan. It never occurred to me that unloading the van would be a one-woman show. This would be a good template for how the next nine years would be!
I had friends and family to help me load up in London, but arriving at Bealtaine Cottage, it suddenly dawned upon me that I had decided to buy a home and settle, in a place where I had no family, or friends and knew absolutely no-one!
It was a long hot day as I unloaded my worldly goods into a ramshackle cottage, pushing and shoving as much as I could fit into one of the two small bedrooms, where all would be safe and out-of-the-way as I renovated the cottage! That was the plan…
Plants in pots were the first to be removed from the van and the last to be sorted out. Most of the pots held saplings and shrubs, grown from seed or cuttings on my allotment in London. The tiny trees were strong and healthy, so I found a sheltered, sunny spot by the south side of the cottage walls. I packed moss around the pots and watered well. Arranging all I had into some sort of order was important, as I would be back and forth to London over the next few months, couch-surfing, as I continued to work and gather money for all that needed to be done on the cottage, before winter arrived!
October. My birthday month. Mid-term break at school allowed me the opportunity to get back to Ireland, for a short time and my beloved Bealtaine Cottage. The stone walls held my dreams, calling out to me to breathe life into their sad and empty shell.
Over the course of the summer, a local contractor had been engaged to make a gravel road into the property and excavate much of the earth, that had been previously washed down from the hill of Ballyfermoyle, behind the cottage, onto the land surrounding the dwelling.
The area all around the structure was dug out, quite deep, then filled with ton after ton of local limestone gravel. This proved to an excellent investment, as the climate was beginning to change and rainfall was about to become heavier and more aggressive, impacting badly on the soil, causing erosion everywhere! The gravel would later prove be a wonderful area, in which Valerian, a lime-loving flowering plant, would flourish in successive years! The gravel road was completed and I finally had access to my home!
It was imperative that I start the work on restoration and renovation. I had ten days to find a reliable person whom I could trust to work for me.
First on the “To-Do,” list was the roof!
A gaping hole opened the soon to be kitchen onto the star-filled heavens, on a good night. Most of the time it was rainwater that seeped and sometimes splattered onto the cottage floor from the heavens above. There were no ceilings to speak of, merely re-enforced cardboard, that looked substantial, but gave way to the force of a broom being tapped on any part of it. This emergency repair was to be followed by re-wiring, plumbing, (for there was no kitchen sink)! and the purchase and fitting of a Stanley Stove. The stove would heat the water and the soon-to-be-installed radiators. Once this work was allocated to a local handyman, with contacts, very important to have contacts as I soon found out, work started on the cottage and I began walking the land.
The land. Some of the saddest looking land I had ever walked upon. The ground squelched beneath my feet, brown, boggy water oozing up either side of my wellies. Parts of the acreage were so boggy, it was dangerous to stand still for more than a few seconds! It quickly became apparent that a lot of drainage was going to have to be carried out!
There follows an event of perfect synchronicity, one in which I was introduced to a man with a digger, but, no ordinary man with digger. No. A man who listened to what I wanted and worked alongside me, despite the apparent craziness of the plan I outlined to him! Synchronicity happens as a moment of “meaningful coincidence” and this meeting was to shape the entire future of Bealtaine. The land needed more than just drainage, it cried out for understanding and empathy, both of which John had in abundance.
There is much to be said for a man who makes you laugh!
After quizzing John about what he was able to do as a “Man with Digger,” he laughed, held up a piece of blue baling twine and said, in all seriousness, “we have the technology!”
I put my faith in that twine, it has to be said, and was not let down or disappointed! John and his Digger moved onto the land and stayed about a week, leaving behind a perfectly drained and sculpted landscape, complete with ponds, stream, ditches and drains.
After creating the deep drains along the back of the land, John moved the digger down onto the flat, boggy land towards the road. It was here that the pond garden was to evolve, beginning with a big pond, that would carry all the water from the ditches, though the pond and out the other side into a created stream bed, that would take it into a connecting ditch leading to a waterway.
As John started the excavations, I left him to walk back up to the cottage to make some lunch for us both. I had hardly walked more than a few yards when the noise of the digger stopped. I heard John’s voice calling out to me.
“Colette, you’d better come back and have a look at this!”
As I turned around I saw the huge shovel, stopped in mid-air, with an almighty rock aboard.
It was the first of several such stones, some of which showed signs of having been worked by human hand. John and I discussed what to do with them, when he suggested they be set upright in specific places around the land. I was to decide upon where they were to be placed.
The great thing about big machines is that they can complete, what seems to us mere mortals as, huge tasks, relatively easy.
Within the space of an afternoon, some massive stones were put standing sentry on the land, emanating a wonderful energy that spelled out a new, exciting era! More stones were uncovered. These were, evidently, all heavily worked stones and made a series of steps up the gardens that appeared to have been there forever. The land was coming to life, guiding us to what it wanted to be…a magical garden!
Standing by the kitchen window, looking down the land to the front of the cottage, has become something of a morning ritual for me now.
In the early days, it was possible to look down as far as the road, across the tops of tiny, newly planted sapling trees and small bushes, that seemed to be drowning in tall grass and rushes. I could see the whole garden, the lay of the land, as they say here in Ireland. It was from this vantage point, leaning against the sink, cup of tea in one hand, that I admired the work carried out by John.
The pond had filled with water and was drawing the blue sky down into the Earth itself. The filling had completed overnight and the early morning sunshine bounced off the top of the little damn, where the water spilled over into the stream that carried it off, on a long and winding journey, towards its eventual union with the Atlantic Ocean.
It had stunned myself and John, to see the water gushing into the pond, non-stop, from the point at which the mighty shovel of the digger drove into the clay and bog, releasing a torrent of water which, to this day, has not stopped!
There is something very sacred in releasing water and watching as it finds its freedom. The land was communicating with me, awakening me to the realization that she was alive and breathing, wanting to stretch and blossom, as though she were the Sleeping Beauty of fairy tales.
Previous generations of people lived, not just on the land, but with the land. Songs and ballads were composed and sung in her honour. The land always referred to as “the Mother,” evoked deep emotion within the souls of hundreds of generations of its people. Grown Irish men, with fists like rocks, have wept uncontrollably, into pints of Guinness, poured in bars on foreign soil, remembering the great mother, the land. She had captured my heart and I, too, had fallen hopelessly in love with her.
The sounds of Winter carry like echoes across a skeletal landscape. Birds calling to one another, in search of food. Hungry foxes on the hill above the cottage. Tractors, laden with bales of hay and silage, edging along icy roads, chugging a rhythm into a still morning.
Every day was spent out on the land, planting trees, most of them bare-rooted trees, sold in bulk from the nurseries. Anyone who visited was asked to bring a tree or two! By winters end there were over three hundred trees growing at Bealtaine! Willow was planted all over the land, but as slips cut from hedgerows and not counted as trees. My brother, Hugh came to visit and together we planted a Willow Fedge…a living fence!
That first winter at Bealtaine Cottage took me away from the constant drone of city noise into a countryside filled mostly with intermittent signals of life. Some now say that the Universe itself was created by sound, vibrational energy. I had entered a new Universe, come to live among new vibrations that began to re-create me!
For most of my life I had smoked cigarettes, chain-smoked if I tell the truth! One day, on arising, I decided that smoking was a thing of the past and I no longer desired tobacco. I never smoked again!
Then, I decided I wanted to live as a Vegetarian. I have not eaten meat from that day on.
I embraced many changes in the first year at Bealtaine Cottage. The energy around me was having an effect on my being, shriving me of my former life’s desires. I slept deeply and woke early. Each day began with a desperate need to walk outside, regardless of weather. Connecting with the natural world became one of the first rituals of the day…it was like a drug! The world of Mother Nature fulfilled all my spiritual desires…I no longer hold to any religion. Like my forbears, the Celts, I witness the Divine in all life. All that was my past life became a foreign land, at times unrecognizable to me.
Winters in the west of Ireland can be quite short compared to London. There is more light for a start as the sun sets in the west.
Bealtaine Cottage is far enough inland from the Atlantic ocean to be sheltered from the worst of the storms, but near enough to the coast to avail of the warmth of the Gulf Stream.
Spring happens early!
Traditionally celebrated as Imbolc on the first day of February, the first day of Spring is also celebrated as Brigid’s Day. The changes are fast indeed! Willow and Ribes burst into life, alongside daffodils and snowdrops. Herbs such as Chives are ready for harvesting by Imbolc and buds are thickening just about everywhere.
The memory of that first Spring at Bealtaine is evoked with scents. The smell of the awakening earth is a powerful, erotic scent that stirs the senses for every living, sentient being on this planet. This scent, whether aware of it or not, has the most powerful effect on mood and motion, energizing every aspect of life. All beings respond in a primordial way that has no bearing on modern life. Happiness and optimism are measurably increased in the population at large. We have a desire to be outdoors. The traffic at Garden Centres increases dramatically! The memory of Spring keeps us moderately happy, as we plod through the darkness of the winter months. That winter was broken by an invitation to spend the holiday season in England.
Spending Christmas with family and friends, in London, was warm and cheering. I visited friends, went to the cinema and walked for miles around Kenwood at Hampstead heath and back to Muswell Hill via Highgate Woods. I love North London, but held an insatiable desire to be back on the land at Bealtaine. As I retired to bed each night, in centrally heated comfort in my daughter’s apartment, my mind conjured images of all I had planted back in Ireland. I was counting the days until my return!
As I approached the day of my departure, I spent several mornings trawling around charity shops in North London, seeking out anything that would be useful to add to my new life, in a cottage in the west of Ireland. Jumpers, raincoat, jeans and strong boots were acquired and stashed straight into the boot of the car. Lots of books, an enamel teapot and an almost new Le Creuset kettle, which, by the way, I still have and use! My final trawl around the shops was for provisions that proved to be cheaper to buy in bulk in London, such as herbs and spices, coffee beans, fluoride-free toothpaste and my favourite Indian soap. The car was packed like a pioneer wagon as I set off west for Holyhead and the Dublin ferry! I was on my way home. This was the first journey back to the place I now called home!
A Cottage and Three Acres
After 13 years of developing The Bealtaine Project, I finally put pen to paper detailing my journey of transforming the land and the cottage into Eden! This is my first book in the Bealtaine Cottage Chronicles. With 71 photographs of before and after!
A reading from the book, “A Cottage and Three Acres”, read by the author, Colette O’Neill.