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The day turned out to be wet and misty, so instead of our planned hillwalk we ended up walking the Glenshelane Forest Trail near Cappoquin, Co. Waterford. “Glenshelane” translates into “Valley of the Fairies” and with its meandering streams and moss covered trees there is something magical about the place (or at least the parts that have not been the subject of recent tree-felling).

By accident, we ended up at a place called Melleray Grotto. It’s a strange place. Nestled beside a bridge across the Monavugga river, the grotto has a large shelter and car-park in addition to the usual statues of Mary and St. Theresa. According to the signs and leaflets there, three children saw multiple apparitions of the Virgin Mary there in 1985, the same year as the moving statues phenomenon in Ireland.

The children reported seeing Noah, Jesus and the Devil among other biblical characters. According to them, Mary spoke to them on a number of occasions. The free leaflet provides us with a transcript of what she said: pronouncements like “I Want Prayer” and “The World Must Improve” – not exactly the most inspirational of stuff. She even went on to predict a great cataclysm in 1995. Unless I am much mistaken, this did not happen in 1995, or am I wrong? (Ah, but of course, there was that matter of a divorce referendum…).

I was left with the distinct impression that the whole thing was a hoax or a prank that went somewhat out of control, or perhaps the exploitation of people who might have been in need of professional medical help. Over the period of the “visions”, thousands of people descended on the place, just as they were doing in similar places around the country.

On the seats nearby was a Catholic newspaper that seemed gave the distinct impression of a religion on the ropes; as if they had rounded up the wagon train and all you could see, looking from the outside, were guns pointing at you. Everyone becomes their target – atheists, secularists, liberal Christians, Muslims, anyone who does not sign up to their strict interpretation of Christianity. This is fine, I guess, for preserving intact the worldview of the faithful, but useless as a vehicle for attracting new recruits. The paper is full of anger, bitterness and despair for the future.

It’s a ramshackle place where one’s common understanding of the world takes a somersault, to be replaced by arcane stories and apparent miracles. A place where normal critical thinking takes a vacation. Not so different, I would think, to Hindu shrines half a continent away, with their votive candles, petitions and magical holy water. The pleas and prayers are sodden with desperation and agony. Rather than making people more comfortable about their troubles, I wonder if it only makes things worse by assigning an agent, a conscious cause, to their suffering. If their problems – serious illness or  a bereavement  say – were caused by a conscious agent, then you will never stop asking why and no answers will ever come. That’s not comfort in my book.

The Grottos is an odd, fascinating and somewhat sad place: a distinct throwback to the Middle Ages and an insight into the power and irrationality of human belief.

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I managed to go on a fantastic walk up the Nire Valley in west Waterford this Sunday. While most people were enjoying a relatively dry morning, we decided to seek a place of near constant rain and mist. 

The walk took us from the car park over an improvised bridge and up into the mountains via a long gentle ridge on the western side of the valley. Once we reached the Comeragh plateau, we passed down a boggy valley leading (unexpectedly) to the top of the Mahon Falls. From there we headed towards The Gap and back to the car park. All in all, the walk lasted 6 hours.  

The heather is in full bloom at the moment. Pictured against the deep greens of a wet Irish summer it’s nothing short of spectacular. 

And now, a bonus: a quick time-lapse video featuring some pretty nifty high-speed sheep..

Last Sunday, I journeyed with a few like-minded souls to Coumshingaun in the Comeragh Mountains in Co. Waterford. The centrepiece is a corrie lake caused by glaciation during the last Ice Age. The corrie has a classic “armchair” shape: two gently ascending narrow ridges with precipitous drops on all three sides.

Overlooking the corrie

The journey upwards was quite difficult, compared to Galteemore. It’s a more challenging ascent due to the preponderance of rock outcrops and winding, up/down paths.

A rock outcrop

It took us about 2 hours to reach the top. Here’s a view of the ridge by which we ascended.

Our path upwards

The “summit” is pretty flat, owing to the fact that the Comeraghs are about 350 million years old. Significant weathering, not to mention a few Ice Ages thrown in for good measure, have reduced the mountains to a uniform boggy plateau around 700 metres high.

At the top

Coumshingaun lake is impressive – a mile long, dark, mysterious, fed by gently gurgling waterfalls. Strewn around it are tons of piled up debris from ancient landslides.

Coomshingaun

We completed the “armchair” circuit in good time, returning to the car park in just over four hours. Just the antidote for those Monday morning blues!

I originate from this part of the world. On the south side of the river is Waterford, a small Irish city with a very old and venerable history. On the north side, where I come from, is County Kilkenny. As you can see, one side of the city is relatively well developed, the other side not so much. It’s something of an urban planning nightmare – a city caught between two local authorities who, to put it mildly, are not great admirers of each other.

I was was watching a TV documentary last night that focused in on this particular issue. Waterford badly needs to expand its boundaries and as a result it would like to take over a large tract of South Kilkenny, mainly in my home parish of Slieverue.

The proposal has met with huge opposition from the residents and politicians of South Kilkenny. In 2005, about 10,000 people objected to the plans, but the pressure continues. The issue is very much one of what we Irish might call Tír Grá – love of the homeland. Kilkenny people could never see themselves as Waterford people. We support different GAA teams (hurling being something akin to a religion in Kilkenny), we have strong ties to other Kilkenny communities, and we’re even part of a different province to Waterford.

Nevertheless, there is a contradiction of sorts: Most South Kilkenny people work in Waterford, shop in Waterford and socialise in Waterford. (In truth, because the maternity hospitals are in Waterford, most South Kilkenny people were probably born in Waterford too – but let’s not go there). Waterford, in a sense, is the reason why they live in South Kilkenny in the first place. So, despite loving Kilkenny and wanting to remain part of Kilkenny, from an economic perspective Waterford is the centre of the world for most people in South Kilkenny. Kilkenny County Council has done little to develop the area of South Kilkenny, and the Dublin road is one of the worst in the state. You have to drive on it to believe how bad it is. Most South Kilkenny people owe Kilkenny County Council nothing, and despite people wanting to stay part of Kilkenny, they would be happy enough to benefit from Waterford Council services.

An Irish Solution to an Irish Problem

Isn’t the answer here obvious? Why can’t Waterford City Council accept that the ancient counties of Waterford and Kilkenny are what they are and best left alone, but that other solutions to the problem are possible? For instance, why not set up a Waterford Metropolitan Authority or some other quango to administer the entire region? Cork, for instance, has two local authorities: the City Council and the County Council – you don’t see people getting too upset when their boundaries are changed (actually Waterford south of the river has such an arrangement too). Powerful super-authorities are not new either: the National Roads Authority is one such example, and a successful one too, I might add. A super-authority would neatly bypass the issues associated with land attachment, concentrating instead on day-to-day administrative and developmental issues. All that would be required would be a bit of restructuring, a name change here, a rewriting of some documents there and a strong declaration stating that the areas of South Kilkenny under WMA control are still part of the ancient county of Kilkenny. Robert, as they say, would be your uncle. Ok, it’s probably a bit more complex than this, but you get the jist.

The remaining issue is more a legalistic one to be fought out between the two councils, and it concerns just one thing really: Moolah. Councils get revenue in the form of rates from local businesses and currently Kilkenny County Council receives income from the small number of businesses that exist in the South Kilkenny, revenue that presumably would go to Waterford once the super-authority was set up. And how do you solve issues like this? Anyone? Yes. With moolah. Find a price, negotiate, pay them off. Everyone is happy.

Similar inter-county issues exist elsewhere in the country and, I’m sure, throughout the world. Limerick City straddles the county of Clare and Athlone (in County Westmeath) abuts County Roscommon. The City of Derry is bordered on three of its four sides by the County of Donegal, which not only is another county, it’s in another state altogether! Can we not learn a bit more about how best to deal with such problems and move on?

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