Forest Bathing

Excuse me – forest what? Don’t worry, it doesn’t involve any actual bathing (the clothes stay on) – perhaps immersion is a more apt word.

The whole idea is Japanese and comes from the concept of shinrin-yoku, which translates literally as ‘forest bathing’ but really conveys the idea of immersing yourself in a woodland environment for a while and reconnecting with that part of you that needs this experience.

And we do need it – it’s buried in our genes and our psyche that we are creatures who used to live close to nature and who feel good when we are back in that place. Forest bathing has been developed as a kind of therapeutic return to the natural world as well as an escape, for a while at least, from the civilised one.

Future forest – tree planting is ongoing at Caherbeg farm, native species only

The event itself was part of the Taste of West Cork Food Festival and it took place on Caherbeg Free Range Pork Farm, home of Avril Allshire-Howe and her family. I’ve written about Avril before, in my post on black pudding way back in 2015. A leader in the thriving West Cork food scene and a very busy woman, Avril discovered that her way of relaxing and centering was to take a walk down into the woods on the Allshire farm, and so the idea of introducing other people to the healing power of time with the trees was born.

As we walked, Avril explained she and William’s philosophy of farming and how they hoped to plant more trees over time. They are pioneers in the new discipline of agri-forestry – a true mixture of trees and agriculture, where the trees are planted far enough apart to allow for agricultural activities (such as hay-making) to take place among and between them.

Here is an example of agri-forestry, with trees widely-spaced. We were fascinated by the grass growing up the tree-tube along with the tree

One of the trees they have found thrives in our ever-damp West Cork environment is the water-thirsty eucalyptus. So our first stop (after saying hello to the piggies) was through the eucalyptus grove.

The aroma all around us was incredible and here we stopped and breathed deeply, rubbing the leaves and the bark with our hands and taking in the sinus-clearing benefits.

Then down beside a rippling brook – the air became still and the noises of the farm and pork plant disappeared. We came to a conifer plantation that was put in before the Allshires bought the land. It had not been properly managed so it is not commercially viable but it’s perfect for a dark forest immersion experience. Very little light penetrates the canopy and the air is perfectly still, almost spookily so. We wandered the path through it, saying very little and concentrating on the suddenly-cool air, the feel and texture of the tall straight trunks and the soft, sterile ground underfoot.

Where light could pierce the darkness ferns took hold and along the pathways as we emerged we found wildflowers taking advantage of every beam to put down their tenacious little roots. Although the Foxglove was finished we could still see their basal rosettes getting ready for next year, and along the little watercourses running through the trees Water-mint took hold wherever it could – more leaves to crush and savour.

Of course, no country walk in Ireland is complete without the obligatory ruin – this one a highly satisfactory house that must have been quite fine in its day.

And then, what was this? At the bottom of a field was a table, laden with West Cork goodies, and Avril invited us to browse and make a sandwich using her own home-made challah bread. A picnic has never tasted so good!

I have my eucalyptus and mint leaves by me as I write this – aroma is a sure-fire memory stimulant and I am back in my head walking through the trees, time slowed down, breathing and listening, with the rough bark under my hands.

The Chief

fiddlers

Way back in 2013 I wrote about our chance discovery of the Captain Francis O’Neill Memorial – out in the deep countryside west of Bantry Bay. Just to remind you, O’Neill – always referred to locally as The Chief – was a West Cork hero who championed Irish traditional music, and many students of The Music have a copy of ‘1001 Gems: The Dance Music of Ireland’ – O’Neill’s best known collection of tunes, published in 1907. I acquired my copy over thirty years ago and so far I have learned only a fraction!

Birthplace and Homestead of Francis O'Neill, Tralibane

Birthplace and Homestead of Francis O’Neill, Tralibane

Ireland has a great tradition of honouring its heroes, and ‘The Captain Francis O’Neill Memorial Company’ was set up in 1995 to do just that for The Chief. It was timely, as the 150th anniversary of his death came in the summer of 1998, and the Company was responsible for erecting a plaque at Tralibane Bridge – the place of his birth – and on that day also reviving the ‘pattern dancing’ at the crossroads by the bridge, after an absence of very many years.

Dancing at the Crossroads, Tralibane Bridge

Dancing at the Crossroads, Tralibane Bridge

I’d better briefly recap on the man himself… He was born on August 28, 1848 at Tralibane in the Parish of Caheragh – the youngest of seven children. His parents had a very strong background in Irish music, and Francis grew up in a household which was a gathering place for musicians sharing and exchanging tunes, and accompanying the dances. Like so many of his peers he left home at the age of 16, embarking in Cork city on a sailing vessel bound for England and from there found work on other ships which took him around the world. Among his many adventures was a shipwreck while aboard the Minnehaha in the South Pacific. He was rescued by a passing ship which eventually docked in San Francisco, where he decided for the time being to stay on dry land. His journeyings took him on to Chicago, where he joined the Police Force in 1873. At that time 40,000 residents of the city were Irish: by 1900 there were over a quarter of a million there: a huge reservoir of Irish music for Francis to garner – something he revelled in. During his first months of service he was shot and seriously wounded in the course of duty. One of the bullets lodged in his spine and could not be removed: he carried it with him for the rest of his long life.

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Francis was good at his job: he was promoted to Lieutenant, Captain and, finally, to Chief of the Chicago Police in 1901. He had 3,300 men under his command – the vast majority of them were Irish, and one suspects that many of them were employed by The Chief because of their musical abilities and resources! All through his adult life Francis O’Neill collected and wrote down tunes; he was also an early champion of the phonograph, which helped him in his transcriptions.

Timmy McCarthy as The Chief

Timmy McCarthy as The Chief

We went out to Tralibane today and – sure enough – enjoyed music and dancing at the crossroads, but we were also entertained by The Chief himself, resurrected by Timmy McCarthy – a descendant and a fund of information. I am indebted to him for the above and for many tales and anecdotes which I don’t have room to include here. He was dressed the part: a Police Chief’s uniform complete with polished badge – and he wielded a truncheon! He walked us from the Bridge (where we had been treated to outdoor music and dancing) to the house where Francis had been born, and then on to the site of the O’Neill Memorial. There was food, drink, tales and more music and dancing. It’s the middle of November, and the sun beamed down on us, lighting up the mountains in the distant view. You must tire of me telling you how beautiful it is here in rural Ireland, but we can never get enough of this wonderful landscape.

The Parish of Tralibane

The Parish of Caheragh

O’Neill’s tune collections have been published under different titles in his lifetime and ever since. They are considered the most valuable source material for all students. Some say that The Chief ‘saved’ Irish music, but I am inclined to think that it would have survived regardless. It is certainly very much alive today, as our weekly sessions demonstrate – along with the very many festivals which we are fortunate enough to have right on our door step.

1001gems

Francis and his wife Ann had ten children, but sadly five died young. After an active retirement which was filled with fishing, pottery and photography as well as The Music, the Chief died of heart failure at his Chicago home: he was 87.

Plaques at the Memorial Site

Plaques at the Memorial Site

Statue of The Chief at the Memorial Site

Statue of The Chief at the Memorial Site

Francis O’Neill has left a legacy which is commemorated at Tralibane. There is a life-sized statue of him looking out over his own family countryside: he plays his flute throughout eternity. The large Memorial site often hosts meetings, music and dancing. We will return again next year…

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