Lay of the Land: Reflections on life in rural Ireland
by Fiona O’Connell (Red Stag, €12.99)
This collection of chatty articles is attractively illustrated by Caroline Barry with a pen-and-ink sketch at the head of every one of the one hundred plus short chapters. They are a selection from the author’s weekly articles which have been appearing in the Sunday Independent since 2012. They cover a wide range, but are centred on incidents of rural life, some fanciful, some true and original.
Fiona O’Connell clearly loves the country and makes a plea for its preservation, drawing attention to many of the threats, real or perceived, to the land and to the people and creatures that inhabit it.
Amongst the people are the owners of small, traditional village shops and, amongst the creatures, special place is given to the hedgehog which appears in the very first chapter and again later on in the book.
Some readers will find her complaints entertaining and, without doubt, they are intended to bring problems to the attention of the authorities and to her fellow country-dwellers. But this approach has a down side in giving an overall impression that the entire country is in a state of malaise. Perhaps it is but, in the experience of this reviewer, the good immeasurably outweighs the problems.
Not only that, but the supposedly ignorant people in authority whom she is attempting to educate are for the most part knowledgeable, dedicated and as deeply concerned as the author.
In an ‘author’s note’ which appears even before the contents list, she explains that one reason for her leaving her native Dublin was because “my generation was perhaps the last to live in a city that still had green space with hedgehogs and badgers roaming around our new estate that was steadily swallowing up the countryside”.
Yes Dublin is spreading. But it spreads around carefully maintained green spaces, wonderful new parks and even new lakes, all of which teem with wildlife and in which wild flowers are deliberately given space.
Meanwhile the suburbs have come to be inhabited by birds, such as buzzard and little egret. And the beautiful goldfinch, which was strictly a country species in my childhood, is now a devoted user of peanut feeders in nearly every garden – while still as plentiful as ever in its former haunts.
The hedgehogs that appear in the first chapter are dead – killed by traffic. For some reason she gives this hedgehog mortality a date of commencement as the ‘70s, probably 70 and certainly 20 years after it began.
On the positive side is her mention that hedgehogs visited her back garden. This is an interesting observation and could be expanded by a little something about the fact that suburban back gardens are amongst the richest bird habitats in the world.
But to return to the hedgehog, of course the sight of any dead animal is distressing to most of us. Remarkably what the sad hedgehog corpses, plentiful for more than half a century, tell us is that the hedgehog population of Ireland is thriving.
The fact is that biodiversity in Ireland is alive and well and nowadays enjoys the added advantage of being taken seriously by all sorts and conditions of public officials together with a host of the plain people.