"Don't Pick Those Blackberries!"
© Victor Sullivan 4 May, 2010
The long Summer holidays were drawing to a close. In a few
days I would be leaving my Grandmother's farm near Castletown Bere in West Cork, to return to school. It must have been 1946 or 1947— which ever was the great year for blackberries.
Blackberries were rampant on every wall, fence and hedge, great big, juicy, fat ones and my face was permanently purple from ear to ear from eating them.
"Here boy!" called my Grandmother from the kitchen door.
"How about filling this with blackberries instead of yourself? That way we'll all have another blackberry and apple pie on the table."
"Yes Granny!" (My Granny's blackberry and apple pie was an experience not to be missed, even if we had only just finished the previous one).
Taking the shining sweet-tin that she extended towards me I headed towards the stream. Blackberries are best where their roots are near running water.
Clean picked! The children from the next farm had got there first. Change of plan, head for the field opposite the cowshed instead.
At the east side of that field was a narrow strip of very rough ground that looked as if it might have been an ancient and long-abandoned lane with some vague remains of ruined buildings, all heavily overgrown with brambles and ferns. I climbed onto what remained of what might have been a gable wall of a small cabin and began to pick the abundant blackberries. They were were every bit as good as those that grew by the stream.
Being well trained in the art of blackberry picking by my Grandmother, (inspect each one and reject the imperfect ones), it was not long before the container was half full.
Carefully avoiding tearing my bare legs on the thorns, I reached farther into the stone pile where the fruit seemed to be even bigger.
I was suddenly startled by the familiar voice of a passing neighbour who stopped and watched me for a brief moment, then he solemnly warned,
"Don't pick those blackberries that grow in there, boy. Those blackberries belong to the others."
"Ask your Grandmother, boy. She knows. Get her to tell you."
He walked on, leaving me puzzled. They were really good blackberries in further but there was something odd about the way the man spoke that discouraged me from leaning in to get them. I climbed back off the stones and finished filling the tin from the bramble-covered fence at the opposite side of the field.
"Granny, who are the others that Willy was talking about when he warned me not to pick the blackberries from on top of those piles of stones on the east side of the field opposite the cowshed?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, boy."
“Willy said I shouldn't pick the blackberries from over those stones because they belong to others. That's what he said. He said the blackberries belonged to others and to ask you about the others as you'd know all about it."
My Grandmother pursed her lips and glared at the wall for a moment.
"Its time those old stories were forgotten."
"But who are the others that Willy was talking about, Granny? Who owns those blackberries?"
"Listen boy! Those blackberries are growing on our land. It's not Willy's land or anyone else's land. Those blackberries, from wherever you picked them, will make a fine pie. Now, run out to the orchard and get me a couple of cooking apples to keep those blackberries company."
Later that evening as we devoured the delicious result of my blackberry-picking excursion I again raised the matter of 'the others' but the conversation was quickly diverted elsewhere. The questions remained in my young head. What was Willy talking about? Who were the others that he mentioned? What things should have been forgotten? Each time I passed that mound of bramble-covered stones the same question arose in my mind, who were 'the others' and why did they have ownership rights to the blackberries. Why did nobody want me to know about it, whatever IT was?
My mother, a primary school teacher, had been born and reared on that farm and knew Willy very well. When I asked her if she knew anything about the blackberries growing over the pile of stones that were owned by 'the others' she told me of a childhood experience she and her sister Martha had when they were about ten or eleven years old.
While walking homewards together one evening along the narrow, muddy lane that led to their house both girls saw a tall, thin figure walking before them some distance ahead. It was raining heavily and they both noted that streams of water were flowing from the hem of the very quaint coat the stranger was wearing. It seemed to be made from coarse jute-sack material and was totally unsuitable for the weather conditions. As the tall, dripping figure reached the cowshed it turned left off the lane into the area of rough stones and brambles where it seemed to vanish. Without a word both girls, now suddenly terrified, ran as fast as they could for the final fifty yards to the door of their home and burst in.
"Did you see it?" gasped Martha.
"I did. Did you see the water flowing off that horrid coat?"
"Yes I did and it was a horrid coat."
The other members of the family made a few unlikely suggestions as to who the strange figure might have been and then the the girls' story was dismissed as overactive imaginations that conjured up the inexplicable and unlikely stranger.
I met Willy eventually when he turned up at my mother's funeral. The occasion was not altogether inappropriate to raise the subject of the blackberries that belonged to 'the others' and I related the tale of the tall dripping figure.
"Your mother told me that story years and years ago, when nobody else would listen to her. Martha was with her when it happened." (I had not mentioned Martha's involvement).
"Had the girls' story anything to do with the blackberries you stopped me from picking thirty years ago?" I asked.
"You'll have to decide that for yourself when I tell you what I know: Those stones were what's known as a cowluch, the ruins of what was once a very humble home of poor people. Before the Great Famine of 1846 there had been a bad outbreak of cholera in the area, back around 1832. Hundreds died of it. People were so terrified of catching the disease that they wouldn't even look towards a house where the cholera had struck for fear of catching it. They certainly wouldn't enter a sick house. Many who helped to bury those who died of the cholera got it themselves. Eventually word spread and nobody would have anything to do with the dead and corpses were just left unburied. The family in that little cabin got the cholera and were all dead within the week. The neighbours agreed between themselves to set fire to the thatched roof and tumble the stone walls onto whatever was left inside. That happened in a lot of places in those days."
“But why say the blackberries belonged to ‘The Others’ as you did to stop me picking them?” I asked.
“It was considered best to frighten children away from places where something bad might happen to them. Like catching Cholera from the dead. Someone once said it to me. I just passed it on to you.”
In 2009 I decided to visit the scene of my blackberry picking and arrived at the spot on the lane where my mother had witnessed the tall dripping stranger vanish almost one hundred years ago. The cowshed is still there but the pile of stones has gone, long since efficiently incorporated into a new lane-way by some large, indifferent, yellow machine.