When we were younger my Dad would take us on long Sunday dives and this is one of his habits that I have happily kept throughout my adult life. Unfortunately my kids often complain that I have to stop at every field, bridge and church to look for stories about wildlife. A few weeks ago I was driving through the beautiful village of Mooncoin and for once I had no children on board as they were paying an extended visit to their Nanny and Granddad.
This is a quite time for birdwatching in Kilkenny as most of the summer migrants have departed and we are waiting patiently for the first of the winter visitors to arrive. Thankful nature provides interest throughout the year and the Horsechestnut tree beside the Catholic Church has turned a beautiful shade of golden browns and yellows. I pulled in to have a closer look and saw that there is a school over the wall and this meant that the binoculars would have to be left behind. The fruit of the Horsechestnut is called the conker and when we were younger we would fill up our bags and pockets with them till they were ready to burst. These were taken home and various tricks and techniques were applied to prepare them for the battles in school. For a few weeks the school yard echoed to excited thud of numerous conker fights till only one was left standing. Hands were often targeted instead leading to the out beak off real hostiles that were soon broken up by the teachers. I wonder if the students on their way to school have every experienced the ups and downs of their first Conker battle. Squirrels often eat the conkers but unfortunately I dint see any on this visit. They were originally introduced from the Balkans in the 16th to provide shade in parks and gardens and wise farmers with a view to the future planted one in the middle of their fields to provide shelter for animals from excessive heat and rain. This tree is at least a hundred years old and when it was fist planted was probably surrounded by farmland. Like the shop windows that change their display throughout the year the Horsechestnut has something of interest for each season. In autumn you have the conkers and during winter it has large sticky brown buds. In spring there is the beautiful display of candle flowers and in summer you can relax beneath its deep shade. The flowers come in two main colours white and the much rarer red. An old rhyme was is use up to the start of the Second World War and it was said by the combatants before they began their conker fight. Obly, obly, onker, My best conker, Obly, obly O, My best go.
This is apparently derived from Oblionkers a corruption of Constantinople the original home of the tree. The leaves are very useful and make an excellent mulch and compost for the garden. Just stack them in a pile in your garden and leave to rot down. This can then be dug into your soil or loft on the surface to suppress weeds. Also if you are lucky a hedgehog will make his winter bed in your stack of leaves and pass the winter there. Mature trees are very important in the urban landscape in town. They help soften the sharp edges of the buildings, clean our air, provide interest and colour throughout the year and provide food and shelter for wildlife. But no visit to Mooncoin would be complete without mentioning its famous song “The rose of Mooncoin”. It was written in the 1800s by local poet Watt Murphy who fell in love with Elizabeth. He was 56 and she the tender age of 20. Her father the local vicar did not approve and sent her to England given rise to this most haunting of songs.
‘Where the thrush and the robin their sweet song combine, On the banks of the Suir that flow though Mooncoin.’ Kilkenny is full of beautiful towns and villages and if you have a few hours to spare it is worth pulling in to explore their hidden stories and wonderful wildlife.