Bee Boles and Blarney

Gate to walled garden at Dromoland
Gate to walled garden at Dromoland

Last week I hopped over the Irish Sea for a short stay in the ancestral homeland. I had volunteered to be Mike and Lesley Palmer’s driver for a few days. Mike had finished his bee talks in Cork and was spending some time in County Clare before moving up to Northern Ireland to continue his speaking tour. It rained lots, and the sea crossing was a little rough, but only a little; those big Stena Line ferries are very stable.

Tough Times in Tipperary

Before I met up with the Palmers in Ennis, which is a delightful town, I stopped off in Toomevara and Nenagh in North Tipperary, where my family comes from on my father’s side. Presumably, the good people of Ireland have come to terms with all of the foreigners arriving to discover their roots. The Great Famine of 1845 to 1849 was a time when vast numbers of Irish men and women either died or emigrated. The population fell by 25% at that time, and a million souls lost their lives prematurely. My father had cousins in Canada, and I have discovered a relative in Australia. My lot came to Southampton, England, which is where both my grandfather and father were born.

I spent some hours in Nenagh visiting graveyards and photographing Donohoe headstones. A walrus must have a hobby! The funny thing is that all human life can ultimately be traced to Africa if you go back far enough. Nationality is not just about where you draw a line on a map, it’s also about a period in time. Sixty thousand years ago we were all Africans. I wonder what the racists make of that? Like many who have tried before me, including my father, I find it impossible to trace my Irish roots further back than the 19th Century. As more people submit DNA samples, the chances improve of making links with close genetic relatives. In the end, it isn’t especially important.

Three bee boles

Mike Palmer and Bee Boles
Mike Palmer and Bee Boles

Anyway, I must steer this gently towards bees, what with it being a beekeeping blog. Michael Palmer is interested in bee boles ; recesses in old South facing garden walls, used to hold skeps of bees. A skep is what we kept bees in before modern hives. We travelled to the impressive Dromoland Castle and met Dorothy the gardener who was delighted to show us the bee boles. They are over 500 years old. She also rummaged in a storeroom and emerged with a giant wooden beehive dating back to the early 1900s, so we had a good look at that. It was much larger than most modern hives, similar in size to a Dadant hive, with double walls, a gabled roof and a curious patch of open mesh floor. People who think that mesh floors are a new idea should think again.

Old hive with partial mesh floor
Old hive with partial mesh floor

Dorothy told us that she had worked there for thirty years. The gardens are looking good, particularly the rows of pear trees trained into cordons. She said that fifteen years ago she was visited by George and Laura Bush. The First Lady was a keen gardener.

After that, I drove to Bunratty Castle to explore the folk village which I found very interesting. It’s touristy, even on a rainy day in March, but worth a visit. To walk around old homes and see the furniture and decor that my great grandparents would find familiar was a treat. I purchased a beautiful blanket from Kerry Woollen Mills to take home to Mrs Walrus, who has Mediterranean blood and feels the cold.

Getting ready for April

I’m back in Manchester and have been dividing my time between writing my book, putting wax foundation into frames, building nuc boxes and trying to defeat the laws of physics by waterproofing my shed roof. This is a dangerous time for honeybees; many colonies starve to death in March, so I have made sure that I have fondant for those that need it. In a few weeks, with a bit of luck, the weather will be mild, the dandelions in flower and bees will be building up rapidly.

What do you think?

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