While fixing some slates the other evening, we heard the otters whistle, cackle and play across the road, acting as if they were the only things that existed in the valley. We watched on as they leapt from the canal and rolled and giggled like children. Eventually one finally broke loose and managed to run away.The short sprint to the river ended quickly when the other followed only to embrace one another once again.This festive time of the year continued for only a few days, before on my way home one morning, I meet a single otter busily fishing but obviously travelling in the other direction. After that the silence returned again to the valley, left only for the squawking ravens to claim the air space overhead. The wintering sea birds have returned back to the mud flats leaving only bands of vagrant mallard ducks to walk the land as if an official role had suddenly made them important. Its a palpable time in the seasons when your heart can feel blissfully in tune. Bursts of unexpected sunshine teases all with the promise of warmer days ahead.
I have always been intrigued with the 'fulacht fia', especially as two lay in the field above our house before the expanding quarries claimed both of them. Their horse shoe shaped remains lay close to the swampy ponds, remnants of an ancient lough used as a retreat for monks, before being drained and manicured into the osier beds for the Oldbridge estate. It must have been the perfect location to tan leather with ample oak trees, from which to claim bark when needed, meaning you didn't have to walk or carry materials very far. When you first decide to tan an animal hide you must first find a vessel large enough and long enough so as to stuff oak bark all around the prepared hide to prevent the skin from overlapping. Before the industrial revolution, oak bark tanning was the largest industry in Britain, after farming. It grew so large that competition for oak trees began between the British navy and the tanning industry. Arguments broke out over when the trees were to be felled as the tanner needed the tannin to return from the roots and into the bark before peeling the trees, while the shipwrights wanted wood cut in the winter when the sap and tannin was mostly stored in the roots beneath the ground. The pressure on the oak woods became so great that at one time, 70,000 tonnes a year was being imported from Germany to feed the habit of deforestation, that followed Europeans where ever they went in the world. Grinding down the dried bark to the size of your thumb nail became imperative, if you were to extract the maximum amount of tannin from the bark. But before this, pits were dug and filled with layers of broken bark and prepared hides. The process was very slow and laborious, continuous lifting of the hides and renewing of the bark and liquid. Perhaps neolithic villages were less industrious, tanning only a few animals at a time. Perhaps the oak bark wasn't broken down to such a small size and they may have used the heated water in a 'fulacht fia' as a way of extracting sufficient tannins to complete this long process. Agitation is a vital part of the process when making leather, that and along with aple space for the brown liquid to move around. This 'fulacht fia' provides for both and never drains of water. The simplest method to agitate the hides is simply dancing or trotting on it, with the liquid mass wobbling beneath you (a bit like walking through a bog in Leitrim!). But without a good vessel you could do very little. Perhaps that is why coracles remained in favour throughout the millennia as the earliest translation is just that - a vessel.
So this is a long winded way of saying that the neolithic currach is still progressing, the hide continues to tan in the ooze, that has already been changed twice and as the warmer temperatures begin, the process is well under way.