Stephen Colton's Take on Nature: Throwing some light on the humble rush

The soft rush (Juncus Effusus) is the most common of the 15 or so native species in Ireland
The soft rush (Juncus Effusus) is the most common of the 15 or so native species in Ireland

'UP THE airy mountain/Down the rushy glen/We daren’t go a-hunting/For fear of little men;’ are the opening lines from William Allingham’s well-known children’s poem The Fairies.

The 19th Century poet from Ballyshannon or ‘Ballyshanny’ as he preferred to call it, goes on to describe the mischievous deeds of the ‘wee folk’ across south Donegal and the wrath incurred by those who might ridicule or deride them.

The lockdowns and restrictions on movement have confined much of our walking to favoured local routes, in and around our towns and villages. For those of us living inland, this has meant repetitive treading along convenient local lanes and byways, observing as we go, familiar topography and earthly forms, which often become lost to the daily sameness.

So, Allingham’s ‘rushy glen’ came to mind as I consciously took time to regard clumps of rushes along a local walk recently, the place from where I had taken some on St Brigid’s eve to fashion a few traditional crosses for the feast day.

The humble rush, abundant in poor, wet land and often a scourge for the farming community, has nevertheless been highly respected here for centuries as a much-valued organic material for creating and decorating.

Stories of the plant’s use stretch back to the time of Cúchulainn. In The Cattle Raid of Cooley, his and Ferdia’s warriors rested at night on beds of green rushes to sooth their wounds and in the same legend Queen Maedhbh’s emissary is welcomed to a feast by the laying of a fresh carpet of rushes before him, a practice which has continued in Ireland when honouring guests, right up to recent decades.

Peter Wyse Jackson, in Ireland’s Generous Nature (2014), tells us there are around 15 native species of rush here, with Juncus effusus, or soft rush, the most common. The numerous species of ‘luachair’ found across wetland habitats have been used for generations to thatch houses, make masks and hats for mummers, wren boys and other folk dramas as well as for creating mattresses, baskets, and many other domestic items.

So many uses for the rush led to its inclusion in the ancient Brehon Laws of Ireland, grouped with trees and shrubs.

We also know much of the history on their use for making the Cros Bríde and associated customs around the cross but I was intrigued to learn recently they were used to make ‘rushlights’, described by Robert Ashley (The Rushlight and Related Holders; 2001) as the ‘poor man’s candle’.

The rushlight, or ‘fáideog’ candle was formed by peeling off the outer green skin before soaking the dried central pith of the rush in animal fat, known as tallow, or grease and leaving to harden. Rushes were at their best in late summer when the stems were still green and easier to peel. Rushlights were used also as light tapers, to light candles in churches.

Different burning agents were used throughout Ireland, from sheep or hog fat and certain fish or seal oils.

Richard Pococke, a Church of Ireland Bishop, and travel writer based in Co Meath, wrote in 1758 that young gannets were used for their fat to make rushlights in Kerry. The well-known naturalist pastor Gilbert White of Selbourne parish, England, quoted in this column before, writes in The Natural History of Selborne (1789), that using rushlights, "a poor family will enjoy five and a half hours of comfortable light for a farthing" and that, "an experienced old housekeeper assures me that one pound and a half of rushes completely supplies his family the year round".

A humble but significant plant of culture and craft.