This page is about the physical and other journeys which have inspired my writing. It includes travel journals and images of places I’ve visited. I’m adding journeys as I revise the journals I’ve kept over decades of travels. As I add them, they will appear at the top of this page.
An earlier entry explains something about my recent novel, The Roland Medals.
This new entry is about a trip to Ireland which I made while living in the Midi in France, and my life in the Midi was the subject of my memoir, Charlie and Me in Val-Paradis.
WA Goldfields 4-12 July 2022
On my previous WA goldfields trip in 2014, having driven 166k from Mount Magnet to Sandstone where I expected to spend the night, I found all the accommodation reserved for contestants in a golfing tournament, the last place I would have expected to possess a golf course.
Then, when trying to book a room at the nearest town, Leinster, 150k further east, I discovered that the only phone service available in the WA outback is Telstra, and was obliged to borrow a golfer’s phone. I drove on into the dusk in my little hired Kia, with no means of communication, on a dirt road teeming with suicidal wallabies.
This time, I’ve exchanged my Amaysim for a Telstra one, and hired a Subaru Forrester with high clearance and good visual range.
In light rain I leave Perth Airport and head up the Great Northern Highway. At 3,195 kilometres, the GNH is the longest and most remote paved highway in the world. I cruise between gently rolling sheep and cattle pastures, young wheat and canola crops, forest plantations, and occasional flooded clay pans stitched across with old post and wire fences.
I’m travelling through the Yilgarn Craton that began to rise out of the sea about 2700 million years ago, forming part of the original landmass of Australia. It contains many of the locations which began to be ‘rushed’ by gold prospectors from the 1880’s, and it’s research into the lives of some of those prospectors that has brought me here again.
From Dalwallinu, where I buy supplies for the next few days, to Paynes Find, where I’ve booked a cabin for the night, there are 169ks of straight road with little traffic, making it easy and safe to pass road trains travelling under the 110kph speed limit. The landscape changes, from gentle slopes covered in grain crops and pastures, to flat reddish plains scattered with lumpy dun-green mulga and pink-white grasses, rough red rock prominences in the distance. It’s too early for wildflowers this far south.
Paynes Find comprises a roadhouse, tavern, caravan park and layby for road trains. Fibro cabins nestle among mullock heaps, the result of decades of ore-crushing through an old battery located a kilometre up a red-dust and gravel road. The Paynes Find website advertises a museum and the only working battery remaining in WA, and to see the battery in operation is my main reason for overnighting here.
But on arrival I discover that the battery no longer operates because parts to repair it are unavailable. I’m disappointed, but know from my previous visit that there’s an excellent gold mining museum at Mount Magnet, where I will be tomorrow.
Dinner in the tavern consists of chops, chips and a ‘salad’, comprising cold potato and mayonnaise on a lettuce leaf. Other diners include a couple of mine drillers, who keep up a loud and profane conversation about the exploits of a mate who clearly should be charged with rape.
6th. In the morning, back on the GNH, I expect to reach Mount Magnet, 140k away, by lunchtime and to spend the afternoon in the mining museum. But after about 70k the Forrester lurches and starts to wobble. Pulling onto the red gravel verge, I discover that the rear left tyre has blown out. I phone NRMA, who put me on hold while they phone their WA counterpart RAC, who put me on hold while they phone the hire company. RAC assures me that because my location is dangerous, they will give me top priority. Little do they or I know that an even higher priority has arisen, a house fire in Mount Magnet, where all the roadside assistance mechanics are also volunteer firefighters.
It’s a pleasant breezy morning. The spot where my vehicle and I have come to rest is almost indistinguishable to my untrained eye from anywhere else on the highway, but over the next five hours I become acquainted with the long straight decline behind me, the long straight incline ahead, the red verge, the flat red-brown earth on either side of the road scattered with grasses, thin mulga forest and sage-coloured flannel bush blooming with with yellow-stamened blue flowers. The silence is broken only by the sound of road trains approaching from either direction, first like a distant wind, becoming a low roar as the leviathan comes into view, increasing till it thunders past, agitating all the vegetation. As the morning wears on, the breeze drops, creating an opportunity for swarms of little flies to colonise my person. In the five hours I’m stranded there, only three vehicles stop, one containing a couple of power installation contractors, one with an indigenous family who offer me their spare muffins, while the third, at last, is the mechanic from Mount Magnet, who replaces the blown-out tyre with the spare.
I arrive in Mount Magnet around 3.30 to find that the only Mechanical Services in town don’t stock tyres for Subaru Forresters. The manager explains that in these parts, if it isn’t a Holden, a Ford or a Toyota, it’s weird. He tries phoning an auto shop in Meekatharra 196ks further up the GNH, but they aren’t answering the phone. Anyway, he assures me, they probably won’t have a custom tyre for a Subaru Forrester, either. The only solution is to leave the spare on the vehicle and sell me a similar tyre as a backup spare.
It’s now time to check into the Outback Gold Motel, near which is a dry red clay patch covered in everlasting daisies, glowing white in the sunset. The motel manager and her three-year-old daughter are still very excited by the house fire earlier in the day. So are the staff and patrons of the Commercial Hotel where I have dinner.
7th. In the morning, I take the Subaru back to the workshop and leave it there to have the spare tyre refitted while I visit the Mining Museum.
One of the reasons for this, my second visit to the WA goldfields, is to learn more about the lifestyles of prospectors in the first half of the 20th century, as background for the novel I’m writing. Part of the narrative is based loosely on the lives of my grandfather, three of his five brothers, and two of his four sisters, who, in the early years of the 20th century, migrated from their birthplace at Tumbarumba, NSW, to the Western Australian goldfields. Only my grandfather returned permanently to NSW.
Kevin Brand, of the Mount Magnet Historical Society, has spent a lifetime prospecting in the area. At the Mining Museum, he walks and talks me through the operation of the ten-stamp battery, which is housed in a huge galvanised iron shed.
Ore is loaded into tubs which feed into an anvil over which hammers are lifted and released by cams attached to a rotating wheel. Once the ore is crushed into fine particles, it is washed over trays covered with mercury. The fine gold that has been released through the crushing process amalgamates with the mercury, while the ore wash is diverted into a mullock heap, to be later stamped again and again to extract any remaining gold. The amalgam of gold and mercury is scraped off the trays and heated in a retort to separate out the gold.
It was in a battery like the one at Mount Magnet that one of my grandfather’s brothers, Eustace, crushed 1000oz of gold from 30 tons of ore. Apart from service in both World Wars, Eustace prospected for gold and worked on pastoral leases in WA from about 1906 till his lonely death at a remote outstation in 1949. When his body was found, it was taken to Cue, 200 miles away, where the Coroner found that he died by ‘arsenic poisoning, self-administered’. I tell Kevin that it has always been a mystery to me whether Eustace’s death was an accident or deliberate. Kevin comments that many old prospectors who made and lost fortunes were driven, by their war service experiences, and the loneliness of their lives, to commit suicide, but also that arsenic was used routinely as sheep and cattle dip, and in areas where arsenic has been used, soil, underground water and streams may contain potentially fatal concentrations to man and beast. So the mystery remains.
I spend half an hour exploring the outdoor part of the Museum with its fascinating array of historic gold mining equipment, such as dry-blowers, old Ford trucks, dolly pots, compressors. The exhibits help to illuminate what I’ve learned about the arduous lives of prospectors in this harsh country.
At the suggestion of Cecilia, the manager of the Visitor Centre, I go to the Mining Department office to ask for information about gold mining leases held by my grandfather and his brothers. At the Mines Office, staff members Darcy and Fiona spend a lot of time locating and printing large and small scale maps of Jillawarra, about 70k north-west of Meekatharra, where the long abandoned mines bearing the Cashman name are located.
I retrieve the car from the auto shop and drive on to Cue, stopping once by the roadside to clamber up a small mullock hill to take a photo of the southern edge of the great salt marsh, Lake Austin. Lake Austin is named after the leader of a gruelling, and for one member, fatal, exploring expedition which set out from Perth in July 1854 to discover new pastoral country. It failed to do so on that occasion, but Robert Austin found clear evidence of rich auriferous country on the southern fringe of what was later called the Murchison Goldfield. Governor Fitzgerald ordered him to keep this information under his hat, and it wasn’t until the 1890’s that prospectors began to ‘rush’ the Western Australian Goldfields.
From Lake Austin, the GNH ascends gradually to the township of Cue, named after one of the first prospectors to find gold in this region in the 1890’s. Although Cue is only 10k from Nallan Station, my destination for the night, I stop to revisit the Queen of the Murchison Hotel, where I stayed in 2014.
At that time the Queen of the Murchison was very run-down, dusty and grimy, and carpeted with mouse-droppings. Since then it has changed hands and is now transformed, clean and newly-painted, and some beautiful old features, such as the magnificent wooden staircase, have been renovated. When I tell Joyce, the owner, that I’m on my way to Nallan Station, she asks me to deliver several containers of disinfectant that have arrived for the property.
I am welcomed at Nallan Station by Karl and Marlene, who are managing the Station Stay business for the owners, Cath and Dave, and are grateful to have the disinfectant delivered, because it will save them a trip into Cue.
I’m booked into the Woolclasser’s Room in the shearers’ quarters for the next three nights. The shearers’ quarters comprises the Woolclasser’s, Cook’s, Overseer’s, and Roustabout’s Rooms in a long corrugated iron building, as well as a kitchen and dining annexe with a separate entry.
The quarters take up one side of a grassed area, on the other side of which is a covered barbecue and alfresco dining area. A third side is occupied by Karl and Marlene’s trailer and an amenities block, consisting of laundry, toilets and showers. Behind the trailer is a row of dongas, and opposite is a driveway and parking bays fenced off from a small wooded reserve inhabited by several bird species including a bower bird. Beyond the reserve are the main house and another cottage, surrounded by fenced garden and green lawn, on which a sprinkler plays.
There are open areas around the complex for caravans, and beyond are yards and pens for the ‘home’ sheep, pigs and goats. The wide sky and billowing clouds above are streaked red with the sunset, and below, followed by a troupe of kids from the caravans, Karl is driving a little farm vehicle around the pens and yards with feed for the ‘home’ animals.
After dinner, some of the adult guests, mostly couples in their thirties and forties, sit yarning around an open fire in the al fresco area, while the temperature of the night air plummets. They’ve come from all directions, the Pilbara, Kalgarrie National Park, Norseman, Newman. A Victorian couple, farmers, are on their way north to help a relative mustering. Someone sets up a telescope, trained on the moon, the craters so clear you feel you could touch them.
8th. I finish my shower, fortunately, before the bore water pump breaks down. Karl and a farm hand soon have it working again, and after most of the other guests have departed I make use of the washing machine before setting out for Meekatharra, an hour’s drive north.
I’m hoping, as on my last trip, to augment my sketchy knowledge of the haunts of my grandfather and his brothers in this vicinity, but am disappointed again, because both the shire office and museum are closed due to Covid-caused staff shortages. The woman running the museum shop, however, is very helpful and directs me to a number of relevant books and useful maps. There is also a large and very detailed road atlas of Western Australia, which gives me new ideas about the possible routes of the Cashmans from Coolgardie (where I know my grandfather was in 1904) to the northwest goldfields. I’d always imagined that they came to this area from the west coast, but can see from the atlas and from my reading, that they more probably took an inland route from Coolgardie, travelling between mining settlements.
Opposite the museum building is a busy mobile cafe where I buy a sandwich for lunch. Afterwards I walk the 3 kilometre heritage trail along the dry creek bed, on the way passing a small group of Indigenous people having a quiet singalong beside the creek. Many of the buildings listed on the heritage trail brochure no longer exist, or have lost their former function as the town and its services have dwindled.
Before leaving the area, I drive to The Granites, once a popular picnic spot for inhabitants of Meekatharra. It was renamed Peace Gorge after 1919 when Meekatharra’s many servicemen came home from World War 1 and the Road Board organised a gala picnic and sports day there.
On the way back through the town, I follow a sign to the lookout and take a road winding up a steep hill, actually a gigantic mullock heap overlooking the gigantic hole in the ground it came out of, and the town. Beyond the town, in every direction, spreads the vast mulga forest, with distant rock outcrops, hills and breakaways. The contrast between the townscape and the minescape recalls the loneliness and desolation many explorers and prospectors experienced, as well as how the countryside has been changed by mining and pastoral practices.
On my return to Nallan around 5pm I find the place teeming with travellers, mostly families who’ve arrived in caravans. The kids, after a long day strapped in the back seat, are very excited to be running along behind Karl’s vehicle as he does the rounds feeding the animals.
One of the guests, Iain, is travelling around Australia ticking off his bucket list all the heritage-listed sites in Australia. Today he has been to an ancient ochre mine of the Wajarri people of this region, and also to Walga Rock, where there is a cave containing aboriginal paintings. He plans to drive to Meekatharra tomorrow via a breakaway about 60k to the east of the homestead. As I also want to visit the breakaway, but am nervous about taking my vehicle so far off the highway, we agree to go in convoy.
9th. Iain and I set off after breakfast on the broad, straight red clay road connecting the GNH to the Sandstone-Meekatharra road, he leading and I keeping a good distance behind to avoid the dust. I’m assisted in this for most of the way by a cooperative northerly cross-breeze. On either side of the road is endless grey-green mulga, with some colours of early wildflowers, and patches of green groundcover on the red earth, indicating a soak, but no visible wildlife or livestock taking advantage of it. After about an hour Iain spots the sign we have been told to look out for, the detached blade of a windmill pointing to a track off the road. Here I park my vehicle and climb into the Range Rover, which is equipped with satellite communications, devices that record routes and distances travelled, and many other smart features.
We follow the track about 6k through 3 gates, at one of which is a well with a solar-driven pump, and an old windmill whirring uselessly away overhead. The track becomes rougher and eventually the breakaway, its granite and quartz in shades of dark and pale honey, comes into view on both sides of us, while the track divides into several smaller ones, or, at times, simply morphs into shallow gullies.
A breakaway is an ancient granite plateau which over millennia has been eroded below by ground water and wind, forming escarpments, rock-falls and interconnecting caves. Because the granite of these outcrops is very erosion-resistant, the erosion that does occur on them does so mainly when they are buried. Humic acid in the soil can eat at their sides and cause the undercut formations that only become visible when the soil level surrounding the rock has been lowered. The breakaway on Nallan Station is known to be a particularly striking example.
We tack cross-country to the outcrop on our left and park near a cave, which is lit by an opening in the plateau above. We climb up through this opening and walk around on the plateau, where red and white Eremophilas are already in bloom, and bright green Mulla Mulla, not yet in flower, stands out against the ochre rock. We are careful not to step into a few gnamma holes containing water from the recent rain.
Returning to the Range Rover, we bump along cross-country to the other outcrop, where there is a lot more rock-fall and fewer caves. When we get back in the vehicle to return to the main track, Iain is informed by one of the smart instruments that the left-hand front tyre is flat. The cause is a mulga twig, which is embedded in the side of the tyre as if it has been fired by a crack archer. Methodically and efficiently, Iain extracts from the back of the vehicle the components of a table, which he erects to support bedding and various other items of camping equipment which must be removed in order to get at the jack, compressor and one of his spare tyres. He quickly changes the tyre and stows the wounded one in the back of the vehicle, followed by all the other equipment, in reverse order.
On our way back to the road,we spot a small mob of Black Angus heifers and calves in the post-and-wire enclosure surrounding the well, but no sign of the human being who must have let them in. Reaching the road, where my vehicle is parked, Iain and I part ways, he turning east towards the Sandstone-Meekatharra road, and I west, back to the homestead. On my return trip, I see a couple more small mobs of cattle near some green road verges. Now that I’m not concentrating on following another vehicle, I also notice sweeps of wildflowers, different varieties of eremophilas and native daisies in the open woodland beside the road.
This evening, when Dave, the owner, comes over to the alfresco dining area, he tells me that it was he who let the cattle into the yard by the well, and that the cattle’s only diet, across the nearly 99,000 hectares of Nallan Station, is mulga, which he says doesn’t provide them much nutrition. Once a year, he loads cattle onto a truck and drives them, via Norseman, across the Nullarbor and on to another family property at Dubbo in NSW, to be fattened up before sale.
10th. Bidding farewell to Nallan, I head south in light rain. At Cue, I turn off onto a good clay road leading west through Mount Austin Station and, after about 40 kilometres, see a group of monolithic rock ranges in the distance. Soon I’m driving past the smooth flank of Walga Rock, which, at about 50 hectares and a circumference of 5 kilometres, is arguably the second largest monolith in Australia after Uluru. It is
approximately 2.6 billion years old. An information board tells me that it was one of the last to emerge from the Yilgarn Craton. In a shallow cave in the rock is an impressive gallery of more than 980 Aboriginal paintings, which include snakes, emus, kangaroo tracks and hands, and a square-rigged sailing ship, though the coast is more than 300 kilometres west of here.
On the way back to Cue from Walga Rock, I follow an impulse to visit the Big Bell ghost town, a relic of goldmining from the 1930’s. While the town no longer exists, there is a huge mine there and as it’s now raining steadily, the trucks plying the clay roads have kneaded them into soft slimy surfaces. I decide that pursuing a ghost town that isn’t of much interest to me isn’t worth risking the dangerous road conditions. I am relieved to get to Cue in one piece and back on the GNH.
I press on to Paynes Find, where I arrive at 3.30pm. Having made such good time, and knowing the limits of entertainment to be had here, I cancel my booking for that night at the Roadhouse and continue to the Wheatfield Motel at Dalwallinu.
11th. Breakfasting on coffee and a croissant at Jenny’s Bakery in downtown Dalwallinu, I contemplate the filthy state of my hired car which is lacquered with thick red-brown mud from yesterday’s excursion. By some stroke of fortune, I get into conversation with the owner of the hardware store up the street, who says he can provide a kid to clean the vehicle for $10, only it will take some time, because the kid’s mother will have to drive him in from Wubin 20k away. It means hanging around in Dalwallinu for longer than I intended, but also will save me the much higher cost of having it cleaned by the hire company.
While Joe, the kid from Wubin, gets to work on the Subaru, I visit the Dalwallinu Discovery Centre, stroll by the old railway station and the Pioneer and Past Residents Wall and the murals depicting World War I and the role of the Light Horse, and go for a walk in the Dalwallinu Woodlands and the quiet, clean streets of the village lined with enormous red river gums filled with birdsong. Joe does a good job, and I give him $20, a lot less than I would have had to pay the hire company.
My destination tonight is Toodyay, which involves 160-odd k of long straight undulating road through hills and vales of green wheat and yellow canola fields. Toodyay is an old mill town and a popular tourist destination, but by the time I get there, most of the day’s tourists have departed. I walk along the pretty River Avon, eat fish and chips at the pub and sleep at Toodyay Manor, an old pub full of attractive wood-and-plaster work, which the owner is gradually renovating.
12th. Having delivered the car to Budget at the airport and been assured there would be no charge for a new tyre, I find my flight has been overbooked and I’ve been placed on standby. When I protest, an officious Qantas attendant takes great pleasure in reciting the terms and conditions which include priority for passengers who would have, she says, paid more for their tickets than I have. I’m shocked by both Qantas’s policy and her attitude, because until now, everyone I’ve met on this trip has been friendly, polite, tolerant, patient, helpful and kind. Eventually I’m allocated a seat by a different attendant, who has persuaded some passengers to take a direct flight to Melbourne, their destination, instead of going via Canberra.
Really into Ireland
15 May – 19 June, 2004
At the time I was living in Espagnac-Sainte-Eulalie, a village in the Midi in France. Martine, the mayor of the village, kindly agreed to look after my poodle, Charlie, while I spent a month in Ireland.
Ireland is very beautiful and I had to remind myself continuously not to assume that the place where I happened to be was the most beautiful, enchanted and thought-provoking in Ireland, if not the world, because the next would be just as beautiful, enchanted, and thought- provoking.
The first week, a friend and I rent an apartment at Graiguenamanagh in County Kilkenny beside the River Barrow. The narrow main street of this thriving little town winds down between the newsagent, bookshop, hardware store, grocery, supermarket, and 13 pubs, to a bridge across the river. A swan, gliding beside the stone arches of the bridge, is reflected in the smooth stream, and a colony of ducks forages in the reeds on the riverbank.
Upstream, under a cloudy evening sky, the river glows like washed slate. Tall, frothy yellow and white flowers are reflected on the glassy stream. A heron waits on the edge of the weir, where the water ripples like silk, and reeds stretch along the stream. On one side of the levee, yellow irises are just bursting into flower. Meadows give way to an oak and beech forest, musical with rooks and blackbirds, and carpeted with bluebells and daisies.
Downstream is St Mullins, a few houses, a pub, a motte and bailey and the remains of religious buildings dating from the 7th century AD. The path flanks a succession of locks and tranquil stretches of river, then meanders, now through bluebell woods, now through fields and green hillsides splashed with unruly hedges of golden furze and white hawthorn. The only sounds are the whisper of the river, birdsong and the plash of fish jumping for the dragonflies skipping on the surface.
About 12 kilometres south west of Graiguenamanagh, picturesque Inistioge nestles by the River Nore. Nearby, Woodstock, one of the great Victorian gardens of Ireland, features massive cedars, beeches, holm oaks, firs, and monkey puzzle trees, a walled garden, a rose garden with arcades of trellises, and flower beds scrolling through coloured gravel like fantastic snails.
A few kilometres upstream are the ruins of Jerpoint Abbey, a Cistercian abbey founded in the second half of the 12th century, the first of many atmospheric ruins we encounter in our travels. At Jerpoint, there are lovely carvings on the pillars of the cloister, and smiling priestly figures ornament the sides of the monks’ sarcophagi.
We make day trips from Graignamanagh to other sites in the south east, most of them testifying to the sufferings of the Irish under centuries of domination by England.
At Enniscorthy is the site of the last stand in the 1798 Irish rebellion against the British force led by General Lake. Lake’s tactics included capping prisoners with molten tar to force them to betray their colleagues. Viewed from the cannonball-pocked rocks on the top of Vinegar Hill, the bare slopes and the open ground all around demonstrate what little chance the rebels, with their puny pikes and scant supplies of food, would have had against the British military machine.
St Canice’s Cathedral sits at the northern end of this medieval town with Kilkenny Castle at the southern end. The Castle was begun in 1172 by Richard de Clare, the Anglo-Norman Conqueror of Ireland. The Butler family bought it in 1391 and occupied it continuously till 1935. It was extensively damaged in 1922, during the Irish Civil War and this, combined with rising taxes, death duties, and the Great Depression, forced the family to sell the contents and move to London. In 1967 they gave the castle to the city for 50 pounds. The Duchas, the Irish Heritage Department, is gradually restoring the house and gardens to their former splendour.
St Canice’s, built between 1202 and 1285, was, like most of the medieval cathedrals and churches in Ireland, taken over by the Church of Ireland in the course of the Reformation. It is suffused in light shining through the stained glass windows and reflected in polished marble floors. Unlike Catholic churches, which are filled with statues and pictures of Christian saints and martyrs, Church of Ireland churches tend to be filled with effigies of the nobility and other wealthy parishioners, and the walls covered by wordy testaments to the virtue and courage of these people. St Canice’s is bristling with effigies, tombs, plaques and monuments celebrating the good works and military achievements of members of the Butler family, which include putting down Irish rebels.
This little fishing village on the south coast of Wexford is set amid long grey shingle beaches and flat, dreamy pastures and herds of lazy dairy cattle, and smells of a mixture of dung and phenyl. Inside the quay, ancient, rusting fishing boats are moored terminally, while others are still in service. A seal scouts around, popping its head up, looking optimistically for any tidbits that might come over the gunwale.
Up the road from the harbor are a fresh fish shop, an antique shop, a general store, a community centre, and a cluster of cottages with latticed windows and thatched roofs. Kilmore Quay’s days as a tranquil village are numbered. Some of the surrounding pastures have already been converted into holiday cottage estates, and on notice boards in fields where the unsuspecting cattle still graze, plans are posted announcing further developments. Holiday homes pay more than dairy cattle, and this is just one of many Irish coastal villages undergoing such rude transformation.
Castlemartyr, Co. Cork
In the second week we are based about 30k east of Cork City, in a wing of the steward’s house of the Castlemartyr estate, surrounded by sheepfolds containing sooty faced sheep and lambs. The owners also have a nervous basset hound, a friendly Great Dane, three cats and three peacocks. All day the peacocks poop on our doorstep and clog-dance on our roof, preening and screaming. For those who are interested, peacock poop comes out like small, limp lump coal, with a curl at the tip ending in a peak, resembling soft-serve liquorice ice cream. One peacock in particular is a compulsive displayer, continually stretching his lapis lazuli and jet silk neck, shaking the little row of bijou feathers on his lump coal, opal-eyed, elegant but stupid head, fluffing his stippled body feathers, rattling his amber quills, and fanning his gorgeous turquoise tail.
Within the old estate at Castlemartyr is a network of oak-shaded lanes teeming with birds and flowers, a graveyard of toppling tombstones dating to the 1700’s, a ruined church, a ruined mansion and a disused Carmelite convent. On a gate, there is a notice announcing that the estate has been bought by a consortium and will be developed into a golf course. The old convent will be transformed into luxury apartments for golfers.
A note on roads, road signs and other regulatory signs
Our day trips so far suggest that the roads in the Republic of Ireland could be the worst in Europe. For example, the medieval town of New Ross is sited on either side of a bend in the river Barrow. The one narrow stone bridge connecting the two parts is invariably choked with cars and trucks. The road signs, too small to read unless you get out of your vehicle and stand in front of them, sprout higgledy-piggledy from posts right at the junction where you must decide which way to turn. If you take the wrong turn, you must weave your way back through the town by a one-way system, blocked at intervals by delivery vehicles and double-parked cars. Then there’s the very amusing practice by local jokesters of ‘adjusting’ the road signs to mislead the tourists.
Regulatory signs too are often, to say the least, quirky, like a notice at Woodstock Gardens, which announces that there is a fine of 1,094 euros for dog fouling. The speed limit in some places is 39kph. For want of pedestrian crossings, there are pictograms at the edge of villages showing someone racing across the road in front of a swerving car.
Cahir Castle and a note on colour
A day negotiating the challenging roads to the north of Castlemartyr brings us to Co. Tipperary and Cahir Castle. Cahir Castle was founded in 1142 by an Irish earl, Conor O’Brien, and was acquired by the Butler family in 1375 . The well preserved ruins, of turrets, towers, dungeons and a moat, decorate a rocky island in the River Suir. In one of the towers, there is an exhibition of day-to-day life in medieval Ireland, when the native Irish wore plain mantles, while the ‘new’ Irish, the Anglo-Normans who settled in Ireland in the 12th to 14th centuries, wore layered clothing of bright greens and reds and whites.
The enjoyment of colour that the Anglo-Normans introduced seems to be reflected in clothing and houses in contemporary Ireland, in the southern counties particularly. In country villages and towns, terraces of houses are a palette of sienna, cinnamon, lavender, yellow, bright brown, sky blue, salmon, tuna, purple, pink. Cultivated gardens also are riotously colourful against a backdrop of intense green.
Keeping servants out of sight
Hidden in the woods two kilometers along the River Suir from Cahir town is Swiss Cottage, a cottage orné, recently restored to its former appearance by the Duchas. It is one of the ‘romantic’ rustic cottages built for the wealthy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is quite small, but appears large because of the arcade, formed by carved tree-trunks and trellises supporting climbing roses and honeysuckle, around the walls. Every feature of the décor, each window, trellis, pitch of the thatched roof, and arrangement of the walnut or pine floors, is slightly different from all the others of its kind, and each is exquisite. On the ground floor are a tearoom papered with a painted far-eastern Mediterranean scene and a music room with fleur-de-lys wallpaper. The central mahogany spiral staircase leads to two bedrooms with raked plaster ceilings and William Morris furniture and wallpaper.
Swiss Cottage was designed in 1810 by the famous English architect John Nash for Richard Butler, 12th Baron Caher (see Kilkenny Castle and Cahir Castle, above). The cottage was used for parties where the Butlers and guests would dress up as peasants for bucolic lunches. Servants in drab uniforms prepared food in tunnels beneath the house, and served it discretely to the fancy-dress peasants via doors made to look as if they were part of the wall, so that the baronial couple and friends could pretend they weren’t there.
The Hill of Cashel, and Charles and Camilla (not)
North of Cahir is the Hill of Cashel, an enormous monastic complex with views to the horizon on all sides. Here the wind drives through the Romanesque chapel, encircles the round tower, and continues down to the ruins of the roofless cathedral and Cistercian Abbey in the valley below, agitating the swallows nesting in the walls.
We return to Castlemartyr via the Knockmealdown Mountains, whose lower slopes are covered in purple-flowering rhododendrons, golden furze, and white-blossoming hawthorn.
We have heard that Prince Charles and Camilla are also in the vicinity, visiting their friends in Richmond Castle, but we don’t bump into them.
The pace of change in Cork City
Little, except the time of year and the price of parking (14 euros for half a day), has changed in Cork since the last time I was here in February 1973. The city, a jumble of streets that used to be watercourses of the marsh at the estuary of the River Lee, is being churned up in another attempt to fix the drainage system. The traffic still goes through the centre of town by the most complicated one-way system in the history of transport. The air still vibrates with the noise of jackhammers and circulates the grit of chopped-up concrete. Most of the monuments we planned to see in 1973 are still covered in scaffolding. My surname, Cashman, still graces the doors of all the bookmakers’, pubs and used car sales yards.
Aloof to all this, St Finn Barre’s, the 19th century Gothic-Romanesque Church of Ireland Cathedral is richly decorated with coloured Irish marbles, gold leaf and stained glass. The walls are embellished with the usual coats of arms and marble plaques commemorating the exploits of various generals and majors who sacrificed themselves putting down rebellions in His/Her Majesty’s colonies. One row of plaques has five expirees of three generations of the same family, with glowing words concerning the sacrifice they all made subduing unwilling subjects of HM.
Cobh and Youghall
Cobh is the port that lies east of Cork, opposite the mouth of the long harbour. In the Heritage Centre is an exhibition relating to the transportation of rebels and petty thieves, as well as migration, to North America and Australia, of people fleeing poverty and starvation in leaky ‘coffin’ ships. A few such refugees were my ancestors. Nowadays refugees fleeing to Australia in leaky boats are locked up on arrival behind razor wire.
Further east is Youghall, a pleasant little town rising steeply from the main streets skirting the port. It has remnants of medieval walls, a house where Sir Walter Raleigh stayed, and the 13th century church and graveyard of St Mary which has been lovingly restored and preserved by its Church of Ireland parishioners.
As usual, there are plaques on the walls commemorating the lives of generations of distinguished parishioners. This one gets the prize for the longest sentence:
In the cemetery of Kilnerath
Among the Ashes of her Parents and Relatives
Are deposited the Remains of
Eliza Daughter of Henry White Esq off Newross
Wife of Walter Aitkin Hayman Esq of Youghall
She died at Carmarthan
On her return from the Hotwells
August 22 1800
This tablet was erected to remind thee
That although neither filial Piety
Can arrest the stroke of Death
Yet – a life like Hers
Employed in ever Christian Excellence
Holds forth a bright Example
Confirms the hope of Immortality
Disarms Death of all his Terror
A qualified whiskey taster
The Old Jameson Distillery, a striking red brick building with redder window frames and big circular studs in the walls to reinforce the immense grain-storage areas inside, is located at Midleton, just up the road from Castlemartyr.
During our tour of it, I volunteer to be a taster. I sample each of Jamesons, Powers, Old Bushmill, Paddy’s, a single malt Scotch and a Bourbon. I learn that Irish whisky is distilled three times using water filtered through limestone (in the south) and through basalt (in the north), and that in Scotch whiskey, the maltings are smoked before they are distilled and they are distilled twice, while Bourbon is distilled once. I can detect the smoke in the Scotch, find Bourbon harsh on my palate, and prefer Jameson’s to any of the others. At the end, I receive a certificate that entitles me to taste whisky all over the world.
Killarney and the Ring of Kerry
Another day we drive west to Killarney, through hills covered in furze and hawthorn rising to bald mountains cupping the loughs (pron. locks). Beyond the town, the road encircles the Ring of Kerry, where the hills are covered in wild mauve rhododendrons and the fields with yellow iris. The road overlooks villages, tiny from that height and distance, with stone walled fields around sparkling blue bays fringed with golden sand, and the Skellig Isles off in the misty distance.
North to Yeats Country
At the end of June, after two weeks of perfect weather, we set off for the northwest in heavy rain, giving a last wave to the sodden exhibitionist peacock, which is draped down the fence like a discarded shawl.
We have rented a house at Dromahair in Co. Leitrim, on the border with Co. Sligo. We are welcomed by a daughter of the owner, who, she tells us, now resides in an aged care facility. The house contains the mother’s lifetime collection of ceramic ducks, cats, dogs, plates, jugs, vases, bowls, teapots, cups, peasants, cherubs, roosters, horses, hounds, Sacred Hearts, Virgin Marys, and holy water fonts, as well as ancient unused candles in brittle yellowed cellophane. Fixed curtains shroud the windows, stopping the sun from getting in. The kitchen is grimy and the rest of the house smells of carpet freshener.
The area abounds with ruins of abbeys, such as Creevelea, the last Franciscan friary founded in Ireland before the religious orders were suppressed by Henry VIII. The story of Creevelea is typical of the ruined abbeys and friaries around the country. Burned in 1590, it was restored by the monks, who were ejected by Oliver Cromwell, subsequently returned and remained till the end of the 17th century. Weathered carvings on the cloister columns depict Saint Francis with stigmata, preaching to the birds.
Sligo Abbey, founded in 1250, burned down twice, but has now been extensively restored. The carvings in the cloisters and on tombs and the high altar are particularly impressive.
The lane that passes Creevelea Abbey leads through a dense pine forest into the Sligo Way walking track, between low rock walls covered in green moss. Little shafts of sunlight pierce the gloom and dapple the brown forest floor of pine needles. The path emerges onto a sunlit track down to Lough Gill and a little rise overlooking the tiny island of Innisfree at the edge of an ice-blue, slate-blue, streaked-mirror lake that reflects clouds, a castle, swans, and fishing boats. Dragonflies move up and down in the air, like a fine glass curtain. This scene was the inspiration for Yeats’s poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree, which ends
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand by the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Before he died in Menton, France, during the Second World War, Yeats gave instructions that, if he was die there, they were to bury him in Menton and later dig him up and bury him privately at Drumcliff, where his grandfather had been the Minister. Yeats’s grave is in the shady churchyard of St Columba’s Parish Church beneath Benbulben, a high, bare shoulder of a mountain stretching into the sea. He wrote his own epitaph for his final resting-place. The poem concludes
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut;
Cast a cold eye
On life, On death.
Horseman pass by!
Yeats’s wife, George, who died in 1963, is also buried there.
Enniskillen and Castle Coole
Crossing the border with Northern Ireland, we drive east, through Enniskillen, to Castle Coole, a Palladian mansion of grand proportions featuring ceilings of intricate plasterwork and glass domes, and marble fireplaces. The original furniture has been reupholstered and the windows rehung with materials of the original design. One of the bedrooms was decorated for a visit of George IV in red and gold, like a seraglio. The King, however, was detained elsewhere, and never arrived to see the preparations made for him.
Our guide clearly loves her work and the house, but has no illusions about it, describing the dreadful cold in winter, and the owners’ preference for the chill of a castle rather than the warmth of a bungalow. In keeping with the grand, clean lines of the house, there is a vast grassed area at the front, carpeted in buttercups and daisies. Behind the castle is a beech forest, a ha-ha and a lake.
The counties in this part of northwest Ireland, Leitrim, Sligo and Fermanagh, teem with loughs, mountain ranges, and wild countryside in which the inhabitants have held a combination of pagan and Christian beliefs for more than a thousand years.
In Donegal, deep in the Bricklieve Mountains, scattered over several peaks, is a cemetery of Bronze Age passage tombs, with openings beneath megalithic stones in cairns covered in rubble. This high, quiet, cold and windy site overlooks grassy, shale covered hills cupping blue Lough Arrow with its distant blue islands under a misty blue sky.
Boa Island, a spit between Lower Lough Erne and Upper Lough Erne, is lush, wooded, wildflower country. Here graveyards of Christian churches sprout pagan standing stones, some with Christian images carved on them. In Caldragh graveyard are a 2000 year old Janus Stone, with a grotesque human head carved on each face, and a penis-shaped stone called the Lusty Man. At Killadeas churchyard, the Bishop’s Stone, dating from between the 7th and 9th centuries, has a Celtic head carved on one edge and a bishop with a bell and crozier on the side.
On a day of alternating rain, mist and sun we are on the southwest coast of Donegal where the Slieve League Mountains terminate in cliffs dropping 600 metres to the sea. We walk up a road so quiet that, apart from our own footsteps and breathing, the only other sounds are the panting of the sooty-faced sheep and lambs and their teeth tearing at the grass.
At the viewing point at the end of the road, mewling seagulls spiral round our heads before plummeting into the sea far below. A track leads even further up the mountain, overlooking sheer brown and ochre cliffs speckled with ash-white stones, and ash-white shingle at the ocean’s edge. Layers of azure sea and sky merge into the deep green on the grassy slopes, and the rugged grey of rocks capping the mountain tops.
My friend takes the train from Sligo to Dublin to catch her flight back to Oz, and I continue north and east out of the limpid blue-green of lake land and over the border with Northern Ireland into the rolling verdant hills of Co.Tyrone.
The missing tombstone of Drumquin
I owe my Irish passport to the fact that my mother’s mother was born here. In its wisdom, the Republic of Ireland recognizes the matrilineal line in bestowing citizenship, presumably because almost everyone knows who her mother is, but matters of paternity are less certain. The Republic also recognizes the Irish citizenship of people born in the North before Ireland was partitioned in 1921. There is no official record in Dublin of my grandmother’s birth, as all records were destroyed in a fire in Dublin Castle during the Civil War, but the Irish government is satisfied with a certificate of her baptism provided by the Parish Priest of the place where she was born, Drumquin.
Drumquin lies in a sleepy valley and has one Church of Ireland church and several pubs. The Catholic Church is a few kilometers out of the village, presumably because it was suppressed before Catholic emancipation in 1829. I search in vain in the old cemetery for graves of my grandmother’s family, before going to one of the pubs for lunch.
In the pub I meet a man called James, who thinks he knows some people who might be able to help. He tries to draw me a map and write the name of the people I should talk to, but neither he nor any of the other pub patrons can spell either the people’s name or the place where they live, so James downs his pint of Guinness, jumps in his car outside the pub, and belts off into the hills, with me following in my car, trying to keep up.
We charge up hill and down dale and eventually into a farmyard, where he introduces me to May McMenamin. I understand little of their conversation, but am used to that situation in my village in France, so nod and smile, just as I do there. They seem to be discussing someone called ‘Q’, and something that May has on the farm, but she’s not sure where she’s put it. Then James jumps back into his wagon and I into my car and I pursue him along another road and finally arrive at the old cemetery where I have looked before.
He takes me to a grave with a tombstone engraved with the names of members of the McMenamin family. By concentrating very hard on James’s explanation, I finally understand. Hugh, ‘Q’ McMenamin, was brought up by my grandmother’s family, and he and his family were buried in the same plot as them, but there wasn’t enough room for all their names on one headstone, so the original headstone was taken to the family farm, where it serves as a paving stone, and this one was substituted.
Before leaving Drumquin, I want to thank the priest, Father Mullan, for sending me my grandmother’s baptism certificate, so, before we part company, James leads the way to the presbytery. As James, with a wave out of his car window, heads back to the pub, a little West Highland Terrier runs out of the presbytery and is disappointed to see only me. An elderly woman is polishing the brass in the hallway. Father Mullan isn’t home, unfortunately. On a table in the hallway, instead of the customary holy picture, is a framed photo of the Westie, wearing sunglasses. It seems so right, in the circumstances.
Back to Donegal
Crossing back into the Republic I spend two nights at Lifford, in a beautiful Victorian house with a wide garden and windows giving views of the river valley and the Sperrin Mountains. From here, in one marvellous day, I visit Glenveagh National Park and Horn Head. The landscape contrasts with the lush, floral landscape of the southern counties. It’s subtler and seems to change with the changes in cloud, rain, mist and sunshine.
The 3 kilometre walk from the Glenveagh Visitors Centre to Glenveagh Castle provides vistas of misty blue-grey mountains and a long lake, with islands coming into view at every turn in a road lined with mauve-flowering wild rhododendrons, tamed into hedges closer to the Castle.
In the 1870’s the landlord, George Adair, evicted the 244 tenants who were spoiling the view of the valley from the castle. He replaced the cottages with the rhododendrons and a herd of red deer, which were needed for the hunting parties he hosted.
The rhododendrons, though beautiful, are overtaking the native forests, and there is now a program to contain them. I imagine that some of the ex-tenants made their way to Cobh and boarded the leaky boats going to America and Australia.
In 1939 the Castle was bought by a merry Philadelphian called Henry McIlhenny who decorated and furnished it with lively wallpapers and upholsteries, and some truly awful paintings of dead red deer with their tongues hanging out. McIlhenny also further developed the garden, which includes the Victorian Pleasure Gardens, with a central sweep of lawn, broken round the edges with lovely specimen trees, and the walled garden, full of vegetables and flowers.
From Glenveagh I drive north on a rollercoaster road of deep vertical and lateral undulations, over the high bare bog valleys and suspended lakes of the Derryveagh Mountains to the north coast. Here the mountains descend briefly into a narrow valley, before rearing up again into a series of peninsulas. Further east are Melmore Head and Fanad Head, and Inishowen Peninsula. I park the car and walk right out onto Horn Head, over the brittle black crust of peat, beside shallow basins of yellow-green spagnum and little bonnets of white and yellow bogflowers streaming in the breeze.
The island of Ireland
The island of Ireland is quite small, but, following the tragic Civil War, was divided by the British Government’s 1920 Act of Partition into two countries, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The border runs along the River Foyle, before sweeping out into the ‘Republican’ side to rope the Port of Derry into Northern Ireland. The British renamed Derry Londonderry, just to rub salt into its wounds, but everyone still calls it Derry anyway.
Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. It is tiny, and uses British pounds, whereas the Republic of Ireland, which joined the European Union in 1973, now uses Euros. Apart from that, the two countries mostly speak some version of English, revere the same literature and by and large have the same sense of humour.
The roads in Northern Ireland are better than those in the Republic and its housing estates look like housing estates in England, uniform and boring. Contrary to the British Government’s intentions when it mapped the wiggly border, the Republic has recently become one of the top-performing economies in the world, while Northern Ireland generates little wealth and is heavily subsidized by Westminster.
Most of the population of Northern Ireland doesn’t want the two parts of Ireland to be reunified, arguing that, without the support of Westminster, their standard of living would decline. The other main argument is that the majority of the population of Northern Ireland is nominally Protestant and the majority of the population of the Republic is nominally Catholic. The tension between these two types of Christianity dates back to the 16th century, when Henry VIII of England broke with the Catholic Church, suppressed the native Irish Catholics, confiscated their lands and gave them to Protestants from England and Scotland, who then evicted the Catholic tenants.
The displays in the Customs House museums, dealing with this history, and the emigration of dispossessed Cahtolics, are pretty even-handed.
From the medieval walls which skirt the inner city it is easy to see which parts of the town are Protestant and which are Catholic. There are lots of Union Jacks in the Protestant areas, while in the Bogside are several moving murals of the Battle of the Bogside, Bloody Sunday and the 1981 prisoners’ hunger strike. There is evidence everywhere of continuing bigotry and bitterness.
A monument on the walls near Butcher’s Gate, constructed in 1823-29 by the Protestant apprentice boys, reads as follows:
This monument was erected to perpetuate the memory of Rev. Geo. Walker who, aided by the garrison and brave inhabitants of the City, most valiantly defended it through a protracted siege, viz from the 7th December 1688 to the 12th August following, against an arbitrary and bigoted Monarch, heading an army of upwards of 20,000 men, many of whom were foreign mercenaries, and by such valiant conduct in numerous sorties, and by patiently enduring extreme privations and sufferings, successfully resisted the besiegers and preserved for their posterity the blessings of civil and religious liberty.
This crowing reminder of the 330-year-old defeat and subjugation of the Catholics has been vandalized, and a notice states that the statue of the Rev. Walker was destroyed 1973. The ‘arbitrary and bigoted Monarch’ was the Catholic king James 11 of England, whose forces were beaten by those of the Protestant William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Thus the ‘blessings of civil and religious liberty’ were removed from Catholics and given to Protestants.
Returning to the other side of the city where I have parked, I pass a notice board outside the Guildhall announcing ‘The Bloody Sunday Enquiry’. I go up into the gallery, and join some individuals and some little family groups following the case, which has been going on for four years and is coming to an end now. A screen is suspended in front of the gallery so that all may see and hear the main action taking place below. In the courtroom are least 50 officials and legal personnel. The Counsel representing some of the families, whose relatives were killed on Bloody Sunday, 30th January 1972, is running through the long list of organisations and individuals who denied responsibility, ranging from the British Government and the British Army down to individual soldiers. He describes, with heavy sarcasm, the attempt that has been made, by Counsel for these organisations and individuals, to place the blame for the killings on unidentified IRA members. Every time the families’ Counsel, after going through the reasons individuals and organisations have given for being ‘not responsible’, a man near me in the gallery shakes his head in disbelief and mutters, ‘Not responsible!’
From Derry I drive north and east. On the headland beyond Portrush and Portballintrae is the famous Giant’s Causeway: great cores of basalt, like organ pipes, in leggo-like compositions of low cliffs, chimney stacks, close-packed stepping- stones, staggered cylinders.
Out to sea, because it’s a clear, bright day, is the vague outline of the coast of Scotland.
I head back into high bog-land, which eventually descends into the rolling green hills and headlands of Antrim with stunning views to Rathlin Island in the east.
I spend the next two nights at Cushendall in the heart of the Glens of Antrim.
There, I undertake two long rambles, the first in Glenariff Forest Park, through heath, then a forest of fir trees stretching light-tipped fingers at end of each frond, then bog and, on the way back, by a succession of waterfalls tumbling down the glen. The head of the glen provides a misty vista right down to the sea. The mist has the strange effect of making features of the landscape appear to recede, but not diminish. The mist and cool keep back the midges, which, like flocks of microscopic flying dentures, first attacked while I was at Glenveagh.
From Glengariff, I drive north again to Ballycastle and turn off towards Torr Head, and along a lane to a car park in the yard behind a collection of houses and fields called a clachan, a form of land division once common in Ireland. Each family would have cultivated their share of the unfenced land nearby, and the land beyond, the clachan, was held in common for grazing and agriculture.
The clachan here lies behind a precipitous boggy headland, and my walk is said to be waymarked by yellow blobs painted on rocks in the pastures. I tramp along in mist and drizzle, among big, long-faced, rough-coated sheep and lumbering cattle, following the scant markings, to Fair Head, where sheep graze on the very edges of precipices high above the mist-shrouded sea. I lose my way several times and my ramble takes, instead of one and a half hours, two and a half. On the way back to Cushendall, with boots and trousers soaked, I console myself at Mrs MacBride’s pub at Cushendun, with dinner of a Guinness and beef pie, beans, salad and thick mashed potato, called champ.
Next day I proceed south and east, through Belfast, where buildings on the road to Stormont Castle are decorated with murals of Loyalist paramilitaries posing with weapons and clenched fists, very alienating. I don’t stop.
I’m heading for Mount Stewart House on the Ards Peninsula, halfway along the east shore of Strangford Lough. This was the home of the Stewart family who, over the centuries, did a lot of empire building for their majesties. The Stewarts were the Marquesses of Londonderry, pronounced, by them, with an entitled drawl, Londond’ry. Many of these Marquesses, like so many other barons and earls in Ireland, improved their fortunes and the family mansions by suppressing Catholics, taking their lands, evicting the tenants and supplanting them with Protestants imported from England and Scotland, and by marrying heiresses.
The current Marquess lives in America and the National Trust owns the house and gardens. The gardens, arranged around a lake, contain many ‘rooms’ with paths leading from one to another. There is a sunken garden, and a formal Italian garden below the terrace, and a ‘Dodo Terrace’, decorated with carvings of fantastic beasts and memorials of family pets. There is the inevitable forest of giant pink, purple, and crimson-flowering rhododendrons.
I spend the night at an inexpensive and spotless B&B in the village of Portaferry at the tip of the southern shore of the Lough, a place that time forgot. Or, as the proprietor, Mrs Adair comments, ‘It’s hardly Belfast’. I dine on chow mein in the vast White Satin Chinese bar and restaurant, formerly the corn store. I am the only patron. In the morning, I take the car ferry at the end of the street over to the mainland at Strangford. I stop at Downpatrick and visit St Patrick’s tomb in the churchyard of Down Cathedral. A monolith covers the grave, so it would be hard to establish whether Saint Patrick is really down there or not. St Brigid and St Columbcille are also supposed to be there, a job lot.
Because of torrential rain between Downpatrick and Newcastle, I despair of seeing anything of the Mountains of Mourne, but the sun comes out long enough for a short walk around the Silent Valley reservoir with the thunderclouds rolling through the mountains. After Newry, I cross back into the Republic and spend the night at Carlingford, a medieval village on the southern shore of Carlingford Lough, with a ruined castle and a ruined abbey and views across the water north to the Mountains of Mourne flowing down to the sea.
A day of marvels
Next day, I dawdle across the mountains of the Carlingford Peninsula to Dundalk, leaving too little time for everything I’ve planned in and around Drogheda. However, I do stop at Monasterboice, with its wonderfully carved high crosses and splendid tower, and Mellifont Abbey, a peaceful site with a beautiful intact stone chapterhouse and lavabo, and some relics of delicate cloister-work.
The next point in a day of marvels is at Newgrange, a passage tomb dating from 3200BC under a huge grass-covered mound, contained within a white limestone wall studded with egg-shaped granite stones. The kerbstone at the entrance and many of the boulders supporting the limestone wall are decorated with carved spirals.
The passage into the central chamber is 19 metres long, and is lined with 43 stone uprights, some carved, supporting lintels. The uprights become progressively closer together and the lintels lower, so that you are walking in a crouch by the time you emerge into the tomb chamber, which has a 6 metre high corbel-vaulted roof and three recesses. These days, the passage and the chamber are lit with electric lights. Our guide turns them off and with her torch beam traces the progress of light from a slit above the entrance to the passage, which occurs at 8.20 am during the 5 days of the winter solstice. This is the only time that natural light penetrates the passage and the tomb chamber.
It’s now late on a Friday afternoon, and the beginning of my last week in Ireland. I consult a bus driver at Newgrange on the best way to get to the accommodation I’ve book at Bray, on the coast south of Dublin. He advises me to drive straight into Dublin and turn right at Quinn’s Hotel. You can’t miss it, he says, but I do, and an hour later, find myself in the middle of a gridlock beside the River Liffey. A shouted conversation with a taxi-driver in the lane beside me reveals I need to be in the third lane from my right. To get there, I will have to go right round the city again. The taxi-driver advises that, as this would take an hour or more, I park the car in a multi-storey carpark round the next corner, thinking to have a cup of coffee till the traffic clears.
I discover that I am very close to the Ormond Quay Hotel, where I know several old mates from the ACT English Teachers’ Association are staying for the Bloomsday centenary. I find Tony in the bar and soon Barney and Angela turn up and then Julia arrives, and we arrange to meet at the O’Connell Bridge on Sunday morning for the Big Bloomsday Breakfast.
The original ‘Bloomsday’, the 24 hours of Leopold Bloom’s ‘Odyssey’ around Dublin portrayed in James Joyce’s Ulysses, took place on 16th June 1904. However this year Dublin celebrates the centenary of Bloomsday with a whole week of events, including a free breakfast on Sunday 13th June in O’Connell Street for 10,000 people.
Now knowing better than to drive from my apartment in Bray, I take the bus up to Dublin. A woman sitting next to me wants to know if I am going to the breakfast. Do I have Edwardian dress? She has a skirt in her backpack but doesn’t know if she’ll bother putting it on. She doesn’t have a ticket, do I? I say that some friends have a spare ticket for me. Might they have a spare for her? Have I read anything by James Joyce? She hasn’t got around to it yet but might do a PhD on Lewis Carroll’s influence on his work.
I give her the slip as soon as the bus terminates at Corn Market Place. And find the others just coming along on the other side of the Liffey at O’Connell Bridge: Tony, Angela, Barney, Dennis, Jos, Dennis’s brother Michael, Julia, Kate, Janet, Bruce and Carol and Neil and Christine.
Since the last time I was in Dublin (in 2000), the footpaths have been widened and some of the streets pedestrianised. There is a statue of James Joyce with a cane and Nelson’s Column has been replaced by the Monument of Light, an extraordinary 130 metre metal spire. In keeping with Dublin’s habit of giving rude names to its statues and monuments, the James Joyce statue is called ‘The Prick with the Stick’ and the spire is called ‘The Stiffy by the Liffey’ and ‘The Erection at the Intersection’, while the statue of Molly Malone is called variously ‘The Tart with the Cart’, ‘The Dish with the Fish’, ‘The Dolly with the Trolley’ , ‘The Trollop with the Scallop’ and ‘The Flirt in the Skirt’.
O’Connell Street is crowded with impersonators of characters in Ulysses: breakfasters, trapeze artists, flame swallowers, flame-throwing Jesuits on monocycles, Denny’s Sausages, Leopold Blooms, Steven Dedaluses, Citizens, girls imprisoned in cages on the backs of witches and people in boater hats with strawberries. Mercifully there is no offal in the breakfast, which consists of bread rolls containing white pudding, bacon, Dennys sausages (which feature in Leopold Bloom’s breakfast in Mr Joyce’s book) and eggs, and coffee. We also obtain some oysters, which slip down nicely.
In the afternoon there is a coach-and-walking-and-reading tour of various places mentioned in Ulysses, including Sandycove and the Martello Tower and Forty Foot Pool at Dun Laoghaire. The tour also includes a house just off Blessington Street, one of the houses the Joyce family lived in. It is close to the City Basin, an oasis in the middle of the city with seats shaded by trees around a pond with ducks, swans and a small island.
The week concludes with a wake for Paddy Dignum, whose funeral Leopold Bloom and Steven Dedalus’s father attend near the beginning of Ulysses, but which Mr Joyce didn’t actually elaborate on. The corpse is very realistic while prone, but gets up and disappears from the room once an hour or so for ‘little adjustments’. Gerty Dignum is very weepy and Mrs Dignum comes over to our group to tell us a few things Mr Joyce didn’t put in his book.
From Bray, I make several excursions into the Wicklow Mountains, which are covered in heath, grass and rocks, and gaps between the mountains open to waves of wooded hills, fields, loughs and sea, the views changing moment by moment with the effects of cloud and sun.
Wicklow was established as a county in 1606, as a means for the British occupiers to control local rebel groups. A Military Road was built to help defeat the rebels still active after the 1798 rebellion. At Glenmalure, the wild wooded glen is studded with memorials to the Wicklow Mountains men who fought and died here in the rebellious 1790’s.
Near Avoca, two streams, the Avonbeg and the Avonmore, rippling over pebbles and rocks, meet in the valley, then head off to the sea as the Avoca River. This scene was the inspiration for Thomas Moore’s (b.1789) equally rippling ‘The Meeting of the Waters’, which all the little girls sang lustily in my Australian convent primary school choir:
There is not, in this wide world, a valley so sweet
As that vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet . . .
There is a bust of Moore, with two verses of the poem carved underneath, and it brings a nostalgic lump to the throat.
The Vale of Avoca is also the setting of the monastic settlement which Saint Kevin founded at Glendalough in the fifth century. The buildings that survive date from between the 10th and 12th centuris. In its heyday, the settlement included workshops, a scriptorium, accommodation for monks, guests and lay workers, and a hospital.
One day Kate, Julia and Jos come down from Dublin to Bray on the train, and we drive to Powerscourt near Enniskerry. Powerscourt was originally a 13th century castle, owned by the O’Toole family, and coveted by the Wingfield family. The Wingfields murdered Phelin O’Toole in 1603, and James 1 of England rewarded them the lease of the O’Toole castle and lands. It has been in the hands of the Viscounts of Powerscourt, aka the Wingfield family, ever since.
It is an extensive formal garden, a great contrast to the natural wild landscape of Wicklow, which it has replaced with artificial lakes, fountains, grottoes, bridges, statuary and gilded wrought iron.
Finally, the Hill of Tara
On my last day I head north again, skirting Dublin and arriving at the Hill of Tara in the middle of a day of bursts of sun, storm and cold wind. From the Hill, there is an uninterrupted view of 20% of Ireland, including several mountain ranges. This is no doubt one reason for its central place in Celtic history and mythology and its continued significance in Christian times. On it is a ring fort, a passage tomb and various ancient monuments associated with millennia of mythology, pagan and Christian. It is still largely unexcavated, and covered in intriguing mounds, ridges, basins and dips under the windswept grass and scatterings of sheep dung.
When I arrive at Martine’s house, Charlie, who has been having a little snooze, greets me with a yawn. In my absence he has participated in the annual village cleanup and has featured in the newspaper photo of everyone relaxing afterwards. I don’t know if he has done any work, or has just had fun. Martine, with a complicit smile, informs me that at the post-cleanup celebration he met another poodle, and they partied ‘non-stop’.
Why this cover image for The Roland Medals?
This is Las Médulas. While I was walking the Camino, a fellow-walker told me about the Roman exploitation of the gold in north-west Spain. This landscape became the inspiration for part of Armi’s journey, and for the cover of The Roland Medals.
Part One, Journeys, Chapter 6, Armi, Burgos spring 2012.
The terrain, too, was different from the last few days. Armi was in a chestnut tree forest in a narrow valley. Jagged red peaks, which looked as if they’d been chiselled out of mountains, pierced the canopy, and on each side of the track bare red walls of stone were punctured by cave openings. Hours had passed since she’d seen a familiar Camino waymarker or any other walkers. There were no hamlets, nowhere to even buy a soda that might settle her stomach. When it started to rain, she climbed up into a cave, where she slept fitfully through the long night.