A Lack of Companions
Ann and I like to walk. Just how much is there to see in the immediate vicinity of where you live? On Bells Springs Road, I have always maintained that one can see something every morning of your life that is impressive from the point of view that nature never loses its ability to impress us. Aside from nature or people, what else is there to see?
In Carrigaholt there is no shortage of visual wonders. Every step of our path, whether we are strolling into the village for a bowl of creamed vegetable soup, or heading out to look at the castle tower, is rife with interest. Every step, without exception.
This morning we set out a fraction before nine, and headed away from the village and the Carrigaholt Castle, out in the direction of another stone structure, which was visible from the road in the distance. As we strode briskly along, we took in the walls, the waterways, and the fields, and the way they all fit together in the big picture. All of those walls, and like snowflakes, all of them different.
However, if you lined up fifty snowflakes, you’d have to take someone’s word for it that they are different, because they all look the same. If Ronald Reagan had been talking about snowflakes, when he uttered those immortal words, “If you’ve seen one redwood tree, you’ve seen them all,” then I would probably agree.
The walls are unique, each and every one-as different as Ronnie Reagan was from John Muir. The walls fascinate me, because they represent one of the most crowning achievements of a culture that has had to carve its very existence out of the earth, after first having to cleanse the soil of the unusable components. Rocks are not conducive to growing food, just as un-walled pastures are not conducive to confining cattle. If you could see how many walls there are, you would begin to appreciate the magnitude of the task.
It was all part of a pattern, and that pattern now emerges in the form of that patchwork quilt. We saw it better emphasized as we drove to Cork, passing through some hilly territory, with a few nominal peaks, which helped us to better understand the shades of green from the Irish quilt. There were rectangles of the deepest, most verdant shade of emerald green, juxtaposed with similarly shaped parcels of dun-colored ground cover, or a cover of light green, that was four shades lighter in color.
The Irish priests, who taught me in high school, used to talk about the farmers back home in Ireland. The difference in color was whether or not the fields had been de-rocked. Those which have been used for twenty-five generations, have been sifted for rocks for five hundred years, whereas those which are more dirt-like in color, are used exclusively to graze cattle, so lack the deep green color.
What kind of spirit does a culture require, to tackle the task of clearing the rocks from the soil? They say the toughest jobs build character. These Irish have a wealth of character. We sat in the Long Dock for a bit of lunch today, while the three men sitting around the corner of the bar, closest to us, extended as warm of a welcome, as we have had from locals these past many days; there is no shortage of character.
The one farmer was truly ancient, his lone tooth prominent by its lack of companions, as he beamed a smile that could have replaced the lighthouse, that just shut down for the first time three months ago, after a three hundred and thirty year run. The other two were equally welcoming, as they fired questions at us in rapid-fire succession.
“Where you from? Aye, California, been there you know.”
“Like it here?” So much to say, but it’s all about “time and history.”
“Is it hot in California?” Blistering...Damn, celsius/fahrenheit...damn
“Where are you staying?” “-Suan-Na-Mara...” Loosely translated: “a place of serenity near the sea.”
“How long you here for?” “Another week...wish it were more...”
They talked and talked and then they talked some more, much of it very difficult to understand, but all of it warm and effusive, and not a result of the nectar, as they were only on lunch break, according to the proprietress. We loved being in this place, established circa 1820, the interior purportedly unchanged [in appearance] since its beginning. The back of the menu explained that the only changes in appearance from the beginning is that of the center doorframe. This was enlarged at one point to allow cattle to be driven through the center of the restaurant to the milking parlor, located in the back..
Why would you take them through, instead of just taking them around the side? Because in Carrigaholt, the streets are solid brick/stone blocks, with no breaks in between buildings. We noticed earlier that a renovation project was being done behind the very last house on the block, which is why I could see it. There was the usual stone/block walls, which had been re-fitted, and reinforced to accommodate the unmistakably distinctive Douglas Fir ceiling joists and rafters. On the far end of the block, was a neatly stacked pile of cinder blocks, presumably those remaining from the masonry part of the gig. Materials being used on that kind of project, had to either be lumped in from behind, or taken across back lots.
So the Long Dock sits in the middle of the block, and the cattle went through it. The wall alongside us had a huge replica of a newspaper, dated April 16, 1912, with a dateline of Belfast, reminding us that Ireland was the birthplace of the greatest luxury liner of them all, billed as unsinkable. The rest of the walls were filled with eight by ten photographs of local spots, available for 25 Euros. They were aesthetically very appealing.
The food was elegant in its simplicity. Ireland has been a haven for me, even though The Long Dock did not list one veggie entree on the menu. There were fifteen different seafood dishes, which is only to be expected in a restaurant with this name, and there were copious numbers of meat dishes. On all menus though, there is sure to be a clam or fish chowder, and a creamy vegetable soup. They served brown caraway seed bread that had a rye taste and made Annie groan with missed culinary adventure. So while she savored their “Famous Seafood Chowder” that I couldn’t eat, and I savored the caraway seed bread that she couldn’t eat, we both loaded our supremely scalding French Fries (for the one and only time-not chips) with salt, and agreed that we couldn’t be more pleased with a meal.
But I was talking about walls. I have mentioned that the underbrush can overgrow the low walls, until all that remains to the quick glance, is a bank. However, if you are walking alongside, there are countless examples of antiquity, from inscriptions on particular stones, to the hand-forged iron gates, dating back before the industrial revolution. The ruins of stone homes, out-buildings and walls exist in every direction you gaze, once you have left the village.
In point of fact, dead center in the village, forming one wall of the elementary school yard, is a set of ruins, featuring two walls intersecting, one forming the front wall of the school, and the other the side wall. We could clearly see where the ancient walls began, and where they transitioned into the new section of the wall.
[In California] “I’m sorry sir or madam, but this old rock wall action doesn’t cut it. Please remove it, before you drag me out here again... the building department is a very busy place, and there is no room on our agenda for non-code issues.”
The Irish are in no hurry to renovate their history into stucco and chain-link existence. I have not set eyes on one square foot of metal fencing, and only a couple of wooden ones. So we walked along the single lane out in the direction of the huge white structure visible from Suan-Na-Mara, which Annie had thought was a community center of some sort. The sign at the intersection of the two single lane roads, clearly says “College” and something in Gaelic. All street signs are in Gaelic-no exception. Occasionally, they are also in English.
Any thought that Ireland was more prone to the English Language, as opposed to its native tongue, can only be described as blarney. The predominant language that is spoken in public is Gaelic, though everyone speaks both.
Now we could clearly see the stone structure that we originally set out to visit, similar in appearance to our own Carrigaholt Castle. As we approached it, we realized that we could only see the top two-thirds or so, because it was set down lower than the surrounding fields. There were the ruins of an outer wall surrounding the “battery,” which is the term Patrick used when Annie asked him about it.
We had to find the break in the wall, which still required that we climb up and over heavy slabs of rock to both gain entrance, and to prevent cattle from doing the same. Once again, under a very strong spell, I went left and down the slope, looking to get through this second wall, so as to be able to approach the structure. Annie had drifted right, and was similarly exploring the immediate vicinity. I swung around and prepared to clamber down the sloping bank, where the wall simply had been turned into part of the native terrain, with the passage of centuries. I caught sight of the top three feet or so of a cross, one of the ancient ones which were circular at the top, with the cross being in the center of the shape. It was at the edge of the cliffs, falling away to the sea, and when I advanced as little as three steps, it had disappeared. I made a mental note to go back and investigate, a note that was sure to be implemented in my current state of excitement.
I went directly down the slope and up to this castle, very similar to Carrigaholt Castle. About forty feet long, and twenty feet wide, it stretched up not quite as high, maybe thirty-five feet or so. The wind-holes (windows) were again tapered, presumably to prevent an arrow, or any thrown object to be able to easily enter the edifice, and there was an entrance, surprisingly unblocked by the usual iron bars. However, a drawbridge is still eight feet or so above the ground, and even though there were some substantial slabs of rock at the base, I was not up to the task of gaining entrance.
Or rather, I was sure I could get up, but like the appropriately named Chimney Rock, back up on Bell Springs Road, I was equally sure I could never get back down. So I chose instead to content myself with examining the inside. This was not like Carrigaholt Castle at all, because there were no staircases, and it was simply a big open chamber, but it was unquestionably a place of defense, and a place of refuge. Its position on the cliffs, the tapered wind-holes, the double wall, and the knowledge that we took with us from Carrigaholt Castle, less than three miles away as the crow flies, told us that this was a defensive armament.
Reeling by now as I once more found myself immersed in this feeling of timelessness, I went back to meet up with Annie, so I could tell her about that ancient cross, and how I wanted to pursue that image. Retracing my steps brought me back to the original spot, and Annie and I went immediately to the site, located between the cliff edge and the tower. The tower, the structure, the castle, the battery: all names for this same former dwelling. This cross, ageless, hewn from stone, had an inscription carved on both sides of the cross piece, though the two inscriptions were not identical. This is what I remember being on the back side of the cross: N-A-O-M-N S-E-A-V-M-N
At the base was a coin hoard, or so it seemed when I first glanced down. There were probably no more than fifty or so coins, and I saw more than one twenty cent piece of modern Euros, but there were also coins, which were unidentifiable, and there was a little antique-in-appearance crucifix, such as might have come off of a rosary.
This stone cross, mounted on a cement stand, stood about the same height as Annie, is the site of a “Holy Well,” and though it was not listed among the six from Clare County that appeared on the internet, under “Holy Well, Ireland, pagan,” it nonetheless was as authentic a representation of our shared history, as the castle, or St. Mary’s Church. In pagan times, the well represented fertility, and women lay in the shallow rock slabs and prayed for conception.
And we could leave the house forty-five minutes before, and stand in its presence, without having a clue that it was here. No fanfare, no admission fees, no glossy brochures, and no Patrick at the post office, telling us to be sure and check it out. See what I mean? In Ireland, there is so much to remind us of those who came before, the feeling never leaves you. I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.