It is indeed rare to pass a single mile without encountering an object to which some marvellous fiction is attached. Every lake, mountain, ruin of church or castle, rath and boreen, has its legendary tale; the Faeries people every wild spot; the Banshee is the follower of every old family; Phookas and Cluricannes are—if not to be seen, to be heard of, in every solitary glen.
—Mr. and Mrs. S. C. Hall,
Ireland: Its Scenery, Character, Etc., 1841-43
THERE IS SOMETHING ABOUT THE FEATS OF SMALL PLACES that inspires one to celebrate certain mysteries of achievement. Take Ireland, for instance: such a little country, such a big pen. Physically it could fit in England's sleeve, or America's pocket, and yet it has been to great literature what David was to Goliath. To any lover of language this feels wonderfully just—the sweet justice of the underdog—but it is curious, too. What made a small country like Ireland such a fertile ground for writing?
Late last year my wife, Aleksandra, and I went to Ireland for the first time. We hoped to uncover some of the hidden connections between literature and place that are everywhere implied, but never spelled out, in the best of that nation's fiction and poetry. Needless to say, we did a great deal of reading before we went.
After much thought and debate, we decided to concentrate our trip within Cork, Ireland's largest county, which has been birthplace or home or graveyard (or all three) to more remarkable writers than any other part of Ireland except Dublin. And though Dublin may claim perhaps the most celebrated group of writers per capita of any city since Athens, Cork has a leg up when it comes to variety. Among its children and admirers can be counted Edmund Spenser; Elizabeth Bowen; the brilliant short-story writers Frank O'Connor, Sean O'Faolain, and William Trevor; the great 18th-century poet Eileen O'Leary; Edith Somerville and Violet Martin (known to their readers as Somerville and Ross); and the famed storyteller known simply as the Tailor.
This short list alone, with its juxtaposition of Anglo and Gaelic names, may suggest one reason why Cork spawned such a wealth of writers. A large area containing some of the richest farmland in southern Ireland as well as seaports like Cobh, County Cork has been an emotional and often violent battleground for those—whether native or foreign, peasant or aristocrat—who would claim it as their own. In the second half of the 16th century, more than 21,000 acres of fertile Cork land were occupied by English settlers at the expense of the Irish peasantry, touching off a long history of brutal rebellions and suppressions. For 300 years, Cork was a stronghold not only of the Anglo-Irish but of the rebel Irish. (The 20th-century revolutionary leader Michael Collins was the son of a Clonakilty farmer, and was himself assassinated in County Cork.) Throughout it all, both sides found expression not just in angry political rhetoric, but in the more personal and indelible forms of poetry and prose. From the 18th century—when poets regularly met in the tiny hamlets of western Cork to hold "Courts of Poetry"—until today, the Irish bardic tradition, in which words seem to spring musically from the land itself, has remained very much alive.
LATE NOVEMBER IS NOT TOURIST season in Ireland. There are reasons for this, mostly concerning the weather; no one likes to get rained on. But, as they say, if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes. The Irish light shifts with breathtaking speed, as if God were holding a hand-mirror above the land and tilting it this way and that, just to see how it might look. One gets the same contradictory impression from the Irish people themselves, who are both compassionate game-players and punning stoics. And from the landscape as well, which, though soft and green, was full of stones once, millions of them. The stones are walls now, covered with moss. Crisscrossing the countryside, they are like ancient words gathered and stacked into sentences by forgotten bards: visible song-lines.
Or so they seemed to us, jet-lagged and excited and a little spaced-out, during the hour's drive south from Shannon Airport to Mallow in County Cork, on our first—inexplicably sunny—morning in Ireland. Mallow lies in the northeast corner of the county, a town of brightly painted houses and shops whose garish palette bespeaks a kind of winking Celtic optimism in the face of nagging rain and neighboring bog. A few miles to the west is Longueville House, a beautiful Georgian manor sitting on 500 acres of pasture and woodland, where we would spend the night. Here was Anglo-Ireland incarnate: the noble, well-staffed house looking out over grounds that, long ago, would have been granted to English subjects as reward for some service to the Crown (most often, this meant fighting with the royal army against Irish insurgents). This was the country of Sir Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser and, in this century, Elizabeth Bowen, whose memoir Bowen's Court tenderly evokes both the house and the landscape of her childhood:
This is a part of Ireland with no lakes, but the sky's movement of clouds reflects itself everywhere as it might on water, rounding the trees with bloom and giving the grass a sheen. In the airy silence, any sound travels a long way. The streams and rivers, sunk in their valleys, are not seen until you come down to them.
When we arrived at Longueville House, the sun was breaking through the clouds for the hundredth time that morning. We squinted and tried to decipher why this place, so foreign, should feel so familiar. Of course, it was the swift-moving clouds, which were like light, just as Bowen had written. Silver-green frost lit the portions of the fields that the pale sun hadn't yet reached. By afternoon, as we set out to explore, the sun had touched everywhere and was already descending; the frost was gone.
We first went looking for the Anglo-Irish, as this had been their corner of the county. We drove northeast into the Blackwater countryside (named for the dark, slender river that flows through it) toward the village of Doneraile. Three miles or so north of the village, I'd learned, were the ruins of Spenser's Kilcolman Castle, burned by Irish rebels in 1598. Supposedly only the tower was left, unmarked but for the laurel sprouting from it, a distant reminder of the 3,000 acres that Spenser had been granted by the Crown and had lived on for 20 years. He'd been sheriff of Cork for a while, and had written most of The Faerie æueene there, and all of Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, changing the place-names as he went, making out of imagined words his own, fantastic Ireland.