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.
History, of course, barbed as it is, never quite accommodates fantasy. Spenser loved the trees and the land and his life in Ireland, but not "the wylde Irishe":
Tho, backe returning to my sheepe again,
I from thenceforth have learne'd to love more
deare This lowly quiet life which I inherit here.
Perhaps it's the word inherit that stands out. There came a time (a time that would come again and again) when the "native" Irish would have no more of such rhetoric: they burned out the English poet and sent him packing. Undoubtedly, it was not all personal; there was already a history before Spenser arrived here. The Elizabethans had confiscated the lands of the Irish chieftains and chased them into the forests. When they couldn't find the chieftains there, the English began to cut down the trees, which were sacred to the Irish (in olden times, each species of tree represented a different letter of the Irish alphabet). The effects of this were various and lasting, among them the Ireland we know of fields and plains and gentle, naked hills—and, more particularly, a burned tower standing desolate beside a marsh.
We saw Spenser's tower from a distance, after turning by impulse onto a farmer's rutted dirt road. We reached a rise and suddenly there it was, gray spotted with green, truncated and bereft: all that was left. Around it were farms, a marsh. Later we were told that some of Spenser's land is now a wildfowl refuge. But any further observations about the great poet's tower will have to be taken on faith—we never got any closer. Somehow, every road we found seemed to lead away from it. After a while, the place began to feel more like Narnia than Ireland. We live in a world of metaphor.
We stared long and hard at the ruin from half a mile away. Then we got back in our car and drove through Doneraile toward the tiny town of Kildorrery, turning our thoughts to Elizabeth Bowen.
LIKE SPENSER, THE BOWEN FAMILY arrived in Ireland in the 16th century and settled on confiscated land. In 1776 they built Bowen's Court, a property of its time and place, with a tennis court, croquet lawns, stable yards, workmen's houses, rookeries, and a landscaped park densely planted with trees.
Although born in Dublin in 1899, Elizabeth Bowen spent much of her childhood at her family's country home. She lived long enough to see it sold for financial reasons and, in 1961, demolished altogether. Hardly anything is left now; what remains of the gardens' limestone walls is used to keep some farmer's cattle from straying. But if you stop for a visit at nearby St. Colman church, as we did, you'll find the modest graves of Bowen and her husband, Alan Cameron. As you stand before them in the late-afternoon light, the adult years that Bowen spent in England seem like accident or afterthought; she is Irish to the core. And you remember that not just Bowen's Court but some of her best stories are Irish stories—"Her Table Spread," "The Happy Autumn Fields," "A Day in the Dark," and my favorite, "Summer Night."
We drove back to Longueville House by the small roads. The day had been clear, and now it was almost dark. Rarely in my life have I witnessed a more beautiful and penetrating sunset. Heading west, we were driving straight into it. I recalled the opening line of "Summer Night": "As the sun set its light slowly melted the landscape, till everything was made of fire and glass." And, in the next paragraph, the thrillingly plain, declarative, "The road was in Ireland." Simple as that.
Among the houses we passed, embered by sunset, some were ruins. "Mere shattered walls, and doors with useless latch/And firesides buried under fallen thatch," wrote the poet William Allingham (1824-89). I thought about John Millington Synge, who in his brief life (1871-1909) traveled throughout the countryside and wrote the following:
At such moments one regrets every hour that one has lived
outside Ireland and every night that one has passed in cities.
Twilight and autumn are both full of the suggestion that we
connect with death and the ending of earthly vigour, and
perhaps in a country like Ireland this moment has an emphasis
that is not known elsewhere.
As Molly Bloom said, Yes.
DESPITE WHAT WE'D SEEN, IT WAS difficult the next morning to believe that the Anglo-Irish were not still in power, that Spenser's castle had ever been burned. To stay in one of the historic houses that have been transformed into hotels or inns is to step back in time, to find yourself on the set of a very specific sort of play. We sat in the elegant dining room of Longueville House eating our "full Irish breakfast" (your doctor doesn't want to know) and gazing through the high windows at the long, sloping pastures of the old estate, the tall oaks, the silent sheep. The sun was shining again.
But another Ireland awaited us—what William Trevor, in his 1984 book A Writer's Ireland, called "the native, underground voice." After breakfast, we packed up and drove west, following the Blackwater River for a few miles before turning south through the small town of Millstreet. Then we headed east again, cutting between low mountains, to stop in the three-house village of Carriganimmy.
It was here in 1773 that an Irish colonel in the Austrian army named Arthur O'Leary was murdered for refusing to sell his mare to a Protestant for five pounds (by law the maximum value of any horse belonging to a Catholic). His murder inspired his widow to write a searing lament that today stands as one of the finest poems ever written in the Irish language. In "Caoineadh Art Û Laoighire" ("The Lament for Art O'Leary"), Eileen O'Leary, great-aunt of the Catholic hero Daniel O'Connell, gives form and name to her love for her slain husband, from first infatuation to final, keening grief. She tells of their families—Gaelic nobles—and where they came from. She tells of their meeting "beside the market-house" in Macroom. And she vividly describes the moment she discovered his body:
I never lingered
Till I found you lying
By a little furze-bush
Without pope or bishop
Or priest or cleric
One prayer to whisper
But an old, old woman,
And her cloak about you,
And your blood in torrents—
I did not wipe it off,
I drank it from my palms.
She goes on to give full expression to her loss:
My love and my secret,
Your corn is stacked,
Your cows are milking;
On me is a grief
There's no cure for in Munster.
Till Art O'Leary rise
This grief will never yield
That's bruising all my heart
Yet shut up fast in it,
As 'twere in a locked trunk
With the key gone astray,
And rust grown on the wards.
In Carriganimmy, we found the inn where O'Leary was last seen on the night he was killed: a low terra-cotta-colored building, now Crowley's Bar, with a Guinness sign hanging above the door. Just down the road is a nondescript pub called Walsh's, across from which we came upon the head of a footpath, leading south. Fifty or so yards along the path we passed an iron cattle gate beside a fallen stone house; not far beyond the gate was a narrow river, brilliant in sunlight. We arrived at a stone footbridge, a ruin now, unpassable. From our books we knew that the grass-covered path on the other side, running along the river, had been a coach road in O'Leary's day. And there, third to the left from the bridge, was the "furze-bush" where Eileen O'Leary had found her husband. Near it, a single cow stood, placidly grazing. It turned and regarded us, its body otherwise still. For a long time we stared back. The scene felt oddly like a painting.
It was Eileen O'Leary who wrote her husband's epitaph:
Lo Arthur O'Leary
Generous Handsome Brave
Slain In His Bloom
Lies In This Humble Grave
The grave lies in the back right corner of the nave of Kilcrea Friary (circa 1465), which stands more or less in the middle of nowhere, about three miles west of the town of Ovens. The friary is a ruin, its roof long gone. We had the place to ourselves—in late November, it often seemed we had all Ireland to ourselves. Around Art O'Leary were buried four centuries of the dead; flowers had recently been laid at the headstone of one of the graves. It was quiet enough to hear the old silence. This was one of our favorite places in Ireland.
THE IRISH HAVE A TALENT FOR PITCH-perfect epitaphs—perhaps because, in this overwhelmingly Catholic country, words on a gravestone are seen as inspiration not just for the living but for the departed: food for thought on the next journey. I know I wish Frank O'Connor could write my epitaph, the way he wrote the Tailor's.
The Tailor (1860-1945; his real name was Timothy Buckley) was a legendary storyteller, a bawdy Irish Homer who lived with his wife, Antsy, in a cottage in desolate, mountainous Gougane Barra in the 1930's and 40's. Their cottage was at the source of the river Lee, very near where St. Finbarr had lived in a stone hermitage in the sixth century—it was from there that St. Finbarr followed the river east to found the monastery that became Cork City.
Buckley's stories were collected by Eric Cross in a wonderful book called The Tailor and Antsy, which the government banned for its "sexuality" in 1943. But governments have never been very astute readers. In those days countless writers, O'Connor among them, made pilgrimages to the Tailor's remote cottage for evenings of story and drink. And it was O'Connor himself who wrote the words carved on the otherwise unremarkable headstone on Timothy Buckley's grave:
A Star Danced And
Under That I Was Born
Gougane Barra is a magical place, savage yet serene: fearsome with outcroppings of rock, coppered at that time of year with heather and bracken, and greened with the pointed pine trees of some other landscape. Two swans and several clusters of goats were our only companions that afternoon. It had rained hard earlier in the day, and a mist was lifting from the lake that sits in a shallow bowl made by the mountains. On a tiny island, reachable by a causeway, stand the crumbled stone cells of St. Finbarr's hermitage. Across the road, near the lakeshore and almost hidden by trees, is the small cemetery where the Tailor and Antsy are buried. And a very Irish place it is, as we came to know it: no pomp or circumstance, just the perfect words.
Aer Lingus has flights from New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago to Cork Airport (via Dublin). Alternatively, you can fly to Shannon Airport (near Limerick); from there it's only an hour's drive to northern County Cork. We booked our car through Auto Europe (800/223-5555; fax 207/842-2222).
WHERE TO STAY
Many of Ireland's best accommodations are listed in The Blue Book, the register of a private association of noteworthy country houses and restaurants (view its Web site at www.irelands-blue-book.ie). Inquiries can be made by phone (353-46/23416) or e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org). Full breakfast is usually included in the rates.
Longueville House Mallow; 353-22/47156, fax 353-22/47459; www.longuevillehouse.ie; doubles in low season from $135; dinner for two $76. Lovely, family-run Georgian manor on 500 acres, less than an hour's drive from Cork City. The restaurant is one of the finest in the country.
Ballymaloe House Shanagarry; 353-21/465-2531, fax 353-21/465-2021; www.ballymaloe.ie; doubles from $70; dinner for two $69. Beautiful inn famous for its restaurant; the well-known Allen family also operates a cooking school nearby.
Blairs Cove House Durrus; 353-27/61127, fax 353-27/61487; doubles from $76; dinner for two $75. Four suites in a Georgian manor, about 10 miles from Bantry, with yet another top-notch restaurant (unfortunately closed in winter) and spectacular views across a pasture to Dunmanus Bay.
Arbutus Lodge Hotel Montenotte, Cork City; 353-21/450 1237, fax 353-21/450-2893; www.arbutuslodge.net; doubles from $97. Wonderful rooms, though after a recent change of ownership the atmosphere is rather more officious than at many family-run places.
RESTAURANTS AND PUBS
Isaac's Restaurant 48 MacCurtain St., Cork City; 353-21/450-3805; dinner for two $32. Draws crowds with good international dishes, such as curries, steaks, and prawns cooked with chilies and garlic butter. After dinner, go across the street for a pint of Murphy's at the Shelbourne, one of the city's better pubs.
Blue Haven Hotel & Restaurant Kinsale; 353-21/477-2209; dinner for two $68 in the dining room. Excellent seafood; don't miss the smoked salmon cooked over a fire of oak chips.
Ahernes Seafood Restaurant 163 N. Main St., Youghal; 353-24/92424; dinner for two $65. Easily one of the top fish restaurants in Ireland.
Literary Guide to Ireland by Thomas and Susan Cahill (Wolfhound)
A Writer's Ireland: Landscape in Literature by William Trevor (Viking Press)
The Collected Stories by William Trevor (Penguin Paperback)
Irish Stories by Elizabeth Bowen (Dufour Editions Paperback)
A Book of Ireland Edited by Frank O'Connor (Collins)
Classic Irish Short Stories Edited by Frank O'Connor (Oxford University Paperback)