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.