I was about 12 when I first took to rambling these hills. The pastures give way to bracken, green and gold; the bracken gives way to the high moors—their gorse and heather and the suck of turf underfoot. At that age words are a private treasure, and I loved the naming of things, of plants in particular—gentian, fritillary, spurge. Other plants had more prosaic names—hedge garlic and butcher's broom—that hinted at a time before the coming of supermarkets and the weekly shop. In those hills history was ever present. You saw it in the bleak roads that traverse the bogs, the "famine roads" laid by the hungry who had asked for bread. The past startled you in the sudden stones of old cottages, long since nettled over, where generations of families had lived be-fore moving away to settle the far corners of the globe. In my boyhood, a wonder garden of whispers and shades.
Now, on these lower slopes, the new Irish prosperity is there for all to see. Townlands that in my youth were but names on a map are places once more. Depending on your point of view, it's bungalow blitz or bungalow bliss. There's a tendency to regret what has been lost, but as the writer Maeve Binchy puts it, "The good old times are now." The leach of emigration has been stanched: our greatest export is no longer our people.
That said, the Irish have an odd relationship with the new tiger economy. It's as though half the country has yet to catch up. Recently I visited my farming relatives in County Clare, and driving along the Shannon I was surprised by a giant rig-like affair newly parked in the estuary. I asked my aunt what it was and she looked at me all confused, then said, "I'll ask Nora. She's a nurse, she'll know." I objected that she must surely have seen it herself: some refinery or other disturbing the familiar view. "Oh, that,' she said, realization dawning. "Sure we do often climb the hill of an evening to look at it. The lights are lovely shining in the night."
Back in the Dublin hills, it's the names that take my fancy—Glenmalure, Blessington, Stepaside—names begging to tell a story. We're in gentry land. You can tell by the demesne walls—high, smooth stone affairs that hedge the road. They were raised to prevent idle contemplation of the mansion within, the Big House of Irish lore. And it's typical of those gentry that they weren't content to own the land, but presumed to own the view of it too. Nowadays, invariably, the Big House has been transformed into a country hotel, with comfy sofas and honest fare. The demesne grounds are golf courses—this land is mad for golf, and the landscape is patched by greens, nature's little tidy spaces. A river trills beside us, oaks and sycamores arch overhead: we drive through a fairy-light of trees.
And come to Enniskerry, a Hobbiton kind of village nestling in the glens, where it's good to take a sup of something in the local pub. Country pubs have a charm, and sometimes a hazard, all their own. The signs stretch, deceitfully, the length of the building, and often I've entered by the wrong door. Once, I came into a pub with a friend, and there was nobody about, so we sat and awaited the lady of the house. She appeared eventually, a little flustered, and we ordered two pints of stout. I'll always remember the grace of her apology, that she had only bottles to give, but—her face brightening—"There's a pub next door: maybe you might try there?" We had entered the lady's sitting room.
Glendalough at last, the bourne of my journey. Deep in the "glen of two lakes," and shadowed on all sides by mountains, lies an ancient monastic settlement. Here is the Gaelic heart of this land. Glendalough thrived in stone and treasure when Dublin but hoveled in mud. A city built for flight from the world. That is the Gaelic way. We have traveled the globe, but we have rarely explored. Our journey has always been a leaving-from, never a coming-to.
Streams ramble through the ruins: all is birdsong and river-rush. The round tower pokes the sky. Sanctity clings here; it's in the ivy and stone. You cannot but hush your voice. Such ancient dedication to the ultimate: our age is crass and futile in comparison. Our utilitarian age, when one mayn't take a walk but it be sponsored for some good cause. Here they sought God's face and found it in the sun on the lake, in the leaves of the trees that glisten in the rain with a silver all their own.
We take the high road home and all of a sudden we're in the mountains true. Here at last are the wild moors. Bronze and purple and gold they stretch, the colors of tweed, and the rust grass of the turf. There's not a soul in sight, not a car on the road, not the smoke of one lone cottage: bewildering to think that Dublin, with all its bustle and life, is but an hour's drive beyond. The sun seeks its path through the clouds. Its shaft is like a beam from heaven, as though God searched creation.
There's a spirit in these mountains that cries for freedom. The foreigner never touched it. He raised cities and walls against it. The cities reached out their roads to trample it. Nothing dismayed that spirit, neither kindness nor crowbars. It drove the foreigner mad for liberty, or wicked to stamp that liberty out. In the mist it hangs, it seeps below in the suck of turf. And I cannot stand here but I feel it in my bones, the urge to seek and be who I am.
But if I close my eyes I conjure the sea, and I'm far, far out, released from my bounds, riding the billowing waves. I feel it in the pit of my stomach, the thrill of the deep, and the mystery of the deep reaching up to take me.
There is a legal nicety between residence and domicile. Residence is wherever you happen to live: domicile is where you hope to die. Well, my domicile is down there, within the salt of the waves, in the shadow of these hills, half lost and half found, next door to my city, between the mountains and the sea.