Something in the cool, sun-stippled hazel grove I don’t understand – a low wall made of dressed stone, large thin flat slabs, no mortar, but packed with small stones to bind them. Then the remains of a lower wall running up against it, making the corner of a rectangle. I pull away moss and earth, and find a stone-paved floor, the hazel bushes growing up through it. I want it to be a fort or an ancient lookout, in line with the crannog, the tiny island fort, in the estuary below, but the fact it’s not circular, the way it’s set into the lee of the hill, makes me think it must be an old stone cabin, how old I don’t know, but it would have been inhabited by Gaelic speakers who cut hay on the two hidden meadows further up the hill, or grew potatoes or oats on them.
It’s a hot, sunny July day, very peaceful in the grove’s green shade. I look out over the Gweebarra Estuary, its shoal of little grassy islands, cows grazing on the roshin – a delta-shaped peninsula with a long thin sandy isthmus. It’s a place I’ve known since early childhood: mysterious and very beautiful, like the sand dunes across the estuary, running along the edge of the Atlantic. The marram grass in front is broken by one huge hollowed-out dune like a great natural amphitheatre, except it must be the work of the tribe who lived there in the sixth century. That area, Crooghastuckan, between Lettermacaward and Dooey, is known as the Scratchings and is the site of a vanished settlement of the early Christian era. As a child in the Fifties I’d go out with friends and find horses’ teeth, packed oyster, mussel and clam shells, then sometimes bronze and iron pins, bits of ancient Celtic jewellery. One hot afternoon I uncovered a charred piece of wood with two verdigris teeth sticking through it. I ran to show it to my mother – ran through the heavy shifting sand, tripped, and as I clenched it, the little bit of dry wood melted to dust. Disappointed, I clutched the two bronze teeth, which may survive somewhere in a drawer in my parents’ cottage a few miles away in Narin.
Another day when we were out in that scooped windblown dune, a friend of my mother’s uncovered a beautiful bronze pin with a little circle at the top. Being a good Southern Unionist, she presented it, not to the National Museum in Dublin, but to the Ulster Museum in Belfast. Then in 1959, a team of archaeologists from the National Museum excavated the site and found over two thousand items – iron pins, ring brooches, belt buckles, bronze pins and buckles. Many of the bone artefacts were beautifully carved, and among them was a small, finely decorated piece of antler, carved in panels that were filled with scroll-work – chevrons and marigolds. It is now regarded as one of the earliest Irish motif pieces, so that hollow dune is the source for me of pastness and the chanciness of happening on something beautiful or strange, and then missing it.
I go back into the hazel grove – cool, slightly myth-touched, its long silvery-copper trunkless branches and round green leaves have taken over the hillside and are spreading over the lower meadow. Yes, the hill is coming down with hazel, as Paul Muldoon says. I’ve brought a bow saw with me and I begin cutting away some of the tall wands. Should I be disturbing this place? In among the stones, as I lift them, are a few large torpid worms which I put in the shopping bag I’ve brought. There’s a lough – Namanalagh: Lough of the Gracious People – just over the hill and I know there are trout in it: tiny trout probably, because it’s near a pine plantation, making the water acidic, which means the trouts’ bones don’t grow. But the lough with the big trout is on the other side of the plantation, so why aren’t they affected? Local lore has it that the trout feed on freshwater shrimps there and grow huge in that reed-rimmed, weedy, almost unfishable lough.
I go back down the steep track, planning to fish one lough or the other. When I reach the house I find the postman has put some mail through the bedroom window, among it a Jiffy bag with a book in it from a Dublin friend, John, the nephew I recall of the Unionist doctor who found that bronze pin all those years ago. In the book, Trees of Ireland: Native and Naturalised, I read under Hazel: ‘Fruit, a true nut, egg-shaped, up to 2cm long, pale green becoming brown with woody shell, enclosed in deeply and irregularly lobed involucre, nuts solitary or in clusters.’ I like the Joycean pedantry of that word for husk, ‘involucre’. Hazel is the tree of knowledge, ‘noble of the wood’, its Irish vernacular name is ‘coll’, and it is the letter C in the ogam alphabet. If I’m inside this grove I’m also outside it, for I don’t know Irish, only a few words I’m nervous of mispronouncing. Yeats makes a lovely glance at writing an English that seems to have been translated out of Irish in:
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
If the trout is a poem, the wand is knowledge of the land and people: it’s beautiful and apparently artlessly simple, but beyond it is that blood and soil stuff – ‘Master of the still stars and of the flaming door’ – that disturbs me with its chthonic vibrations. I read in the Irish Times that Ken Maginnis, a Unionist MP whose courage I admire, has just said that Sinn Fein is ‘unable to shake off its commitment to the narrow irredentist nationalist philosophy of the late 19th century’, and that it ‘overtly displays those traits which are the very antithesis of modern republicanism’. On the other hand, Dennis Kennedy has just described the Northern Irish state under Unionism as a ‘democracy’. The statelet was not a democracy, it was a holding operation which its founding fathers, Carson and Craig, thought would last only thirty years beyond 1921.