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.
It’s high summer but the political process continues, always with a desultory, slightly phony quality as political commentary oscillates between anxiety and maybe unearned certainty that some irenic structure is locked in position. It’s hard to make out but Ken Maginnis appears to be isolated for suggesting that Sinn Fein ought not to be excluded from the next round of talks. If I keep coming back to politics, I also keep trying to lose myself in this estuarial place with its mountains, wetlands, long empty strands, bogs and multiplying loughs. This is my fifth visit since last summer, soon – or soon enough – I may be back for good. There’s a ten-foot tall bright green Statue of Liberty in front of a bungalow with a giant sunporch further down the Gweebarra River: it proclaims a returned Yank who has made his pile. His over-the-top – ‘I’ve made it and I’ve made it back’ – boastfulness is a traffic hazard and a lesson. I’m watching a wren in the heat of the day. It stretches its wings out on an old joist by a cement mixer and presses its breast down on the warm board. A text comes into my head – ‘The kingdom of God cometh not with observation’ – and I begin to imagine the estuary and the land around it as composed of vanishing creaturely percepts. That kingdom or republic certainly doesn’t come with opinion, but observation has to be more than a deadening positivism – Clare’s poems, Hopkins’s poetry and notebooks take us beyond the eye pinning down observed details like so many butterflies.
I walk over the road and go down a stony track through a shivering, suthering reed-bed, past an old lime kiln and out onto the wide estuary. It’s low tide and baking hot, unusually so for Donegal. I notice that dozens of lugworms have crawled out of the wet sand to sun themselves. Reddish-brown, spined, thicker at one end, they lie curled still in tiny pools. I hear the coorli coorli cry of the curlew, the precise clattering cry of oyster-catchers, and push on over the roshin, a heron struggling with its silent cranking flight up ahead. At the far end, between one rocky outcrop and the shore, I find a deep pool in the grey, silty, slightly sulphurous sand – this is the Black Strand. I remember from childhood how hill folk used to come to Narin’s great sweeping strand and stand all day at the head of the strand in a sulphur spring, their dark trousers rolled up or frocks tucked into their knickers. The ‘saltwaterers’, they were called. Unlike us visitors, they never bathed, they simply took the waters, then repaired to a house, now demolished, beside the local Co-Op, or ‘Cope’, as it’s called. This area is rich in local painters and I hope one day someone will paint from memory these hill folk on the strand, Iniskeel – Church Island – behind them, beyond it Aranmore, an island I was once taken to on a yacht through a wild gale that made us sick as dogs.
There is no one about so I strip off and leap into the pool. It’s warmer than the sea and so saline that when I stop swimming I don’t sink – I just float in this hidden pool that buoys me like the Dead Sea. I’m a naked saltwaterer.
Twenty feet away, a seal’s head appears above the surface, it eyes me like a curious blubbery dog. Two more appear. I can see several others on a sand-bar, sunning themselves and looking like Inuit sculptures or tiny upturned dugout canoes. Later I walk along the edge of the roshin and watch a group of them diving and leaping in a blue lagoon. From the sand-bar come the snorting sounds they make. As I cross a small saltmarsh, two snipe fly up fast and away in a quick, panicked clatter. I’ll go back to this marsh day after day and never see these snipe again:
Lover of swamps
the quagmire overgrown
with hassock tufts of sedge – where fear encamps
around thy home alone
John Clare’s poem to the snipe, one of the most subtle and profound nature poems in the language, comes back to me and I feel like the freebooter in the poem whose Cromwellian tread disturbs the pudgy marsh. In the days that follow I’ll feel that I’ve scared these snipe off to some island or that they, like Clare, have shot off into eternity.
Further on, above the rocks I find that a bank of sandy soil has collapsed; I see the little tunnel of a sand marten’s nest and in the exposed bank are hundreds of shell fragments – mussels, clams, native oysters. Across the sand and shrunken stream that is all there is of the Gweebarra, I can see the sandy amphitheatre: a midden just like the many middens it contains. I scoop at the shells with an oyster shell and wonder if it might be worth excavating this spot. Maybe there’s a bronze pin or two buried among all these shells? I turn up some black triangular stones: what are they doing packed among the brittle shells? Is this a more recent midden dating from the Famine? There are several big iron Famine pots in the area. ‘Famine pots!’ a historian friend scoffs. ‘On my uncle’s farm they were used for boiling cattle feed. They’re not Famine pots.’ Suddenly that heavy pot that used to stand by the drainpipe seems innocent again. I was told it would likely get stolen, that a visitor from the North made off with two of them. Keeping it, I reckoned, would be like having an object from a concentration camp in your backyard. Anyway it’s better if people can see it. So I gave the little museum in Glenties the pot, not wanting to be thought of as another rapacious Northerner – or ‘Northern fucker’, as the Northern Irish can be referred to here.
I go on to the far strand, the White Strand, because here the sand is golden, not dark: it’s immense, all wet and dazzle and immense shining wideness, then the surf flashing at the tide bar. Over it are scattered cockle and mussel shells, thousands of sandy lugworm casts, white, delicate sea potatoes or furry ones like shaved cunts. Then I pick up an oyster – not a round flat native one but a Pacific oyster, gnarled, lumpy, wedge-shaped. It must have been washed out of the oyster farm, a series of metal racks somewhere over by the shore. Then I find another oyster and another. It’s a complete oyster bed, and soon I have four dozen, which I pack into my towel. A plenary line of Seamus Heaney’s about the singer David Hammond’s thatched cottage at Dooey comes to mind – ‘I say to myself Gweebarra.’ Then I think of these lines from another poem, ‘Oysters’:
Alive and violated
They lay on their beds of ice:
Bivalves: the split bulb
And philandering sigh of ocean.
Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered.
The estuary becomes a battlefield, graveyard, archaeological site, wasteland – the holocaust imagery makes nature part of history and brings out the guilty sense of violation that can accompany the act of writing. And the guilt can go with thinking about politics in this primal, unspoiled place.
All the time, back on dry land, what threads through late-night conversations – certain conversations with only certain friends – is the stalemate of the Peace. The Unionists will drag it out to May 2000 and then there’ll be no Assembly, Gerry tells me. Seamus Mallon almost broke down when he made his resignation speech to the Assembly. He was wrecked with grief. Trimble should have entered the Assembly, if only formally to withdraw. Blair and Ahern, for all their heroic devotion, mishandled the talks late on when they kept setting deadlines. A bad mistake.
I care about all this, but what’s also on my mind is my ignorance of how actually to open an oyster. I call on Aubs and give him a dozen oysters – he shows me how to pierce an oyster at the centre of the lip, cut the muscle and scoop it out. We eat several while drinking gin and tonic. Then he lends me an oyster knife and a butcher’s glove made of thin, slinky chainmail. Sinister and sexy, this glove, I tell him. ‘Oh I used to have an apron,’ he says in a camp Cockney accent, ‘but Margaret won’t let me wear it’ – I laugh at this East End butcher’s Masonic joke. I go back to our place and begin opening the oysters. I hackle them open and lay them out – alive and violated – on a metal tray. I’m thinking they are a shade salty, like the pool I swam in earlier. I decide to wash the salt off and cook them. Theodora Fitzgibbon recommends oyster soufflé – cream, breadcrumbs and lemon and 40 minutes in the oven.
Later in the day I go up through the hazel grove, over the innocent, never-cut meadows and the wilderness acres of bogland to Namanalagh. I cast out, sit down and contemplate the six or seven fir trees that lean out over the far shore of the lough. The reflected trees on the surface of the ever so slightly undulating lough are like squiggles of paint brushed over by the finely corrugated water. Somewhere over the bogland I hear a chough’s cry, a clattery, stony, ricocheting call that belongs more to the mountains. The chough is a jet black crow with a curved red beak – it’s quite rare, I haven’t seen one for years. Its cry, by the vagaries of association, brings back a line from a Belfast street song: ‘A white stone step and a clean swept floor’ – two bunches of three strong stresses, that give it an instressed, ecstatic sound. David Hammond sang that song, ‘My Aunt Jane’, to the children and adults at a party in the house a few nights before:
My Aunt Jane she took me in
she give me sweets outa her wee tin
half a bap sugar on the top
thee black lumps outa her wee shop.
The chough’s cry is clear and abrupt, not warm and joyous like this anonymous song out of oral tradition. I never catch a glimpse of the chough, but I do see a brown kestrel swoop out of the fir trees – a moment of slightly sinister authority before it disappears. Trout jump, and time – well, a couple of hours – passes with no sign of a bite. I reel in and think the ever so slight resistance must be weed, but it turns out to be a small brown trout – it has swallowed the fiendish Norwegian hook, barbed on the shaft as well as the tip, so I have to kill it. I take it back, gut it and fry it – white, not pink flesh, so not as nice.
This is our annual holiday, and as usual I set off in the boat with Michael, Niall, Arvin and Shaska to camp on Iniskeel. We land on the little strand, walk round the island, where we startle a big bouncy hare, then we pitch the tent, collect driftwood and cook over the fire. Later, when it’s dark, we toast marshmallows over the embers and look up at the stars in the bowl of night, every now and then a shooting star sparks over the blackness.
Dates get hazy, I read the Irish Times most days, but in a dwammy, distant way. Friday the 13th stands out and dominates the rest of the holiday. I get up early and drive down the coast to Sligo town – Fergal Keane has had to cancel his lecture and I’m to fill in for him. It’s misty, but I imagine the sun coming out and warming the flanks of that unique table mountain, Ben Bulben. On a clear day it’s visible across the bay from the road between Ardara and Donegal town. The mist stays and the mountain is hidden as I pass Drumcliff Church where Yeats lies buried – or maybe lies buried. After Roy Foster’s stringent and topical lecture on Yeats’s political manoeuvres during the War of Independence, I read a number of Yeats poems and try to talk about the way they sound – those three f’s softening the almost overweening martial dominance of ‘master’, ‘still stars’ and ‘flaming door’ in ‘The Valley of the Black Pig’. The New Historicism is dominant nowadays in the academy, which is more or less a good thing, except it’s short on sensuous pleasure, the touch, taste and music of the beautiful. More and more I realise how Yeats plays with labials and fricatives in ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’, how the o in the last line –‘Bid me strike a match and blow’ – is picked up by ‘Great windows open to the south’, ‘Utopia’ and ‘Dear shadows, now you know it all’.
I drive back up the coast with Roy and Aisling: as we pass through Ballyshannon we remember that Tony Blair’s mother came from this little coastal town, which is the birthplace of the poet William Allingham, who was a friend of Tennyson and whose litanies of place-names and sense of natural magic and landscape influenced Yeats. The future British Prime Minister used to holiday in Donegal as a child – in a famous hotel on the Inishowen Peninsula – and his devotion to the cause of peace in this island must be one expression of his Irish background. The drive up the West Coast, through Bundoran, Ballyshannon, Donegal town, is like some pleasant amble in a George Birmingham novel: always when I go this way I think of Ireland pre-1912, a peaceful island moving towards Home Rule. An illusion on an illusion, but the convivial peaceableness of these country towns always brings back that time.
When we get back to Ballyiriston I discover that my mother has been taken ill and is in Letterkenny General Hospital. I drive on over the hills to see her. She is in considerable pain but the doctors can find no physical cause. Her local Church of Ireland minister appears and, mistaking him for the previous incumbent, she says: ‘Ock hello Scott, I hear the new man’s not as popular as you were.’ Brushing aside her entirely typical faux pas, the minister asks her to join him in a short prayer. It’s somehow ominous and embarrassing – the doctor and the priest running across the field – and I retreat down the ward. An old woman is kneeling by her bed praying. I go back and talk to my mother, who uncharacteristically complains about the pain. My father appears and we discuss whether she should be moved to Belfast.
I drive back along the Fintown Glenties road and think how lovely the lough under Aghla Mountain is. The pine forests that surround it have grown up in my lifetime, but now they seem almost part of the landscape. I’ve known this area so long, my experience predating the many pine plantations and snowcemed and breeze-block bungalows, that I experience it ontologically (it’s the only term I can think of) as something other than its visible surface. With its windy, changing light, bogland, ocean and Bluestack Mountains, that surface is uniquely beautiful, but the rocky ontic core of the place is something other, like the fair quartzy dome of Mount Errigal.
Later that evening I learn that there has just been a terrible accident on the Fintown Glenties road. Four 17-year-old boys, driving down from Belfast, have been killed, the local family in the other car are critically injured. Day after day, this crash reverberates in our conversation: friends know the dead youths and describe waiting for them in the Narin Inn, then phoning the Garda station in Glenties. Cars, dangerous roads, crashes are in any case a constant theme in conversation. I’m swimming off the strand when I happen to see an old childhood friend, Mary, swimming more vigorously near me. ‘I totalled my car on the Pettigo road,’ she says, ‘just a week ago.’ I did the same at Halloween, I tell her. ‘It went off the road, turned upside down and began sinking into the bog,’ Mary says. ‘I couldn’t get the door open – the car was hidden from the road, so I just pushed on the horn and after 15 minutes a man – a big fella – appeared and tore the door open. Someone was looking after me.’
The car at Halloween going out of control, the road slick after a sudden shower, comes back to me when I think of that car outside Fintown spinning wildly; the other car, packed with children, stopped, waiting for the impact – a few days later one of the children dies. The road that runs along the edge of Finn Lough will always carry this memory now.
Two days later, 15 August, falls the first anniversary of the Omagh bomb. I remember the death toll mounting that Saturday afternoon, the shock of the bomb coming out of nowhere, then I remember attending a memorial service the following Saturday in the little Church of Ireland church in Ardara – the long, long, stretched moments of time as the whole island stopped in silence. That silence bit into the soul like no other I have experienced. The next day I learn of the death of the much-loved socialist politician, Paddy Devlin, and think of the last time we met – at a reception in Hillsborough Castle to honour Seamus Heaney’s Nobel laureateship. An old blind radical, he sat in the vast 18th-century dining room and talked about politics and his writing. Imprisoned as an IRA activist during the Second World War, Paddy Devlin emerged a fiercely non-sectarian politician who was briefly Minister for Health and Social Services in the power-sharing Executive headed by the Unionist Brian Faulkner. Two days later, in Belfast where my mother has been admitted to the City Hospital, I buy a copy of the Belfast Telegraph and find this notice in the deaths column:
DEVLIN, PADDY – August 15, 1999. Greatly missed, you touched my life and I will never forget. Peace perfect peace. – Stephen King, Ulster Unionist Party.
I’m in Belfast also because I’m dropping Michael at the airport – he’s flying back to England to get his A-level results on 19 August. I reflect that the big cultural divide in British society between state and private schools is like the conflict there used to be between Dissenters and Catholics, on the one side, and the Anglican Establishment, on the other. Michael says he’ll never forget sitting with his coat and scarf on in science lessons because the Tory education cuts meant Cheney couldn’t afford to run the heating. Whatever happens tomorrow, he adds, I’m glad I went through the state system. Driving back from Belfast, I reach the Ballygawley round-about beyond Dungannon, where, the day before, two young men died in yet another road smash.
I drive on through Augher, Clogher, Fivemiletown – famous litany – and reflect on the way Tricolours, Union Jacks and Ulster flags assert their different faiths. Larkin’s line about bunting-dressed coach-party annexes comes back and I realise why he was so inspired by his five years in Fifties Unionist Ulster – so fiercely British it must have felt, almost campily over-the-top British. But now – perhaps to my partial eye – the red, white and blue bunting over various main streets has a bleached, slightly faded look, the green, white and orange is richer, more confident. I am driving through the village of Tempo and thinking that that place-name might hold some sort of clue. Driving the road through Tempo: it might be the title of a Jack Yeats painting, a myth of our times, but it ain’t.