In the first Covid lockdown of spring 2020, people in Ireland were confined to a two kilometre radius from home. Exemptions were made for carers and, if I went to see my elderly mother in the middle of the afternoon, the roads were empty of traffic and the suburban paths near her house filled with people walking to the edge of their allocated space and then back home. A handy app showed a red circle on the map with your house in the centre. Our circle landed on an amount of cold sea, and it also, by good fortune, lassoed the top of Killiney Hill, where my daily compliance brought me for a walk of forty minutes or so. This public park is so lovely, it made me feel lucky in an unlucky time. The wooded paths give way to views along the Irish coast, and if the air is clear these can stretch from the Mourne Mountains to Wicklow Head, sometimes even to Wexford, with Dublin spread below.
The spring of 2020 was sunny and still, and this fine weather seemed a compensatory gift or consolation for the trouble that had hit mankind. I went up the hill every day. I did this in the interests of my mental health and for the wellbeing of those who would have to suffer if it declined. Dutifully, I plodded to the summit and happily I walked down again. It was hard to catch the moment – perhaps by definition – but somewhere along the way I forgot my concerns. The sleight worked, every time. I wish I was doing it still.
The woods were busy with people, haloed in their own anxiety, who stood to one side to let one another pass. I walked fast, pursued by thoughts of mortality, and when these caught up with me I stopped to look down over the city, considering the many thousands of lives it held. I did not know if my heart could take it. I listened to the silence of apocalypse, as the gorse came into bloom and the spring blossom yielded one scent after another, indifferent to the humans who passed them by.
You can take the hill clockwise or widdershins, and to me it always seems right-minded to go with the clock. So that is what I did. The first sensory surprise came from a swathe of angelica, a vivid green umbellifer, quite tall, with pinkish stalks, that grew along the path towards Dalkey, in the shade of tall trees. At first, I thought it was cow parsley, a coarser, yeastier thing that we used to call devil’s bread. The scent was lovely, however, and it drew me in to check. Herbal and green, there was some celery tang in there, sharpening the florals of spring.
Angelica is edible. The stalk can be candied and used in cake-making. One variety lends its colour to the Chartreuse liqueur made by French monks since 1737 and its perfume to Angéliques sous la Pluie by Frédéric Malle. It is considered a healing plant, with many uses and benefits – indeed, it must have been much loved, to deserve such a heavenly name. I had not noticed it before, but there was something about the repetition of the walk, day after day, that required me to pay attention. When I got back home I chased it, nose-blind, across the internet, because the world had ended and I had nothing better to do.
After inhaling the angelica, it was important to keep holding your breath, because beyond it stood the park bin, rank with discarded dog litter. This was a squat guardian to the beauty around the corner, where the view opened up over Dalkey quarry and down to the sea. The path went through a kind of dell, gouged out of the hillside, a sun-warmed bowl of rock that was filled with the humming aroma of gorse in bloom.
I never liked gorse. The prickles are fractal; tiny spikes with tinier, branching spikelets, they are malice added to ire. The stuff is impossible to walk through, and so tenacious and widespread that farmers can only burn it off the land. Its pea-like blossom is too serious a yellow for me, and the coconut scent, redolent of tropical beaches and suntan oil, seems wrong in such a tough, hard-scrabble thing. Also, I don’t like the smell of coconut, unless it is coming from a coconut and that nut is still green.
But my father loved the gorse and because of it, he loved this time of year. Sunday afternoons in April we would be badgered into the car and dragged up the Dublin mountains to look at scrub and listen to adults admire it, most especially my father, a man of few words – ‘Look at that’ – whose affection for the plant was hard to fathom. When I came round the corner, with the drop of Dalkey quarry on one side and a granite cliff on the other, I looked at this small field of green and yellow and thought how much he would have liked it.
My father died some years before the pandemic, so I did not have to worry that he would catch the virus, and this was an odd kind of relief. And yet I couldn’t believe he’d missed this huge event, that he could not know what happened to the world, after he left it. He loved the news; it was, in retirement, his principal occupation. As I walked towards the flight of steps at the end of this little rocky valley, the line, ‘She should have died hereafter’ made sense to me for the first time. It’s what Macbeth says about the death of his wife, as he is preparing for his last battle, and although the logic doesn’t work in any way you could describe, I understood it now. Life and death had come so close, they seemed almost interchangeable: it was just a question of timing.
The steps go up a daunting height: maybe twenty metres in all. As I paused and looked up to the top, I caught the sweetest scent on the path so far. A small tree with dark leaves and tiny white flowers which was, I decided later, a winter-flowering box, already souring. Like all these early, insect-calling flowers, the smell held some intimation of meat and rot, despite which it was intoxicating. Some dull part of my brain had been woken by the realisation that I was alive, a fact that was constantly announcing itself, I am alive I am alive. It had something to do with the view and the rising sap of the season, but it was most suddenly provoked by the aromas of spring, corpse-like and pretty by turns, which made me rhapsodic.
There are two hills in Killiney Park. The first is Telegraph or Dalkey Hill, which in the time of the Napoleonic Wars was used as a signalling station for the chain of Martello towers along that coast. On one side of the descending ridge is Dublin Bay and on the other the curve of Killiney beach. This spot must always have been key to the defences afforded by the landscape; it feels like a powerful place to stand. This is what people do, on one or other rocky outcrop: they pause and look to sea as the path descends through red-barked Monterey pines and climbs again to the top of Killiney Hill. Near this second, higher summit is a mock antique stone chair – a wishing chair or druid’s chair – under twisty oak trees. The ferns, sprouting out of the leafmould under these trees, uncurled as I passed them, day by day.
The top is marked by a thick obelisk which was built to provide work for the poor during a now forgotten famine in 1740-41. The great famine, a century later, produced another folly nearby: a crude step pyramid much climbed by children. If you circle each level and look out to St Begnet’s church on Dalkey Island, you can make a wish, apparently. These constructions – the chair and the hungry, typhoid-weary pyramid – are Victorian kitsch set in stone, and though the ruined church looks equally invented, it is in fact an 11th-century building set on an older pagan site. It is impossible, given the primordial sweep and human scale of the view, to resist a sense of history. I look from St Begnet’s to Howth Head on the far side of the bay and the ghost ships of monks and raiders throw shadows on the water.
In April 2020 I went all medieval, not just because of the distant, ruined church, but also the ferns in the woodland, which looked, as they unfurled, like tiny bishop’s croziers. It occurred to me that the early Christians might have copied the shape, or that this sign of episcopal authority might have been borrowed from a pagan stave of some kind and not from the shepherd’s crook (that hokum) hauling us back, by the leg, to Jesus. The young fern was a powerful sign of growth and musically beautiful, in its unfolding perfection of form. Indeed, this early growth is sometimes called a crozier, or a fiddlehead, from the scroll at the top of a violin. I looked it all up, back home. For one or two rapt evenings I chased foliage through vellum manuscripts, seeing leaves uncurl on capital letters or twine along the borders of sacred texts.
The Book of Kells, the Book of Lismore, the little-known Garland of Howth can all now be seen online. This was the stuff we learned at school and immediately ignored. Ireland (as I was told at the age of six by my lovely teacher, Sister Scholastica) was a holy island, it was the Land of Saints and Scholars. Which meant nothing to me until, for one long five minutes, I thought humanity might soon be finished. In the circumstances, it seemed a good idea to look at the church of St Begnet and to see it properly, if I could.
I became addicted to my walk and addicted to the lengthening of the spring days: another five minutes one day, another three minutes the next. The ferns grew apace. As with many uncurling things, their growth obeys the mathematics of the Fibonacci sequence, in which each number is equal to the sum of the preceding two numbers. These expanding ratios are at play in the growth of many things, from nautilus shells to pine cones, from the ferns below to the phyllotactic spiral of the leaves of the oak above.
‘Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare,’ Edna St Vincent Millay wrote. It was hard to write prose during the pandemic, impossible to consider a readership, a destination, and besides, prose was too social a form for this antisocial time. But it was also hard not to write poetry, or to think in a poetical way. Returned home from the hill it was head down, one day at a time, one difficulty after another, put on the blinkers, stay calm, keep it together, keep it going, keep your old people alive, keep your young people sane, don’t look up, survive. It was a time of deep suppression and it was a time of high poetry. We were bereft and the world was beautiful.
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