Sunday, March 30, 2008


(Coeden Ar Yr Mynydd)

as the motor cools
startled sheep voice silence

We sit motionless for quite a while, absorbed in that sense of presence, lively mountain quiet welling up.
kin -
lichened stones
wisps of men

There’s something I want to show him, and no better man to value it as I do. Shorn ewes cry out to scattered lambs as we make our way upward amongst them.

Here on summer evenings in a vanished world we gathered around a windup gramophone. Why do I remember only females present - mother and three sisters, never brothers, nor Da? He would have driven us here, up the long lane, past the tin shack where a Famous Lady stayed, past the standpipe we fetched water from. Curiously little sense of a me, but of a being-suffused with the waft and tang of turf and wood smoke, spicy sweetness of gorse, aromatics of crushed bracken, pine-ooze, oily reek of sheep. And a sense of space deeper, fuller…out of which a new listening:

in the clang of an empty bucket
the mountain rings out
The sound I recall most clearly came disembodied from the horn of that gramophone. Was it a music-hall song? I patch together a few phrases of the lyrics. To my amazement he recognizes them and adds the tune. We cavort, intoning

He walks / the bloody tower /with his head /tucked / underneath his arm / at the midnight ho-our.
sheep stare :
dancing skeletons
shaking with laughter

I’m not surprised by the sorry state the old place is in. I’d heard about the fire and knew the roof had fallen. Too close to the encroaching city now. Cider-drinking youths maybe, jumping the reservation for a weekend under the stars, daring the darkness, awakening to embers, drenched in dew. They also sought eden, some fragment of lost oneness to keep close, like the miraculous medal they go on wearing though faith’s long dead. Blame them. A fire that leapt too high. They brought their own flaming sword. You’re barred.

Pointing out where the stove and the table had been, where we’d slept and so on, I’m conscious that he knows of many such in Wales, with grim stories to tell, and had told them well, tried to keep old names of family and place alive in his writing:

matrimonial bed
rusty and twisted
castors still spinning

But as I do so, I’m realizing that this shell of a house is now less real than those memories revisited when need arose, and which glow rich as stained-glass panels in the shadows. And if they fail me there are fadographs:
the little prince
mounted on a donkey
king for a day
Yet I linger in the actual, looking and listening, while he wanders outside. This is where it started, the call already answered here. Symbol and element alive in one another, indivisible. Ordinary sacramentals. Fire of fire. Water of water.

Nettles have colonized the bedroom. In a corner lies a sheep-fleece yellow as sour cream. Days spent here reading, torrential rain hammering on the tin roof. Then emerging, and in sunlit silence hearing that mysterious roar, and being told its name: O’Toole’s Buttermilk, a thundering cascade of flood-water and foam, and having it pointed out to me, between Maulin Mountain and Ton Duff, across the valley.

Squatting by the hearth in the living room I find a roof-nail lying on a fire-brick, miraculously rust-free. It’s long, square-headed, quite possibly hand-forged. That’ll do.

dreaming still
in the cloud-roofed cottage
a white-haired boy

My companion eyes me as I emerge. Together in silence we gaze down into the vast bowl of the valley, the mountain floating in space on the far side, that benign quiet welling up around us, oceanic. I feel it again as that boy felt it for the first time in this place. Immersion. And in the face of all that has passed between, licence here and now, sanction to let slip the moorings and to simply ¾

“It won’t do, you know”, he says. “Not anymore”. The soft tone belied by his sharp glance. I’m startled, and to my surprise, angered. I’m about to argue. He points to the ground:

Such blue!
flies on sheep-shit

We descend, me rueful, he whistling that tune - with his head/tucked/underneath his arm - to the makeshift gate:

One leg over
a handsome bedstead
corsetted with twine

The hostel gleams whitely in the mid-week quiet. An uncle of mine built it, though I wonder at the grandiose claim even as I make it. It was he loaned us the cottage. Master-tailor to the great and good, half-blinded with a knitting needle by one his three daughters. No sons - was it this drove him to such manly labour? I dimly remember a vigorous irrascible man who swore colourfully and wore well-cut tweeds. A stylish eye-patched buccaneer. From a poor background if I remember rightly, mightily ambitious, with a portly Jewish partner whose daughter seemed to a boy sweating one summer in the factory to be the embodiment of sensual allure. His business thrived, and as the family moved to ever grander and remoter houses, so his wife - my mother’s older sister - sank deeper into melancholia. Remember too a word, sour on my mother’s lips, that came strange to a child’s ear -‘cabbage’ - off-cuts from the tailor’s bench for us poor relations

My ramblings are cut short by the arrival of a camper-van. German plates. A young man carefully reads the notice on the closed gate, approaches us and asks how can he ring Ireland. Pardon? The international country code.

a thousand miles and more
to be right here


We drive on up the valley. I’m not sure what next. A walk is called-for, but I’m still enfeebled from the night before. He, on the other hand, for all his three-score-and-ten plus, is rarin’ to go. Old mountain goat.

What’s that, he asks, as we enter Glencree. See for yourself. Deutscher Kriegs Friedhof. He takes in every detail as we enter - the teutonic gate, the revetment lodge, the casements of its window slanted for raking gunfire - then with sure instinct heads off to the side. Yin to balance so much yang.

the foaming torrent
placid now in summer
dallies in green shade

We walk among the nameless and the named of two world wars…soldiers, sailors, seamen, fliers…officers and common men, and wonder at their being here. On a column is chiselled a poem in rhymed couplets, doggerel but good. I recognize the poet’s name. He was a teacher at our primary school. Did he know my uncle? To each his own labour of love, in this same valley.
scattered in battle
these bones lovingly gathered
my friend the enemy

Sons of the Fatherland, mothered in the soil of three-quarters neutral Eire.

Another fadograph - Da shot by a street photographer with his cardboard suitcase on the way to Belfast, glad of the work, building Lancaster and Stirling bombers, returning in a trilby hat and bogart overcoat, a man about his business.

Closing the formidable gate after us, the latch doesn’t quite engage. It looks of a different make, a simpler device, local maybe. Irritating to some, and cause for condemnation of us sloppy Irish. But he reminds me that Persian carpet-weavers always leave an imperfection in their intricate designs, to save us from a greater error.

Leaving the car, we enter the village on foot. Four houses in the crook of the road, chief amongst, austerely impressive with its cut-granite stone walls and columned door, the former youth hostel. He looks around. “Slightly…spooky, isn’t it?”

Synge thought so. Visiting the area in the early 1900’s, he records: I have seen the people going to Mass in the Reformatory and the valley seems empty of life…the sense of loneliness has no equal…the silence is so great three or four wrens that are singing near the lake seem to fill the whole valley with sound…

What was it Basho said? …the loneliness here / is superior to Suma’s.

Uta-makura - to travel in search of them, little clusters of words, fewer, fuller, only to give up and be found by them, and by those of others along the way, until finally in nothing, all. End of ruminative passage, as that other who roamed these hills, a boy with his father, might have said. Beckett tramped this country without ceasing all his life perhaps, though he got out… And if I went back to where all went out and on from there, no that would lead nowhere, never led anywhere.

Shade and a large sign welcomes visitors to the Reconciliation Centre.

“It’s to do with the North, peace-making, bridge-building”. The North: our fourth green field, their corner of a foreign land forever England’s.

After the confines of the village, the openness of a huge courtyard. “This place could accommodate an army!”

We’re facing a line of modern single-storey buildings, office-like, but behind us is the former barracks, two long narrow blocks built parallel, east-facing, the nearest carefully restored, behind a cavernous ruin. A yellow-breasted wagtail flutters by its crumbling plaster, feeding on the wing. “A barracks? Here?”

Out with halberd/out with sword/on we go for by The Lord
Fiach Mac Hugh has given the word …

I make a fair fist of the tune but most of the words of the old rebel song elude me. 1798, the year of the great republican uprising, last common cause of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. The old septs of O’Byrne and O’Toole - not to forget the legendary Michael Dwyer - held out in these Wicklow hills as outlaw rapparees had done for centuries before them, raining fire and pillage on the Dublin Pale. Redcoat troopers and engineers hemmed them and harried them with a network of barracks and roads.

“Tea and a scone, Bombardier?” Stiffly he leads us in, this onetime Artillery man, but with manly fortitude we restrain base appetite and scan the history displays.

From barracks to reformatory. A word to shudder at, in the best of times, and they were not the best of times. Upwards of three hundred boys, frequently cut off from the world by snow, minded by The Brothers. O Mi. After the redcoats, the black. Books of ghastly revelations, presented in evidence. Our very own green gulag. Didn’t happen here, of course. Here the boys, illiterate miscreants, were taught useful trades. Let us now praise virtuous men. They created a self-sufficient community in the wilderness. Even had gaslight. Who is to judge? “The boys reclaimed 100 acres”. Granite and bog.

Kindred -
and the vanished

Once, this area was called Glincry.

Bernard Young aged 13, upon being convicted of Petty Larceny, bare-foot and in rags, escorted by a constable across the Featherbed Mountain from Rathfarnham Jail to begin his sentence in Glencree: the sepia photograph shows a tall cross on a hillside, inscribed with his name and the legend Frozen To Death March 3rd 1870. The frieze-coated, hobnailed constable presumably survived.

delicious devil-cake
afterwards the empty plate
a crumbled serviette

I ask in the tearoom where the cross is situated. She doesn’t know, but knows a man who does. My companion goes off to explore the church . I take a turn around the courtyard while I wait. May Peace Prevail on Earth in half a dozen tongues. Identity’s defined by difference.

Perhaps he’s the caretaker. On the white tablecloth as we speak, the mortice lock he’s carried in with him, complete with keys. For some reason it’s painted red.

“The cross, no, it’s never been found. The Brothers ordered it off the mountain when they left. We can get nothing out of them. We’re still looking though.” He’s trying to piece it together, unearthing stories from locals. “They say that when the boys were filing past, coming or going to the fields, they’d try to put ointment on them.” And tells me that an old man, once a shepherd here, wants to come in and talk.

In the church my patient friend is admiring a dressed granite column. Did I go to Mass here when we holidayed down the valley? No, we went to a sunny hillside church whose name remains, I realize, a murmur of childish delight - Curtlestown. It was my mother’s dying wish to be buried there, but they were not the best of times, either.
I do remember one visit - yes, that’s right! - in the Centre’s early days, what was it called - The Mustard Seed Festival. Grizzled hippies, starry-eyed new-agers, alternative technologists without an umbrella amongst them. It was grim then, pamphlets piled on every pew, anti-birth control, anti-abortion, anti-EEC.
stone cold
the empty water-font :
pouring rain outside

But this is light and airy, beautifully repainted, and not a tract in sight.

In a niche is a statue of the Infant of Prague. It’s mass-produced, conventional plaster, mawkish if you will, but the symbolism…a standing child crowned as a king holds the orb of the world in the palm of his extended left hand, the right raised in a mudra of fearlessness.

“Yes, often in Irish homes, usually in the fanlight above the hall door”.

“Out of sight, out of mind”.

A discussion on religious symbolism and imagination ensues, how such forms as these arise and how differently regarded East and West, whether as solidly real or as rainbow appearances pointing us beyond and back again. And never mistake the pointing finger for the moon. Mostly it’s me blathering on.

He’s looking vacant-eyed yet tensed. I know that look. “Yes!” He snaps his fingers and points to it. “Prague…now I have it . Post-modern novel, the floating world, that sort of thing, no fixed reference points, set somewhere in Eastern Europe, one character a nasty piece of work, STASI trained interrogator, Party hatchet-man before the Wall came down…” He’s pacing up and down the aisle gesticulating - I hope no-one comes in - strides back to the statue and gazes at it - …yes, that’s right, he turns to gangsterism and he’s on the run, cornered, paranoid. Starts getting flashbacks. Remembers raiding a house in the 50’s, an old woman, her son was a dissident in hiding, he slaps her about and as he’s trashing the place he smashes one of those - yes, I couldn’t picture it, us Protestants, we smashed them centuries ago! - but what gets him is the look of pity in her eyes as he smashes it. It enrages him. He kicks shit out of her and leaves her for dead”.

Yeh? So?

“I haven’t finished.. He’s caught, not sure by whom, it’s left unclear, anyway what they do is inject him him up with lsd laced with strychnine so he’ll go mad before he’s poisoned. So he’s in the horrors, jerking back and forth between his childhood and his nights in the STASI cellars stroking dissidents, hallucinating hellishly, you get the picture, he remembers the old woman and then sees this child standing in front of him. It’s holding a flaming coal in its left hand, not holding - the palm is open, and beckoning to him with the right. The pain of holding it is obviously excruciating, but the child bears it somehow, out of compassion for him. Then he realizes - the child is him!”

“It’s the world, isn’t it, the coal I mean”.

“Well obviously”. He’s impatient with my banal interruption.

“Yes“, I persist, “It‘s the Buddhist thin, the Buddha‘s Fire Sermon…how does it go?”

“I’m on a roll here, let me finish…the kicker is he doesn’t die. He’s left paralysed, transformed somehow, yet utterly dependant”. And then he doubts, thinks the whole thing’s utterly grotesque, religious flummery glorifying the perverse love of the victim for its abuser…”

“Extraordinary. But it’s all in the telling. Does he pull it off, the author I mean?”

“Well, did he?” He gives me his sly zen smile.


I promised him a walk, and a walk he shall have to Loch Bray, where Synge was cut off in a white silent cloud…the silence so great and queer, even weazels run squealing past me on the side of the road .

But steps leading down into the gorge delay us a while, by the grotto wherein is displayed a devotional card: The Child of Innocence 1985-1988. It continues. Heroic sanctity at three years of age. It’s too glued together with damp to make out anything else.
tripping -
stump of a stone supplicant
lost in grass
Heading up, we pause to take in the magnificent view down the valley. Primeval oak once covered all this, then it became a royal deer park where troublesome wood-kerne too, were to be hunted. And somewhere down there was St Molin’s Well. Peace be on him and may peace prevail.

And so we go at it again, hammer and tongs, me defending, he the devil’s advocate. You be Di-Di, I’ll be Go-Go.

I scan the skyline as we walk, looking for it but of course in vain, the tree that Beckett saw while tramping up here as a boy, the dead one for a moment bursting into leaf ,
against the buried sky.

icy rain
two thin-shanked wayfarers
We drive back toward the city along the valley’s southern flank at the foot on Maulin Mountain. I look out for a glimpse of Knockree and the cottage but can’t see it for the trees. Rounding a bend on the forest road
mirrored in a puddle
a leaping fawn

Famous Lady: Rea Mooney, renowned Abbey Theatre actress.

Fadograph: From James Joyce‘s ‘Ulysses‘

:Synge, John Millington: Irish playwright, from his travel diaries around 1900.

Di-di and Go-go: Vladimer and Estragon, 2 characters from Waiting for Godot. Beckett walked hereabouts with his father with whom he had a very close relationship. Many references to these landscapes appear in his work, and it’s thought that the tree in Godot was one he’d noted near Glencree. The phrase ‘buried sky’ is also his.

Uta-makura: So far as I know, this Japanese phrase literally means ‘poem-pillows’. I came on it in a commentary on Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, the original haibun. On his travels, Basho clearly attached great importance to visiting not alone shrines and beauty-spots but also places where others had written haiku, a sentiment I share, whatever form the writing has taken.

Coened-ar-yr-Mynnyd: I have given the Welsh translation of the title of this haibun in acknowledge of the work of my companion in this piece, particularly his admirable collection ‘Stallion’s Crag’ which is the source of the haiku matrimonial bed/rusty and twisted/castors till spinning quoted herein.

Troublesome wood-kernes: Rebellious Irish

Deutscher Kriegs Friedhof: German War Cemetery

Mudra: Gesture, from the Sanskrit.

O mi: The Order which set up and ran the Reformatory were the Oblates of Mary Immaculate - OMI. The man I’ve called the caretaker told me of anecdotal evidence which suggests that abuse occurred and that one case had been taken against the Order locally but was settled out of court. The Oblates closed the Reformatory in 1940 and set up another in Daingean Co Offally.

Green gulag: The widespread abuse which occurred in reformatories, industrial schools and residential homes throughout Ireland, both religious and state-run, is currently being investigated by a Tribunal of Enquiry. So many are the claims coming forward that it is estimated it may take ten years and more to complete its work. Allegations about the regime at Daingean and other institutions run by the Oblates feature prominently.

by Jim Norton
Dublin, Ireland

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