as the motor cools
startled sheep voice silence
wisps of men
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:
the mountain rings out
He walks / the bloody tower /with his head /tucked / underneath his arm / at the midnight ho-our.
shaking with laughter
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:
rusty and twisted
castors still spinning
mounted on a donkey
king for a day
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.
in the cloud-roofed cottage
a white-haired boy
“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:
flies on sheep-shit
a handsome bedstead
corsetted with twine
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.
placid now in summer
dallies in green shade
these bones lovingly gathered
my friend the enemy
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.
and the vanished
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.
afterwards the empty plate
a crumbled serviette
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.
the empty water-font :
pouring rain outside
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”.
“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.
stump of a stone supplicant
lost in grass
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.
two thin-shanked wayfarers
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.