Friday, November 20, 2009

Downpatrick & cauliflower soup

"Thriving, tolerant little town;" "a dismal place"; "the pub scene seems almost inadequate for a town of around 10,000." So Footprint, Moon, and MTV guidebooks weigh in on Patrick's home base. There for the first time, I stayed as my hosts commented in "Downpatrick's most desirable residential neighborhood," according to the signs around what was a still expanding estate, pushing the town past ten thousand surely.

Two of its desirable residents hosted me after my conference at Maynooth. Again, as with my Drogheda entry, this now being the North, I will keep a bit of discretion as my host's a journalist, if a determinedly "non-political" one in his contributions. He and I met of all places on the side of Loughcrew's middle cairn, in what soon became a lashing windstorm full of pelting (to me) rain. After our visit, we descended the hill, paid our farewells to my Maynooth fellow-travellers, and sped off towards Co. Down.

I'd never seen it except from a train or bus or car rushing Belfast-Dublin. From the upstairs window of my room, I could see the Mountains of Mourne, and the Irish Sea's silvery slivers. That night, my jet-lag awakening me reliably at 4 a.m., I sat on my bed in full moonlight, courting lunacy, the night after All Hallow's Eve.

Crows-- who reminded me of Maynooth somehow and of preachers in their Irish word "préachán"-- I never see back home. I used to, farther inland, but closer to L.A. itself, they never seem to be there. Perhaps they need seeds or farms or rural grasses? Shows how much I know. They flew all about below when I next looked down that morning, the fading auburn mercury lamps all around the desirable estate. Two fingers stretched into the hills, the rest of the scene that night full of darkness.

On my arrival, soaked still to the bone despite long johns under jeans, I was invited by the lady of the house for cauliflower soup. She had read my wife's blog entry "Editorless" that weekend, written while I was at Maynooth, and I had no idea of it yet. My spouse had related back to them-- see her paragraphs 1 & 2-- my own laundry list of forbidden foods and they delighted in teasing gullible me about my taboo provender.

I answered politely that indeed I had eaten cauliflower the other night at my other host's table. It was true. She then laughed. Luckily, it was curry readied hot. That embarassment over, even in my waterproofed jacket somehow getting damp, I escaped upstairs. I took a welcome shower, and then, as with my previous and future hosts in Drogheda that trip, started chatting and likely never let up.

This time it was near midnight when we stopped talking about the baffling appeal of Snow Patrol, John Waters (the Irish journalist and not the Baltimore auteur), the tourist industry, risk homeostasis, the prognosis for the Irish language, the abuse by a local Brother, the nightlife or lack thereof locally (MTV: "few places to really let loose" and while bustling by day "not as feisty as Belfast"), novels of all sorts, jobs and their lack, coverage of a hanged man from a Bangor bridge, Spain, and the traffic ('lots of tractors'-- my host this time) between there, where was work, and home, thus the expanding desirable estate.

To my interest, the miles were about the same as between my work and home in a place where population neared two tens of millions, and the commute, my freeways vs. their two-lane roads, proportionately similar too. We drove to the city's historic center and passed Denvir's, where I found out the pavement in front was a safe territory for escaped prisoners from the jail-- now the County Museum with waxworks inmates-- up the street. I looked up later, curious about the surname, and found indeed descendents of this very family founded Colorado's Mile High City.

Locally, along the Patrician route, the sights were seen rapidly. I'd long been familiar with the (set there ca. 1900) "tombstone," of late date however as is much associated with the patron saint, at the C of I cemetery outside a rather small cathedral. The Judge's seat, tellingly, showed how small a separation between established church and state was in the 1800s when the interior was restored, freed of medieval taint, to British standards. All pews with boxes, for a few families, you could tell even centuries ago how small the Plantation gentry were in numbers over the natives down whom they looked upon by the river, where the Catholic church loomed larger. There's an Irish, English, and Scotch street, so the old neighborhoods could be discerned, the long sectarian divisions.

John de Courcy came up often in conversation. He'd destroyed a native monastery nearby, so here he built Inch Abbey around 1177. But, the Cistercians, who tended to be adjuncts of the Norman supplanters, kept the natives from joining their foundation on the River Quoile, a very handsome 12th c. site reminding me of the Order's tendency both to situate its monasteries near water and their predilection to despoil local lands to get their abbeys into the best locations possible, this one within safe sight of the Mound of Down and the city center's fortifications in case trouble arose a mile downstream.

De Courcy with his 22 horsemen and 300 foot soldiers full of shock and awe also brought-- I bet not without struggle-- the supposed remains of Patrick from rival Armagh here, to bury alongside those claimed to be of SS. Columcille and Brigid. A far-fetched boast to me, but to medieval pilgrims, a tourist attraction. The Mound of Down, an ancient site, on one side, the Hill of the three saints now the complementary eminence, over the island's venerated triumvirate.

A short distance from town, Saul ("sabhal='barn'" in Irish) in the commemorative year 1932 had its C of I chapel, in a stylishly austere manner, erected where Patrick was said to have been granted by Dichu his first sanctuary-- after Patrick boasted that the chieftain's dogs could not bark so as to threaten a True Believer. Nearby, my host and I climbed (while his wife sat in the car) a hill where Patrick's statue towered over a lovely vista, sea in all directions. I admired the triangular peak far off, Slieve Donard. It immediately grabbed my attention, and like Slieve Patrick in Mayo, must have been long a pilgrimage site long before any saint came to eliminate pagan ritual or Celtic custom. On this little knock, also called Slieve Patrick, there too had been set up in 1932, a kind of papal counterpart to the Saul chapel. Mass was said there, back then ca. 432 in legend but probably, judging from the prominence, in fact to symbolize the Christian triumph. I thought of the story from on the road to Tara the day before about the modern Buddhists who had buried, reverting to an earlier faith than even their childhood Catholicism, the snakeskin on that hill in defiance of the saint and his fabled expulsion of the serpent.

In that restored, dignified chapel where he started the priestcraft that ensnared Ireland for 1500 years, my hosts were married. I read later its font was salvaged, if nothing else, from an early ecclesiastical foundation there, and as in Drogheda, rumors of Augustinian canons haunted sites now cleaned up and made into the State church, just as the Latin rite once had been set in place over the natives. My hosts were locals; although he grew up first in West Belfast as a child and then Coleraine, his wife was a Downpatrick homegirl. His family had come from a nearby port, and his surname marked him as one who stayed by the shore's wall pursuing the catch. How long must a clan have lingered in a place to earn that as their name? A generation? Five? Ten? Now, he and I both on our own had struggled to learn Irish again, lost by our clans a greater part of a century before our birth.

I noted how their accents had respectively differed from my Belfast-bred host down the motorway. I caught a softer tinge in his cadence and her lilt. I marvelled how varied were such distinctions, compared to my flat, unadorned California-but-nothing-really, absence of a dialect, speech. But, for them, I wondered if I too sounded foreign, strange, exotic. I doubt it.


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