Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Samhain in Monaghan

After Newgrange, the sunset hastened us up across lanes and onto dark main roads via the GPS. No idea how we'd have navigated without it. I remembered earlier trips, stopping passers-by or going to the post office to try to figure out locations. The technology had its own drawbacks, as it kept telling us the road titles in their Irish multisyllabic names we had no clue about, but eventually, after false moves and a stop at a gas station in Ballybay, followed by overshooting the drive into Cootehill, we found Killyliss Country House in blackness. A truck with German plates indicated the appeal of the local fishing, a lure this otherwise off-season. An teach mór even if it newish, owned by a horsey. genteel family. Photos of their two children filled the walls, so we could view their maturation. Prep schools in the North nearby, UCD, marriage, baby. I found the daughter's cards given her for her eighteenth birthday under a couch in the top floor attic room we stayed in. I wondered if she, now a mother I reckoned, remembered where the stash was, who sent her what when.

The house lay on a lane off a local road between the two towns. Their population was mixed between Protestants and Catholics historically, as Counties Monaghan and Cavan are very much in Ulster, partitioned only in 1922 from their affinity. With so few Presbyterians, a once-dominant faction in this area, remaining in the 26 Counties, I supposed many continued to follow the path of their forebears, looking to Britain or the Commonwealth for their future rather than the island that, at least in the South, rejected many of them. The museum in Monaghan town told their story along with many others: from the crannóg forts to medieval monks, Plantation to Partition, the Land League's demands for no rent paid to landlords to General Eoin O'Kelly's Blueshirts, the displays informed us.

Now, the market town changed. A pre-school had explanations in Chinese, Lithuanian, Russian, and Polish. The giant C of I church towered over the heavily trafficked town, while the Catholic counterpart was on a side street, looking as if it'd be the Protestant one in most Irish towns these days.

Peter's Pond lay in the middle of town, as it had on old maps in the museum. The fields were long gone around it, and we had parked on an industrial road that looked like any zone, anywhere. Many gush about the charm of Ireland, but honest observers might admit that it's also often dowdy and drab. People cannot live off scenery, and the trucks in German attested to the EU and its power now.

We had to eat out, as the b+b was that alone. Our meal in Cootehill was standard by Irish standards. We ate alone in a Frenchified brasserie in that town, where Big Pharma had a giant plant. The flax and linen industries were long gone, and the agitation that made it a Red hotbed in the Victorian era.

Our second meal was in Ballyboy. The locals knew each other. We were waited on by a young woman from Eastern Europe, but the bar pump was down. Luckily, the local Brehon red ale was tasty. But our palates, limited away from meat, meant fewer choices anywhere we went this trip.

At the next place we stayed, we had more choice as we were among friends. It was only a few miles away to Corduff, but the GPS took us a very long way. We drove in circles, the "voice" directing us to lanes and byways again, and we went three times in a loop before landing near a b+b with miniature horses outside. The elderly lady who answered our plea kindly offered us tea (we kindly declined as our friends were presumably waiting) while she guided us to the other Corduff. It turned out we were in Corduffkelly townland instead. As the crow flies, it was close. We found our way quickly-- to yet another busy crossroads of Carrickmacross. So, after spinning around it due to traffic and missed turns, we finally made it to our friend's place, a few houses spread out among fields and McMansions. There were plenty as Irish law allows anyone to build on a lot if a dwelling was there before, and many tear-downs birthed hideous houses, and many ruined cabins fell apart next to them.

One that survived its cowshed origins, converted into a handsome cottage by a family with seven children who lived around Corduff, was in Lisnafeedelly, the fort of the fiddler's townland. Our friends Tony and Sinéad bought it at a bargain price, and while their earlier choice of the house next to Patrick Kavanagh's grave in his native Inniskean would suit the poet-novelist-journalist Tony fine, the quiet of their weekend residence invited us, as it had them, to a respite from the urban hustle.

It was the first time I'd seen it, and from descriptions I expected some Famine-era, half-demolished by the peelers post-cabeen devolved from that on the Horslips' LP cover for The Unfortunate Cup of Tea.  While friends online, Layne and Sinéad had never met, so the afternoon and night and morning we spent was doubly enjoyable. You know how it is when you don't want to leave a conversation for fear of missing any of it? We talked non-stop as we were shown Kavanagh's resting place, and Tony remarked how devastated his mother had been after the priest told her that her twin babies stillborn would never be buried in consecrated ground. I agreed that the cruel scholastic logic of the Church ground down many of our ancestors, and I suppose me too in part, and we also noted that my sussing out the Presbyterian host earlier must attest to my inbred survival skills from the motherland.

Kavanagh's native townland emblazoned the headstones of his family. On some, the raw name, derived from the Irish for pig, Mucker, glowered onomatopoeically (can I ever spell that?). I felt here the feel for the rural roots that restive poet savaged as he remained stuck in them, until half into his thirties. He escaped that "fog of unknowing"--for it as much as the peasant's poverty cloaked him and his clan. His epitaph gracing that stark, humble wooden cross captures the parochial spirit that stayed with him during his years in London. Dublin, and Belfast. He drank and declined, and influenced Seamus Heaney greatly. I prefer Kavanagh, myself, to "famous Seamus," and this inscribed memorial phrase may explain why. "And pray for him who walked apart on the hills loving life's miracles."

Tony told me that there are two versions of the Collected Poems extant, due to disputes between the family who control the copyrights. This typical dissension speaks to the same battles in words and deeds which Kavanagh described in his novel Tarry Flynn and his autobiography The Green Fool. These while less heralded than his poetry, understandably, testify to the labors from one who found it impossible to romanticize what many of his colleagues in the capital had, the pain of sour isolation. How odd that the Free State censored these accounts even as his patron, the fearsome John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin, sponsored the poet with a lifetime's sinecure on its Catholic paper.

Visiting then Carlingford, we had lunch and strolled about the medieval ruins of the Thorsel assembly and the mint in this fortress town founded by the Vikings. On its long lake, almost a fjord, it boasted a crowded antique store stuffed with wonderful bric-a-brac, deserving a peek from any in the neighborhood.  The interior of the stone mint was being draped in cotton, candles, plastic pumpkins, and skeletons. We crossed what once was a border in bandit country entering South Antrim, and Tony told me how it'd be backed up regularly. Years now, the little guard hut at the frontier sat abandoned.

After a tour of Lidl, which excited Layne as similar Aldi's coming to our country soon, we ate and chatted. Sinéad and Layne in the kitchen shared recipe tips. I suspect my wife, claiming stress, had snuck some of her hostess's smokes, not for the first time this trip. Tony and I riffed from one book or author to another. I come away from any communication with him having added to my list of what to read next. Having published two poetry collections, two novels, and a novella, Tony has a knack for esoteric lore made into enjoyable tales. You can find out about his work here. He blogs at Ecopunks.

His interests, according to Layne, parallel mine more closely than anyone else. After all, we met in person in ancient Loughcrew at Samhain '09 only after he kept finding on this very blog my reviews of shared influences: The Fall, Horslips, John Moriarty, studying Irish, NI punk, Denis Johnston, and Francis Stuart, to name a few. He can sum up issues as complex as The North itself, or at least its nuances, pithily. While he and I have an awful lot in common, Layne observed that he did yard work.

We looked over his forest-in-training. He's planted a couple hundred trees on land that will replace what Planters might have uprooted centuries ago to build ships for the Crown. After dusk, we went outside and watched the shadowy fog roll in from the south over the fields. It came towards us, but it did not overtake us. Instead, it dissipated before it met us, or else we were shrouded without knowing.

(P.S. This photo resembles what we saw on that Samhain eve. Graham McPherson, from Somerset.)

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