The weekend before last I was reading a book by Australian writer Tim Winton. I don’t read novels a lot these days but Wintons’ book Breathe was brilliant so I picked up a copy of The Riders and I loved that too, his characterisation of Ireland and the Irish in the early 90s was spot on. Part of that book was set in Co. Offaly in the shadow of the Slieve Bloom mountains.
As it happened, I was finishing the book while plotting a torturous route across country to Connemara in an attempt to get the best scenery for my petrol money. It is the nature of serendipity to be wonderful but also useless in terms of hard currency but it was pleasant to find that the Slieve Blooms were bang splat in the middle of my trajectory to Galway. They had to be visited.
It was a beautiful day for travelling, bright and sunny. The car wound between fiery hedges and over shimmering, petrol blue roads still striped with shadows in the late morning. Trees like chalices rose from the ditches, grey branches cupped to catch the rare, yellow warmth of the sun. A crow, black as coal, swooped up and turned as little houses, half hidden in copses alive with dancing, rusting leaves flashed by. Into green tunnels we flew, past fields toggled with Horse Chestnut trees. Soon I would see the Slieve Blooms which by now had grown great in my mind.
I have always thought that Irish mountains must seem ridiculous to outsiders in that they are often lower that foothills in most other countries, even in small nations like Scotland. That is not to say I don’t love our Irish mountains, I do but they are a bit teeny.
I approached the Slieve Blooms or where they should have been but I couldn’t actually see them. ‘If these are mountains,’ I thought, ‘they are making our Comeragh Mountains in Waterford look like the Rockies. The Irish Tourist Board would put up brown signs pointing at anything.’
But gradually the road ahead rose, like a black zipper, neat yellow stitches tacking it to the rucks and folds of the land, opening it up to the sky. To my right a mountain ash and a valley, sloping sides in shades of umber. Up ahead all is cobalt. I passed a sign for Kinnitty at a fork in the road. A piece of paper was sellotaped to it. Gina & Paddys Wedding is scrawled on it in blue, bleeding marker, a rough arrow points left.
I think for miles about Gina and Paddy, about weddings and marriage and community, things that often confuse me. These days, the more urban we become the more isolated we are and the more we look for big love in marriage, for the “one”, expecting to find that which is inside of us on the outside. But I wonder if in smaller communities marriages are different?
Gina and Paddy. In my mind’s eye she is dark-haired, a little overweight maybe. She’s not only sociable but the life and soul. Maybe she has a hair dressing “saloon” in her mothers front room, fraying stacks of Hello magazines, an ashtray on a low coffee table. Ginas always organising things, practical and fun. She’s trying to quit the fags.
Paddy is a big man with dull reddish hair. He works the land, knows all about the EU grants, hunts deer in and out of season. He wears pale checked shirts and cords. He is quieter than Gina but he likes his pints with the lads and roars at matches in the local. They are not backward or old-fashioned. Gina power walks, they holiday abroad. They have known eachother since forever.
There is no love at first sight here, no angels singing just the knowledge that they are a part of the life flowing here over the mountains, a lynchpin of their community.
Then again, maybe not…
Suddenly I am high up, just me the wind and the sky. I stop the car halfway across the plateau and get out. The air is freezing after the warmth of the car and the wind cuts my face. I jump over a boggy ditch to get a better look. In front of me lies a pond of the deepest ultramarine, a scrap of silken sky snagged and rippling in the heather. Though the sun was bright there was still some ragged scraps of mist trapped in the folds of the hillsides. The land towards the west is blurred with the distance I must cross to the more muscular mountains of Connemara.
Standing in a place like this you understand why our ancestors built their most sacred places on high ground, their Carrowkeels, their cairns and crosses. Here we are closer to ours Gods whoever, whatever they may be. Here we are closer to being at one. At peace.
I also remember what I forget when I am low down:mountains don’t need to be big to make you high.