Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Adventures in Ireland 2: The pilgrim's mountain, Irish hyperreality and the island sanctuary

On Lughnasadh Sunday we walked up Croaghpatrick, the mountain from which the notorious St Patrick is supposed to have banished the snakes from Ireland ('What's that guy got against reptiles anyway?'). Over 15,000 people (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8204987.stm ) go up every year on that one day, and you can believe it – the long track is as busy as the Old Kent Road. It was a pretty unpleasant climb, especially after we ascended into the fog and rain, but an incredible spectacle: people of all ages and dress styles, being helpful towards each other. An old man with two sticks fell in front of me, and people gathered round to help him up, I got one of his sticks back to him, and he proceeded another three steps before falling again. And it didn't stint on weirdness: up on the summit, in fog, a speaker system blared out Mass and the confession queue snaked up to the tiny stone church. On the way back down I saw a little old man in suit and tie and brogues, strolling up the scree-strewn path as if it was just another trip to Mass in his Sunday best. Back down and soaked to the skin after a four hour round trip, we drank comforting stout in the pub at the foot of the track.

We stopped for a meal on the way back, a hotel in Westport, the nearest town to Croaghpatrick. Donal came out with a perfect description of Irish tourist hyperreality: 'This place is a bit diddly-I’.

The next day was the Bonniconlon Agricultural Show, the local highlight of the year. It was fun, and definitely not diddley-I – sheepdog trials, horse jumping, cattle, sheep, goats, boxty to eat, what looked like the remains of a turf turning demo, a dog show, fairground rides for kids, water-collecting and field drainage systems, turf-stripping machines, a sheaf throwing contest which went on all afternoon, a fiercely anti-British IRA stall, and even a stress-relief masseuse from the local town who was having to work hard to convince the locals of the benefits of her craft.

The final couple of days we spent around the neolithic burial complex of Loughcrew Cairns, recommended to us as the less touristy version of the Boyne Valley passage graves. Not fancying another satnav adventure, we navigated map in hand to the general area, then disappeared into the maze of local roads. Wondering where we were going to stay the night, we suddenly spotted by the road a sign saying ‘Parking and Camping, open till 6’. It was 6.20, and the gate was still open, so we pull in and asked – and yes, not only did we have a place for our tent tonight but we’re right at the foot of the Slieve na Calliagh, the Hill of the Sorceress, the range of hills that start dramatically up out of a gently rolling landscape, topped by the Loughcrew Cairns.

So we sat by our tent, cooking and eating, watching the poachers go out a few minutes after the staff left the buildings, two lads on a quad bike, one of them with a shotgun. Some time and a few detonations later, they returned with a bulging bag. We walked up the main hill, where the most impressive tombs are, and saw the best sunset I’ve ever seen bar none – like a grid of red-hot steel mesh or flowing molten metal stretched across the sky.

The next day was for walking and magic. My Statement of Intent was: To experience ecstasy, to be taken out of myself.
Which I was.

Back in Britain, the following weekend was the riots. I thought of the crannog we saw in Lough Talt, a tiny artificial island sticking up from the water. It was some Bronze Age family's sanctuary from their bandit neighbours, complete with secret steps under the water level, the route known only to the kin who built it. Imagine, what a palaver to go through, to avoid robbery of your scarce and tiny resources – a few scrawny animals, on a pile of rocks. That's what life can be like when times are hard and there's no effective law.

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