In Ireland, climbing the summits of the national literature


In Sligo, Ireland, mountain guide John Paul Ryan points toward Sligo Bay and the tiny steeple of Drumcliff Church, in whose cemetery poet William Butler Yeats lies buried. (Raymond M. Lane)
May 29

Another rainbow formed and then began dissolving slowly, not above, but below us.

The gauzy half-circle hung motionless in a long, deep valley. Threads of lightning flickered a time or two from a black thunderhead crawling over the valley floor. We never heard the thunder.

Perhaps five miles toward the valley head was a thin blue lake, and beyond, a bristle of black-green trees girdling the farther lower hillsides. At least three streams traced paths down the lumpy mountainsides, a lacy damask fingering toward straight-drop waterfalls that led to the lake and its little river draining into the bay to the west.

Then, just like that, two more rainbows appeared. They looked like wedding bands and touched both sides of the valley.


If you go: Mountain walking in Ireland

The temptation was to cup them in the palms of our hands, if only somehow we could leap the boundary between man and nature. Silently, the color and motion playing beneath us insisted that while nature conveys beauty, man alone frets over its meaning.

“No wonder Yeats loved this place,” my wife said.

We were standing in pale sunshine about 1,300 feet off the valley floor with our guide, at the top of Ben Bulben in Sligo. In the distance was the tiny snail-horn steeple of Drumcliff church, burial site of poet William Butler Yeats.

There was a time when many schoolchildren’s first exposures to poetry included the grave song of the Irish Nobel Prize winner, with its evocative place setter:

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head

In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.

And its closing stanzas — cut into the headstone — the stark ending of one of his last poems.

Cast a cold eye

on life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

That sharp, unsparing language was what we sought on Ben Bulben, coupling as it does the wildness of Ireland’s mountains with the tangled narratives of myth and yarn spun by her great literary masters.

Literary summits

We knew the wordy part of Ireland fairly well, and where to find some of its lowland temples. Over the years, we had flat-footed the long walks of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” We’d rooted out the homes of Ireland’s other Nobel laureates, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney. We’d found the digs of Oscar Wilde and even of Bram Stoker, whose “Dracula” still sends shivers down the spine.

But that’s all in Dublin, the seaside, pancake-flat Irish capital. Last summer, we wanted to climb.

What about the cliff walk at Howth Head, we wondered, the rocky peninsula on the coast just north of Dublin? Could we find the spot where, lying among candy-colored rhododendrons, the fictional Molly drew Leopold Bloom to her bosom to accept his marriage proposal?

And there was Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.” The gigantic Gulliver was inspired by the mountains overlooking Belfast, the 1,214-foot Cave Hill summit being the “nose” of the Gulliver face outlined on the mountain.

Ben Bulben and Knocknarea anchor Yeats country in Sligo, his ancestral home. And then there’s Ireland’s sacred mountain, Croagh Patrick, a.k.a. the Reek, in County Mayo. Most Americans know little about it, but its 6,000-year history shows up repeatedly in Irish literature. As many as 25,000 men, women and children climbed it last Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July — some barefoot and reciting the rosary on their way to Mass at the summit. Others no doubt climbed to have a nod and a wink at the spot from which Saint Patrick is supposed to have driven the snakes from Ireland.

On Howth cliff

Each of our walks started at sea level, and with clear weather, each promised spectacular mountain and water vistas.

First we walked Howth, the most accessible. A simple half-hour train ride from downtown Dublin terminates at Howth’s little harbor. It’s a tourist town, full of restaurants and bars, and signs lead immediately eastward to a shore path to the four-mile cliff walk circling the peninsula.

On a sunny day, the path was full of strolling families, loners and couples. Dublin Bay glistened, the Wicklow Mountains rose purple behind the city. We saw maybe a piece of Heaney’s old house across the water at Sandymount, and slumbering seals littered the shoreline. There was no evidence of Molly’s rhododendron love nest, but we did see the seaside Yeats family house, Balscadden, which means “the town of herrings” in Gaelic.

“He used to sleep with the windows wide open,” said Stella Mew, past director of the Sligo Yeats Society and of Clongowes Wood College, the Jesuit boys’ school famously depicted in Joyce’s “Ulysses” and “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

“Storms would send sea spray into his room,” soaking the bedding by morning, Mew told us. “He was 16, and I suppose the poet is supposed to listen to the pounding waves. . . . he did anyway.”

It was on Howth cliff walks that Yeats first proposed marriage to Maud Gonne. The aristocratic Gonne repeatedly declined the love-struck “Willie,” as she called him. Yeats wrote of the ache of her rejection:

“My world was fallen and over, for your dark soft eyes on it shone; A thousand years it had waited and now it is gone, it is gone.”

Ancient worlds

In Belfast, the path to Gulliver’s nose starts at the city zoo, with signs and a map to the right of the entrance building. Rising above heavily forested lower hills, the Cave Hill path opens to reveal the city resting in its wide, long valley. You can just make out Queen’s University, where Heaney taught as a young poet.

Far below is the elephant enclosure, the beasts looking like plump mice. Their smell and trumpeting rose far up the mountainside.

As I huffed and puffed near the nose — a knob leaning southwestward off the top of the mountain — one of Swift’s observations came to mind: “Every man desires to live long, but no man wishes to be old.” The reminder held weight, standing as we were in sunshine overlooking the new star-shaped Titanic museum beside the River Lagan, a glistening little glass crab in the distance, where the doomed ship was completed in 1912.

Knocknarea is a simple power climb over rising meadows and a series of low walls. You have to look for a long descending path across from the trail leading up, where a deep fissure between two limestone cliffs lies hidden. In this place of utter solitude, trees drape one side of the fissure and move with the breeze, while the stones produce echoes of great clarity.

Yeats, of course, had to take note, writing “Man and The Echo” to pose the ultimate questions, with the echo eerily responding as if in a conversation. Never particularly cheerful, Yeats wrote, “I/ Sleepless would lie down and die,” and the echo cruelly commands, “Die.”

Atop Knocknarea, a loose stone pile 33 by 180 feet and rising perhaps 40 feet, is said to be the grave of Queen Maeve, mythic goddess and ruler of Ireland. Dating back about 5,000 years, the cairn supposedly covers the underground entrance to hell, and within it live the shee, or fairies — a 7-foot-tall race of blue near-humans.

“Many visitors may not realize it, but Knocknarea is a massive Neolith enclosure, a fort,” said Michael Gibbons, an archeologist who lectures at Harvard Divinity School, whom I called on our return to the States. “Climbing it, you’re crossing old ramparts, sacred barrows and tombs.”

“All these mountains and so much of Ireland, they’re part of one of the great European timescapes, places not destroyed by industrialization or the Romans. We’ve looked at less than one percent of that history, and there’s this ancient world still waiting to be discovered.”

Rituals and religion

In 1995, Gibbons led an investigation of Croagh Patrick, finding hundreds of tombs and religious sites all around. At the top of the mountain, the team found a “place of ritual violence,” a walled enclosure with the dressed stone facing inward. “It wasn’t a fort,” he said. “It was a sacred place in Mesolithic times, when the Egyptians were building the first pyramids, and we’re not sure yet what exactly went on.”

For us, Croagh Patrick was the most difficult walk. It was Garland Friday, the Friday before Reek Sunday, and along with several thousand others, we set off for eight hours of climbing, sometimes clawing and a few times falling on our way up 2,507 feet over rock-strewn paths rutted with gullies and fissures. Occasionally, a loose rock dislodged above us and tumbled down.

Once at the top, bathed in sunshine, cooled by gentle breezes and dazzled at the infinitely variable blue colorings of Clew Bay spread below, we paused for reflection, our sandwiches and the waterless latrine.

And a stop at the little chapel, a white building visible for miles and a beacon for climbers. In 1905, pilgrims carrying everything on their backs had assembled it near a declivity used for Christian worship since about the 11th century, and possibly for ritual murder long before that. After momentarily losing track of my wife, I found her inside upon a kneeler. We’d carried along a rosary for her 96-year-old mother in New Jersey. (Once back in America, we’d share with her the story about how, after Saint Patrick converted the Irish around 400 A.D., God granted him a wish — to judge all the Irish at the end of time. Patrick then blessed Ireland and, throwing a silver bell off the mountain, banished snakes from the island forever.)

There are stations of devotion on the mountain, where believers may win plenary indulgences for the climb. Some of our fellow climbers knelt barefoot before the little stone altars. The only sound was the soft play of the breeze, and an occasional cough from the two donkeys, tethered to the tiny snack bar, that haul up the soft drinks and snacks sold to climbers the last week of July.

Along the sheep trail

John Paul Ryan met us in Drumcliff cemetery parking lot. Behind us, Ben Bulben — “Binn Ghulbain” in Gaelic, meaning “jaw-shaped peak” — rose straight up 1,000 feet. Treeless, serrated with dry waterfall gullies, it was dotted with white specks.

“It’s not a hard climb. We just follow the sheep,” said Ryan, a certified mountain guide and longtime volunteer at the Coast Guard station on Sligo Bay. “But it can be a death trap.”

Carved by glaciers beginning 320 million years ago, Ben Bulben is unstable — porous mud stone, peat and bog on top of a mountain of limestone that acts like a sieve, he said. The underbrush hides sinkholes big enough to break an ankle or to suck down a small car.

In wet weather, quicksand forms on the boggy top, and the gullies rage water over the serrations seen from below, he said. “A sunny day can turn quickly, with cloud cover so thick you can’t see 10 feet in front of you, and then the water vapor cools you rapidly. Hypothermia stops your thinking; you can make terrible decisions.”

In his backpack were two GPS systems, a tent, blankets, food, water, a cellphone and a radio, “and a good map,” he emphasized.

We walked the sheep trail, hearing their bleating near and far, and rose through the afternoon higher and higher to eventually follow a small stream tish-toshing quietly to a notch at the top. It becomes Ballaghnairillick River on the lowlands, but it starts as a shallow pool, “champagne of the mountain,” as Ryan called it.

On top, we found the rainbows and lush landscape coupled to the poetry in our backpacks. We saw the Isle of Innisfree and mumbled along:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree. . . .

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.

To the west below was Glencar Waterfalls and Yeats’s haunting “The Stolen Child:”

Where the wandering water gushes

From the hills above Glen-Car

And the aching refrain:

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Maybe the poet’s job is to press us on the large, existential questions, we reflected later that night, after roast lamb and red wine in town. But the climbs had somehow cheered and consoled us. Somber discourse is for men, here in their lowlands, we concluded. But the mountains rise above it, and give peace.

Lane is editor of the African Psychology Association in Washington.

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