‘Thainig long ó Valparaiso..”There came a ship from Valparaiso..’ There are images that stick in the mind from childhood, a school exercise that becomes a persistent memory.. ‘a white city below the mountain..’ It was a surprise to me that the Irish poet could look out beyond our rainswept 1950s island and envisage a sunnier land on the other side of the world, ‘The Valley of Paradise.’ The Spanish explorers were extravagant and devout by turns, in naming their discoveries: The True Cross, The River of Silver, Holy Faith,The Mountain with a View. They went by ship, with that wonderful sense of arrival, long weeks or months at sea and then, suddenly, the landfall, the wonder, the anticipation, disembarkation, strange faces and strange tongues. In search of conquest or trade, they circled the world.
Air transport is too sudden. We are decanted into airports, all similar yet different in detail; different enough to create anxiety; fingerprints; ‘Have you ever been, or are you now a member of the Nazi party? Do you intend engaging in acts of terrorism while in our country? Are you carrying any snails?’
I always think of a Tommy Cooper exchange:
“Who goes there, friend or foe?”
“Foe, seven feet tall.”
Do not engage in witticisms at airport immigration.
The white city under the mountain remained with me, an ideal city bathed in sunshine, filled with music and excitement. It was different from the Ireland of my schooldays. I often went there in my mind, when I should have been paying attention. It was to a similar South American city that two of my forebears went to build their lives, to claim land, to create a family and eventually part painfully and in rancour.
Montevideo endured a ten year siege during a bitter civil war. It fell under the influence of Portugal and Spain, Britain and France, Brazil and Argentina. It saw immigration from Spain, Italy, the Basque Country, England and Scotland and to some degree, Ireland and Wales, with of course, involuntary immigration from Africa. It was a gateway at a cross-roads where the great rivers meet the ocean. Its Italianate and Spanish architecture reflects the years of prosperity. Equestrian statues commemorate national heroes. The shanty-towns bear witness to the recession and the years when the people of the countryside were displaced and became the urban poor.
Steet names recall statesmen, public benefactors, battles and victories. Families stroll together on balmy evenings or angle for fish along the Rambla. Candombé drums reverberate through the streets, vestiges of slavery. The horses of the re-cycling carts clop through the darkness, a memory of when horse and gaucho dominated the land. The air smells of coffee or maté in the morning. Smoke from the asado tempts the appetite.
“What is it?”
“The paddles have stopped.”
The porthole showed the dim light of dawn. There was rain on the glass. They peered out, wiping their breath from the pane.
A sharp wind cut the river into deep, brown furrows, cold and uninviting. There was no land visible.
“We must be still at sea,” she said, puzzled. “Maybe we have to wait for the tide to get into the river.”
As she spoke the ship swung on its chain, coming around into the current and the distant city swam into the circle of the porthole. They saw a low coastline of rocky promontories and the hill that gave the city its name.The bleary morning light glinted on white breakers and stretches of sand. Above the walls and the jumble of houses of this modern Troy, stood the two towers of the cathedral, one tower for Felipe and one for Santiago.
In the bay lay the ships of many countries, men o’ war and merchant vessels, riding at anchor, their cables taut in the pull of the river. Nearby, H.M.S.Bombay lay, trim and smart, fresh from her refit at Chatham, with yards squared away and the admiral’s flag at the mizzen. She was an impressive sight, with her eighty four guns, testimony to the power of the British Empire, which could reach into any part of the world and decide the destiny of nations.’
In the Shadow of the Ombú Tree Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. 2005 email@example.com and ebooks Amazon/kindle