Last Sunday we drove along Excalibur Drive, on our way to a great tournament. There were portly clerics on ambling horses, noblemen on prancing steeds, fine ladies in gilded carriages drawn by sturdy peasants, peddlers and mountebanks, thimble-riggers and vendors of sweetmeats. There was an inn-keeper playing bagpipes and a pardoner with his bag of relics. I noticed a reeve and a miller engaged in a slagging match. No, no, my imagination is running ahead of me. The road takes its name from a film, telling the story of Arthur. The knights, as I recall, clanked around in armour all the time. I think they wore their armour at the dinner table and in bed. They did a lot of quaffing. They didn’t drink much in those far-off days. They quaffed. There’s nothing like a quick quaff on the way to a tournament. Even the ladies had coifs of hair. The knights wore coifs of chainmail. Coiffing is a technical manoeuvre in mountain-biking, but more of that anon. King Lear devised a stratagem, ‘to shoe a troop of horse with felt and steal upon his enemies.’ It would stop some of the clanking, but where would you get felt on a wet Sunday morning in Wicklow? I should rephrase that.
It wasn’t a tournament at all. It was the Glendalough Swim. It has something of the colour and panoply of a tournament, without the fanfares and the clanking and clashing and shattering of lances. We had two family members taking part. We swim by proxy. It should be warmer that way but there was a draught coming down the valley. We were frozen. The water they told us, was pleasant. It is not really a spectator sport. We watched for two lads in yellow caps. They all look like masked super-heroes; Captain Neoprene. Nevertheless it was a great event, with all the excitement generated by people who love their sport. There is an extraordinary camaraderie about triathletes, cyclists, long-distance swimmers and ironmen. One percent reckon they have a chance of winning. Ninety nine percent exult in the challenge. Point nought, nought, nought percent of me would love to take part. The rest of me is content to carry the bags, shout inaudible word of encouragement and quaff copious cups of hot coffee.
Saint Kevin came there many centuries ago for the solitude. He came to fast and pray and get away from the world. So good was he at getting away from the world that his fame spread. The world came to him. A monastic city grew up around him. There must have been days when he loaded up on carbs, pulled on his wet-suit, did a long arcing dive from his place of prayer and went for a leisurely, contemplative swim in the lake. There he could achieve the detachment of the long distance swimmer and look at the world from a different angle. Perhaps he lay on his back and gazed heavenward at towering mountains, at tumbling cataracts and flying clouds and gave heartfelt thanks for being alive. ‘Blessed art thou, a monk swimming'( with acknowledgements to Malachy MacCourt.)
Glendalough retains a monastic hush, despite the tourists, the athletes, the picnickers gamely defending their sandwiches from the wasps, the mountain-bikers searching for ever more challenging hills. We dined under a tree filled with brightly coloured finches. It was like that bush in the Natural History Museum in Kensington, festooned with Darwin’s finches. Our finches chirped and hopped around, snatching at crumbs. Darwin’s were immortalised by the shotgun and the taxidermist’s art. Is there a paradox in the fact that the most ardent protectors of the wild bird habitats of Wicklow, are the gun clubs. They reckon the health of the population by the number of birds shot during the season. The grouse and the partridge thrive, while turf-cutters are hunted almost to extinction.
You do not hurry home from Wicklow. You drift along the mountain roads and stop. And gaze. I can see Saint Kevin’s point. We visited our old turf bank. We found it by instinct. The Sugar Loaf Mountain mooched along behind us. The old tracks were overgrown with heather. The cuttings were filled with water. Brown turf and green mosses gleamed in the amber rivulets. I wanted to get a spade and release the waters, to set them free from that great sponge and let them carry on down to the sea. but Zwounds! I stood unarmed on the blasted heath. A century or two ago we paid five ducats to My Lord of Powerscourt for turbary rights on a section of The Featherbed Mountain. We stood with our snivelling brood at the postern gate, with much knuckling of forelocks. My Lord’s reeve took five quid from us and vouchsafed a receipt. (The language is catching.) We went up the mountain with some friends and cut turf for the winter. A man with a BMW, cutting nearby, remarked: ‘There must be a war on the way. People always cut turf on The Featherbed when there is a war.’ It struck me that the economy must be in a bad way when a man with a Beamer would stoop to the level of us lowly peasants to win his winter fuel from the bog.
After paying for petrol, sandwiches, Lion Bars and fizzy drinks, the turf was probably the most expensive fuel in Ireland. The purists always talk about blackened kettles and tea made with bog water. Nah! Our children preferred Fanta. It fills you up with gas. You can’t work for long after lunch. More bad economics. Yet we cooked the Christmas turkey with turf from Wicklow. It seemed to taste better.
Sound carries on the bog. You can hear conversations a mile away. The children scampered around and had turf fights. They shouted and laughed. They fell in the water and laughed some more. Their voices carried. Our little turf cutters and child labourers have gained their freedom from serfdom. They have children of their own. They no longer cut and gather the turf, but their voices still carry down the years. We heard them on the mountain wind last Sunday on The Featherbed road.
So who is Ron? He sounds like a bloke. A bloke goes to work on a bike. He fixes things like radios and television sets. He watches football at weekends and has the occasional quaff in the ale house. He wears a cap. He’s a decent bloke. No, not this Ron.
Ron was the name of King Arthur’s spear, Excalibur’s poor relation. With that name, I don’t think he got a part in the film.
“I drove slowly along the mountain road with the windows down. Fitful sunlight chased the cloud shadows through the valley below, Glenasmole, where Oisín fell off the horse, after his return from the land of the Ever Young. It behoved me to go carefully. Terre verte and brown, the valley was camouflaged in the colours of the model aeroplanes that used to hang from our bedroom ceilings. Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and Lancasters and, supreme among them, the Spitfire, they swirled in a crazy dog-fight whenever the door or window was opened.
Bandit at nine o’clock, said a warning voice in my brain. Not ten feet from the car, riding the thermal with the grace and arrogance of a fighter ace, was a kestrel. He looked at me with one glittering onyx eye, gave a little left rudder, a touch of aileron and peeled off from the formation to dive away into the valley. I raised my hand to salute as he dwindled to a speck and vanished from my sight.”
On Borrowed Ground. Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. Wolfhound Press.
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