On 1st February, the Celtic festival of Imbolc sacred to the Goddess Brighid, I post this account of a journey around Ireland instrumental in the evolution of a new ballad & tales show co-created with folksinger Chantelle Smith inspired by the sites we visited: Brighid’s Flame.
In a poem written by WB Yeats during his time running the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, he expressed his exasperation with life’s complexities, while simultaneously encapsulating what has defined him: ‘The fascination of what’s difficult/Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent/Spontaneous joy and natural content/Out of my heart.’ He uses the pegasus as the symbol of creative inspiration, but ‘There’s something ails our colt’. The difficulties of creative (and nationalist) endeavour make it seem to: ‘Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt/As though it dragged road metal.’ Yeats vows to emancipate it in the final line: ‘I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt’. And yet, despite this defiant affirmation Yeats spent much of his adult life in the thrall of the ‘difficult’, in obscure esoterica and the complex magical systems and rituals of the Golden Dawn and his own occult order, but chiefly in the form of Maud Gonne, the nationalist figurehead whose unrequited love possessed him for decades. Even her name suggests an alluring evanescence, an unattainability. She was his ‘glimmering girl’, which he searched for like wandering Aengus, in the eponymous poem:
‘Though I am old with wandering,
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone…’
In August 2015 I headed into the west, to Ireland to search for the littoral. I wanted to ride the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW), which stretches from Old Head, Kinsale, south of Cork, to Malin Head in Donegal. At 2500km/1553 miles it is the longest continuous coastal route in the world, so the marketing claims. I had been meaning to tour Ireland on my Triumph Legend 900cc motorbike for sometime, and this new route, created in 2013, was the thing that clinched it. I set off with my partner, Chantelle Smith, an archaeologist and folksinger. We were keen to visit prehistoric sites, as well as literary and musical hotspots. We booked off two weeks’ holiday and camped along the way. We were to experience the littoral in many ways over the next fortnight: physically, mentally, and metaphysically – the ‘shores’ of our comfort and consciousness.
Initially it was literally in the crossing from Wales to Ireland – from the prosaic ferry terminal of Pembroke Dock, waiting in the queue to board the ferry at 2 o’clock in the morning, rain glistening on the cold tarmac; to arriving at Rosslare at dawn in the clean sunlight.
Once on the N-4, roaring west, the mundane world of the entreport was soon left behind as we headed to our first destination – Blarney, where we had booked a campsite which would be our base for the next three days’ as we worked our way along the southern stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way. My partner insisted we did the tourist thing and kiss the blarney stone. Even this corniest of Irish clichés had an element of the ‘littoral’ – hanging upside down, 100 feet in the air. The moment proved elusive to capture on camera, so I ended up doing it three times. So, according to the folklore, I should be blessed with especial eloquence!
The castle and grounds proved to be far more attractive than I was expecting – the first of many pleasant surprises – this was no Hirstian Dismal-land. Even Ireland’s clichés are beautiful. They have just been so overly packaged and exported (almost literally in the case of the famous stone) that it is easy to be weary and wary of them, but in actuality they are often satisfyingly charming. The effort of reaching the source of the meme is often reciprocated, although beyond that phenomenological experience, there is often something deeper that draws us to these attractions – a yearning, a glimmer of beauty, a feeling … which slips through our fingers the more we grasp for it.
Rainer Maria Rilke captured it perfectly when he advised: ‘go to the limits of your longing.’ He might have written his challenge while walking the cliffs above Duino Castle, near Trieste (where I have too walked), but he could have penned it about the west of Ireland. And this line of desire drove us farther on. The fact that the route was packaged and well signposted with distinctive blue wavy lines, (echoing the initials, waves, and the pictographic chevrons of burial tombs like Newgrange), made it no less beautiful and dramatic – indeed, without the signs pointing the way, I doubt we would have alighted upon so many obscure coves and dramatic, cliff-top roads. I use the term ‘roads’ euphemistically, for many were little more than gravel tracks, pot-holed and very bumpy. The contrast with the N-roads was dramatic – and the two became the twin-notes of our journey, the straight and the winding dancing in tandem up the westerly coast like a 1500 mile long caduceus. Off the main route there were many opportunities to take even longer detours to headlands, coves, beaches, and attractions – but we soon learnt to do attempt all would have been too exhausting, time-consuming and unnecessary. The WAW offers multiple possibilities. There is fixed route beyond the main one. As with the famously festooned signposts along the way, there are a myriad of possibilities. The route is a melody to riff around. One creates ones’ own version of it, depending on your whim, the weather, and mode of transport.
Having recently performed our show, ‘The Bonnie Road’- tales and ballads of the Border (Scottish) we found ourselves feeling like Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland confronted by three roads – the narrow, the broad and the bonnie – as we traversed hair-raising mountain passes again and again. Roads seemed to lead into the middle of nowhere, and it was often a leap of faith to keep going, and hope the road will rejoin the main route eventually.
After the first couple of epic days – when we averaged 200 miles of touring, arriving home about 10pm, exhausted and famished – we quickly learned to curtail our ambitions and faithfulness to every little nook and cranny. Following the coast north, we would pick and choose our itinerary according to our interest and energy levels. Nevertheless, we spent most of two weeks riding up the coast. Our days settled into a rhythm of stillness and motion, sea and land, sunshine and rain, night and day, camping, packing, moving, camping. On the long rides I would slip into a non-verbal space – one where thoughts would drift in and out of my head without trying to think about anything in particular. It became a meditation in serenity – in focus and surrender (Carr-Gomm, 2015). To stay alive on the motorbike requires absolute focus – you have to fully present. But, at the same time, because much of driving is about muscle memory and ‘motor functions’ one can slip into a rather Zen-like state of mind. One had to learn to trust in the Way – (I rarely use sat-nav on the bike, preferring to work it out on the atlas in advance). It’s a dream-like experience, not quite knowing where you are … between somewhere and … somewhere. That sense of being ‘meaningfully lost’ is delicious. There’s no rush to get anywhere in particular. No deadlines. So it doesn’t matter if one wanders a little, takes the long way round, improvising a route as one goes along. There is a sense of being self-created, like a character in a Creation Myth, forging the land before them. And it was to this mythic level we soon found ourselves becoming immersed in…
We visited a lot of prehistoric sites – all interesting in their own way, but the ones that really captivated me had mythic associations, chiefly connected to The Tain (Táin Bó Cúailnge). It was thrilling to visit sites connected with this early oral epic – an Irish Dreamtime sequence, mythologizing the landscape – Cruachan; Emain Macha; Tara; the Cooley Peninsula. The most jaw-dropping was Knocknarea, site of Medb’s Cairn (an impressive mound of stones situated on a hill overlooking Sligo’s coast and surrounded by equally stunning sites – the megalithic cemeteries of Carrowkeel and Carrowmore to name two). Even though it is unlikely Queen Medb is buried there, if she ever existed, it seems the fitting monument to such a mighty queen. WB Yeats, whose childhood family home was situated in county Sligo, waxed lyrical about her, perhaps projecting his own idealised warrior queen, Maud Gonne, into her shoes. In such places, where the mythic and historical overlap, literature and archaeology, the past and the present, I feel an electrifying frisson. They are charge-points for poets like me, where I feel plugged into the grid of creativity.
Ireland is very much embroiled with my own ‘creation myth’ as a writer. In the early Nineties I had hitchhiked across it in my gap year. My primary goal was Croagh-Patrick, Ireland’s holy mountain, which I had glimpsed on Frank Delaney’s TV series, ‘The Celts’. Every year on the first Sunday in August (‘Reek Sunday’) thousands of Catholics climb it, some bare foot, in penance. Being not of that persuasion (or at least an unrepentant young man) I climbed it in my walking boots. For me it had significance because of its association with a chthonic deity, Crom Craugh, and the fact the annual pilgrimage seems to be a Christianisation of a Lughnasadh custom (Celtic fire festival falling on 1st August). Many of these sites straddle the worlds between the pagan and the Christian and that is often what makes them so numinous. In Celtic Christianity there seems to be a lack of conflict between such paradigms. In these thin places, the differences fall away – and we are just left with a sense of the sublime. The feeling of immanence increased the further west we went – the land thins out until one is left just staring at the vast horizon of the sea. This happens in other directions – each coast has its beauty and mystery – but so hard-wired into our cortex is the symbolism of the setting sun and its apparent death and rebirth, that the ‘west is the best’. Over its hazy horizon we fling our longing, project islands of immortality, lands of milk and honey, Americas of the imagination. And one can see why, standing on the top of Croagh-Patrick – on a rare clear day you can behold the plentiful Arran Isles, shoals of possibilities awaiting to be explored.
From this formative epiphany I had descended, and headed south to Gort – ostensibly to call in on my father’s best man. He hadn’t met me before but with typical Irish hospitality he welcomed me in and showed me around, taking me to Thoor Ballylee, where Yeats created a summer sheiling; and Coole Park, Lady Gregory’s bohemian demesne, a gathering place for poets, painters, and mystics. Here, in 1991, I contracted the poetry virus and haven’t stopped since. The themes that grabbed me then still haven’t let me go, a sentiment Yeats echoes: ‘I am persuaded that our intellects at twenty contain all the truths we shall ever find…’ (Four Years). I passed through on this trip, returning like Yeats himself, not 19 years later, but 24. I parked in Gort marketplace, remembering the young man who had rocked up there on a wing and a prayer. This time I had arrived from the southwest, from the dramatic Cliffs of Moher and the awe-inspiring moonscape of the Burren. I felt an astronaut returning to an Earth beyond recognition – a space-age Oisín on my silver steed.
Before I turned to dust I wended my way further west, past Galway into Connemara’s epic landscape. My destination was picturesque Clifden, home of the Marconi towers, where aviation pioneers Alcock and Brown first made landfall after successfully crossing the Atlantic for the first time by powered flight. Here, I cooled my engine, enjoying a jar in a local bar where a merry session was taking place. My partner pitched in a couple of songs, and we felt part of the narrative.was in Swansea last year for his centenary). Riding past the roadside banners it was moving to finally make it to his modest grave in Drumcliffe graveyard, where his father had delivered sermons from the pulpit. And then onto Glencar, the beautiful waterfall that inspired ‘The Stolen Child’ (and our own writing as we sat in earshot of its soft thunder). This ‘pink noise’ is most conducive to creativity – affecting the brainwaves from alpha to theta, making the synapses leap like Irish dancers.
Most thrilling of all for me was the visit to Lough Gill, the site of the ‘lake isle of Innisfree’. Here Yeats played as a child, but it was in London, on Fleet Street, that he was inspired to write the poem of longing, after the sound of a fountain reminded him of the ‘lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore’. Also in the cauldron of his imagination at the time was Thoreau’s Walden, which describes the American’s attempt to live a ‘life in the woods’ for a year, building his own cabin. And when ‘Innisfree’ is read in this context, it echoes across the Atlantic, from Sligo to Massachusetts, where Thoreau built his small cabin and lived alone (except for visits from his mother who lived close by) in a ‘bee loud glade’. That dream of independence, however realistic, resonates with many of us who find ourselves like Rilke, ‘alone in the world, and yet not alone enough/to make every moment holy.’ The shore-line presents the possibility of escape from a world that places its demands upon us; and it can appear in unexpected places. Yeats stumbled upon the littoral in the middle of a busy London street. It can occur in any place, at any time, and is ultimately a state of mind, a moveable feast. Such routes as the Wild Atlantic Way provide a tangible visual analogue for this quality – but the littoral can be experienced wherever you are. All we have to do is, in the words of supertramp poet, WH Davies, ‘stand and stare’ and notice what novelist Colum McCann phrased: ‘the miracle of the actual’.
Kevan Manwaring ©2015
‘Leisure’, WH Davies http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/leisure/ [accessed 11/09/15]
Carr-Gom, Philip, Talk at Druid Camp, Glos., August 2015
Clements, Paul, Rough Guide to Ireland, Rough Guide: London, 2015
McCann, Colum, TransAtlantic, Bloomsbury: London, 2014
National Library of Ireland, Dublin, The Life and Works of WB Yeats: http://www.nli.ie/en/intro/exhibitions.aspx
Rilke, Rainer Maria, The Selected Poems of, Picador: London, 1987
The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, Wordsworth Poetry Library: Ware, 1994/2000
The Tain, trans. Thomas Kinsella, Oxford Paperbacks, 2002
Thoreau, Henry David, Walden, or A Life in the Woods, 1845
Wild Atlantic Way http://www.wildatlanticway.com/
Yeats Society/WB Yeats Memorial Building, Hyde Bridge, Sligo, Ireland: http://www.yeatssociety.com/
Bríghid’s Flame (Kevan Manwaring & Chantelle Smith) are specialists in bardic tales and song who have been performing their unique blend of storytelling, ballad-singing, poetry and music (harp, guitar, shruti box, bodhran, bones) since 2014. Their love of mythology, folklore and prehistory informs their performances.