The sun shone outside the small shop in Kealkil. No one was around except for the shop girl and the cars stopping for ice cream. I had already finished mine and was watching the lady behind the wheel of her parked car licking hers with child-like happiness. A familiar, listless Saturday afternoon- I knew I wouldn’t make much more progress if I didn’t start moving. Empty hills and soft rain were appealing once more and I wanted to get to Gougane Barra before the end of the day.
Gou-gane, Bar-ra . Finbar’s place of worship. He took up residence on the lake when men were finding new ways of living in the world. Stationed on far flung islands these men withdrew to a different barbarism, a kind of bare-life. Scavenging, cold, hungry, alone; there was little room for uncertainty. This life so removed from what we know that every visitor who crouches in the dark, dank beehive huts asks the same, ‘How did they live here?’ Certainly not as the saints in the picture books; certainly not in harmony with the natural world. But in cold, hard, constant struggle, recovering shreds of a spiritual universe left in tatters, keeping it through low voices directed at the scouring winds and waves. Like the Jewish boy kept as cow herd in the mountains, persecuted by the gentiles who drink and fornicate and die young, while he inscribes the few lines he has remembered from the torah over and over again into the rocks and trees, inscribing God’s word as his word into the material world he has been abandoned in, never losing faith.
I got lost six miles outside Kealkil, two hours after walking up the hills. The yellow arrows which had guided me so far suddenly dried up. From a narrow wedge of height I could see two valleys, and the windmills to the north I had been advised to head towards. It was wet underfoot and my spirits were fading. I tried a path through a young forestry of sitka spruce, the saplings only ten feet high, planted close together so the branches scratched and snagged my face and body. I followed horse tracks thinking they might lead out to a trail but soon discovered the owners of the prints: two piebald stallions with thick feathers on their forelocks, who were themselves bound in by a sheer drop to a river below. They followed me back out making the confines of the mazy space even more unsettling. On the road they stopped and then, as if they had both seen or heard something I hadn’t, bolted, bucking and kicking like they were possessed. After that encounter I resolved to head back to Kealkil, to cut my losses and see if I could hitch a lift. I had hoped to descend into Gougane Barra from the heathered hills, to see the lake shimmering below and the little hermitage picked out between the trees with my birds eye view. But the paths were unclear and the weather uncertain and the hills were beginning to seem unfamiliar.
The small chapel appeared to float on the dark lake. Above, the fissured, sheer face of the black mountains marked by two, white tears of water- cataracts brought on by the past weeks of heavy rain. The last of the sun was out. I found a patch of vivid green in a copse of well-spaced pine trees, the sound of the rising wind, soft, flat ground, a stream nearby, even a stack of forgotten, rotten wood half toppled against a stone wall. No better place, with the broody lake of St. Finbar down below and my tent out of sight of prying eyes. But putting up my tent, settling into my new, temporary home, clouds of frantic midges descended, murdering my bare arms and neck. I retreated to the pub, only pegging in half the tent, and thought that it was odd that Mad Sweeney, with all his complaints about suffering wild nature, never mentioned midges. Even in his much loved Glen Bolcain, where the cress grows in handfuls and the water is sweet to taste, he was bound to be found out by the midges on a May evening.
The story of Sweeney, or versions of it, dates to the Battle of Moira (A.D. 637), the Battle in which the King of Dal-Arie was transformed into Mad Sweeney. It was a curse by Ronan Finn, a pious cleric, which had him wander the island of Ireland consumed with the fears of a bird- uneasy and constantly scared. His fall from grace for betraying the word of God- Sweeney throws Ronan’s treasured Psalter into a deep lake- and for betraying the spirit of God- his violent response to the sound of Ronan’s holy bell tolling. His punishment is a life of footloose angst, no ease, no rest, no friendship, no society, no peace. In ways this life echoes the life of Finbar- a life of silence, a life of nature- only that one is chosen freely, the other is forced. In Buile Suibhne, the roles are reversed: Finbar, and the other religious men, to leave the debased world of men and politics for a purer existence, in other words de-prived- de (‘entirely’)- privare (‘removed from’)- for the one dearest, single, and for them only justifiable, utterance: a long and suffering expression of God, to God- this as the retreat. Sweeney did not choose this. He is not a holy man who disconnects from the world, but a King who is disconnected by the holy man. He is a King projected into askesis,
Though, I still have life, haunting deep
in the yew glen, climbing mountain slopes,
I would swop places with Congal Claon,
stretched on his back among the slain.
My life is steady lamentation.
The roof above my head has gone.
I am doomed to rags, starved and mad,
brought to this by the power of God.
But once de-prived, he finds, in moments- for it is only in moments when the body is able to rest, when the tension, the tightrope tautness of embattled muscles, can dilate- the experience of a freedom felt only by the uncontracted man. This tension is what Buile Suibhne explores: the poetic expression of Sweeney contradicts the conventions he has left behind but craves. Sweeney is driven to a life of wilderness where death and violence and pain are part of waking experience, far removed from his cosseted life in Dal-Arie, enjoying the hunt and the feast. But in his wild life he also gains something- a proximity to life itself, an understanding of something usually shut out- or at least this is the hermit’s hope.
Three times Sweeney is coaxed down from the branches of his yew tree by Lynchseachan, his half brother, or some say foster brother, and his deceptions (he tells Sweeney that his wife and daughter, and finally, son are dead- the only connection Sweeney still retains with the world he is marginalised from is love for his son). Sweeney is made timid to come down out of the tree where he is met with manacles. Locked up in his own court again he hears the bleating of a stag, ‘like a scared musician’ awakening his memory with ‘high homesick refrains’. Sweeney remembers his beloved Glen Bolcain, describing in verse after verse the hosts of trees, “the alder is my darling/ all thornless in the gap,/ some milk of human kindness/ coursing in its sap”. But it is not ‘nature’ he loves, that harsh world of depravity, but freedom found in moments.
I prefer the scurry
and song of blackbirds
to the usual blather
of men and women.
I prefer the squeal
of badgers in their sett
to the hullabaloo
of the morning hunt.
I prefer the re-
echoing belling of a stag
among the peaks
to that terrible horn.
Behind the bar the old lady felt sorry for me, my lack of dinner. The nearby hotel was booked out, she said, though it could have been my dishevelled appearance that prompted her to say that- the mud up to my ankles and the stale sweat (I had seen the hotel earlier, the linen tablecloths and shiny, silver cutlery). She went off modestly chuffing that she would do her best to make me a sandwich in the kitchen below even though they had stopped serving hours ago. She couldn’t promise me anything, she said, but returned ten minutes later with a cheese and ham sandwich and a bag of crisps. Together with the stout they were a feast and everything was better for it. I drank a couple more slowly and all the while no one came in. There was a play on at the back of the hotel- explaining why the restaurant was so busy- and not many people would come by the pub on an evening. All it offered was a stuffed fox and a stuffed otter in glass cases and a television round the corner bleating out a steady drone laced with sporadic applause from an audience. The rain had set in and the night and I could hear the wind forcing the lake onto the shore in snappy waves.
At nine o’clock the television was turned off and the lady put on her coat. ‘I’ll be off then’. A pause as I realised I was being ushered on. Even my hesitation at the door with the equally suggestive, ‘it’s a wet night’, failed to melt her. I had no jacket so I ran blindly holding my jumper over my head, clenching the torch between my teeth. The muddy trail streamed with water already. My foot sank into several deep troughs. With the rain and black night the way was hardly manageable. Inside the tent the rain drummed with such persistence and the wind struck the sides with such force that I couldn’t sleep. During the night the roof fell in. Blind to the outside, sensible only to frightening noises, I worried irrationally about a world changing around me. Visions of landslides, trees blowing over. I worried that my pleasant home in the woods was really on the edge of a cliff which, in the soft evening light, I had failed to notice. The wind became maddening; no amount of clothes wrapped around my head could subtract the buffeting. At about four o’clock- I checked my mobile phone regularly for the comforting glow of the blue screen and the world it was connected to- a heron lifted off from below, by the lake, with a loud, terrified screech.
As if all the night had just been a bad dream, fraught and blurry, the morning I stepped out into was calm and clear. Long, sharp shadows from the early sun fell on the flattened grass pearled with drops of water. The small stream was swollen- the cold water great tonic on the face. At the hotel no cars were parked and there was no sign of anyone. I walked around the island for the first time. Was there always a walkway out to it? I had imagined it, as the home of a hermit, to be torn from the mainland, a solitary fragment of complete peace (that healthy knowledge that no disturbance is possible without warning).
A gravelly path with carefully tended lawns on either side and a great copper beech tree above felt wrong too, but not the eight cells of chest height with the water leaking in through three feet of stone and earth, like eight basic latrines. Above the cells were the fourteen Stations of the Cross in cheap plaster casts. The hermitage, or remains of it, didn’t feel so old, not as old as Sweeney and his versifying, not as old as Finbar and the dragon (when Patrick rid Ireland of the snakes one serpent remained in hiding in the valley of Gougane Barra. Finbar was given the strength to slay the dragon on the condition that he left his island retreat and followed the river lee from its source in the hills of the Com Rua, behind the lake, to where it met the sea tide. The cathedral of St. Finbar still stands, with the city of Cork growing around it, but Finbar’s remains were removed by the Danes and scattered around).
A service had begun in the toy-like chapel. The rain was falling again in rhythmic drifts, blowing at the same angle as the layers of sedimented sandstone in the cliffs above the lake. The lake was black- even on a sunny day it reflects the black rock said to be stained with the black blood of the drowned dragon. A heron was poised awkwardly but somehow elegantly on the sandy shore of the lake. He was deliberate in her work even as he appeared mad- mad-eyes under a bristly pate, and a grin from the long beak. He waded slowly in the littoral but gathered to the air with such urgency when I approached. I had seen him the evening I arrived beaten out of the reeds by other birds, ravens who take the easy target. Herons are rarely with company like Mad Sweeney who only once meets another man wailing lamentations in the woods. Like Sweeney too, heron is expressive in his own way- in his flight, his broad, strong claim to the sky when he takes off from fright or fickleness.
Imprisoned for six weeks in his own house by the nobles of Dal-Arie Sweeney is ‘brought back to his senses’, ‘restored to his old shape and manner’. There he is guarded by the old mill-hag. She asks Sweeney to tell her about his adventures in the wilds. Sweeney resists but the mill-hag doesn’t let up. Through her own cunning she sets Sweeney astray for the second time, not to fulfil the curse of Ronan, but because he has tasted something he can’t now refuse. Once he leapt into the raucous woods and hills Sweeney could not return, no matter how much he wanted, to a world of mere peace.
- Now listen, woman, he said, if you only knew the hard times I have been through. Many’s the dreadful leap I have leaped from hill and fort and land and valley.
- For God’s sake, said the hag, let me see one of those leaps now. Show me how you did it when you were off in your madness.
With that, he bounded over the bed-rail and lit on the end of the bench.
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