Bumping Into History
Away in the southwest of Ireland, south of Listowel, home of the Harp and Lion; south of Tralee; south of the Dingle Peninsula from whence St. Brendan the Navigator sailed west to discover America; south past Skellig Michael, the retreat of ancient hermit monks and perhaps ancient Jedi Knights; south of the Ring of Kerry where Daniel O’Connell the Liberator was born; and still south, past Bear Island where the storied King of Munster dwelled; even further south, across Bantry Bay, where a French fleet under the direction of the Irish patriot Theobald Wolfe Tone attempted an invasion in 1796 in support of the United Irishmen; finally you come to a smaller peninsula about twelve miles long, called Muntervary, or Sheep’s Head. Dozens of stone circles, similar to Stonehenge but smaller in scale, testify to its pre-historic holiness; fortified houses from the twelfth century speak tales of defense between Irish and Woden of old Norse runic folklore and his mighty longbeard warrior-adventurers.
‘T’was there I spent a long week at the beginning of August, wandering with six beloved comrades—two Germans from Austria and four Irish, all friends for this past thirty-five years, playing Irish reels and German Rhinelanders on fiddles, accordions, tin whistles and guitars; all of us academics to one degree or another discussing politics in the middle east, Turkey, Austria, Germany, England, and Ireland; all of us trying to assemble the puzzle of what-comes-next, and assigning each other various tasks to bring justice further into the equation of the future. Yes, I brought a task home to try too.
But amongst this serious talk, light talk, melody and Uisce Beatha, local cheese and bookstore strolls we took some hikes—and I do mean hikes. The Irish have marked out trails across these storied landscapes, guiding with arrows and little hiking figures on stone pillars, and if you look and listen, the land will tell you its tale of years, decades, centuries. As the eldest among our little band I was the beneficiary of a pair of walking sticks: trekking poles, if I may. I saw them first wielded by many in a party of typically well-equipped German hikers setting off from the townlet of Durrus for the twenty-five-mile-or-so hike down to Lighthouse Loop and back, called the Sheep’s Head Way, designated a 2009 European Destination of Excellence. I said to myself, “That’s a good idea. I think I saw a pair in the hallway back at the house where we’re staying, and it’s time to try them out.” No one else wanted to use them, nor, in truth, seemed to need them, so I brought them along on our excursion by Ballyroon Mountain, by Doo Lough, by the Signal Tower, Tooreen, and finally, as an extra pair of legs, down the two-hundred-thirty feet by many a twist and turn, many a scrabble and jump, to the lighthouse point. Almost like a sheep would go. These really are the true names of these back-hill structures of stone. Every turn of the landscape brings a new name: Mass Path, Gortnakilly—field of the church—and Kilcrohane—nonsense in English, but in Irish Cill Chrócháin, church of St. Crochan, a little-known hermit-saint from Saint Patrick’s time. Tooreen, spelled T-O-O-R-E-E-N in English, is spelled T-U-A’-Í-R-I’-N, and means little paddock, or little pasture, in Irish. Ballyroon means “secret place.” Now see what I mean! The stories are there of ambushes of the detachments of royal armies by the West Cork Brigade; of Masses celebrated out of sight during the time of the penal laws when priests courted death and the Catholic religion was equated with Irish liberty; and finally far back, the sentinel rings of stone—enigmatic markers from the primeval religion of the sky and stars, which showered the earth with water, then with the stuff of life. Bring it on, then, life!
For Michiana Chronicles, I’m David James