Sligo, Northwestern Ireland
After Coleraine, Western Ireland was a shock -- crowded, nasty weather, prolonged nasty weather (ten good days since May Day, according to John, our taxista), and the worst effects of a short bubble of Hollywood-style prosperity. "It's well burst now, i'n't it?" said John, as he expressed his hope for a return to simpler days (and better weather.)
Three (on-time) trains, no waiting!
The Irish bad-mouth their public transport with the zeal of nouveaux riches who've just acquired cars (which, indeed, many of them are) but their trains are remarkably good. When we were ready to travel on from Coleraine to (London)Derry we went to the transport center in town, and spot on time, three trains from various points arrived, exchanged passengers; we boarded ours, and on we went to Derry.
The railroad to Derry goes around the ocean side of a big lava mountain, while the road goes right over the top, thereby preserving a sweet little Victorian section of seaside and agriculture territory from the rigors of petrol.
Here's the deal on Londonderry and Derry. The Protestant Unionists call it the former, and the Catholics call it the latter. Why? So you can instantly know the prejudices of those you're talking to? To me, adding the redundant and confusing prefix doesn't make sense, so for now I'll be Catholic.
The railroad ends at Derry, so we changed to the bus, subjecting ourselves to the first of several shocks. The Sligo bus filled to the brim instantly -- being early, we secured seats, but others weren't so lucky. From the muttering of the regulars we could tell that this wasn't unusual, even though the grumpy bus driver acted as if he'd never seen so many passengers on this route.
He raced through increasingly bad weather down narrowing roads toward Donegal. Lots of impatient bright new German metal on the roads, and a complete breakdown in the clustered town pattern noted in England and Scotland. Donegal sprawls its plastic globalized strip-malls out forever into suburbs littered with oversized new ranch style homes dropped willy-nilly on the landscape, clear evidence of newfound wealth generated by a "Celtic Tiger" (an interesting reference to the fast-developing economic "Tigers" of southeast Asia) that owes its properity to the semiconductor and software industries. Why is it happening here and, well, if not now, just yesterday? The Irish are hungry for the good life, very well educated and, at least until recently, poorly paid. The overall effect would gladden the heart of any colonialist, but seems unspeakably sad to me. Like third-worlders elsewhere (and that's the tragedy; Ireland is NOT the third world) the Irish have embraced the easy wealth and shiny goodies without much thought for long-term needs that seem elsewhere in the British Isles to be the solid foundation of long-term success. Donegal's, Sligo's, and even Dublin's town centers are in gridlock because roads built for a tenth the traffic travelling at the speed of a horse and buggy aren't ready for all the cars and lorries; the gentle green Irish countryside is irrevocably scarred by new ranchettes wholly unsuited to this place or climate. Already, with the bubble of prosperity barely burst, decay and neglect of this too-hasty cosmetic development litters the countryside with shabbiness.
Again and again, we were reminded of our Northern Irish friend Hilary's explanation of the difference between the British (Unionist) approach and the Irish: where Brits will build perimeter roads and bypasses to preserve the towns from the burden of through traffic, in Ireland, everything is carefully routed through a single intersection, the narrower, the better. While the Brits consider this an intolerable impediment to commerce, the Irish welcome the wondrous opportunities to be neighborly it creates!
Luckily, we weren't going to Sligo for the weather or even the people, and certainly not the good roads. We were going to Sligo for Ben Bulben and the churchyard at Drumcliffe.
The weather being what it was, even though we were zipping by on the bus, I snapped off shots of the mountain and the churchyard. Of course I was working from a well-remembered script, the last stanza of W. B. Yeats's great poem "Under Ben Bulben."
|Under bare Ben Bulben's head
In Drumcliffe churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!
We wound into Sligo and got off the bus into a milling mass of wet and cranky people all wondering (1) why were they there, and (2) what could they do to get away. Since I was on a mission, we sought a B&B and agreed we'd do what needed doing and get the flock outta town.
Turned out, the B&B only had room for us for one night, which helped us make up our mind: Drumcliffe right after breakfast, then the noon train to Dublin.
The next morning, we took a taxi the short way to Drumcliffe and were the first ones in the churchyard. Sure enough, right beside the church door, there's a grave marked as specified. Don't let the local tourist chaps know I told you this, but the true whereabouts of Yeats's bones is unknown. He died in the south of France on the eve of the Second World War, and by the time Georgie, his wife, got back in touch with the keepers of the cemetery in Roquebrune, she was horrified to learn that the grave rent had elapsed and his bones had been moved with others to the ossuary where thigh bones go with thigh bones and skulls with skulls. When Georgie engaged the French and Irish governments in the squabble, a presumably complete but doubtless random batch of bones were retrieved and shipped off to Drumcliffe with full honors.
Ben Bulben played peek-a-boo with us through the clouds, but never revealed himself wholly.
It wasn't the bones I came for, but the surround, the feeling of the place that influenced Yeats's poetry, and inspired him to imagine himself at rest here in what I consider to be his greatest poem. The low clouds and inclement weather, though certainly not the whole Drumcliffe story, are nevertheless a good share of it. We strolled along a peaty river amongst fields dripping with green, took tea, gazed upon church and churchyard (doing our best to replace the busses whizzing by with horsemen), and sensed the way "peace comes dropping slow."
updated 3 August 2001 : 9:00 Caspar (Pacific) time
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