Let you come on now, I’m saying, to the lands of Iveragh and the Reeks of Cork, where you won’t set down the width of your two feet and not be crushing fine flowers, and making sweet smells in the air.” (The Well of Saints, J.M. Synge)
I stepped out into the mist of the front porch, shivering in the cold damp air. Despite the morning stretches in my room, I felt a lingering tension in my hips from the day before. I placed my hands at the base of my spine for support and slowly leaned backwards, watching fog pour down the mountains while upside down.
It was 7AM. The trail from Black Valley to Glencar was pegged at eight hours by foot. Twenty kilometers across the beckoning summits of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks awaited a warm bed and lively company at the Climber’s Inn. With some generous allotments for backpacking essentials – lunch at scenic vistas, taking photos, chasing sheep – I expected to find myself walking up the cobble road to town by 5PM.
With a last wistful gaze at the hostel, I swung my backpack over my shoulders and began my way down the tarmac road. Ten minutes later, the rain started.
Before coming to Ireland I was only aware of one type of rain: the kind that comes from black clouds that steadily approach and then go on their way. In the Land of Eire, however, it is more like the general condition. I received my introduction with the weather four days earlier, in the small medieval town of Kilkenny. After arriving late in the afternoon on a bus from Dublin, I proceeded to pitch my pitiful one-person tent just down-river from the 12th century Norman castle. A brief peal of thunder echoed the stone walls as I pounded the last stake into the dirt, and I spent the next hour re-reading my guidebook in the dim green light of the tent.
I had counted the different types of rain falling on the roof: fast, thin droplets skinny as needles followed by fat globular welts on the tent fabric. Later, at a pub called the Playwright, an elderly man was so impressed by the bravado of my lodging arrangements, he offered to buy me a pint of Guinness – although I suspect from his general Irishness that he was just looking for an excuse to be hospitable. It was there that a gentleman by the name of Skinner stuck his head out the window and shouted to the downpour, as if to the gods: fockin’ fock the fockin’ weather!
The clouds maintained a perpetual gloom over the hills of Black Valley. The ramshackle barns and stone houses dotting the hills appeared as gray sketches of themselves on rice paper. Ahead, the road zigzagged through the high grass like a lazy braid at the feet of the mountains.
After two hours of hiking I unclipped my backpack and laid it down at the foot of a boulder. I climbed to the top and was afforded a full panorama of the patchwork valley, stretching from the towering Broaghnabinnia to Torc Mountain in the east. Gazing north I could just make out the famous Gap of Dunloe: a dramatic slice in the mountain range carved by glaciers two million years ago. Deciding that this was as good a spot as any, I took out the bags of nuts, raisins and bread that I had bought at the Black Valley hostel, and began to munch cheerfully on my perch. Suddenly, a bright speck of gold light appeared on the surface of Gearhameen River and the sun came out, evaporating the gloom in the span of 30 seconds in a natural display of special effects.
Further down the path I came upon two old men in tweed hats loitering around a powder blue truck. I heard them talking in Irish and I waved to them as I approached.
“Where you coming from, lad?”, one of the men asked, his gloved hands around the handle of a spade.
“Black Valley. Do you know any dolmens on the way?”
The other man, sporting a blue cardigan, turned to his friend.
“Did he say dolmens?”
“Ay, the rock thingies.”
The two men screwed up their faces and scratched their chins, displaying every good intention of trying to help me.
“Well, I’m from Dingle you know, so...”, began the man in the blue cardigan, his face resembling the expression of a kid who’s been picked out because the teacher knows he hasn’t done his homework. The other man came to his rescue.
“You know, they got one up there on Knocknapeasta. Are you walking to Glencar?”
I nodded the affirmative. He took my shoulder and pointed off down the tarmac road and a little to the right; towards what appeared to be an impassable fortress of rock.
“It’s a bit of a hike, but worth the view.”
I thanked him for his help and turned to go when the other man asked:
“Where are from then, Limerick?”
“The States”, I answered, trying to hide my pleasure at having been mistaken for Irish.
“Oh, a blow-in”, he said, which gave them such delight that the two men slapped their thighs and laughed before waving me on.
Sheep of all sizes flanked the road out of the valley, delivering their moody baa’s behind the safety of the rusted fences. Gradually the pack on my back grew heavier and the land began to rise steeply into the mountains. Before long, the sun had dried out the pearls of moisture on my gear, and I found myself growing eager to see the next dolmen.
After thirty minutes of the steady uphill pace, I came to the first summit of Knocknapeasta, the fourth highest mountain in Ireland. Looking out to the southwest I was struck with one of the more beautiful sights I have ever seen: the majesty of Bridia Valley in sunlight, surrounded by mountains, the patchwork farmland like the lines on a cupped palm. Further along the ridge I spotted an egg-shaped jut of stone supported by two smooth rocks. I removed my backpack and touched the grey surface, imagining the hands that had hewed the dolmen and carried it to this particular spot.
Below the bouldery ridge I could just make out the dark circle of Curraghmore Lake, and above it, an ominous swathe of black clouds approaching. As I got out my poncho, I mumbled the words of Skinner.
Later that night I was sitting at the bar of the Climber’s Inn pub. The bar was the color of teak and emanated a sweet yeasty aroma. The ceiling was made of white cob and dark brown beams, and a small turf fire filled the room with the homey scent of burning peat. The dark of the wood contributed to the general darkness of the room, and a small light above the taps revealed a sign with the words “Trad Session” in chalked scrawl.
Hunched around a small table in the corner were six men holding guitars, bodhrans and flutes, improvising a seemingly endless string of lilting reels. Their music joined with the beer, my endorphins, and the dark of the tavern to affect a euphoric sensation, and I found myself staring at the flute player’s fingers with a stupor generally reserved for campfires or word processors.
I was well into my second pint of Harp when a German man and his two boys appeared in the doorway. He gave an affable wave, and the boys quickly scanned the room for a TV and, finding none, went to stare at the musicians. I had seen them the night before at the hostel in Black Valley, and asked how their hike was.
“It was so wet we thought we were in Bavaria.”
He guffawed affectionately, and I asked him what he knew about Irish mythology and dolmens.
“The druids made them, yah, like Stonehenge. We got fairies too, sort of. More like Vikings.”
The bartender was a kindly older gentlemen with red cheeks and a mane of grey unkempt hair. He was speaking over me at a woman waiting tables when we made eye contact and he smiled. Suddenly I recalled the advice I was given from a man in Dublin about how to strike up a conversation with an Irish bartender.
“So, are the Kilkenny’s going to win the hurling championship?”, I asked him, referring to the traditional Gaelic sport that manages to remain unknown to most of the world.
He leaned in conspiratorially.
“Fockin’ right they’re going to win. But I’m still placing my money on Tipperary.”
Suddenly a high, lilting voice emerged from one of the guitarists in the corner. He began singing an old IRA rebel song in cut time, and to my inexpressible delight, I knew the words.
Come out ye black an’ tans, Come out and fight me like a man, Show your wife how you won medals down in Flanders. Tell her how the IRA made you run like hell away From the green and lovely lanes of Killeshandra.
Two hours and three pints later, I made my way back through town to the hostel half a kilometer into the hills. By some luck, the clouds had temporarily broken, lending a bright moon chalk to the moss-laden rocks and roots. I wondered briefly what the odds were of stumbling upon a fairy brugh in the year 2009, and what I might do if I were to find one. I crossed my fingers inside my pockets.