Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sligo to Donegal: April 9, 1998


I went back to Ireland in April 1998. Eleven years ago now being my most recent trip to the Emerald Isle. It had been ten years between the time of this last visit and my first one in March of 1988. This time, in '98, traveling alone again meant having time to reflect on differences, and over a decade there were many in the physical, political, and psychological landscapes around me. The eyes of the world were on Ireland at this time, as well: the Easter Accord was being negotiated, with Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair, and U.S. Senator George Mitchell called to Belfast to broker a deal between the Ulster Unionists and the Nationalist side. The calendar that year mirrored the days of the current 2009 Holy Week exactly: as it is today, Maundy Thursday was on April 9th in 1998. On that day marking communion and humility in the Christian faith, political ideology took center stage in the news—it was the official deadline day for the settlement talks. I made my way up the northwest coast of the country, leaving Sligo on the bus to Donegal, out the N15 road. I had been following the all-party talks closely, but the bus ride pulled me out of all that for a time.

From the bus: a sifting of white powder dusts the mountain head of Ben Bulben, cuts of limestone shaping the blue sky—a dignified profile of rock putting its best face forward. Looking out the window, I see Drumcliff churchyard to the right, the grave of a great poet. As a memory within a memory, on the bus I hear the voice of Tilman Anhold, owner of the Horse Holiday Farm (where I stayed in 1988; I wrote about it in this post): Yeats's name pronounced with a German accent. There had been other drives here as well, past the same site in a small white car with S., on our way into town and then out of it (and the pubs) much later, risking our too-young lives with so much whiskey turning the wheels, turning our vision nearsighted, selfish. A blink of the eye and the Horse Holiday Farm passes, the farmhouse still white, nestled in hills that taper down to the bay. The bus rolls on. Grange and Cliffony all grown up and hard to recognize now that the Celtic Tiger has run through the country. But then the bus takes a turn and gives me a full, breathtaking view of the dunes. They have not changed. They are just as fluid and supple as ever, shifting shape in the wind but always present. Pillows of sand, tall grass blankets. I made my bed there once. We pass Bundoran, and again I see all the signs of growth and some blights of globalization: there's a KFC just outside town. Am I wrong to want to keep this country unspoiled, frozen in time, even if that means a time of less prosperity overall? I remember the hail storm that hit Ballyshannon; the narrow, steep streets, sharp curves that rolled us on to Donegal. On approach, the Blue Stack Mountains, Slieve League, whitecaps in the bay.

Later in the day, I sat by the water, watched it turn from black to blue to silver. I made a sandwich out of fresh blue cheese and a crusty roll, washed it down with Irish mineral water and the taste of a sweet pear, its juice trailing down my wrist. I watched the birds. White seabirds with black heads struggled against the wind. Held in place, suspended over water, until they'd sink down to find a current of air that might carry them forward. Blown backward instead, but finally they managed to move on. How like these birds was the quest for peace in the North.

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