Every Stone a Story

Article excerpt

Unfortunately, Liam does not mention his fear of heights to anyone until we reach the summit. Perhaps he wasn't aware of it himself, having never been higher than a Dublin barstool. Nor would he necessarily have realized it in the donkey work of slogging the switchbackless track through boulder, scree, and bog. But here at the airy pinnacle of Errigal, at 2,466 feet the highest point in all of County Donegal, with the northwest of Ireland spread out before him from the Poison Glen behind to the grim mass of barrow-crowned Muckish ahead, Liam sits down heavily, sweating profusely. pallid even by Dublin standards. Not even tea can help, brewed from the first-aid thermoses that each of us carry alongside our prophylactic packets of biscuits. Folk remedies thus exhausted, our native guide Linda Woods leads him back down by the hand like a lost child, all the while keeping up a constant stream of cheery chatter to distract him from the unaccustomed immensity of the horizon and the cairn erected to commemorate the climber who died in a storm last year.

This far fringe of the Eurasian landmass is enough to turn anyone's head; if the desolation of rock and bog won't do it, the language will. Wandering on my own a few days later, it takes the first drops of a deluge to stir me from my transfixion in the middle of the country lane, cows staring at me and I staring at the rusty notice on the pole, warning in both English and Irish that "Persons throwing stones at the telegraph will be prosecuted.. A providential lift leaves me in the shelter of the nearest pub, where I drip in front of the turf fire. "Sure it rained as much in the last half hour as it would rain in a week if it rained all day," says an old gent, transfixing me all over again.

In Ireland one participates in the landscape not through the New World fantasy of being the first person ever to stand on a particular spot, but through the stories, songs, and poems that infuse the countryside like strong tea. Turning left through the gorse at the obligatory ruined farmhouse, we ascend the 1,700-foot flat-topped massif of Ben Bulben. ("Under bare Ben Bulben's head/In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.") The rain and hail that assault us by turns are joined by the waters of Ard na Sruhan, a Sisyphean waterfall perpetually blown back on itself as it tries to tumble off the cliff into the lake below. ("Where the wandering water gushes/From the hills above Glen-Car.")

The tale of this landscape flexes between history and fable. On the way to the Blue Stack Mountains, we stop by a ruined castle at Lough Eske. "Did we burn this one?" wonders Liam idly. Then up the Corraber River to Lake Belshade, where a magic cat is said to guard the monks' jewels.

Often the stories are told by ghosts. Remnant stone walls march impossibly high up barren mountainsides, marking the boundaries of desperation in pre-Famine times, when the population was twice what it is now. Collapsed stone cottages are everywhere, marking the shrinking boundaries of rural life. …