August 2006


On the way to the Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

Approaching the craggy Black Fort (Dún Dúchatair) on Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway, feels a bit like walking on the moon, the landscape underfoot being almost entirely stone.

The first time I visited Ireland, I was surprised by two seemingly contradictory things. First, the Irish countryside was just as green as photo postcards suggested, something I always thought was a tourist-luring exaggeration: the landscape equivalent of the mouth-watering photos you see on packages of instant foods that inevitably disappoint. The Irish countryside, though, was just as green as I’d seen it, which was greener than I thought possible, never having seen the likes of Vermont in spring.

The second thing that surprised me on that first trip to Ireland seemed to contradict the first: for all her verdure, Ireland was much rockier than I’d imagined. Looking at photos, I’d imagined that Ireland was an island of earth sprinkled with stone. What I learned as an undergraduate careening across the countryside in a minivan, though, was that Ireland (at least on her craggy western coast) is predominantly stone with only a thin layer of velvet green to cover her. The Emerald Isle is emerald not merely in color but also in consistency: a landscape chiseled from stone.

On the way to the Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran Islands in Galway Bay off Ireland’s west coast, is liberally studded with stone. Like their counterparts here in New Hampshire, Irish farmers de-stone their fields by piling the rock walls that crisscross every conceivable inch of acreage…except Inishmore rocks are as angular as New Hampshire stones are round.

On the way to the Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

The road to the Black Fort is too narrow and bumpy to allow busses, so few tourists brave it on bicycles. When you get tired of rattling your brains on a increasingly rocky road…

On the way to the Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

…you abandon your bicycle and set off on foot on a stone-strewn route where crowds of bus-tourists fear to tread.

On the way to the Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

After crossing a veritable field of stone, you come to the cliff where crashing waves remind you that only water can wear away rock.

On the way to the Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

Along Inishmore’s outermost edge, irregular stone walls look natural, mirroring as they do the contours of earth and sky.

On the way to the Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

Like water, time too can wear away stone, for only the hand of history can rupture a wall made of rock.

On the way to the Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

At first sight, Inishmore’s edge seems too stony for souls: how could any living creature abide a landscape that looks as barren as the moon? And yet, within her rocky crevices, even Inishmore harbors fecundity.

On the way to the Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

The unnamed ancients who built Dún Dúchatair were fortifying themselves against invaders, of which Ireland has had many. In A Book of Migrations, Rebecca Solnit suggests that tourists are the latest invaders upon Irish soil, Ireland being a place both frequently attacked and often visited. On the outermost edge of Inishmore, Ireland seems both impenetrable and entirely inhospitable: a hard-scrabble, inscrutable place. And yet even here, vegetative invaders find creases and crevices into which to settle their invasive root-hold.

On the way to the Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

Life on the rocks is a shallow, tenuous thing, the ephemeral existence of plants and insects merely scratching the eternal surface of stone.

On the way to the Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

On the way to the Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

On the way to the Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

On the way to the Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

On the way to the Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

Plants can’t grow on the moon, for you can’t set down roots in a world without gravity. On Inishmore, Iron Age warriors left their mark not by setting down agricultural roots but by piling up edifices of stone.

On the way to the Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

Instead of carving their place in history, the builders of Dún Dúchatair piled up time, heaving muscle against stone to create a sinuous black curve hugging a sheer rock cliff. (Click on the image below for a panoramic view.)

Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

With no warriors left to defend her, the Black Fort is now easy to breach: having made the walk from your abandoned bike, you surmount her side then descend a regular stair of meticulously positioned stones.

Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

What awaits you at the end of this rock-strewn way is the Emerald Isle herself: a spot of God’s green earth hidden on the edge of an almost lunar landscape. (Click on the image below for a panoramic view.)

Black Fort, Inishmore, Ireland

Click here to see Gary’s version of our trek to Dún Dúchatair.

Inishmore graveyard

Today I taught my first fall semester classes at Keene State and submitted the latest batch of end-term grades for SNHU Online: the official end of my summer vacation. How odd it is to realize it’s been less than two full weeks since I was perusing weathered tombstones on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands off the coast from Galway. Today’s classes, gradebook, and day-long drizzle seem very far indeed from the partly cloudy verge of sea and stone.

Just as I did in February, I made sure during this recent Dublin trip to visit Oscar Wilde lounging–this time in the rain–on his fabulously stylish boulder in Merrion Square.

No less dashing in stone than he presumably was in flesh, Wilde managed to attract an adoring crowd of dripping tourists (myself included) who braved brimming puddles to pose and snap photos. One college girl tried to climb atop Wilde’s boulder to sit alongside him but was discouraged by wet, slippery footing; it’s probably just as good that she didn’t find a comfortable perch since an official-looking park vehicle soon passed nearby, leading her to pose primly below Wilde’s smirking gaze.

I was introduced to Oscar Wilde in grad school, encountering him first in a class devoted to pre-Modernist British literature and next in a PhD seminar on gender in 19th and 20th century British and American literature. In that latter class, I read Wilde alongside Walt Whitman, and the readerly affection I felt for Whitman carried by extension to Wilde. Despite differences in style and genre, both Whitman and Wilde were transitional figures, pushing the envelope of Victorian propriety from their respective sides of the Atlantic. Sensing that Whitman and Wilde were kindred spirits, I’m heartened to know that the two writers met in America in 1881, after which meeting Wilde claimed to carry Whitman’s lingering kiss on his lips.

A famed aesthete, Wilde is immortalized in Merrion Square in a lanquid pose and fabulously colorful dress. No shrinking violet, Wilde would have loved the fact that his statue is flanked by two nude figures arranged for his visual delectation. Whereas the figure of a nude female looks demurely over one shoulder as if to see whether Wilde is admiring her…

…the true object of Wilde’s leering delight is the bare backside of a well-chiseled male torso.

Contemplating the shapely stud Oscar Wilde admires from his stony seat in Merrion Square, I have to imagine that Walt Whitman lies jealous in his grave, disappointed that his status as America’s Good Gray Poet didn’t afford him the same opportunities for flamboyant decadence that Oscar Wilde still apparently enjoys. Can you imagine the outcry here in the States if Whitman or any other male American poet were depicted enjoying the sight of some athletic male ass? Dubliners might be finnicky when it comes to the closure of their park gates, but at least they don’t expect the likes of Oscar Wilde to stay in the proverbial closet.

One fun thing to do while traveling is shop foreign bookstores to see the radically different covers slapped on familiar titles. After having devoured Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire on my last flight to Dublin, I rushed to buy a hardback of The Omnivore’s Dilemma when it appeared in U.S. bookstores. (No, I haven’t started reading it, but Gary tells me it’s excellent, as I’d expected.) Imagine my surprise, then, to see a radically re-covered paperback Omnivore in a Galway bookshop. Whereas the cover of the U.S. edition features a somber, dark-hued still-life with the subtitle “A Natural History of Four Meals,” the European edition is eye-catchingly orange with the title lettered in Indian corn and a subtitle touting “The Search for a Perfect Meal in a Fast Food World.”

I’ve established an unofficial ritual of buying one European paperback on each trip overseas. In February, after having devoured the aforementioned Botany of Desire on the flight to Dublin, I purchased Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything, which wasn’t yet out in paperback in the States, for the flight home. Whereas the US edition of Bryon’s Short History boasts this cover, the European edition looks like this and refers to “maths” rather than “math.” Although the Iowa-bred Bryson lived in the UK long enough to pick up a British accent, I’m guessing American editions of his Short History employ an American vernacular, giving that Dublin-purchased paperback a unique charm.

On this Irish trip, after almost finishing Rebecca Solnit’s Book of Migrations on the flight over, I bought a paperback copy of Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days for the flight home, preferring the European cover to the American one. Although I haven’t yet started Cunningham’s fictional evocation of the spirit of Walt Whitman, having started an American-bought copy of Diane Ackerman’s Natural History of Love on the return flight instead, I’m loving the fact that I have a book with a horse on my nightstand rather than a book with a green-glowing, gone-to-seed dandelion. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you certainly can decide to buy (or not buy) one on that basis.

And while we’re talking about books and book covers, check out what I spotted on the “New and Noteworthy” shelf at the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough, NH: a hot-off-the-press copy of Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Bishop Gene Robinson. (In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, Gene Robinson is the New Hampshire clergyman whose controversial election made him the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Church.) Although Going to Heaven is another book on my still-untouched to-read pile, I was happy to see the familiar cover of my good friend Beth Adams’ first book on a local shelf. (No, I didn’t re-arrange the shelf so Heaven is peeking out: someone else had done that for me.) If a good read offers a kind of companionship, the covers of books are like the faces of friends: a spot of familiarity that brings a spontaneous smile. I’m happy knowing that Beth’s book is lovingly stacked on my to-read pile with Pollan’s Omnivore and Cunningham’s Specimen: three books I look forward to reading with whatever cover they carry.

Celtic cross at Monasterboice, Ireland

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Ireland was a trip to Monasterboice, where Gary and I admired (and took many pictures of) the 10th century high crosses there. Long ago as an undergraduate, I wrote a research paper on the iconography of Irish high crosses, so it was a thrill to visit several outstanding ones, including Muiredach’s High Cross, which is generally agreed to be the finest example in all of Ireland.

I’ll have much more to say (and show) in a future post about the high crosses of Monasterboice. For now, though, I’m using today’s Photo Friday theme of Circle as an excuse to share this image of the east face of the Cross of Muiredach, which depicts God standing in judgment above the scale where the souls of the dead are weighed. (Click on the image for larger version.) In Muiredach’s cycle of life and death, souls enter the world and then exit it, being weighed by the scales of judgment according to their earthly deeds: a sober story captured in a circle of stone.

After spending most of yesterday traveling by tram, bus, plane, and then car, Gary and I arrived in Keene last night. As a fitting end to our Irish adventure, we stopped for dinner at The Stage Restaurant & Cafe, one of several local establishments that serve Guinness, for a couple pints and a couple hamburgers. By way of response to the oft-asked question of whether American-pulled pints taste as good as Irish ones, they don’t: Gary noted a metallic sharpness to last night’s pint, and I lamented that American Guinness sports a flimsy, frothy head in leiu of the thick, dreamy cream you’ll find atop a Dublin pint.

But semi-disappointing pints notwithstanding, it’s always good to be home. As much as I love the quintessential comfort of Irish pub food and drink, nobody on either side of the Atlantic makes a bacon blue-cheeseburger to match The Stage, and no bed anywhere is as comfortable as mine. Last night was devoted to unpacking, this morning to laundry, and tonight to preparations for the face-to-face and online classes that start next week. They say there’s no rest for the wicked, so for me at least it’s back to Guinness as usual.

    Many thanks to Annette for graciously hosting Gary and me during our Irish adventure. If any of my New York City readers are looking to do a NYC/Dublin house-swap in early October, let me know since Annette is setting her sights on an autumnal Stateside outing.

As the dearth of recent posts suggests, I’ve been spending my time enjoying rather than blogging about Ireland. Today Gary and I will spend one last day here in Dublin, and then tomorrow we head back to the States. I’ll be bringing hundreds of holiday photos to blog in the coming days, after I’ve processed the philosophic Big Picture of the various sights and sounds of what has turned out to be a richly evocative journey. For now, I’m sending a panoramic postcard from yesterday’s partly cloudy tour up the Hill of Tara as my way of saying “The weather’s lovely: wish you were here.” (Click the image for a larger version.)

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