Romantic Ireland's dead and gone

Displaced in Mullingar: Solitude is said to be a doorway to the heart, but it's proving difficult to find in January, writes …

Displaced in Mullingar: Solitude is said to be a doorway to the heart, but it's proving difficult to find in January, writes Michael Harding

There's a wild headland near Annagry in Donegal, where I once passed a winter, just to watch the ocean beat off Tory in the moonlight. To listen in the morning to the waves of the sea break on the Trá Bán at Carraig na Finne. There are hills around Lough Allen where I once walked a dog; hills which looked like Afghanistan on a wet day.

The road curling up into the high ground beyond Arigna, where the wind screeched through empty mine shafts, and over bare slag heaps. Mounds of rock and shale and shifted earth. A graveyard of dead diggers and mining machinery. Bleak highways cut into the mountain, to make a path for windmills, which arrived years ago, on lorries as big as any Yankee convoy in Kabul.

The first time I heard the sound of a curlew I thought it so forlorn that it sucked all my neurosis out, and left me as clean as an empty bowl.


Wilderness, I believed, was the mother of all poetry. I loved it. And I miss it. I know it's only January, but there's nothing very romantic about Mullingar in the weeks after Christmas. These mornings there's only the sound of glass being crushed in the breakers' yard. It is rhythmic and monotonous. The crushing of windscreens. The exploding of whiskey bottles. The sweep of a million splinters. Crush and sweep. Crush and sweep. Over and over again.

There was a 19th-century notion that if you got away to the wilds, you could find your wildness. If you got to a space with no fences, then your mind would be without boundaries.

Romantic poets could let loose their creativity if they but owned a little cottage in the bee-loud glade. Wordsworth wallowed in a rustic romance of daffodils, pretty girls sweating in the fields, and brooding mountains.

It was Yeats who forged the template for Romantic Ireland, in misty bogs where ancient heroes wandered. And we know where all that led: Europeans in dungarees with albums of Clannad, and dilated eyeballs, trying to lure Cúchulainn off Ben Bulben with tin whistles.

But despite the worst excesses of Rural Cool, it is difficult to ignore the fact that solitude and wilderness are a portal to the heart's core.

Which is alright for people who have two houses, and can bob over the Shannon in the Rover like yoyos every time there's a school break, duvets and wellingtons in the boot, and damn the ozone layer. They can talk Yeats and play Clannad in the cottage all weekend. The East Europeans are stuck with the breaking glass. And the dog that poos from the grille of a third-floor balcony. Or poos on the only little square of grass where children used to play last summer.

So I lie in bed, listening for the suck of the tide in the splintering glass. Remembering the lions of my childhood who paced the cages of Dublin Zoo. Watching the boy, who got a bike for Christmas, spin in circles like a mad fly, because he has nowhere to go.

My heart tries to make space. To create interior landscapes of infinite wholeness. But, by God, it's not easy in Mullingar, in the weeks after Christmas.

On a dry morning last week, I went out early, before the darkness had lifted, or before the breakers' yard had opened up its jaws. I saw a half-finished building reaching into the sky. I saw lights come on in a Portacabin. On a new stretch of road in the suburbs, the fog enveloped houses in a ghostly cloud, and cars slept in the driveways like shiny giant cockroaches.

I stood beneath a crane which was lifting precast slabs from a truck, and landing them beyond the fencing where a new hotel was rising. I hoped some presence would sweep down at me. A Titan in the fog. Or any myth, in the idiom of girders and cement.

As it came to eight o'clock, the jackhammers began to cough. Men from Riga in yellow jackets went down on all fours to finish the paving stones of a new sidewalk. In the doorway of the Gala shop two strangers held sandwiches in silver wrap and smoked Marlboro, their collars turned up against the first sheets of a rainstorm coming in from Galway. Their eyes fixed on Heaven, or Jannah, or other landscapes of the heart.

Michael Harding

Michael Harding

Michael Harding is a playwright, novelist and contributor to The Irish Times