Chapter 21: On their way to Connemara for the fleadh cheoil, Lana and Frank stop for a stretch of the legs at Clonmacnoise, the ruins of an ancient abbey and cemetery on the banks of the River Shannon.
Rocky hillocks abruptly erupted on the horizon. The road swerved between a knoll and a national school compound, beyond which she glimpsed a round tower and roofless walls. They topped the rise, and below lay the remains of a motte-and-bailey castle. The land sloped down to a broad, silver stream that mirrored the sky.
Frank made a sharp turn into a lane bordered by a crenulated stone wall and parked cars. Passing a rough-hewn boulder bearing the name ‘Clonmacnoise’, they pulled up in a car park near a cluster of rustic buildings that guarded the approach to a hilltop enclave of tall tombstones and tumbledown walls.
Lana asked, “Are those round stone huts supposed to be like crannogs?”
“Not exactly. Crannogs were built of reeds and withes, on lakes. I believe these are meant to suggest the sort of dwellings that might’ve been in the monastic settlement surrounding the abbey. They belong to the visitor’s centre.” Frank opened the boot. “It’s wet here, so I brought wellies.”
They changed their footwear, and then entered one of the byre-like buildings. Lana examined the site plan in a brochure.
“This is huge,” she said. “We can’t possibly see everything before it gets dark.”
“We can squeeze in a look at the castle, and come back later, to see the rest.”
They hiked across a field towards the earthen rampart around the precariously tilted ruin. “It looks like it fell from the sky into a giant bowl of pea soup, making that mound and ring – like those milk drops in the strobe light photos,” Lana said.
Frank chuckled. “There she goes, thinking of milk, while the dairyman’s thinking of how it might have looked before it was blown up.”
Lana said, “I guess that’s the architect in you.”
He looked extremely pleased. “You remembered that!”
The motte had been fenced off, but a meandering strip of flattened grass ascending the side of the bailey showed the path that other visitors had taken. They climbed the slope, and then made a circuit of the earthworks. As they approached the western exposure of the keep, light cascaded through the clouds in a sunburst that flashed from the windows of trundling tractors in the fields across the river.
“What are they harvesting, over there?” Lana said.
“Hay. Some of the best grass in Ireland grows in the Shannon callows.”
“The flood plain. The land round the Shannon is under water half the year, so it’s never been ploughed or planted. The silt grows wonderful wildflowers, too – vast meadows of ’em. And lots of rare birds nest here. The hay cut has to follow a particular pattern, so the birds can escape the machine.”
Chapter 21, continued: After supper in Galway, Lana and Frank stroll down the quay to take a look at this historic landmark:
As they left the restaurant Lana glanced over her shoulder, and then she did a double take. She pointed at the far end of the promenade. “Is that the Spanish Arch?”
“It is. Shall we take a closer look?”
The ancient structure had been integrated with the urban landscape, connecting with a tall, stuccoed building to its left, and bordering the stairway of a quay to its right. Lana marvelled at how the Irish lived in and around so much monumental history – such as where she’d seen a washing pegged out on a clothes line strung between a cottage and the wall of a ruined tower-house castle, next door.
She asked, “Do the arches have something to do with the Spanish Armada?”
“Actually, not. They’re all that’s left of the city walls, which predate the Armada by a few years – although some scholars think that the arches themselves were added later, in the sixteen-hundreds. We’ll have to come back in daylight, when we can see better. We’ll visit the city museum, too.”
The arch to the right was barred with ornate ironmongery, but the left arch was open over a footpath through the wall. As Lana peered up at a plaque at the apex of the arch, Frank slipped his arm round her waist. “Shall we go in and inspect the vault?” he whispered.
Street lamps on both sides of the wall lighted the centre of the footpath, but the sides of the arch were dark, and in the depths of the shadows, lovers stood embraced. “Too late. Looks like some other arch inspectors got there before us.”
He laughed softly. “Ah, well – that’s something else we’ll have to do, when we come back.”
I saw the Spanish Arch on my own trip to Ireland, but here’s something else I saw that helped inform Lana’s observation about how the Irish have integrated the ancient into their daily lives:
Blog text © 2016 Christine Plouvier. Excerpts © 2012 – 2016 Christine Plouvier. All Rights Reserved.