Thursday, 7 December 2006

View From Kiltumper

In the Windy Townland
By Christine Breen

November began with a burst of beautiful weather. In the first week, the Son and I walked down our Kiltumper road—as we are fond of calling it even though it crosses in the townland of Castlepark—and stood on the top of the hill from where we are convinced we can see George’s Head at Kilkee. Sometimes a sliver of sea yields itself to us across the flat plain of Doonbeg, and turning left in the southern distance we can see a line of white that is the Shannon. The church steeple in Kilmihil is tiny in the distance compared with the double towers of the Moneypoint power station. And on a good day we can see the mountains in Kerry. Even the windfarm beyond Tralee is visible along the horizon. (From a very great distance the turbines look like plastic toys spinning in the wind.)

Huckleberry, our aging Golden Retriever, heads on down the hill before us despite our calling him back. He visits the last house on the road and returns in his own time which leaves the Son and me walking on the still, quiet road back to our house. City dwellers are sometimes unnerved by the near total tranquility. During the summer there was a white horse that stood on the crest of field, facing the Shannon but now he is gone, presumably to his winter home. Believe it or not, some twilit evenings he looked like a mythical beast, all that was missing was his unicorn. On the other side of the stone wall and hedge, on Moran’s Hill, a dozen or more robust looking two year old cattle run and kick the air as we pass.

For twenty odd years we have been walking this road. The Son and Daughter pushed along it in their prams, heads bouncing to rhythms of the potholed surface. They learned how to run and how to cycle along it. And it belongs to all of us who live here. In the season that is November the leaves are still glowing with colour. Perhaps now more than ever, the presence of light is so intense you feel as if you could touch it with your hand. The red berries of the whitethorn are like a thousand beads brocaded onto the thick coat of black branches. The sloes along the hedgerow are tempting as blueberries, sprouting along the razor straight twigs of the blackthorn. Fuchsia still in full bloom and dangling like a hundred red and purple jewels belies the season that’s in it. As a gardener I have trained myself to see beyond the dazzle of summer blossoms and into the cycle of the seasons themselves which crop each their own magic.

Into this magic that is the rural countryside, however, has come the spruce and pine tree forests, has come the long line of enormous pylons that marches across the landscape to Moneypoint, and most recently has come the windfarms that are studded on high ground in the countryside like so many standing whirling dervishes. From our kitchen window, Hayes hill is becoming veiled by the tops of fir trees. How many years will it be before the winter sun is completely obscured? The forest is growing around us and our neighbours everyday, everywhere. It makes one wonder: In this twenty-first century who is the landscape for? What will rural Clare become? We hear of the ninety thousand new houses that were built in Ireland last year. Am I alone in worrying that we don’t hear about ninety thousand acres being preserved as national parkland? As the towns and cities continue to grow, the landscape becomes more precious. I feel some ownership and pride in the beauty of west Clare, but now in Celtic Tiger Ireland I also fear for it. Who cares for the quietness and beauty of an ordinary country road with a ribbon of grass growing down its centre? Walking with the Son, I have to hope someone is paying attention. I don’t want Clare to become a place of forests and windfarms with the people dwarfed in between. Walking through Kiltumper this month, I realized for the first time that this might be what the twenty-first century will bring to rural places.

I thought of this again when The Husband surprised us with four tickets to Paul Simon at the Point in Dublin in early November. The charming Mr Simon played for one night only and anyone who was there could sense that he didn’t want to put down his guitar and retire to his bed. It was an extraordinary concert. The Son and Daughter were among the youngest members of the audience and rather enjoyed the sea of grey heads bobbing to the music. In fact, when the lights came on I was a bit startled to see just how many of us were aging rockers. Leaving the Point we walked along the docks back to our hotel. The Liffey was studded with broken bits of watery light reflecting those of the high rise offices bordering both sides of river down to O’Connell Bridge. It was glittering New Ireland. The night was clear and not cold. The clean lines of the new buildings bespoke confidence and power. It was not what Dublin looked like when I was a student there thirty years before. ‘But why are all the lights left on all night?’ The Husband asked. Is the countryside to become a place to fuel the lighting up of the cities? We felt in another country, almost.

As November comes to a wet and windy close with the first of hail stones battering down the open hearth and ricocheting across the floor, I wonder if it is true that a wealth of sloe berries and haw berries on the thorny bushes along the Kiltumper road means a long winter is ahead. At least the birds will have plenty to eat, I think. There is a sense of hunkering down for those of us living in the landscape. A blanket of quiet that is a west Clare winter descends. Country living teaches you things. It teaches you about darkness and stars, about sunlight and silence, it teaches you that the berries and the birds winter with you. May it always be so, we say. Time now to sit beside the turf fire and dream about spring.