Monumental treasure


MAGAN'S WORLD:THE POET AND novelist Henry Shukman described the Grand Canyon recently in the New York Timesas "a truly national monument, analogous to the Lake District in England in its centrality to the nation's psyche. It's something all Americans share, and can take pride in".

Bob Dylan said something similar in his Last Thoughts on Woodie Guthrie: "You'll find God in the church of your choice / You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital / And though it's only my opinion / I may be right or wrong / You'll find them both / In the Grand Canyon / At sundown. "Which prompts a question: what is Ireland's equivalent? Is there one location where our soul resides, that corresponds to the comment by the American poet Carl Sandburg that "each man sees himself in the Grand Canyon"?

What about the manicured car parks and tasteful souvenir shops of Newgrange? Or the varnished pews and musty crypt of Christ Church? Both are too contrived to stir any potent sense of belonging in me. Dún Aonghusa or Sceilig Mhichíl might work, but they are too Atlantic-focused. Ireland is bog and meadow as much as crashing waves and soaring rock, which is why for me the spot that most invokes the essence of Ireland is Carrowkeel passage tombs, west into the hills from Castlebaldwin, in Co Sligo.

Although similar in form to the tombs of Newgrange, Knowth or Loughcrew, the 14 cairns at Carrowkeel are far older, and in a setting that seems perfectly poised between the rich soils of Meath and the rugged scree of Dún Aongusa. The cairns have neither suffered the battery of centuries of Atlantic waves, like Dún Aonghusa, or been compromised and tamed by industrious Pale farmers, like the cairns of Meath. They are still satisfyingly inaccessible - no handy coach trip from Dublin. Some of their potency stems from the fact that they lie at a remove from the ordinary world. Although theoretically one can drive right up to them, doing so will tear your undercarriage to shreds.

All the focus of the principle cairn, the G Cairn, is on a spot above the main opening, a narrow orifice where a shaft of sun penetrates on the midsummer sunset.

I spent the winter solstice there this year. Climbing up through thick snow and clearing a path to the entrance, then posting myself through the narrow slot between the entrance boulders into the inner sanctum, I settled in the back chamber, sitting cross-legged, savouring the sensation of being buried deep inside the hillside.

The sense of rejuvenation and replenishment stayed with me for weeks. Primarily it's a sense of perspective one gets in places like this. As Danny Glover says in the movie Grand Canyon: "When you sit on the edge of that thing, you realise what a joke we people really are . . . thinking that our time here means diddly to those rocks."

Even knowing Carrowkeel exists is enough to give me strength when I'm down, to know that it's waiting there for me, and that if I lose track of what's important I can get into my car, drive up the N4 and take the turn a few kilometres beyond Boyle on to the track that winds its way past the few small farms and the donkey sanctuary before leading out into a landscape largely untouched by civilisation.