What do you give a man who has everything (Apart from the monarchy, obviously)? A stick.
Britain’s heir to the throne finally made it yesterday to the Burren in Co Clare. He had been due to visit in 2002, but his aunt Margaret died and he had to return home.
If you’re into rural life, biodiversity and all things organic – as he is – the Burren is a must-see destination. And Charles, we were told, had been really looking forward to this part of his trip to Ireland.
With the minimum of fuss (just a 12- vehicle convoy, a helicopter, a few ambassadors and sizeable chunk of the local constabulary) he was driven to a gate at a gap in the hedgerow on the road out from Kinvara. Farmer Pat Nagle was waiting for him, along with Dr Brendan Dunford of the Burren Life Programme.
Dr Dunford presented a hazel stick, whittled by local farmer Harry Jeunken, to the VIP visitor. He looked delighted.
Usually, gifts are warmly welcomed and then handed over to a waiting aide. A smiling Charles flicked the length of hazel in the air, pointing to objects in the distance and poking the fragrant turf with its tip before he, and stick, proceeded up the mountain in comfortable co-existence. Which is good. Because by the time he reached the top and came down the other side, HRH had accumulated more sticks than you could shake a prince at.
Prince Charles was in a truly special place. The good thing is that he really seemed to understand this. The people who mind this glorious, unique place are very protective, but also very proud of it.
This visit from the Prince of Wales was testament to the hard work they are putting in to the ecosystem of Clare’s living landscape. He came at the right time – May is best to see the Burren in bloom.
Poet Michael Longley called it "The Soul of Ireland". It's also where Pat Nagle and his son Oliver have their farm. It's not your typical farm. The cattle graze in the highlands during winter (winterage) and then are brought down from the hills when spring arrives.
This means they have eaten away all the grasses and herbs that would otherwise dominate the land, and when spring arrives the little flowers face no competition for light. But, of course, the Prince of Wales knew all about this.
“I tell you, he was very well versed in what goes on here,” said Pat. “He knew his stuff.”
It was somewhat surprising, given the challenging terrain, to see the prince arriving without a pair of royal wellies. Instead, he wore stout but very shiny brogues.
He took his time, hunkering down time and again to get a closer look at some particular grass or flower.
The orchids are only beginning to bloom now. Dr Sharon Parr, a Burren Life scientist, was able to show him the little yellow Irish orchid. He seemed fascinated. "Try not to step on the flowers," pleaded the scientists to the media pack. It wasn't easy, particularly when trying to avoid falling into holes between the limestone.
Pat and his son Oliver leaned on a gate halfway up and the three of them had a chat about cattle. Charles wondered if Pat’s other two sons were into farming. “I have me elbow kept on ’em,” laughed Oliver. “There’s only room for one of us up here.”
The prince understood. One of his parting shots to the two was, “May the cattle prices keep on rising!”
There was talk of cattle and rare breeds. The prince told Pat he was hoping to reintroduce a particular type of red-headed cow to his Highgrove estate. It’s tough, he sighed, trying to make sure these breeds don’t die out.
“Keep at it! Keep at it!” urged Pat.
“Oh, I will,” replied his fellow farmer, his gold pinkie ring glinting in the sunlight.
At the top of the mountain, the prince placed a stone in a new section of drystone wall. He seemed genuinely chuffed.
“He was thrilled to be asked to put in a stone,” said Pat, who has built a fair few miles of wall with Oliver in recent years.
Then they seemed to be having a conversation about mutual friends. Which seemed strange for the farmer with 70 acres of stony land on the edge of a mountain in Clare and the Prince of Wales. Pat explained later: “Charles’s people used to buy their shorthorn from north Clare.”
“His people – his mother’ s people. Back in the thirties and forties, they used to deal with Kielys of Wexford. Those shorthorn were pride of place in the queen’s estate.”
But eventually, they had to get rid of them.
“It was the queen’s horses – her horses were so valuable they were afraid they’d take a hurt with the horns.”
There was a hamper of local food at the end of the hour-long walk. Leg of lamb, Burren beef, goat’s cheese, chocolate, honey. And in a little patch of grass beside a small cattle pen the teenage musicians from the Kinvara Quintet played Irish polkas for the prince.
The Nagles presented their guest with three more hazel sticks as he was leaving. He was delighted to get them. Maybe they will remind him of his visit to the Burren when he walks his land, suggested Pat.
“I’ve spent a lifetime thinking of this,” replied the prince, and the farmers smiled. He invited them over to Highgrove to help put in some hazel coppicing. The two lads respectfully declined the offer.
“No, we’re stone men.”
We don’t know if anyone told Charles that Fr Ted’s parochial house lay just behind the mountain opposite. Or that strange, compelling looking mountain among the limestone mountains is known locally as the cow pat.
It’s actual name is Mullaghmore. Which is where the Prince of Wales will be today, visiting the place where his beloved Uncle Dickie Mountbatten was killed by an IRA bomb.
His visit to the Burren and that other Mullaghmore – straight after he had shaken the hand of Gerry Adams in NUIG – was an interesting coincidence.
As for Adams, he didn’t stay for the speeches after the handshakes. Gerry had his Kodak moment. And then Prince Charles left for the soul of Ireland for a welcome injection of fresh air.