Magical Mystery Meath

Frank McNally on a weekend in Kells

When a certain well-known British literary festival opened an Irish branch at Kells a decade ago, some of us were a bit concerned about the potential for confusion.

A Hay festival in Meath, in mid-summer, was liable to be misunderstood, we feared; all the more so when there was already an annual hay-making festival in the county, at Trim. Apart from the ghost of Patrick Kavanagh, who could cover both fields (as it were), the wrong crowd might turn up.

Wisely, in the intervening years, the Kells event has morphed into its own “Hinterland Festival” instead, although that too is an interesting choice of name.

According to my dictionary, hinterland mans “(1) the remote areas of a country, away from the coast or the banks of the major rivers” or “(2) an area lying beyond what is visible or known”.

At first glance, that hardly describes any part of Meath, or indeed of the festival, whose line-up included some very well-known writers.

Take my fellow Irish Times columnists Fintan O’Toole and Michael Harding, who both filled the local Church of Ireland at the weekend, something mere religion may not have managed recently.

But then again, there were also a few lesser-known delights among the line-up and some rather unusual venues.

The latter included McEntee’s Funeral Parlour, which hosted among other things an introductory talk on the Camino de Santiago. Where better than a funeral home, I suppose, to discuss a pilgrimage into the unknown.

Then too there is the hinterland of Kells, which as I was reminded on Sunday is indeed full of mysteries. Just outside the town, for example, is a fascinating structure called the Spire of Lloyd: essentially a lighthouse, although more than 50km from the sea.

It was a Famine-era folly – and no, not that famine. The spire was built in the 1790s, in an earlier time of hunger. And it had fallen well into disrepair by the 1990s when it was restored thanks to a brain wave by Meath-woman Sarah Carey.

As described in her Irish Independent column last year, she was working then as a phone-mast “site-finder” for Esat and, chancing upon the unlikely lighthouse, talked her bosses into financing a facelift in return from discreetly placed transmitters.

First, she sought the approval of the great Meath archaeologist George Eogan (whose death last November provoked her recollections). Eogan had no worries about the tower itself, it turned out - that was too modern to matter to him.

His main concern was that any work did not disturb the ground underneath the Hill of Lloyd, which he believed to have been the centre of an ancient civilisation and a site at least as important as Newgrange.

Thus the restored lighthouse now offers breath-taking views for many miles around. But the secrets underneath remain undisturbed.

From the lighthouse on Sunday afternoon, we drove west into the Oldcastle salient, where Meath pokes a nose into the business of several neighbouring counties.

Speaking of Hay, it was the sort of weather that, if you were trying to save some, would break your heart. Having left Kells in rain, we climbed the hill to the Loughcrew megalithic complex in sweltering sunshine.

But while up there, another wave of clouds swept in and we had to huddle shivering for a time under an umbrella in the doorway of “Cairn T”. The cairn’s chamber is famously aligned with sunrise on the equinoxes. Of more immediate importance to us is that it was on the leeside of the wind.

While there, we were given a very interesting talk by Rodney, one of the OPW’s on-site guides. As he described it, the complex sounded like a giant stone-age Swiss watch.

Some of the other burial chambers (there are 32 in all) are aligned to the sunrises of “cross-quarter days”, he pointed out, while a few align with dates of no significance for us but that may have had special meaning to the farmers who built the cairns.

But educational as it was, a recurring theme of his talk was how much we still don’t know about these mysterious ancestors from a mind-boggling 5,000 years ago.

As we blocked the chamber entrance, we were watched anxiously by some of its latter-day residents, nesting swallows, who circled us continuously waiting for clearance to land.

Meanwhile, directly above our heads, a skylark saw off the latest shower with a burst of song, while gradually ascending just as in Shelley’s poem.

Although not listed in the Hinterland programme, the lark’s was among the most eloquent presentations of the weekend. It could still be heard clearly even after the bird itself had disappeared into the skies above. As to what it was trying to tell us exactly, I’m still working on a translation.