En route to Newgrange recently, with a friend who’d never been inside before, we were awe-struck by the interpretive centre’s pictures of the even bigger monument at Knowth, which I had somehow never visited.
Unfortunately, it’s closed in winter. But even so, on the way back in fading daylight, we followed the narrow road on which Google maps told us Knowth was located, determined to get a glimpse at least. And from a nearby hill, we were also rewarded with a spectacular sunset over the Boyne Valley.
The famously contentious river wound through the darkening landscape in a streak of silver. The horizon, like a tipsy loyalist lying in a field after a Twelfth of July parade, wore a horizontal orange sash. The silence was broken only by the distant hum of traffic and a few songbirds.
Across a hedge behind us, meanwhile, lurked the great neolithic burial mound. You didn’t have to be overly imaginative – I hope – to sense the ghost of our 5,000-year-old ancestors, settling in (or perhaps rising) for another night.
This must have been the Celtic Twilight that inspired Yeats, I thought. Although strictly speaking, twilight occurs in the morning as well as evening. And the literary concept is independent of either. According to dictionaries, Celtic Twilight is just “the romantic and mysterious atmosphere that many people associate with Irish people and their literature, including their belief in fairies”.
But fairies apart, as another writer of Yeats’s era, the Belfast Presbyterian Robert Lynd argued, sunset may be the best time to see Irish landscapes.
“There is one thing which gives a unity – a personality, as it were – to Ireland,” he wrote in 1908. “It is the glory of light which comes towards evening and rests of every field and on every hill like a strange tide. Everywhere in Ireland, north, south, east, and west, the evening air is, as a fine living poet has perceived, a shimmer as of diamonds.”
Down the other end of the country over New Year’s, on a road in darkest Cork, I was struck by the blaze of white blossom along the banks of a river. It looked like hawthorn, but if so, was five months ahead of schedule. Could this be another symptom of climate change? No, it turned out. It was Russian Vine, an invasive species that thrives here, especially in winter.
The vine was introduced for its ornamental properties along with a talent for covering eyesores like border fences or old garden sheds. But a feature in the Guardian a few years back, “A swine of a vine”, sounded the alarm. It’s also known as the “mile a minute” vine, apparently. And as the writer lamented: “Only when it’s too late – this plant being virtually unkillable – do people realise what they’ve unleashed.”
Ominously, it once featured in an Agatha Christie murder mystery. The last of her Miss Marple series, Nemesis (1971) has the veteran detective employed to investigate suspicious events at a country mansion.
Russian Vine is first mentioned via the remains of an old greenhouse, unsightly before it became overgrown. Thus is the vine planted as an incidental detail in the plot, but spreads rapidly to become a full-blown metaphor.
Elsewhere on our travels, my intrepid friend insisted we visit a couple of ring forts, or fairy forts as they used to be known to the superstitious. I won’t say where these were, exactly, in case any fairies are reading. But if not by supernatural defenders, they were well guarded.
For one thing, neighbouring fields were mined with electric fences, which presented the usual dilemma of whether it is best to limbo underneath or step over. I usually opted for the latter, squirming a little when my undercarriage brushed the wire. Although, even allowing for the anaesthetic benefits of trouser material, I began to suspect the fences were not live.
Then, to get into one fort, we had to crawl on all fours through a muddy gap, fighting brambles off overhead, before wading across a foot-deep, peaty moat. My borrowed boots were fully waterproof, as I found out when the freezing water poured in over the tops and then refused to leave.
The interiors of ring forts are always a little disappointing. Despite their great age – most are thought to date from between 500 and 1,000 AD – they don’t seem to come with ghosts. And the only ancient treasures visible on this occasion were the ubiquitous ferns, silver-laden in the frost.
We squelched out again afterwards, braving the first electric fence with damper clothes and heavier boots. This time there was an audible “zap!” and an accompanying yelp from my fellow squelcher. The fence was alive, after all, its effects apparently enhanced by the transmissive qualities of fairy liquid.