I spent about a third of the year in the country, walking the roads of south Monaghan and north Louth. I walked on the day that Bowie died. Little January curlicues of mist danced rings around the drumlins. They were innocent days, when sensible men were presidents, beloved celebrities still walked the Earth and Bastille Day was a French holiday rather than an anniversary of death.
I walked down lanes with mohawks of grass up their middles, chased by collies and startled by hares. As the summer evenings set with black forest gateaux skies, I frowned at bulletins with their news of shootings, bombings, false alarms, refugees and papers from Panama. Establishments got rattled and polar ice caps slipped into the sea.
If you thought too much about it, you’d end up in the place we called the mad house but can’t any more. If you did, someone with a keyboard would dislike you in bad grammar or uppity importance, and that’s the worst fate of all.
My drumlins and hungry hills didn’t think much of 2016. Their primrose toes bloomed a little earlier and the leaves of their sycamore cloaks clung on till November. Otherwise these ice age slopes are laughing at the meek indoor souls standing over radiators with their mouths open, thinking they’ve seen the worst.
Rambling is an invention of the Brits for sure. They have it easy with their Lake District full of stiles and ghylls and walkers' rights. You can stroll across fields and yards without a care. In Ireland, farmers don't have land, they have territory. If your destination is just a few hundred yards across a field or two miles by road, you'd be advised to take the long way around or that shortcut might be your last.
The Monaghan acres are no different. You’re better off sticking to the roads in any case, as those meadows and haggards are scenes of battle. Badgers are smoked out and shot. Dogs kill sheep and shepherds kill dogs in long-running tit-for-tats that would put the Middle East to shame.
Even if you manage to scramble through 30-year-old rusted ropes of barbed wire, you still face a barrage of barley-field bangers, lusty bullocks, thistle fluff or cleaver weed that wants you to take it and its whole family of sticky ball bearings home with you. Nettles glance every inch of bare skin, a southwest cumulus wants to rain you with enough adhesive for an easterly gust to cover you in hedgerow blossom. You slope home looking like a tarred and confettied May bush.
On and on the radio droned about 2016's start of the end of the world. Still the drumlins refused to even register a shrug at these events of importance. The only sign around Paddy Kavanagh's black slanting Ulster hills that it wasn't still the 1930s was a curry chip container fornicating with a hawthorn hedge.
True, the silence of townlands with names all starting with "Drum" is sliced open twice a day with the ugly hiss of the rush hour traffic on the Dundalk to Carrickmacross road. At night a brown soup of light stains the sky over Inniskeen village where a poet once saw "Cassiopeia over Cassidy's hanging hill" in his A Christmas Childhood.
The frozen ruts of tractor-tyre marks are wider now on mucky avenues than they were when I used to walk them for work rather than pleasure. The potholes on the road to Drumlusty Cross, which used to gape open like demonic mouths with broken tarmac for teeth are gone in a sudden burst of progress. Could it be the work of the property tax? We hope not, lest we might have to break out of our content melancholy to give credit where it’s due.
Long ago, the Celts used to find solace with deities they found outside in every living, growing thing. That was before a handful of lads told everyone they could only find it in granite buildings while their sinful hands made the sign of the pocket- to-basket ablutions. We can’t go dancing around oak trees any more for fear of meeting a disgruntled chap who’s been wronged by collies with a taste for mutton.
Yet we can pray with our feet between pews of shorn hedges and mossy banks. Monaghan doesn't have the lakes of Killarney or Ballyconneely beach but it does have a peaceful loneliness that's the perfect antidote to a noisy year. It's so far off the beaten track, not even the beaten track could find it.
Its beauty is borne out of accident and superstition. I’ve seen frosty mornings where the spray of a leaking hose made art out of dead stalks of cow parsley. I’ve heard heifers tear dewy grass in orchestral arrangement with the buzz of clegg flies in happy July. Pretty lone trees and ancient forts have survived agrarian plundering thanks to pagan fears passed down for centuries.
The year 2016 has changed the world, they say. The drumlins are not among them. The odd time some buck eejit might rip out hedges, or shave them to the stump or dump a bag of pernicious plastics on her rump, but the drumlins are not for turning. Fewer folk walk under them now, but the sight of a single ringfort crowned by a row of thorn trees can still save the odd soul.