When we find ourselves presented with any of Ireland’s most renowned landscapes, the immediate response now can be to snap, to capture.
Poetry slows us down in that moment, allows us to take breath, and acknowledge a little sense of something that can be held but not kept, experienced but never captured. Here we take a frolic through just a few of Ireland’s most poetic landscapes, with a nod to the Irish poets who loved and love them.
Killiney Hill, Co Dublin
Anyone who has taken a Sunday stroll up Killiney Hill knows the two great escapisms that the area offers. The first is the impossible dream of owning one of the homes by the ocean, and the second, the more universally accessible, comes at that moment at the top of the hill when you see the surrounds in their totality. Críostóir Ó Floinn was so captivated by the area that he designated 1992 as ‘The Obelisk Year’ – writing a poem inspired by the Hill each week for the entire year. In ‘Enlightenment’ he captures this sense of all at once, of seeing it all:
Into the easterly gloom, westward flow.
To the East under pitch-black cloud
Sea gleams golden; above dark hill-brow
Inland the sky is yellow.
Skellig Michael, Co. Kerry
George Bernard Shaw wrote of Skellig Michael that it is an "incredible, impossible, mad place … I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: it is part of our dream world". Paddy Bushe celebrates this dream-like quality in his work, pairing it with a thoroughly practical advocacy for the protection of the islands, which he has visited over 80 times in his lifetime. Through the Eye of the Needle celebrates this sense of dizzy wonder:
The sea, dizzily beneath us, heaved disbelief.
Here was the hand over hand over foothold
To God I'd written achingly about. Now I recall
Only the coming up and out, the sunlit terrace
Trembling all over in the windy brightness
The Burren, Co. Clare
Navigating the narrow roads around Black Head is enough to put the heart crossways in anyone more used to motorways, and at first glance it can seem a truly desolate, almost lunar environment. This aspect of it featured throughout Emily Lawless’s work. She describes:
Rocks gaunt and grim as the halls of Death,
Sculptured and hewn by the wind’s rough breath,
while Seamus Heaney recognised the awe of those special moments when:
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter.
These contrasting experiences hold the landscape in tension, offering surprises enough – in form of flower, bird, and sea – to 'catch the heart off guard and blow it open'.
The Shannon River
Meandering for 224 steady miles that represents almost half the length of Ireland, it can be easy to speed by and over on journeys across the country. Perhaps to experience it from the river itself is best way to slow it all down. Gerald Griffin wrote, in a spell of homesickness from London, of his home on the Shannon Estuary:
Tis it is the Shannon's brightly glancing stream,
Brightly gleaming, silent in the morning beam,
Oh, the sight entrancing,
Thus returns from travels long
Little did he know that John F. Kennedy would more than 100 years later pilfer the poem from Sinéad de Valera's delivery of it at a state dinner, scribble it on a piece of paper, and recite it on his farewell to Ireland in 1963.
Connemara, Co. Galway
Mary O’Malley is truly the person who has written Connemara, her writing laced with the fierce beauty of the landscape, and the sounds of the sea. In ‘Porpoises’ she sends our minds out to sea from the most westerly point of the county:
The sky is close.
Out from the once manned rock
White electric light
Arcs over the Water
Difficult not to agree with her when she states that the sea is "just the place from which all things make sense".
Pierce Hutchinson, also writing on Connemara, said:
There are chinks between
the neat stones to let the wind through safe,
You can see the blue sun through them.
But coming eastward in the same county,
the walls grow higher, dark grey;
an ugly grey. And the chinks disappear:
through those walls you can see nothing.
Perhaps our poetic landscapes remind us of that – to keep our hearts alert for experiences of water, wind and wonder.