Adventures with old things
There used to be a dump just outside Dingle, but not any more. A couple of years ago it closed, and wheelie bins appeared outside every house on the small roads of Corca Dhuibhne. Last week, out there among the fuchsia and the sheep, I found myself responsible for disposing of a fridge: nearly twenty years old, its motor was dead, its body rusting.
The little house is bare and spare. There is no linen press, no cupboard under the stairs, no shed or garage: no place to look for an old rug or blanket to help me get the fridge into the back of the car without damaging the car or hurting myself. There is just one old towel, a thick white one with holes in it – from a hotel, probably – that we found on the sand dunes at Muiríoch a few years ago. It keeps the rain from coming under the door when the wind blows unkindly, and it mops things up when puddles are inevitable. I waltzed the fridge across the floor and along the little path that runs in front of the house, and the old towel padded the edge of the hatchback as I heaved the fridge up and in. It wasn’t easy reversing down the narrow path between jagged stone walls with this white bulk between me and the back window, but I managed, and was on the road. After days of warm sunshine, it was raining steadily.
A phonecall to the County Council had established that the nearest dump was the North Kerry Landfill, seven miles beyond Tralee, but they’d also said I could take the fridge to the new Transfer Station at Milltown, near Castlemaine. Setting out, I didn’t know which one to go to. There’s not much difference in the distance; Milltown would mean a beautiful road along the coast, and one I don’t take often, but the way to Tralee is beautiful too, and I could do some shopping. I headed for Tralee.
At Camp village, on the far side of the mountains, it was still raining and I thought about lunch. It would be just my luck to arrive at the landfill hungry and find it closed until two, with no food in sight. I imagined a bowl of seafood chowder at Ashe’s, but I didn’t manage to conjure it up quite fast enough, and missed turning right in time to park in front of the pub. I took the turn alongside it. I thought it led to a car-park, but I was delighted to find that it was a real road, and that a house a little way along was called Caherconree.
I had always wanted to see exactly where Cathair Con Roí was: the iron-age stronghold of the legendary Cú Roí mac Dáire, with whose wife Bláthnat Cú Chulainn once carried on a dalliance. I knew it could be reached from Camp, and in fact it’s signposted at a sharp bend further down the main road, but I’m usually just beginning or coming to the end of the long journey from Dublin, so I’ve never turned off before. Camp is An Com: the hollow on the hillside cut out by the Finglas river – An Fhionnghlaise, the white stream (Bláthnat poured milk into it once, far above, as a signal to Cú Chulainn) – and the road near the bridge there demands all my concentration. It’s lush, too, because of the river, with more trees and thicker hedges than in many parts of this landscape, and there is a high railway bridge, now disused, so it’s not easy to see what lies beyond the road.
The car began to climb, nosing up between mossy stone walls, with soft damp leaves almost meeting overhead, and I forgot about lunch. I knew by now that this road would go somewhere. It crossed the Dingle Way and came out at last onto an open bare mountainside. Up there, past all houses and all trees, with other mountains rolling away on either side and the wooded valley far behind me, I realized I didn’t know where I was. A sign pointed to Aughils, a name I vaguely recalled, but that was all. I hadn’t brought a decent map, much less Steve MacDonogh’s indispensable book The Dingle Peninsula, and though my hiking boots were in the back of the car along with a large umbrella, the holey white towel and the fridge, I had no socks. Lack of preparation added to the adventure, but I did wonder if I’d arouse suspicion as I went: strangers must often drive along these roads, after all, looking furtively for places to dump cargo like mine.
I imagined that the road would loop back towards Tralee eventually, but I thought I must have missed a turn-off for Cathair Con Roí – if indeed I’d been on the right road to start with. But nobody was expecting me; I had petrol, some money and a phone (no signal up there, of course), and after a winter in Dublin and a spring when the hills were out of bounds because of foot-and-mouth disease, this was freedom. Of course, I remembered Tony Hawks, who wrote a book about hitch-hiking with a fridge, but it seemed pathetic to let fear of being derivative deter me from adventure.
After miles without meeting a person or a car, I suddenly saw two men in long black raincoats, walking on the road. They smiled benignly as I waved – priests on holiday, perhaps? – so maybe I hadn’t missed Cathair Con Roí after all. Another hundred yards and there it was, or there I thought it was. The road became suddenly much steeper and rougher, and a large sign with new white lettering on dark green informed me in elegant, clear Irish:
Ar bharr an tsléibhe seo tá Dún Chúroí Mhic Dáire, a bhí ina rí ar Iarmhumhan de réir an tSeanchais le linn Aois na Craoibhe Rua, is é sin le rá i rith na hIarann Aoise Moiche. Toisc a chumhacht draíochta, luaitear é in ana-chuid de laochscéalta na hÉireann agus tá a ainm luaite i measc na ndéithe i mbéaloideas na Breataine Bige.
(At the top of this mountain is the fort of Cú Roí mac Dáire, legendary king of west Munster during the Red Branch era, otherwise known as the Early Iron Age. With his magic powers, he features in many of the Irish hero-tales, and his name is found in Welsh folklore among those of the gods.)
That’s my translation. The English version on the sign assumed the reader would know that the cathair itself was still some distance away, and referred simply to ‘this fort’. One word was left out altogether, and another – Cú Roí’s own name – was misspelled as Cúror. The poetic justice of this gave me a grim satisfaction out in that lonely place, where probably no English-speaker has ever lived.
A cathair in a place like this is not a city, as the word suggests; this is an older usage of the Irish word, and means a stone-built enclosure, roughly circular, or a reinforced hilltop. They always command stunning views, and prompt amazed respect for the strategic intelligence of the people who built them, their engineering knowhow and physical strength. That the later generations who have told intriguing stories about them over the centuries must have experienced a similar humbling amazement was a thought that consoled me as I stood there on the mountain beside my car. With the fridge still on board, a white metal box inside a blue metal box, it seemed a deeply ridiculous symbol of the way we live now. I felt myself flabby, pale and pathetic: a mollusc outside her shell.
But everything was green and grey, and lit into vividly shaded contrasts as the rain stopped, the mist suddenly cleared, and the sun came out. Among the short grass, the mosses and the lichens at my feet, looking at first like violets, were some small purple flowers, each growing out of a rosette of fleshy yellowish leaves. They were Leith uisce, the Large-flowered butterwort, Pinguicula grandiflora, which lures insects into its clutches with a sweet sticky substance and then digests them. It is common in Cork and Kerry, but nowhere else in these islands, and its flowers are large only by comparison with those of the common butterwort, which is, predictably, common. Leith uisce is also the name of the liver fluke that affects sheep, and Nicholas Williams in Díolaim Luibheanna suggests that the plant has borrowed it because it was widely believed to be a source of that infection. The bilingual Flora Chorca Dhuibhne adds that this plant is also known as the Kerry violet, and a colour photograph of it adorns the back cover of that beautiful book.
High up to my left, as I read the notice and admired the delicate and voracious butterwort and the stupendous view, was a spiky pinnacle of rock. Later I read on the Ordnance Survey Discovery map, sheet 71, that this peak is An Géarán: ‘the sharp one’ (Gearhane in English). It is 792 metres above the sea. Cathair Con Roí was ahead and to my right, its summit a mere 683 metres above sea level, had I only known; but I didn’t climb up, although the way was marked with red and white poles. Instead I walked up the next, steepest part of the road, to the crumbling black-and-yellow crash barrier I could see above me, just to assure myself that the road would continue past the bend. Puffing to the top, I saw the sea come clearly into view behind me.
Another few minutes walking, and there was the sea in front of me as well. I determined to drive on, and to come back and walk the hill another day, with good company and proper footwear – and without any large kitchen appliances. David Herman’s Hill Walker’s Kerry says it will take three hours to cover the six kilometres from the sign up to the top and back. The wall of the Cathair is still there, he says, over 100 metres long and four thick, and I want to reread the old stories before I go, about how Cú Roí could make his stronghold revolve so that its entrance could not be found after sunset, and about how Cú Chulainn climbed up there to cuckold him. In Fled Bricrend, the story of Bricriu’s Feast, told in the thousand-year-old Lebor na hUidre, the ‘Book of the Dun Cow’, Cú Roí was the fearsome giant who invited the greatest champion to cut his head off, on condition that Cú Roí could come back the following night and behead him in return. Several heroes were happy to do the beheading, but only Cú Chulainn was man enough to turn up and lay his own neck bare on the second night. When the decapitated Cú Roí came back intact, Cú Chulainn was allowed to keep his own head and earned the curadmír – the tastiest morsel or ‘champion’s portion’ – in recognition of his heroism. Cú Roí was pretty impressive, but altogether a rougher customer than the deft and sexy young hero of the Ulaid, and his weapons were cruder than the sword and spear Cú Chulainn used. Cathair Con Roí is what is called a promontory fort: one of only two inland examples on this peninsula, where so many headlands are defended on the landward side by thick stone walls. The Archaeological Survey of the Dingle Peninsula would have been another good book to have in the car.
My road pottered steadily downhill as I drove on, wondering where in Tralee Bay those sandy shallows were that I could see before me. The road ran between trees again, and walls, and houses, until at last I reached the main road and, much to my chagrin, came face-to-face with signs pointing left towards Castlemaine and right towards Inch. Instead of tending eastwards as I’d thought, my winding road had crossed the Dingle peninsula, cutting through the western end of the Sliabh Mis mountains in an almost straight line from north to south. Sliabh Mis, ‘Mis’s mountain’, is called after the king’s daughter who went mad and ran naked into the hills after drinking her father’s blood when he was killed in battle – but that is another story, and another day’s exploring. Today, whatever I might have decided earlier about heading for Tralee, the fridge and I were clearly going to Milltown.
Inch is the extravagant expanse of sand, Trá Inse – ‘the peninsula-beach’ – where Sarah Miles, clearly possessing the same fine sense of direction I’d been showing today, walked and walked in Ryan’s Daughter and managed to arrive in Dunquin. The road from there to Castlemaine, the R561, runs dead straight along the coast, blipping slightly inland at Aughils, where Bóthar na gCloch, the stony road, had delivered me, and veering southeast at Boolteens to continue even straighter. Boolteens is Na Buailtíní, ‘the milking-places’, or ‘the summer pastures’, from the time when young people used to take the cows to higher ground for the summer, away from ripening crops, like Heidi in the Alps. Rattling along this road, with buttercups knee-high on either side, I spotted a sign on the left saying ‘Restaurant’, then ‘Vegetarian’ and ‘Organic garden’. There were cobalt-blue windowboxes, yellow flowers, blue flowers, climbers: I recognized the cheerful nodding purple heads of the potato-vine bred at the Botanic Gardens in Dublin, Solanum crispum ‘Glasnevin’, and then it was all behind me. The fridge was still in the back of the car, and we had Things to Do. On the way back, perhaps – if I still hadn’t eaten, and if I did come back that way – but considering how the journey had gone so far, nothing could be certain.
Through Castlemaine, and heading out for Milltown, my eyes were peeled for County Council signs. At the T-junction where the N70 and the R561 part company stood a homemade sign for ‘Mass Rock’, and another that read ‘Museum, 4km’. Much as I love small museums, Museum 4km was in the wrong direction, and so I ploughed on, south into Milltown and out the other side, until a sign on the left pointed towards the Recycling and Waste Transfer Station, and on I drove, and on, between fields of gentlest green and hedgerows bursting with blossoming honeysuckle, that my father always called wild woodbine. Its picture was on his cigarette packet, and its smell was wonderful: the message being, presumably, Inhale! In Irish they call honeysuckle Mil na nGabhar, goats’ honey.
The Transfer Station appeared, and a very fine place it was – clean and orderly, with a weighbridge leading to a mysterious tower, and receptacles for glass and plastic, waste oil and batteries. It was presided over by a polite man who helped me take the fridge out of the back of the car and line it up on a concrete base with others of its kind. There were cookers and fridges and washing machines and microwaves, standing demurely in the sunshine with a dignity that made me want to stay and hear their histories. The man in charge explained to me that they would all be squeezed before being dumped, and I thought about the way the language we use every day is not the same from place to place. In parts of America a sack is a little bag, and a bag is big; in Ireland it’s the other way around. In Dublin you can only squeeze something (or someone) smaller than yourself, and usually something soft: an orange, perhaps, or a soft toy, or someone’s hand; but in Kerry you can squeeze a screw with a screwdriver to tighten it, and you can squeeze a fridge to crush it. I would have liked to stay longer, to learn more about this different world, but I didn’t think the Waste Transfer Station was a place where I could reasonably linger.
Back to Milltown, where I posted a letter and bought a newspaper. Sooner or later I would have to eat, and I hadn’t brought a book to take the bare look off me. Back towards Castlemaine, and fridgeless, I decided to visit Museum 4km. Two-and-a-half miles wasn’t far out of my way, after all, and I wasn’t that hungry. Another straight road, and some very fast traffic: this was the R561 again, on its way to and from Farranfore Airport. A sign on the roadside informed me that I would soon reach the Shamrock Bygones Museum, and sure enough, I did: a house on the right, with a car parked in front carrying a roof sign, and a large placard that said, ‘Museum Open: It’s Bigger than It Looks’.
The owner spotted me, and came to open the door, asking me for £2 only when I inquired how much he charged. ‘There are over 4,000 items,’ he told me, showing how the original space had been extended back and back. There were coins, china, utensils of all kinds, cigarette cards and cigarette packets in frames, and other memorabilia arranged on shelves and in cases around us, and as we walked around he told me the history of some of them, like the telegram sent in 1912 by ‘Bridgie’ to let relatives in Kerry know that a passenger on the Titanic had been saved.
In the next room were hundreds and hundreds of Dinky and Corgi cars and other toys: tiny and brilliantly coloured, though many of them had obviously survived long hours of robust play. A Victorian pram had a body made of wood. Prams were built deep, he told me, so that they could be used as playpens, where a child could stand upright. Radios and ancient tape-recorders were on shelves along the wall; farm tools and machinery took up the middle of the floor. There was a machine for grading potatoes, another for grooming horses, and one for shearing sheep. Beside spades and turf-slanes was a set of shepherd’s crooks, designed to grab a sheep or lamb by the leg or around the neck; two of them had an extra curly loop at the top to hold a hanging lantern. There was a sheep-bell like the ones I’ve seen in the mountains of Italy and Switzerland, made of a single piece of metal folded over. It’s Irish, though, the owner told me, and dates from the time when the big landlords employed shepherds to work in these mountains and the flock followed a leader. Farther down was a little red Austin Seven from 1935, a large car in toy-like miniature, restored to running order by this man’s sons; then I saw a much larger Austin Ten, and a Ford Capri. There were bicycles of all vintages, at least one jukebox, children’s tricycles, dolls in costume, and metal wall signs advertising tobacco, cigarettes and sweets. A bookcase held the two-gallon cans in which the early motorists bought petrol (at the chemist’s). There were even a couple of the tall brown square gallon cans for paraffin; I used to carry one just like them as a child, when I was sent to Cobbe’s hardware shop to buy paraffin for the heater. The brand name was on each different-coloured petrol tin, and the price was on some: three shillings.
If this museum were in America, it would be famous. Busloads of tourists would come to look again at things that used to be familiar. If this family were in America, and had lovingly assembled, repaired and displayed such a wealth of everyday treasures, articles would have been written about them, and films made. I thanked the owner, and wrote my appreciation in his visitors’ book, but I didn’t learn his name.
The Shamrock Bygones Museum is at Ballybrack, Firies, County Kerry.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 5 Autumn 2001