Finding the poetry of old Ireland

EMERALD ISLE: Quiet pubs and conversation.
EMERALD ISLE: Quiet pubs and conversation.

On the border country's winding back roads, Tom Neal Tacker loses his way but finds poetry and echoes of 'old' Ireland.

Wandering around the hidden corners of Ireland seems a wonderful notion: one-pub villages connected by laneways shaded by old oak trees, paddocks filled with iridescent grass and fluffy sheep, rough stone fences leading to isolated farmhouses. Driving the back roads of Ireland should be a jaunt.

Yet I've been lost for two hours while searching for Hilton Park, a family-run estate in County Monaghan where I'm to spend the night. Driven almost mad with frustration by the lack of signage, I'm equipped with a GPS programmed with Irish roads that don't appear to exist. All the while, I suspect that if I continue to turn left, an entire circuit of the island nation will be complete and I'll return to my starting point.

The postmaster in Clones, eight kilometres from Hilton Park, described the way an hour earlier. "You can't miss it," he said. "Well, you could miss it ... if you've gone past the golf course, you have," he added helpfully. I returned to the car, pointed it to the road I'd driven down twice before and decided to try again.

The Irish have a propensity for obfuscation when dispensing directions. "I wouldn't be going there from here if I were you," a farmer says, standing for no apparent reason at a crossroad in the middle of nowhere. I encountered him during a hilarious self-guided walking trip a decade ago in the Maumturk Mountains in Connemara, County Galway. I stepped to my right and asked, "How about from here, then?" At least I left him laughing. I'm as lost now as I was then.

I turn haphazardly into a driveway marked by a sign half hidden by dense holly. The lettering has faded into obscurity. I chance it anyway, seeing as I've twice gone as far as the golf course the postmaster instructed me not to pass.

Five kilometres along a winding unsealed drive, I come face-to-face with a stately Georgian castle, a eureka moment. I'm already agog at the grandeur of the place when a young man dressed like a county squire strides across the gravel drive in front of Hilton Park, his family home. Extending his hand in greeting, he says, "I'm Fred Madden. You must be Tom. So, you've found us. It mustn't have been easy. How was your trip?"

I've been driving in and out of Ulster, part of the United Kingdom and commonly referred to as "the North", since my late-morning departure from Carlingford, County Louth, in the Republic of Ireland and commonly referred to as "the South".

From one minute to the next, I'm never sure if I'm in the North or in the South, as I weave around County Monaghan. Ulster's County Fermanagh is only a few kilometres away but road maps are next to useless in much of this apparently unmarked country.

The northern corner of County Monaghan, hard up against Ulster's southern border with the republic, had been off the travel radar for decades, deemed by many travellers as being too close to the Troubles - the Irish term for the civil war that ravaged these parts from the late 1960s to the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998. Lack of visitors is a lament I hear often during my days ambling through the counties of Monaghan, Leitrim and Westmeath.

I've been led to believe that here is where "old Ireland" still exists, not the boom-and-bust Celtic Tiger in which entrepreneurs made fortunes and then lost everything in the global financial crisis. I drive past housing subdivisions full of unsold residences plonked within supposedly commuting distance of Dublin's centre, in some cases 50 or more kilometres. They have become modern ghost towns. Hilton Park, by contrast, has been in Madden's family since it was built in 1734 and has reached the 21st century in a relatively healthy position.

After a peaceful night's sleep in a huge four-poster bed, I'm ready for Irish home cooking. Madden's mother, Lucy, is the resident chef and joins me for breakfast. She also writes historical essays for local newspapers and is an expert on the estate's past and the nearby town of Clones. Over a typically generous breakfast in her kitchen, she gives me a shortlist of local highlights. "You know the director Neil Jordan of The Crying Game, among other films? He comes to stay here regularly, calls Clones his microcosm of the world. If it doesn't work in Clones, it won't work anywhere else," she says, while opening a jar of her excellent Seville orange marmalade. "Tyrone Guthrie, the famous critic and theatrical impresario, was born just near here. Oscar Wilde's two half-sisters lived near here, too."

I didn't know Wilde had half sisters. "They were his father's from a previous marriage," she says. "They both died in a horrid accident. One had her dress catch fire while standing too close to the hearth and the other tried to put out the fire. Evidently they were at a party. They both perished. Tragic, wasn't it?"

Later, Fred shows me around the 240-hectare estate. The park and gardens have the quality of a film set; I expect to see ladies wearing bonnets and bustles emerge from behind shrubbery at any moment, gossiping dialogue from a Thackeray novel or reciting lines from one of Wilde's plays.

Ireland is internationally famous for its literary giants: Yeats, Beckett and Wilde among them. Less well known is the poet and novelist Patrick Kavanagh (1904-67), though the study of his works is compulsory in Irish schools. But I've not heard of him before this week, I confess to Rosaleen Kearney, the manager of the Patrick Kavanagh Centre in the village of Iniskeen, County Monaghan. "You're not alone," she says. "Patrick Kavanagh is not well known outside Ireland, which is a pity as his poetry is as important to us as Yeats's."

With volunteer guide Art Agnew and Kearney, I follow the Kavanagh Trail around Iniskeen. They take turns reciting Kavanagh's lyrical poetry in their softly burring accents while we visit his birthplace, the school he attended, the barn where he waltzed and, finally, his grave.

"The Monaghan hills are hard country and folk here have always been poor," Agnew says. I imagine the land has changed little since Kavanagh was born in Mucker, a collection of houses just a few kilometres from Iniskeen. Kavanagh left school at 13 to become a cobbler and farmer, like his father. What set apart this eldest son was his writing, which he did by candlelight in an upstairs room away from the chaos in the family kitchen. It was here he wrote of the place he was born:

Monaghan hills,
You have made me the sort of man I am,
A fellow who can never care a damn
For Everestic thrills.

From County Monaghan I venture into County Leitrim, which suffered massive depopulation during the potato famine of 1845 and the Great Depression of the 1920s. It's now one of the republic's most sparsely populated counties. Fields have been left fallow for decades and bird life has returned in large numbers, says the owner of Leitrim Landscapes Guided Walks, Nuala McNulty. We've been walking for two hours as the fickle weather turns worse. Driving rain prevents us from climbing Corry Mountain for its western views over County Sligo to the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, we follow a flooded river down a steep valley, past a waterfall, slipping and sliding on smooth stones and exchanging stories about curious characters we've met here.

Just off the path is a tiny shrine devoted to a sacred spring. "Springs like this one are scattered about the county and were holy even before St Patrick came along to convert us heathens," McNulty says, before dipping her hands into the running water.

McNulty's sense of humour is as sharp as cut crystal and sparkles as much. Leitrim is a county that even the Irish seemed to forget, she says. "No one wanted to live here for ages. Not so now. It's become something of a New Age centre with folk who care about the environment - a good place to live now, not mad like Dublin. People are friendly here."

I drink a little too much Irish whiskey that night and arrive late the next morning (yet again, I get lost) at the Celtic Roots Studio in Ballinahown, County Westmeath. Within 10 minutes of meeting the manager and chief artist at the studio, Helen Conneely, she has me hard at work, sandpaper in hand, polishing a piece of oak bog wood that's about 5000 years old.

Conneely has little sympathy for my aching head. "You're doing OK with that piece; just rub it a bit harder with this paper and I'll get some olive oil for you to finish it with," she says. "Oh, that looks nice." But she adds: "Don't give up your day job, though."

From Conneely I learn bog wood is akin to Irish gold. Petrified forests of oak, yew and Scots pine sourced beneath ancient blanket bogs are among Ireland's most important geological treasures. Little authentic bog land still exists. Much of it has been mined for peat for centuries.

"Irish craftwork and jewellery are making a comeback due to bog wood," Conneely says. "I've been working with it for years. And it's grand to see a part of our heritage come to life again."

My offbeat road trip reveals much about the Irish, some of it stereotypical. Is there another European country populated by such loquacious and amiable citizens as Ireland? The conflict in the North has taken its emotional and physical toll and dour dispositions alternate with ironic humour, for good reason.

Kavanagh describes this peculiarly Irish contrast of moods with characteristic precision in Stony Grey Soil:

O stony grey soil of Monaghan,
The laugh from my love you thieved;
You took the gay child of my passion
And gave me your clod-conceived.

Tom Neal Tacker travelled courtesy of Thai Airways, Aer Lingus and Failte Ireland.

Sydney Morning Herald