I paid another visit to my native county recently. I stayed in my native village. If I may make a recommendation, visitors to Fermanagh would do well to consider the Glendarragh Inn, Ederney (http://www.glendarraghvalleyinn.com) . It’s small, the accommodation is plain, but the food is generous, farmer’s portions, and really good value. There is a single bar/dining area which allows clear view over the bulk of the village and surrounding area. From where I sat at my two breakfasts and dinners, I could see the spine of the village climbing the village’s drumlin. I could see the top of the Fairy Fort peeping over the houses. Straight ahead, misty in evening sunshine, there was the plain of Cahore, the flat fields that border the Glendarragh river shrouded with the pale foliage of trees just coming into full maturity of leaf: birch, ash, oak.
I have a complicated relationship with home. Until I was eleven years old, we lived in the Bank House in the centre of the village. When I was ten, I was moved up to a bedroom on the third storey, and one of the compensations for the chill and bleakness of that room, for being on a different floor from my brother and parents, was the clear view over the tops of the houses northwest towards Cahore, Moneyvriece. However, even though I loved the place, I also felt different, separate, that I didn’t really belong, for all that my eyes revelled in the soft shaggy greenery, and my body yielded to the land’s undulations, its texture, when I walked the fields. My parents were blow-ins, neither of them originating in Fermanagh. While my father had grown up in the next county, Tyrone, his role as the local doctor contributed to our family almost the distinctiveness of a people apart. And my mother was from Tipperary, often homesick for it, or at least for the south, where the people, according to her, had softer, gentler ways. Well, I have heard it said by more southerners than her, how the sarcasm of the northern humour leaves them gasping for breath at both the cruelty and the direct-target hilarity. She compared the land negatively as well, and that hurt me, as I identified with it so deeply, that, while we didn’t own a scrap of it beyond the garden, I felt all of it belonged to me. The ‘bad land’ that she disparaged in comparison to the fertile fields of Tipperary, was the territory of my imagination, peopled not just with the livestock and wildlife of the present, the teeming birdlife, the hints of fox and badger, but also with the ghosts of the past: wolves, bears, aurochs, red deer, eagles; and with the creatures of my invention as I loped or galloped down the lanes, across the fields, snorting and tossing my head, testing the wind with my nose and tongue.
Now, the only solid thing I have to visit is my parents’ grave. But, as a good friend quoted to me recently, ‘home is where your people are buried’. It is also, to paraphrase Frost, where, when you show up, they have to take you in. So when I rang the Glendarragh Inn a few weeks ago, and got John the proprietor, who is a old primary school classmate, my exact contemporary, I was glad of the lack of hesitation. Of course I could come home. So many years, for so many reasons, I had such dread coming home. Home was often a place of pain; and anger, bewilderment, slow, then precipitous decline. Now it is easier. The immediate rawness of grief is fading, the snarling complications have untangled. I picked up a wreath before I left Belfast. I called to the grave on the way through. It is a small country graveyard, just one of those same rushy fields, nestling between gentle hills. Usually when I’m there, a robin sings; sometimes, a dunnock, just to taunt me. In the distance there’s the sounds of the land’s life perpetuating: a tractor; the bellow of a cow; a donkey’s bray. The stone of my parents’ grave marker is grey granite, its colour not unlike the limestone that is the bedrock of the soil beneath; the skeins of rain that perennially douse the landscape; my father’s eyes.
I laid the small wreath. Papal colours, my father would be proud. But the yellow has both the freshness of spring and the warmth of autumn. My mother would like that. And it reminds me of the stories she told of knitting for me while she was pregnant, the yellows to welcome either boy or girl. I didn’t stay long. There were workmen on the road outside the graveyard, and the smell of tar was sickening. I touched the headstone, as I always do, the last gesture of affection I can give to my parents.
Instead, I went to the chapel in the middle of the village. I was driving the famous jeep, and I couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought of the remarks it might draw, Is that what she spent her inheritance on? Ederney chapel is beautiful, still nearly as familiar to me as my childhood bedroom, and why not, wasn’t I baptised here, made my first communion here, wasn’t I confirmed from here? What matter that I rarely darken a church door these days? This church is my natal one. There, I can still pray. I entered by the side door that my father always used, sat close to where he used to sit. I lit candles at St Joseph’s altar for my parents. The stained glass windows are unchanged from my childhood, each one as familiar as the chapter of a book of tales.
The following morning, I drove past the second house that I lived in from I was eleven until I was eighteen. It was sold last year, and is now a different place to the forlorn, almost accusatory, monument it had become. It’s a chapter closed, but I’m glad it has passed on safely to the care of its new owners. It has been painted, has new guttering, I’m told there are new wooden floors, much bewailed by a friend of my late mother’s, who mourns my mother’s taste in carpets. For myself, I’m just relieved that it looks well and cared for, that it has a new life. I’m relieved it wasn’t sold at the height of the boom, when a developer would likely have torn it down and put up three town houses in its stead. I feel blessed, comforted, by both its stability and its transformation. There was a light on in the hall as I drove past.
Castle Archdale was still there to welcome me, although the noise of the lorries travelling past the main entrance before 5am was somewhat startling. So much for being quieter away from Belfast. However, in the main body of the forest it was quiet, except for the cacophony of the birds themselves. Before that, as I waited in the dark for the dawn chorus to start, I felt the anticipation that one might feel waiting for an orchestra to begin. Which would start first? Robin? Blackbird? Song thrush? I sat in the jeep, windows scrolled down, listening hard. I thought I heard a robin’s flutter; but it was hesitant and far away. Then, the first assertive notes of a song thrush, its ‘rinse and wring’ as Hopkins so aptly summed it, that were quickly joined by another, then the blackbirds, and finally the robin got its act together, and soon the forest was full of song as the cold light strengthened.
My first blackbird was the usual struggle. It took too long to get a decent recording, so long that I missed out on his neighbour. By the time I was done, they both had fallen silent, and a blackcap was bubbling from the undergrowth, almost drowning out the deadpan chiffchaff in the same location. However, I managed to get him. A couple more hours saw me get a second blackbird, singing more quietly after the strenuous efforts of dawn. I have learned from my shy chiffchaff, and when the blackbird stopped singing and moved away as I approached too closely, I moved back and sat down. It took ten minutes, but he came back, and he sang again.
I got two more chiffchaffs, singing without too much heterospecific competition (that’s without being drowned out by other species, in ordinary English) also. Not a bad morning’s worth.
I set my alarm for 4:15am the following morning, but as I was going to bed there was a gale blowing and rained lashed the windows. It was hardly any better the following morning, so I didn’t go out. Instead, I waited for the young Poles to rise to gauge when to go for breakfast. The Poles are there regularly to work on the local windfarms, checking the huge blades and motors. In the room next to me, I’d heard them talking as I went to sleep, the sibilance, the vowels; incredible, despite their ubiquity during the boom, that we still have immigrants; that this part of the world is so clearly part of a larger one. It always was, of course, but that intense inward focus that was so pervasive during my childhood, exacerbated by the Troubles, has eased also.
I might make it back once more before my field season ends in early June. I’m over quota with the chiffchaffs already. I haven’t recorded a mistle thrush for about two weeks. I’m aiming for about 40 blackbirds to ensure that I get at least 20 good ones, and I’m currently at around 25. But I’ve signed up for the ASAB (association for the study of animal behaviour) conference in Essen, Germany, in July. I’m hoping to get accepted to talk. So just a last big push for the next month or so, then I’m done. Then it’s stats, analysis, writing. A different kind of adventure. Who knows where it will lead?