This post is for Mick’s father, who died this past March. Fiercely intelligent, with a roguish sense of humour, he was a quiet but authoritative presence in the house in Kerry, carrying with him not only the weight of family history but some incalculable burden of his own which only the effervescent presence of my mother-in-law was ever able to truly lift. The day of his funeral was graced by the most lovely weather I have ever experienced in that part of the world: bright sun, a pale sky sporting only decorative wisps of cloud, the air fresh and clear without a hint of rain. Over and over again people said, how beautiful the weather is, until I found myself repeating it as well: not as a platitude, but as a kind of blessing. I can think of no better way to honour my father-in-law than to write about the countryside he loved so much.
For a while I carried a piece of Queen Victoria’s loo in my pocket. At least, I liked to think that it was.
One Saturday about five years ago, my in-laws took me out onto the Lakes of Killarney in the Hanafin family boat. She was a simple craft, long and low in the water, painted red inside, and named Goya 63, after the flat in Madrid where Margaret and Dan first met.
We left the harbour, me ducking my head for no reason as we passed under the funny little bridge with chevaux de frise scattered along its walls. The water slid like black glass under the prow of the boat: the glass of seventeenth century houses, pitted with ridges and bubbles. We landed first on Innisfallen, to visit the remains of the monastery there. The sun was at its height and the ribs of the church stood stark and white against the sky. I imagined putting that watery glass into the traceries of the arched windows, and then wondered if there had ever been glass at all, if instead, such as in churches I had seen on the Aran Islands, the wind had been simply allowed to blow through them, even in the harshest depths of winter.
We had tea at Dinis Cottage, a sturdy yellow house with a view out over Muckross Lake. Its wide windows bear signatures scratched on with diamonds, a nineteenth century custom for couples visiting the Lakes on their bridal tour. I thought of a young Constance Markievicz inscribing her name onto the window of her glory-hole at Lissadell in a fit of boredom, of Yeats walking past Coole’s better known depository of signatures on his way to the Seven Woods. As always, Margaret remembered a local story she knew I would appreciate. She asked Dan if he would take us to the remains of Queen Victoria’s cottage.
My recollections of the rest of our journey are not the clearest. The gentle rocking of the boat as we moved across the lake did not encourage wakefulness. And the weather, as if matching our perambulations in time, had changed from the brisk brightness of the morning on Innisfallen to damp air and indeterminate grey sky. There is a particular kind of rain in Ireland which, rather than falling, hangs in the air in front of you. More palpable than fog but not quite active enough to qualify as drizzle, its moisture seems of little consequence until you realise, as I did, that you are chilled to the bone. So regardless of retrospect, at the moment in question I wasn’t sure on what shore I found myself when I climbed out of Goya 63 and stumbled up the strand to the compact remains of a stone house. The only way I know that I didn’t imagine my visit is the collection of pictures I found on my old mobile phone. This phone dates from the days when cameras in mobiles were a novelty, and so the images are tiny and imprecise, like something glimpsed through the keyhole of a room off limits to visitors. That quality is inherent to my experience of Irish history, and of the stories people tell about it. No wide sweeping vistas of manifest destiny or the march of empire: rather, a series of nested miniatures receding in perspective, their truth glimpsed in flashes immediately contradicted by a shift in focus. The imperfection of these pictures, then, conveys the essence of what I experienced that day on the lake.
In August of 1861, Queen Victoria paid a visit to Killarney, and, so Margaret told me, one of the local landed families built a small house on the shores of the Lake so that the Queen could take afternoon tea in comfort. Margaret continued with the name of the house, that of the family who built it, and an involved subplot about how building the house bankrupted the family and so they left the roof off so that it couldn’t be taxed as a dwelling, and eventually the place had subsided into the collection of ragged stone walls where we now stood. In that very Irish way, there was a fair bit of time compression in the narrative; the roof could have been left off back in the twenties, or it could have been taken off in the night sometime last week.
The footprint of the house was tiny, pleasingly so, with the remnants of what must have been a lovely staircase. Spindly trees grew from wrecked ornamental chimney pots; a tangle of heavy-branched ivy gripped the entryway. Within the corrugate face of the interior walls, arcs of fallen stone traced complex patterns of remembrance and decay. The lakeside stillness was broken only by Margaret banging around in a tiny closet-like space on the ground floor, which she decided was the bathroom due to its visible remnants of tiled wall. I suggested that it could also have been a small scullery, or a butler’s pantry, for who amongst us is brave enough to imagine Queen Victoria using the pot? In the end, we agreed that making it the loo improved the story, and left it at that.
Out on the strip of pebbly shore where the boat was moored, I found a small piece of white tile, about one inch square and roughly the shape of the state of Arkansas, with rust-coloured dirt embedded in the cracks on its surface. It could have washed down from the bathroom in the cottage. Or it could have washed up from the Lake, from anywhere. I preferred the former explanation, and slipped it, still damp, into my pocket. It proved a most excellent worry stone, as it fit neatly between my thumb and forefinger, its edges smooth from its time in the lake. And no matter the temperature or weather, it always retained the heat of my hand. Many months later, it fell from my pocket and was lost in the bathroom at the National Library in Dublin, one of those moments where fate so neatly arranged the elements of the anecdote that I found it difficult to regret the loss.
On the trip home Margaret perched in the prow of the boat, keeping watch for a sighting of the eagles recently reintroduced to the parklands around the Lakes. I let my eyes run softly over the treelines of the Purple Mountain: green and ochre and muddy russet brown, the colours of Kerry in autumn. Earlier in the day, before we left the house, I had been listening to John Field’s nocturnes. Their delicate equilibrium came back to me, informing the flight of wood pigeons darting for cover in the twisted bracken. Always in these nocturnes, there is a lightness of touch beyond that of musicianship, softening the big Romantic flourishes. This sense of emotion held gently in check, and the poignancy of that restraint, fits the Kerry countryside, its unpredictable weather, my visits to this rainy corner of a small island crowded with memory.
From behind me, the steady burr of the motor a soothing presence, Dan quietly encouraged me to borrow his scarf, button up my jacket. It looked as if some weather was blowing in.
amrh / Killarney, October 2007, and Mougins, late autumn 2012
** In the years since I wrote down the beginnings of this piece. I have done some desultory research into the specific house I must have visited that afternoon with Margaret and Dan. The literary spirit in me has no real desire to discover the truth of the matter: I saw what I saw, I enjoyed writing about it, and that should be enough. But the well-trained historian, whom I try to keep distracted in some corner of my brain when I write these kinds of posts, is refusing to let me off the archival hook. The tension between these two voices is an important part, I suspect, of what makes me a writer. So in the interests of my rather tenuous relationship with my Muse, I will throw a sop to the barking pedant, and attach links to pictures of the following likely suspects: Glena Cottage, and Queen’s Cottage, Derrycuhiny.