10 November 2012

Grey Stone Studding Green Grass: Irish Ruins

With mud on our boots and hawthorn-scratches on our arms, we've wandered Ireland's Autumn lands.  In the background? Cawing crows, manure laid on tilled earth, big places and important things that have been covered over by time and moss. Some of Ireland's greatest sights lie in cow pastures.  Walking the Green Isle's back lanes and marshy meadows, we've seen countless ruins and decaying piles.
People come to Cashel to see the Rock, the venerable citadel of the kings of Munster.  But we found the old seat under re-construction, half obscured by scaffolding and tarps.  We never went in. From the hilltop we caught sight of another stony relic in a field below that flared our imagination even more.  Hore Abbey (funny name) is like so many secondary sights on the island: neglected, beautiful, lonely and worth the walk.
On a bright day in County Tipperary, we set off on a ramble between Cashel, where we were sleeping, and the nearby town of Golden.  The public trail was closed because of potential flooding, but we followed it anyway, figuring we could always turn back if the water got too high.  The path hugged the swollen River Suir, crossing electric fences and stone stiles, taking us by Holsteins and tractors.  For some miles the walking was never worse than muddy, but after a while it became necessary to continue on an inland road - the river was a bit rambunctious, the ground really sodden.  At noon, we were able to eat our egg salad sandwiches, satisfied, beside the water in Golden.
Golden is like so many Irish small towns affected by the recession.  There were more closed storefronts than open - of the three pubs, only two seemed in good working order and a little butcher's was the most lively spot among the blank windows.  There was a steady stream of traffic on the road, but nobody was stopping.  A woman at the Spar grocery (which seemed to have replaced an older grocer's) told us we should continue on to Athassel Priory.
"It's only twenty minutes" she said.  "It's very popular with the tourists and the photographers." She may have meant that it was the most popular spot in Golden, but it's hard to think that too many people really come here, even if it is a beautiful place.
The abbey is reached by a low medieval bridge over brackish water.  Goat willows and reeds were sunk in the muck, and cow patties are littered here and there in the field, but once inside the ground was firm and dry and close-mown.  A few birds were still in the chinks and holes where they'd built their nests, high up on the soaring walls.
Athassel was once the largest abbey in Ireland, built during the 13th century by Augustinian monks.  In the early centuries of its life, the walled brotherhood was at the center of a thriving village, and there may have been several hundred monks living in the complex.  The village was burned down twice, though, and now all that remains is a convoluted, sprawling stone shell.  This cluster was once the gate house.  Now, only a little cattle-gate is still in place, to keep the nearby animals out of the abbey's center.
In the massive nave are a collection of headstones - some were placed back to the 14th and 15th century, some are as recently dated as the 1980's.  Faceless statues stand along the walls and waterspout gargoyles jut from the crumbling crenelations.  We could see our own footsteps in the grass, and the marks of one car in the soft earth, but otherwise there was no sign of recent humanity.  If you want to feel great solitude, standing in the shadow of antiquity can deepen the sensation.
On that walk along the Suir, we talked about how intricate the Irish countryside is.  Centuries of stonework crisscross the fields and glens - walls for sheep and stoned up ditches, old springs and little crosses in the woods, forgotten monuments and weedy tombstones - and it's difficult to walk more than a few hundred yards in any direction without coming across something from a previous generation.  The cows don't pay any mind to the feudal-age rock walls around them, or to the old barns where they're milked - we, on the other hand, find it intoxicating.  It's the essence of old-stone Europe.  It's the quiet thrill of blackberry bushes and unfaded green, a land that feels eternal.
And, just as we were getting ourselves worked up, we spotted this tumbledown tower house across the water.  We could never figure out what it was called, or anything about it.  Just another pile of stone, surrounded by fences and bracken, sitting quietly in the autumn sunshine.
In the forests near Lismore, some miles to the south, a very different kind of ruin lies hidden in crawling vines and overgrown oaks.  The Ballysaggartmore estate is more modern than the others, built not for defense but for vanity. For mossy, branch-covered intrigue, this is the place to go.
In the countryside around, the hidden "towers" are legendary - everyone wanted to know if we'd been or were planning on going.  "They paved the river with cobblestones, they put up huge towers and planted dozens of oaks," we were told by one woman.  "And then, before they could get started on the real castle, the money ran out."
The Ballysaggartmore towers are two large architectural follies, built in the 1830's by a man named Arthur Keily-Ussher in an attempt to please his young wife.  Keily-Ussher was a terrible landlord, by all accounts, who leveled the houses of tenants who couldn't pay his high rents - this during the great famine, no less, when the people who lived on his estate were starving.  The "castle" towers were to be the gates to a palatial new home, but money became scarce and the actual house was never built.  Some accounts say that his wife left him when she didn't get her castle.  Others say she was too embarrassed to go out anymore.
Today, there's a very atmospheric walk up along a stream, past the first gates - which serve as a bridge - and up to the second, gothic revival structure.  Weeds grow from cracks in the stone, the old iron gates are rusted and swing loosely on their hinges, the forest around is creeping ever closer to the walls.
We walked around Hore Abbey at dusk, as the dew was settling onto the grass and the air was beginning to feel like frost.  A few other people were roaming around, casting long shadows across the fields and murmuring in hushed tones.  We all kept our distance from one another, appreciating the quiet and the beautiful, broken spaces.  Inside, the medieval chambers were surprisingly well-preserved, even without their roofs.  The earth floors looked as though they'd just been swept.  Outside in the scraggly weeds, a few gravestones tilted beneath crabapples.  Their inscriptions were too worn to read.
As the darkness gathered around us, the black outline of the abbey - the nave, bits of an old cloister, some other surviving walls - began to take on more and more character.  It was difficult to tell in which century we were standing.  Hore has been abandoned for nearly five hundred years. The sheep and spongy grass around it haven't changed.  The romantic feeling at sunset is just the same.   

1 comment:

  1. Merlin and Rebecca,

    I came across your blog while looking through various travel blogs and couldn't help but be amazed by your incredible photos. I was wondering if I could use a few of the photos from the above post on a research web site that I am building that educates people about the early medieval time period?

    The images would not be used for commercial purposes, only as visual aids to help promote knowledge of early medieval studies.

    Please let me know if this would be possible.

    Much thanks and best of luck in your future travels,

    Peter Robinson

    ReplyDelete