Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Piltown, 26.7.01: The Callan Condom and Thalictrum

A drive yesterday to Callan to see the burial place of Am Liobh (Humphrey) O’Sullivan, as well as the house of Edmund Rice. Land around Callan seemed not so lush as in southern Co. Kilkenny—more of an open, barren feel to it. This especially true when it’s contrasted with the area around the slate quarry on the Kilkenny-Tipperary border.

John drove us to the latter on the way. Gorgeous countryside, those sweeping vistas of fields rising up hillsides on all sides.

The quarry is in a valley area, just on the border. As one drives to and from it, one goes along narrow lanes choked with fern, bracken, meadowsweet, yarrow, horsetail (a noxious weed, John says), brambles, and thousands of other plants.

Driving away from the quarries, we passed a ramshackle farmplace John and Maura described as belonging to some couple who live hand to mouth, cultivating bits of vegetables and living on the dole. We also passed a very neat place on a stream that they said belonged to a Dutchman, who sometimes comes to stay in it. A very appealing area—I could see having a retirement or vacation place in it.

(The Irish seem to have a strong interest in “others”—the Dutch who vacation here, the French van we saw in Kilkenny, bicycles affixed to it, the Spanish students clustered in the city. There’s that self-conscious sense of being part of Europe, aided and abetted by shared Catholicism. There’s the need to be unlike England, with its insularity and xenophobia. Hence John and Maura’s interest in the fact that this place was bought by a Dutchman. And everybody does seem to know everybody else’s business here.

In fact, John and Maura knew and told stories about almost every place we passed. E.g., a little roadside pub whose name in Irish spoke of its musical offerings: John and Maura told us the family living there had been extraordinarily musical. In a back room were a piano with a violin and mandolin on it. As the family members worked, they’d pass by and stop to play whatever instrument took their fancy. None ever married, and all have gone off except for one man, who now lives alone there, a rather forlorn existence.)

On to the high crosses at Ahenny, which were beautiful, but…. I seem to drink in the landscape, the fresh breezes, those sunlit fields, the wagtail atop one of the crosses. With any touring, the first time one sees an extraordinary monument, it’s fascinating. But the next and next time….

From Ahenny to Callan, an unprepossessing, gray-seeming town. Perhaps it didn’t help that the skies had darkened by the time we got there, making it gray and the air very close. It’s also always a shock to go from the fresh pristine beauty of the Irish countryside to the grimy tawdriness of one of its towns, litter everywhere. English villages aren’t so. Perhaps the Irish are too individualistic or anarchic to have the gift of living together.

In Callan, a pub meal. Steve had beef stew, which was quite good, a slight undertaste of allspice, with sliced carrots in it. Around it, julienned carrots and rutabagas. Why more carrots? Why nothing green? We might have had lasagna with potatoes, another menu offering.

I had chicken sandwich and lemon squash, ordered it toasted and as a chicken salad sandwich, but the waitress told me it wouldn’t be nice (i.e., the toast-salad combination). That seemed to make perfect sense to John and Maura, but the logic of it escapes me. It arrived salad on the side, with one meretricious little pink glop of a very fussed-with cole slaw added.

At Callan, we decided we didn’t have time for Edmund Rice. We did walk on to see the Norman church, with its interesting carving of a late-medieval woman over one door. Steve remarked that her headdress looked not unlike the hairstyle of the little Piltown Madonna, and he’s right. The two are separated by less than a century, apparently.

We also saw the Augustinian church, a dreary affair, all green paint, mildewed and flaked, inside.

We then decided to drive on to Kilkenny, where we wanted to book-shop. Visited several bookshops. None had MacLysaght’s surnames book, or the diary of Am Liobh O’Sullivan. But I did buy at Rothe House a brief history of Templeorum parish—a not very good one—and a history of Rosbercon parish.

Back to the grave of Am Liobh O’Sullivan, in Callan cemetery, a pretty place outside town. But, again, I was more impressed by the beautiful countryside than the monuments. Callan—at least, the Callan countryside—has a more yellow color to it than the lush green of the south Tipperary-Kilkenny border. Home to pork steak and onions, with potatoes, cauliflower, and broccoli—with Maura’s brother Gerald, who lives outside London in Kent and is quite the world traveler.

John’s garden is absolutely a work of art. I can’t describe it, it’s so simply beautiful, a vestige of the monastery garden, with its herbs, fruit, and bee-drawing flowers. Vegetables intermingle with ornamental shrubs, not in a confused or riotous way, but with perfect decency. The apples are espaliered (some of them, at least) over a woodrail fence. There’s a gingko tree John grew from seed—about ten years old—which is a shrub rather than a tree, beautiful beside a dark purple buddleia. The buddleias grow tall as trees here, where the winter climate doesn’t bite them back.

Fuchsia grows as a hedge, six feet tall, as I have seen it in west Cork. There’s a glorious flower called Thalictrum, a lavender mist above maidenhair-fern foliage.

Buddleias big as trees also along the coastal road south of Waterford today, and again along the road north of Mullinavat. And fuchsia six and eight feet high.

The Callan condom: in the restroom of the pub in Callan, a sleek black condom on the floor. Never having seen one, I wasn’t sure what it was, though I had my suspicions. I poked it with my toes. It left a slimy trail. Why a used condom on the bathroom floor? Come to think of it, did I see condom machines on my previous visits? I don’t believe so. Now they’re in every restroom. Oh Ireland, how you have fallen from the grace bestowed by our gracious bishops and cardinals on the righteous.

No comments: