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Fiction | We Walk to Dissect by Laura Davis


There are bulls everywhere, a mass of black parading around the fence. The grass is yellower where their feet trample, the farmland is a world apart from the rich green woodland that my boyfriend and I are walking through.

Our morning started with a one-mile trek from our B&B to the entrance of Killarney’s National Park, closely followed by another three kilometres to Muckross House. We made slow progress, the fifty-minute walk taking me almost double the time due to a negative development in my health. It is a flat and easy route for the ordinary tourist, but I’m no longer an ordinary tourist. We leave the creamy face of the House behind us and follow the small wooden signpost directing us to Muckross Abbey.

I grasp my boyfriend’s hand to steady myself. The iron railing enclosing the bulls is orange, occupied by a continuous army of ants. There are a few clouds dusted over the pale sky, like caster sugar over baby blue icing. I pull out my polaroid camera and take a picture of the warm afternoon sun shining between the leaves of an oak tree. The film develops but the colours are blurred, the size compressed, the imagination extinguished.

I’m crying.

My boyfriend tries to catch my eye. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.”

I’m overwhelmed by this beauty. Perhaps I can’t believe I’m here in this place with you.

“I’m scared,” I say

“Of what?” he asks.

I’m not capable.

He takes me in his arms and I shut my eyes against the bright sun and let my tears dry up in the light cotton of his top.

“My feet ache. I’m thirsty. That pain is getting worse, and I —”

I’m scared that I won’t be able to finish what I started.

On cue my abdomen spasms, that familiar yet unwelcome pain that has cut my trip short. I let out a soft cry, pressing myself further into his chest. A bird sings nearby and a leaves sway in the gentle breeze. The scent of earthy grass, fallen leaves, and sunshine mingles with his aftershave. I allow it to wrap around me.

Perhaps with you, I don’t need to be scared after all.

I have a book to research, and that isn’t going to happen if I give up. I remind myself of Charles Gros’ philosophy on walking: Nobody has yet found a better way to travel slowly than to walk […] once you are walking, it’s not performance that counts but the intensity of the sky, the splendour of the landscape.

This is what convinced me to explore Killarney by foot, to take in the town slowly, explore the scenery from the inside, not out. This, and the fact that neither me or my boyfriend are old enough to rent a car. Ignoring the pain, we push on, opting for a more adventurous approach and diving straight into the centre of the trees.


We are lost.

Around us is an endless cluster of fern and oak trees. On the right is a steep slope covered in leaves, exposed root and flint. Not stable enough to climb. On the left is a sheer drop which will not be softened by the bed of dead leaves at the bottom. The air is so dense that my voice echoes as though I’m in a cave. In the distance, our not-path narrows considerably, overgrown shrubs and tree stumps weaving into a ‘stop’ sign.

“What should we do?” I say.

My boyfriend says, “Go back the way we came?”

“Too far. This way.”

“I don’t think that’s safe,” he says, putting a hand on my back as I grip onto a root.

“Perfectly safe. Will you put this in my bag?”

He drops my camera into my backpack then allows me to climb. My shoes slip over sludgy mud. I lose my grip and slide to the ground. By the time I reach the top the knees of my jeans are caked in damp earth. My boyfriend’s journey is a lot smoother, not a speck of struggle on his clothes.

“We’re up quite high actually,” I say, taking a step towards the edge of the cliff which plunges straight into water and sharp boulders.

It’s brighter up here.

My boyfriend joins me. “We’re closer than we thought.”

The ground is covered in fragmented pieces of stonework. We follow the route back into the copse of oak trees, hoping that we’ve found the path down to the lakeshore. A signpost directs us left.
What a relief.

Our descent is easier now that we’re following a path. After a few minutes our course gets thinner and earthier, roots of trees push up from beneath the stonework. We’re lead under another dark canopy dusted with long-fallen fern leaves.

I stop, worried that we’re lost again.

“Can you see those?”

In the centre of the ground is a pair of black men’s boots on a bed of yew leaves, as though they had just been stepped out of. If touched, the insoles will be warm. I look around, expecting to find their owner leering behind a tree, but I can see and hear no one.

“Let’s go.”

A narrow gap manifests between two trees. Grabbing my boyfriend’s hand, I rush through it, my cardigan briefly catching on the teeth of a spiky plant. My feet stumble over loose rocks. After hours of walking and climbing, we’d made it to Lough Leane, the slow strokes of water inches from my toes. I take a few steps closer to the water’s edge, balancing on slick, blue stones, camera in hand. I kneel, ready to take the picture when I’m interrupted by the drifting sound of whistling. I look round at my boyfriend’s still figure. He made no sound.

“Beautiful place isn’t it?”

My neck snaps to my left. A man smiles at us. I notice that the hems of his trousers are rolled up to his knees and his bare toes are buried in the water. He holds a fishing rod carefully in two fists.

“It is, yes.”

“There’s a very magical feel about it, don’t you think?” The fisherman smiles again, the gap between his two front teeth make his face look like a mischievous young boy’s.

He’s telling the truth.

Something about the way the deep blue water licks at the shore, too dark to see what waits beneath is captivating, not scary. In fact, it doesn’t look deep at all, more like a sheet of glass that you could walk across to the Shehy, Tommies and Purple mountains on the other side: eight-hundred and twenty-three metres of brilliant green contrasted with a dark stormy sky.

“Have you heard of the myth of Tír Na nÓg?” The fisherman asks, pronouncing it teer-na-nogue.

“No,” I say. “What is it?”

“Well,” the Fisherman says, reeling in his fishing rod and setting it down on the rocks. “The tale goes that many years ago, in ancient times, there lived a great warrior by the name of Oisín (pronounce O-sheen). He was the leader of a group of elite warriors called Fianna who, each day, hunted the beautiful green hills of Ireland and protected the King. One day, reaching the shores of Lough Leane, this very lake you see here, they stopped for they discovered a magnificent white horse in the distance, and on its back, was a golden-haired maiden. Her hair was like sunlight falling all the way down to her waist and she wore a dress which was so much like the colour of the lake that it seemed to melt around her, obscuring the boundary of where the water stopped and where the dress began. She was surrounded by a brilliant golden light and all the warriors fell to their knees.”

The Fisherman takes a second to catch his breath then continues, a hungry smile on his lips. “The beautiful maiden called herself Niamh (pronounced neeve) and declared that her father was the King of Tír Na nÓg, a mystical land where there is no sorrow and nobody ages. She had come from beneath the water to take the great warrior Oisín to the Land of Eternal Youth.”

Did he go?

Oh yes, the Fisherman continues, for Oisín had immediately fallen in Niamh and so he climbed on beside her and the horse galloped across the silver waters into the land of Tír Na nÓg.

Though he spent happy times there, Oisín did not stay for he grew lonely and knew in his heart that he must return to Ireland. Niamh was reluctant but eventually she let him return to his family, gifting him her white horse with the strict instruction that he must not get off the horses back, for he would never be able to return to her. But when Oisín returned Ireland was very changed, three hundred years changed in fact for time works differently in the Land of Eternal Youth.

Very soon Oisín came across two old men trying to move a huge boulder. Their struggle was too much to watch so Oisín swung off his horse to help them but as soon as the soles of his feet hit the ground he aged the full three hundred years that he had been away.

Soon after, he died. But not before he shared the stories and legends of Fianna and the magical land of Tír Na nÓg.

The Fisherman concludes his tale with a nod and picks up his rod again.

I look back out over the water, thinking of the immortal maiden beneath.

My boyfriend wraps his arms around my waist. “Do you want to take a picture?” he asks, trying to slip my polaroid camera into my hands.

I shake my head. “I can’t do it justice.”


Review | Rainsongs, by Sue Hubbard


Sue Hubbard’s Rainsongs has a unique and beautiful emotive quality that shines through its delicately constructed prose in a love-letter to Ireland, memory and parenthood, taking advantage of its mature narrator to speak with resonance and depth. In a contemporary world of instant connections, Rainsongs returns to an age just prior to the boom of social media – 2007 – in an exploration of what it means to be truly alone.

Rainsongs is a book filled with characters who are alone, by circumstance and by choice. Martha Cassidy has lost her husband and only son; twice-divorced Eugene Riordan and farm devotee Paddy O’Connell eschew relationships, finding they are happier living on their own. Accounts of community, large families, childhood friendships, are all recalled, dreamlike, from a distant past. Permanent loneliness haunts the narrative as a threat, but it is from solitude that the most beautifully haunting and thoughtful reflections in the book arise. Whenever Hubbard’s varyingly anthropophobic characters do enter a social setting, such as Eugene’s New Year’s Eve party, Brendan’s funeral, or the various local pubs, bars and restaurants, other people in the crowd are sketched accurately but unflatteringly, reduced to their worst.

However, as the supplies in Martha’s cupboard dwindle at the beginning of each chapter, the unsustainability of hermitage becomes clear. Paddy ends up in hospital by attempting to pull a heifer out of a ditch alone, an impossible task. Martha, despite her disdain for the pity she detects in all her interactions, is forced to ‘stay connected’ by the PhD student who rents her top room, and even out in the country cottage in the middle of nowhere finds herself mobbed by undesired visitors, local families, Eugene. It is impossible to stay alone forever, as the monks who travelled out to the Skelligs found all those centuries ago.

Estranged from and disliking most other people, it is through writing that Hubbard’s narrator first finds community. The intertextuality of Rainsongs is established from its very beginning with opening quotes taken from Woolf, Shakespeare and Irish proverbs, which inspire and in some cases structure and speak through the novel. Martha Cassidy cannot relate to anybody around her but finds a companion in Mrs Ramsay, and notes that despite her childlessness, Virginia Woolf ‘understood’ her loss. Similarly, she finds that Shakespeare ‘understands’ the utopian promise of a desert island in his Tempest. Although this promise of utopia, as of the trip to the Skelligs, is ultimately empty, Martha discovers the possibility of human empathy and companionship through text.

Brendan, perhaps the only extrovert described in the novel and hauntingly absent, is only present through the words of his remaining diaries and letters, which open up a previously closed side of himself to his wife. This allows her to connect with him in a way she never could when he was alive, revealing his secrets, and highlighting her loneliness even when she was with him. Her burgeoning relationship with the young Colm Nolan hinges around the reading of his poetry, again providing an elsewhere non-existent insight into his true feeling. Still grieving, complicatedly, for Bruno, Martha unconsciously seeks out a boy protégé in Colm, much as Brendan did – without her knowledge – in his lifetime. In continuing his mission of getting his poetry published, she is able to complete their foreshortened joint parenthood, relating to Colm as the adult that Bruno never became. Hubbard handles the development of their relationship so sensitively that the questionable circumstances of their intimacy – the age difference, Martha’s recent widowhood and maternal void – do not cast a shadow over their relationship, rather illuminating a pure, emotional connection. It is poetry that acts as the catalyst for this, as the publication of Colm’s work, dedicated to Bruno, effects a change in Martha, allowing her to finally achieve closure. Eventually, she is able to reconsider her future, deciding to build a life teaching English to young refugees, refilling her role as teacher; the element of selfhood that she has been completely without for the first part of the novel, existing only in relation to the deceased men of her life. When she finally returns to the Skelligs, she is not alone but accompanied by her healed memories of Bruno and her newfound human connections, again effected through her language.

The subsequent self-awareness of Hubbard’s own writing as a mode of release lends it an especially powerful emotive quality. Her noted poetic style brings a unique rhythm to her prose, well suited to the romantic descriptions of the Irish countryside, but she is also a gifted storyteller. The combination of endearing details such as Paddy having used the same comb since childhood, together with eye-watering descriptions of the new-money luxury spa that Eugene plans to build and a cutting turn of phrase that sketches a couple as ‘the director of a string of local supermarkets and his heavily Botoxed wife’ bring two very different realities together at once, painting a convincing portrait of pre-recession Ireland. Politics barely surfaces, just existing in the background as Republican flags wave in pubs and children wear orange, white and green T-shirts to watch a football game; Hubbard is more interested in the everyday lives of her characters, and drinking champagne instead of Guinness becomes a motif that is aware of its own ironies. Empathy for refugees past and present targets questions of compassion and connection more than it does government quotas, and the EU is a seemingly independent fluctuating circumstance in the lives of the locals.

Hubbard’s book is about city and country, home and identity, love and loss, but it is in its traversal of the shaky balance between solitude and loneliness that it finds its unique voice, and champions the role of literature in an increasingly disconnected modern world.

Rainsongs is available online and in bookstores now.

Leah Shaya

The Easter Rising by Frank Armstrong


The one hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising will hardly register in most London Magazine readers’ minds, but for Irish people the anniversary prompts reflection on who we are. It occurred in the context of World War I where esprit de corp was merging the Irish experience with that of other ‘imagined communities’ in the British Isles, a term for the archipelago that makes many Irish people squirm.

Without the Rising, ‘Irishness’ might have become a scarf worn only on match days. A form of Home Rule would in all likelihood have been granted as an enabling Bill had by then passed through Parliament. But it could have arrived without the lingering bitterness of a War of Independence when the infamous Black and Tans terrorised the population, which included burning down the house of my own great-grandfather.

It is even possible that partition of the island could have been avoided and with that the pressure cooker of sectarian division that incubated the vicious Northern Troubles (1968-1998). As a Dominion it is very unlikely that Ireland would have remained neutral during World War II or become a Republic in 1949.

Georgian Dublin might have been lost to German bombs but we may have seen fewer pot-holed roads and even universal healthcare. More generous Marshall Aid after World War II could have developed indigenous industry and stemmed the damning tide of emigration that saw independent Ireland’s population in continuous decline until the 1960s.

Of course that’s all counter-factual star-gazing and the idea that a peaceful resolution to the Irish Question that proved so intractable for the decades leading up to World War I is perhaps unrealistic. Moreover, an irreconcilable Irishman Other – intemperate, uncivilised and disorderly – had been in gestation since the Middle Ages.

The differences between Ireland and its neighbouring island at the start of the century were significant. Only in the majority-Protestant North East had the Industrial Revolution taken root: Dublin was a dreadfully impoverished city smaller than Belfast and most of the rest of the island was a pastoral landscape supporting few farmers and dominated by a cruelly-rigid, Victorian Catholicism.

In any event, the blood-letting of the Cromwellian invasion in the seven- teenth century when the population declined from about two million to approximately ve hundred thousand, was perhaps a wound too grievous to heal. Had the Crown risen to the challenge of feeding the peasantry during the Great Famine of the 1840s there might have been a measure of forgiveness; instead Charles Trevelyan and his of cials treated it as an act of Providence that would result in a better form of subsistence. Even in the War Irish Volunteers were not trusted to put forward their own officers.

The virtual extinction of Irish as a spoken language by the end of the nineteenth century triggered a revival that extended to the emergence of a distinct Irish literature in Hiberno-English, a Renaissance that continues to astound. The great socio-economic divergence between the islands also contributed to the creative ferment as where two tectonic plates collide a profusion of novel life forms in the cracks.

More than James Joyce, whose themes, local and general, identify him as a Dubliner first, a European second and an Irishman third, W. B. Yeats was the poet and chronicler of the Irish Revival. In Easter 1916, he breathed an eternal and heroic imprimatur: ‘All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born’.

Secular nationalists have since sought to sunder the religious association with the Rising: the historian Diarmaid Ferriter suggesting recently that the date for the commemoration should be its actual anniversary on April 24th. But the significance of Easter, a passage from sacrificial death to spiritual renewal cannot be overlooked and was in the minds of the participants. With a few notable exceptions, the United Irishmen movement of the 1790s failed to implant the ideal of the Irish nation beyond Irish Catholics.

For readers who do not know what happened in Dublin on that fateful week it is worthwhile providing background. On Easter Monday two or three thousand nationalists under the command of Pádraig Pearse and a few hundred socialist revolutionaries led by James Connolly occupied strategic buildings around Dublin including the General Post Office where a Proclamation was unfurled declaring ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’; and promising to guarantee: ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to its citizens’.

More controversially the support of ‘gallant allies in Europe’ was courted at the height of the Great War. This was not an idle aspiration: just prior to the Rising a German vessel the Aud was captured with 20,000 rifles and a number of machine guns. Another leader, the internationally-renowned diplomat Sir Roger Casement had visited the Kaiser and was captured after landing from a German submarine. The old Fenian adage; England’s Difficulty is Ireland’s Opportunity, seemed applicable.

In the event the Rising did not spark a more widespread rebellion against British rule as only a few shots were red in the rest of the country. Indeed failure seemed certain from the outset as the wider Irish Volunteers had already been advised against coming to Dublin in a controversial countermanding order.

Both sides bore considerable casualties and many innocent civilians died: when the dust settled the toll stood at under five hundred deaths. The authorities subdued the rebel-controlled strongholds with unexpected ruthlessness; that included the sailing of a gunship up the River Liffey to shell Sackville Street – now O’Connell Street – the city’s prime boulevard. One atrocity was the summary execution of the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington by a deranged Irish Guards officer. The cutting down by the Rebels of the Sherwood Forester Regiment was a feat of bloody-minded cruelty.

But as every student of Irish history knows it was not the Rebellion itself that changed the course of Irish history but the aftermath. Initially at least the populace seemed to have reacted unfavourably. But fatally the British administration created martyrs, executing all the signatories of the Proclamation and battalion commanders: sixteen in all. The future Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, escaped perhaps on account of being born in America. Another leader, the Countess Markievicz, was spared due to her gender.

It emerged that James Connolly had been shot by ring squad though confined to a wheelchair from his injuries. Pádraig Pearse was executed along with his brother Willie, cruelly it seemed as the latter was not a signatory or battalion commander. Afterwards, martial law was declared and thousands interned. The mood of the country hardened against British rule and in the 1918 election the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party was wiped out and Sinn Féin, previously a fringe nationalist party, won almost all seats outside the north-east. Their elected representatives withdrew from Westminster and formed the first national parliament in Dublin since the Act of Union of 1801.

In the collective memory the Rising was a Battle of Britain, a Gettysburg address and a storming of the Bastille rolled in one. We might enquire as to why hundreds of men would assemble for near certain death. This has been criticised as a vainglorious and atavistic act of blood sacrifice.

But it needs to be situated in the general maelstrom of the Great War where thousands of young men, Irish included, were being sent to their deaths each week. The macabre events on the Western Front and beyond were echoing through the continent: as the ballad The Foggy Dew asserts: ‘Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud el Bar’.

Death being so commonplace why not die for your own nation as the rest of Europe seemed to be doing? It is instructive to read how as late as 1940 Winston Churcill would tell his cabinet: ‘If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground’. There was nothing unique or particularly chilling about Pearse or Connolly’s concept of self-sacrifice.

My personal objection to commemorating the Rising is founded on the reactionary ideology of its leader Pádraig Pearse. He wrote in 1913:

Against Mr Yeats we personally have nothing to object. He is a mere English poet of the third or fourth rank, and as such is harmless. But when he attempts to run an “Irish Literary Theatre” it is time for him to be crushed.

Of course Yeats was no angel, as his later fellow-travelling fascism shows, but the artistic revival he sponsored led to the greatest owering of Irish culture since the arrival of Christianity. Pearse was clearly the insignificant poet if you care to parse his sentimental verse, and his art calls to mind Stalin’s chilling statement that the writer is the engineer of the soul.

The following statement of Pearse’s written in 1913 has also had an unfortunate resonance through Irish history: ‘Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and a nation which regards it as the nal horror has lost its manhood . . . . There are many things more horrible than bloodshed, and slavery is one of them.’ Violence was inextricably bound up with his ideal of the nation.

A source of pride among Irish nationalist apologists of 1916 is that the Rising set in train a series of anti-colonial movements that diminished the British Empire; as the Foggy Dew puts it: ‘And the world did gaze in deep amaze at those fearless men and few / who bore the ght that freedom’s light should shine through the foggy dew’. There may be some truth to this sentiment but it breeds an assumption that armed rebellion represents the only way of achieving freedom.

Gandhi would soon show there were other equally effective non-violent tactics. Moreover, it was actually Sinn Féin’s idea articulated by Arthur Griffith of unilaterally setting up a national parliament that really brought independence, but this non-violent constitutional act has received nothing like the chest-thumping approval of 1916.

I have to admit to the same queasy feeling for the 1916 commemorations in Dublin as I did for the Royal marriage of Prince William in full military regalia to his bride in virginal white.

Independence was important for Ireland, however mishandled it has been: too many grievances had been stored for the relationship to endure. But the tradition engendered by 1916 is an unhealthy one creating a country in thrall to a violent tradition and prompting hundreds of impressionable people to kill and to die for their nation without ever pausing to consider the frangibility of that concept.

Ireland can never be at peace if Pearse’s vision holds, for then each generation must renew the nation with acts of violence. That is a spectre horrible to behold and turns away from the original perspectives gained from the Irish Revival which should have informed the Irish free state with open-mindedness and creativity. Pearse’s ideas were regressive and inward-look- ing: a pale re ection of the chauvinistic views of the Little Englander.

One might look more sympathetically on James Connolly who identified in his writings the primary cause of Ireland’s terrible social and economic decline in the nineteenth century: the dominance of pastoral agriculture which demanded low employment to be pro table. The small urban-industrial base that an Irish socialist worked from perhaps made him feel compelled to combine with nationalists. But was it not foreseeable that his movement should be subsumed by the more powerful nationalist one? Could he not see the conservatism of Pearse’s ideology?

It is hard to imagine the Ireland of Pearse as anything more than a dark, conformist place, regressive beyond even the state that emerged. His heralded book on education: The Murder Machine reads more as an advertisement of the patriotic methodologies, if there be such. This informed the values of the school he founded St. Enda’s. A visit there, now the site of the Pearse Museum, reveals a proto-madrassa where heroic warfare is cherished above anything else. According to Roy Foster in Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923 by the time of the Rising the school’s ethos ‘had become more like a sect’.

The sad thing is that it is that poet of the third or fourth rank who has been a greater influence on Independent Ireland than the true poets of international renown from the early twentieth century. Ireland’s birth pangs were not pretty. We can acknowledge the significance of the 1916 Rising but look forward to this divisive and potentially dangerous event passing into obscurity.

By Frank Armstrong 

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