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.
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.
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.”
BY LAURA DAVIS