Originally broadcast on The Quiet Quarter’ Lyric FM.
My wild hills come stalking –
did I perhaps after all,
in spite of all,
try to cast them off,
my dark blue hills
which were half my world’s perimeter?
Have I stooped so low
as to lyricise about heather,
adjusting my love to fit elegantly
within the terms of disinterested discourse?
Who do I think I am fooling?
I know these hills better than that;
I know them blue, like delicate shoulders;
I know the passionate brightnesses and darknesses
of high bog lakes;
and I know too how,
in the murk of winter
these wet hills
will come howling through my blood
The poem which I just read was written at a time when I was in my mid-twenties and studying abroad. I found myself thinking of the area in North Donegal in which I had grown up and of the Muckish/Errigal range of mountains which defined it and marked its southern boundary. I was enjoying my course of study and excited by the rich encounters which it involved but I had some gnawing feeling that something in me was being stifled. When I tried to write about it this is how it came out – it was as if I had edited the mountains out of my life, or had somehow reduced their light-filled, bog-covered, scree-sloped three dimensions to a flat, John-Hind postcard view, as if I had short-changed the wilderness about me and the wilderness inside me.
The first time I had felt in my bones that something was beautiful, and had known the absolute assurance of that, had been on a summer’s evening, on the shoulder of Muckish mountain at the age of ten, looking down at the silver sixpence of a bog lake and then out over a brown and silver world which stretched north to the Atlantic and to the fretted outline of Tory Island. There is some “heart-space” inside us, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke puts it, which resonates with particular places outside us in the way that music relates to, explicates and illuminates spaces within us. My father, who had been persuaded to bring myself and my younger sister on that epic climb of Muckish, had been born in south Donegal, near Kilcar, not too far from the Bluestacks. When he was growing up in the twenties, hill-walking was associated less with recreation than with sheep-farming and with hardship. This, after all, was the area which had given us the writer Patrick McGill only a few decades earlier. (Few poets have rendered this reality better than the Donegal-based, Enniskillen-born Francis Harvey, who has written of “those on whom the shadow of the mountain fell”.) In his old age, my father described how, when he was a child, he had accompanied a neighbour who carried a weaned lamb across the bog up onto the mountain. The man then reached into his pocket for a handful of sugar and let the lamb lick it before setting it down to graze, saying that it would never stray from that particular mountain.
My father had a deep and enduring love of landscape, of the stories embedded in place names and of the music which came out of stony, mountainous places. I was grown up before I began to appreciate the wealth of the traditional fiddle music associated with the area into which he had been born, where, allegedly, most houses had a fiddle hanging on the wall – the area we associate with the music of the travelling musician John Doherty and his brothers, of the Byrnes, the Cassidys and of so many others. There was a vivid contrast between the difficult lives led by most of the musicians, many of whom were small farmers or labourers, and the refinement of the music which they played. Remarkable also was the variety of types of tune – mazurkas, ‘Germans’, highlands, as well as jigs, reels and hornpipes – tunes drifted over from Scotland, or drifted across Europe, from one military garrison to another, and grafted into the local repertoire because the melodies delighted the spirit of the musician who heard them.
Something in our spirits lifts when we climb mountains, when we hear music which speaks to “that deepest space in us”. Rilke, in his poem “To Music”, writes,
“O you the transformation
of feelings into what? – into audible landscape.
You stranger: music. You heart-space
grown out of us. The deepest space in us,
which, rising above us, forces its way out – .
Nobody, as far as I know, has satisfactorily explained the effect which music has on us, expressing the heights and the depths which are in us, charting our inner wildernesses for us, allowing us to resonate with this earth and to feel more at home on it. Occasionally, a long tramp in the mountains or simply ‘raising our eyes up to the hills’ can have an equivalent effect. Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend a magnificent concert high in the limestone massif of the Bauges Mountains, in eastern France. The concert was given by a string quintet, drawn from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and it was held in a little church in a high mountain village. The drive there involved several kilometres of vertiginous hairpin bends. Having left late, we arrived out of breath. We emerged, a few hours later, calmed by the immense inwardness of the music, and drove home down through the mountain night.
The great black hulks of the Bauges
rise so high
that, this midnight,
the plough’s starry coulter
is sunk in them.
Earlier, in the small, crowded church,
in the upper valley,
five musicians played for us,
stood, bowed, then played on and on –
munificent as a mountain cascade in spring.
We do not know,
we do not understand,
how five bows,
drawn across five sets of strings
by gifted, joyful hands, can trace
the back roads of our hearts,
which are rutted
with doubts and yearnings,
which are unpredictable
as this ever-swerving,
down which we now drive
hugging the camber,
informed by rhythm
happy to live,
between folded rock and stars.