I would walk into it to discover what it evoked
for myself. It wasn't a fairy that lifted me
from sleep on long golden fingers. It was the sun, and it whispered
a promise that the day would be warm and brilliant. A perfect day for
the outdoors, and that meant the mountain known as Knocknarea. On its
apex is a cairn, or grave, where Maeve, the warrior queen of Ulster
is supposedly buried. Fortified by a substantial Irish breakfast, I
began my journey.
Any non-athletic traveler who climbs
a mountain can justify stories of the dangers of what lies waiting on
uncharted slopes, but in reality, even a couch potato could climb Knocknarea.
The Irish have kindly provided a car-park halfway up the mountain, and
the ascent to the top is a gentle climb on a fenced path through pastures
so quiet that the loudest sound is the crunch made by lambs grazing
in the fields. From a car window, Ireland seems to be covered with velvet,
but the West is rugged land. Seen in close-up one notices that rocks
rip into the velvet, and impertinent spikes of beige grasses pierce
the apparent smoothness. The yellow furze is so prevalent and so hardy
that the Irish burn it away. Sligonians call the furze whin, and by
tradition cut its branches on Beltine, the first of May. They hang the
branches in doorways or window sills to keep the fairies happy.
pagan ceremony of Beltine is not forgotten in the West. Approaching the summit of Knocknarea
on a sunny day, the clouds were like melting ice cream, and so close
that I thought I could scoop them into the palm of my hand. This was
a gentle landscape, more inclined to fairies than to warriors, but this
was where Maeve, the warrior queen who ruled with a sword in her hand,
was buried. According to the "Tain,"
the early record of Celtic mythology, Maeve's forces were led by Cuchulain,
the major hero of the Ulster cycle of legends. Cuchulain was the personification
of the warrior - honorable, learned, and above all brave.
The cairn, like other Celtic passage
tombs, had a disquieting quality. When one sees the tombs left by other
early civilizations, one senses the humanity that we all share - the
longing for immortality, the mourning of the survivor. From Egyptian
to Etruscan, the living created tombs in which they placed objects to
accompany the dead to the spirit world. They painted funerary urns or
tomb walls with drawings that depicted the animated life of the deceased
who once may have danced to the tune of a pipe.Not the Celts. They bid farewell
to their dearly departed by placing the corpse on a wagon. This was
then enclosed in a box that may or may not have been buried. To help
the dead enter the spirit world, their survivors gave them instruments
of war - daggers, swords, scabbards, spears, and that most essential
object for confrontation with a spirit - the body shield. Most tombs,
such as Maeve's were covered with stones.
Scorning immortality, the
stones give no clue as to the spirit of the people. They forbid sentimentality
and bar discovery. By tradition a visitor places a
rock on the grave, one more to add to the impenetrability. Though it
made me shiver, I complied, placing a rock taken from the pasture below.
From the peak of Knocknarea I could see all of Sligo, its forests, Lough
Gill, Rosses Point. Inevitably the force of Ben Bulben, menacing and
black, overwhelmed the surroundings.
"From mountain to mountain
ride the fierce horsemen," Yeats wrote in one of his last poems.
This was no landscape for the delicate, and no fairy could conquer this
terrain. Yes, a good breakfast had been the right thing.