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My country

Of all the countries I’ve lived or visited, I love Ireland best. Perhaps I always will.

Of course, I am shamelessly biased. Partly I find comfort in the familiar; or it may have something to do with the smell. That is what first hit me fresh off the plane at Kerry Airport; specifically, the bucolic bouquet of sheep shit.

I have always likened New Zealand to Ireland (or the other way round, according to your allegiance), but the Kiwi landscape, although similar to Ireland, has more style and glamour. It has a better frame: the mountains are higher; the valleys are lower; the lakes are deeper; the sea a keener blue.

Yet Ireland has a shabby charm that will always endear me. There are still roads the Ordnance Survey classifies as B-grade, which are barely tarmacadamed tracks fortified with grass. You expect to round a corner and find a pipe-smoking countrywoman churning butter. Farms are commonly delineated by hedgerows.

But it is the interplay of weather and light that casts a unique spell. The good days are beautiful, but the changeable days are magic. If you don’t believe in leprechauns, banshees and fairies, you can understand the origins of the mythology. When the elements can’t decide what to do, they just throw the whole lot at you.

Apparently, the Irish summer has been terrible. The weather brings out a touch of the obsessive compulsive in the Irish, so every time they’ve spoken to me over the last few months, my parents have bemoaned it at length.

“The weather is pure bitter,” my mother would say in grief-stricken tones. “Feckin rain. We had a day there – Tuesday – or, it could have been Sunday – and the sun came out for three hours in the morning. No, now that I think about it – wait – it was the afternoon. And I think it was Monday. That was it; that was our summer. Three feckin hours long.”

When I arrived in Ireland last week, I refused to believe them.

“You brought the sunshine with you,” said my mother, darkly. “It won’t last, mark my words.”

Well, given the country’s reputation, her prediction was safe enough. After three days of stuttering sunshine, it has been inclement.

Shortly after I arrived, Danny and I walked up to Curraghmore Lake from the Black Valley. The Black Valley lakes were still underneath a moody sky. It remained grim until we reached the lake, when the sun illuminated great tracts of surrounding landscape. We watched the scudding clouds buffet the sun, but it never quite managed to reach us.

Two days ago, I stood on top of a hill in a sun shower, looking out on billowing veils of rain to the north and bright sunshine to the west, bound by a full rainbow.

If these photos don’t speak a thousand words, I apologise for the photographer’s incompetence.

Blackberries

24 September – blackberry pickers stalk their prey

Star blackberry eater

25 September – gatepost near Bunane Bridge

Church at Bunane. Composition inspired by The Incredible Di Mackey

B-grade road: the pass between Lackabane and Castle Rock

26 September – as we drove into the Black Valley, Danny said: “Look! What’s that?” And there on top of a ridge, a horse was silhouetted against the sky. We expected it to rear up on its hind legs and let forth a terrible neigh that would spread terror into the hearts of horse and human alike. But it just nibbled on some rock and then wandered off to stand on another

The Black Valley, Lough Cumeenduff from the south road

Danny foraging for doughnuts at Curraghmore

Curraghmore Mountain hogs the sun

1 October – Old Kenmare Road after rainfall; coming out of Torc Forest

Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, from the Old Kenmare Road

On the Kerry Way looking north, to the east of Windy Gap

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Tic infestation

Husband flew into Dublin in the early hours of a morning and I met him off the train in Rathmore. I got a bit teary; I hadn’t seen him for six weeks.

 

Now, holidays with Andrew can be a bit fraught; he’s barely out of the airport before he’s muttering about how bored he is. Maybe it’s how he relaxes, but he drives me bonkers.

 

This time, I had A Plan.

 

After dropping his stuff at The Rectory, I took him a way out the road where, according to the trusty Ordnance Survey map, there was a lake about 2 kilometres off a track.

 

Now, Andrew’s version of the story might go something like: Once upon a time, I was totally jet-lagged, and my wife dragged me out on a walk and for a while it was quite nice but then Niamhie insisted on going around a forest when there was a path that went straight on, and I tried to tell her; I said: “Niamhie, this path probably goes right up to the lake,” but she wouldn’t listen and forced me to walk through a whole pile of crap and it took HOURS and it wasn’t nice at all.

 

My version is totally different and paints me in a much better light. Hmm, actually it isn’t much and doesn’t really – BUT – there’s always a ‘but’ – Andrew’s story is lacking context. Because around about the time he said: “Niamhie, this path probably goes right up to the lake,” he also said: “Hey – you hear that? A wild goose! And where there’s geese, there’s water. Came from over there <pointing 90° in the wrong direction>. That must be where the lake is, let’s go.”

 

And when I said, “That’s not geese, it’s a raven,” he said: “Nonsense! I’m an expert on wild geese.”

 

And when I said: “Ok, but the map, it says the lake is this way, not over there,” he said: “Well, it’s wrong. It’s an Irish map, what d’you expect?”

 

You know I once orienteered for Ireland? In other words, I’m reasonably good at navigating. So whereas I’ve always sincerely admired Andrew’s ability to talk absolute crap with complete assurance – to the extent that I frequently go along with him and even feel disappointed if it doesn’t work out – I have more faith in the OS than the mating calls of ravens. (Please note how I avoided variations on jokes about wild goose chases. You’ve got to give me credit for that; it took HUGE reserves of willpower.)

 

Anyway, there was nothing wrong with my estimate of the lake position to the nearest millimetre. Unfortunately, the route I chose (around the forest) was somewhat rugged. We waded through waist-high heather, fought through thickets of gorse, plunged down bog holes and sloshed through boulder-strewn drains. But we got to the lake, where Andrew had a three-second swim after half an hour of coaxing.

 

Over the next few days, we worked out a system whereby I had veto power on directional decisions. Whenever Andrew struck off briskly up some cliff face – “Screw the map! It’s this way, I can feel it in my waters. Let’s go,” – I would respectfully say: “Andrew, I respectfully exercise my veto power. Step this way, please. Now.”

 

After a few days, I was sporting various midge, horsefly and family inflicted bites. Seems I still retain my fatal attraction for biting, stinging insects, along with flesh-eating goats and used chewing gum. DID YOU KNOW that scratching could be better than sex?

 

Oho yes.

 

One morning, I woke up covered in tics. After Andrew assisted me in banishing the buggers, I asked him if he’d like me to perform a similar service. A look of distilled horror accompanied the realisation that he was probably hosting tics himself. When I found one on his shoulder, he executed a little foxtrot on the spot and squealed:

 

“Get it off, get it off!”

 

He clenched his teeth in mental anguish as I picked it out. I don’t know what he was carrying on about; a couple of days later, a friend of Anne’s told us with morbid relish about some bloke who had an infestation of tics on his perineum. If you don’t know where the perineum is, you really should look it up. An INFESTATION. Apparently, he rubbed tea-tree oil on the area and the tics dropped off

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