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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

It’s Buckingham Palace, cretin

Victoria Memorial

Last Sunday, Tim and I participated in the London Freewheel, the second largest cycling event in Europe. It was one of those things I always considered doing when I lived in London, but never did. The centre of the city was closed to traffic from Buckingham Palace to the Tower of London.

Minor setback: I didn’t have a bike. I was tasked with making enquiries about renting one, but I forgot. Crap, isn’t it? A writer, and the best excuse I can come up with is: I forgot. At least it’s the truth, which in this instance I will now attempt to present as ‘refreshing’.

The day before the event, Tim stood outside talking to his neighbour. Michael was attired in t-shirt and a spectacularly unflattering pair of cycle shorts. I mean, really. The Stretchy Lycra Brigade talk about cycling shorts being padded and comfortable, as if that is a valid excuse for wearing them.

ANYWAY, I didn’t fail to notice that Michael was propped against a mountain bike, so after spending some time getting acquainted, I asked if I could borrow it.

“Hi, I’m Niamh.”

“Michael-”

“Nice to meet you. HEY, any chance I could borrow your bike tomorrow?”

“Errr, I suppose. What was your name again?”

Later, I said to Tim:-

“Michael, nice guy. How long have you known him?”

“Ah, that was the first time we’ve met.”

The day was gorgeous. Tim and I cycled across Clapham Common and picked up our fluorescent bibs and armbands at the corner. Since it was a designated access point, a route to the city had been laid out along back roads. We were in a group of fluorescent people and held up the traffic for miles.

Tim; image courtesy SkySport: thanks a million.

The Brits being British, they turned out in their best suits: Wonder Woman ignored her powers of flight in favour of more conventional transport; there was a gladiator and a couple of bears; many bicycles featured bunting and foliage.

Image courtesy SkySport: thanks again.

After cycling three quarters of an hour, we came through a pair of ornate gates, beside which stood a huge fountain. Some bronze statues reclined on the bottom, overlooked by a couple of bland, marble figures, all topped by a gold figure frozen on the brink of a suicide leap.

“What is this?” I asked Tim.

He looked at me in horror: “It’s BUCKINGHAM PALACE,” he said, appalled.

Indeed, when I looked back over my left shoulder, there was a queen-sized structure.

“You might not recognise it,” continued Tim, “it’s only the most famous landmark in Britain.”

“I thought that was London Bridge?”

We cycled down The Mall to Trafalgar Square, down Northumberland Avenue to Embankment and all the way along to London Bridge and the Tower of London. It was a unique way to view all the major sights of the city: Whitehall, Nelson’s Column, St Paul’s Cathedral, The Houses of Parliament and the London Eye.

On the route back, Tim and I stopped in St James’s Park for 99s and spent time with a few of the 50,000 cyclists that took part.

St James’s Park

London Eye, from the park

Admiralty Arch

Onlooker

Trip down sandy lane

Being back in Dubai felt entirely surreal. It was unsettling arriving at the airport and not having a place of our own to go to. Raff and Carole donated their apartment on The Palm, which was tremendously comforting since we stayed there before leaving Dubai last year. The only thing missing was Raff and Carole.

Our flight landed at 05:30hrs. Carole had left the keys with Liz, but I felt it would be antisocial to collect them before 07:00. Liz seemed entirely dubious about our credentials. She gave me a personality test and I had to fill in a questionnaire, and even then she wasn’t convinced. Eventually, Husband distracted her while I robbed the house-keys.

Helen came around on Friday morning for a swim along the beach, and Em on Saturday. We also caught up with David, Wayne and Keren, and Mark and Sarah. There’s not much I miss about this place, but our friends top the list. Even though there are only two other things on that list (swimming in the Gulf and shower hoses on the toilets, in case you were wondering), friends represent about 99% on a weighted basis. It was fabulous seeing everyone again.

As bodily by-products go, I am a big fan of vomit and particularly like to bring it up over dinner. Not often literally, because that doesn’t go down well. However, my friends reminded me of a rare wee related experience.

Some years ago, Husband and I were on a desert drive with a group of friends. When the convoy paused for refreshment, I experienced a compelling urge to externally process some earlier refreshment. So I set off to find a private spot.

I tramped over dunes until I was out of earshot; then I hiked until I was beyond visual range; and then, because I am prudish, I trudged another few kilometers. I stumbled across the desert, under sand banks, over Wadis and through sandstorms. Eventually I found the perfect place in a dip between two sand dunes, shielded from gusty squalls and/or rogue camels.

Seconds later, I was busy composing a comprehensive response to the call of nature, when I heard a noise. I’m thinking:-

“What the-? That sounds like – no, it can’t be – but if I were pressed, I would have to say that sounded suspiciously like a car booting along at 180kph.”

I would have continued to assume it was the aural equivalent of a mirage, except that it seemed to be getting louder.

Then three 4x4s thundered past at 180kph, at which point I realised I was crouched next to a stonking great six lane highway waving my arse in the air

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