“Ireland has a comfortable relationship with ghosts. Dublin might have an Ikea and motorways and tourist traps that sell whatever passes for Irish symbols these days (usually Guinness and shamrocks), but scratch the surface (even within the city itself), or better still, take that unexpected exit from the motorway and onto a gravel one-lane country road lined with hedges and farms, and be prepared to be face to face with ghosts, pagan symbols, Celtic crosses and the weight of a terrible history that still soaks the bogs and the green countryside with the sorrow of widows, dead famine children and drowned revolutionaries". Max Milano
"As the failing light illuminates the mercenary's creed
The home fire burning: the kettle almost boiling
But the master of the house is far away". Jethro Tull. Thick as a Brick
The knock came in the middle of the night. The Baroness awoke to the cries of servants and the ghostly glow of torches outside the stained-glass windows. Angry Irish voices outside demanded to speak to the Baron, but the master of the house was far away. It was July 4th, 1921.
The men knocking on her door were all members of the IRA, some had previously belonged to the Irish Volunteers and a couple claimed to have been in the thick of it during the Easter Rising of 1916. They’d started their march from nearby villages, some still smoldering after the British Army passed through the day before, torching many a thatched roof.
It was from similar thatched roofs where the rifles the IRA men were holding had come from. Straw makes a good hiding place for Mauser rifles and revolvers. The men with rifles marched in the dark, wading through ancient bogs and jumping over hedges and stone walls, scaring sheep and scattering cattle. They made a motley crew in their flat caps and fedoras and tweed jackets. Groups of armed men from separate villages met up in a field behind the castle. Torches were lit. Doors banged on. The Baroness, still in her nightdress, gathered her children and ordered the servants to carry anything of value. She must have felt like Marie Antoinette, why couldn’t these Irish rabble rousers simply eat cake?
The Baroness’ coachman hooked up the horses, hustled her and the children inside his coach and cracked the whip.
The horses leaped with a whinny into the inky night, while behind them torches were flung over neo-gothic turrets, like some medieval siege. Soon the sky was alight, a castle no more, a monstrous bonfire more like. An unforgettable fire.
Fast forward 63 years. It's the summer of 1984, Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn is driving around the same Irish countryside, looking for inspiration for an album cover. The locals had mentioned an old ruined castle covered in ivy across the fields. Anton must have had a flash or recognition because the castle was on the cover of a photography book he carried for research on this project. It was perfect. A faux-gothic English manor house no more, the ivy had caressed the ruins for decades and covered the roofless walls with thick greenery. The band loved it.
Anton and the members of U2 jumped the fence that separated them from the ruined castle, scared a couple of cows away, and took that now iconic album cover. When the album made it to stores the world over, the cover made a statement that the music contained inside struggled to make: That U2 was searching for gravitas and weight, both musically and lyrically. I remember seeing that album cover when it first came out, and the impressive photograph said it all: There’s something there on that ancient land, something that spills the secrets of Irish paganism, even when wrapped in the trappings of Christianity, like in the ancient Abbey of Clonmacnoise, across the fields from Moydrum Castle. Nothing escapes the green of the land in Ireland, nothing escapes its pagan embrace. It predates the English and the Vikings. There's something there that can't be paved over by motorways or McDonald's parking lots. It's a sadness and a glory, its ghost stories told in pubs late at night when the wind howls in from the Irish Sea, it’s the spirit that haunts the old bogs and ancient ruins set against green fields, it’s the weight of the Island’s savage beauty and terrible history, and yes, ghosts. Plenty of them.
Ireland has always had a very comfortable relationship with ghosts. The casual visitor looking to check out a “real” Irish pub in Temple Bar might leave with the idea that Ireland, and the Irish, are as jolly as they are commonly depicted around the world, with a cool, “gift of the gab”, and the “luck of the Irish”. Furthermore, they might leave with the impression that Dublin is a modern European city - trendy and cosmopolitan (which it is, sort of).
Yes, Dublin might have its obligatory Ikea by the motorway that generates traffic jams on Sundays for its 99-cent breakfast, plus tourist traps galore selling whatever passes for Irish symbols these days (usually Guinness trinkets and anything with shamrocks), but scratch the surface (even within the city center itself), or better still, take that unexpected exit from the motorway and onto a one-lane gravel country road lined with hedges and farms, and be prepared to be face to face with Irish ghosts, pagan symbols, Celtic crosses, Norman castles, and the weight of a terrible history that still soaks the bogs and the green fields of the countryside with the sorrow of widows, dead famine children and drowned revolutionaries.
Our first experience with Irish ghosts was during the Winter of 2012. Our first time in the Republic of Ireland after been holed up in Belfast for months working on a TV pilot and then Season One of what we’d hoped would be a successful TV show for an American production company. We’d spent our first couple of days exploring the “Irish Disneyland” that the area around Dublin’s Temple Bar has become (with notable exceptions, more on that later).
We like traveling off the beaten path, but it doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy checking out the tourist traps, just in case we’re pleasantly surprised by an unexpected pub around a forgotten corner, or a hole in the wall serving an unexpected third world cuisine in a European city.
Therefore, after doing the typical stuff in Dublin, the Guinness Storehouse, the Book of Kells and the Harry Potteresque Long Room at the Library of Trinity College (highly recommended), we’d absconded to a pub found by a simple Google search for the “oldest Pub in Dublin”. Following Google maps on our phones, we found ourselves crossing several streets while dodging double decker buses in the rain, to be guided through a narrow brick archway down a cobblestoned path to the “Stag’s Head”, a Pub that looks and feels like it probably did 100 years ago, right around the time of the Dublin uprisings, all dark wood and multicolored stained-glass windows. A Church for Whiskey.
Selecting a shot of Connemara from the menu (the only peaty Irish whiskey still in production) and a couple of frothy pints of the black stuff (Guinness), we proceeded to find a quiet corner at the Stag’s Head back snug. Back in Victorian times, the snug was the only place where “decent” women could congregate and order a glass of sherry. A pint of beer would have been unladylike for a young woman back then.
A cold drizzle kept tapping the stained-glass roof of our snug as we huddled together against the bone chilling humid air. Ireland has its ways to make you feel frozen and wet at 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Feels like Los Angeles in the winter,” said my trembling fiancée and travel companion as she sipped her Guinness. It’s a little-known fact that LA can make you feel as wet and cold as Dublin can, when the conditions are right, usually around early January. The fact that we’re back to wearing shorts by St Valentine’s Day, doesn’t mean that we Angelenos don’t suffer our fair share of northern hemisphere winter, but I digress.
We had been planning this Dublin trip ever since our work exile to Belfast began nine months ago, and now that the show was picked up for another two seasons, our 'California Dreamin’ had to be replaced with long weekends in Dublin, Reykjavik, and our beloved Paris, where we were considering buying a flat, only that the writer in me wanted it to be in the Bastille district, preferably in an old Parisian apartment building with a Café downstairs, seeping with history and Parisian mold, but my more practical fiancée preferred the more modern buildings with indoor heated parking of La Défense. Guess who won that argument?
“Here’s the Pub”, my fiancée (who's name is Monica) said, passing me her smartphone. The phone’s bright screen lit her pale face like a candle in a darkened church.
“Ok, let’s go there tomorrow”, I said, reading about Sean’s Pub, in Athlone, right in the center of Ireland.
“It dates back to 900 A.D.”, continued Monica, “Boy George used to own it in the 80’s!”.
“Ok, we’re going”, I replied.
“We have tickets for that play at the Gate Theatre”
“We’ll be back in time”.
I have a soft spot for Irish actors, some of my favorite members of the profession were born on either side of the border that rips this green island apart. Both sides produce equally great actors and actresses, so I was very excited about our play the next day. Furthermore (now this counts as my own private Irish Disneyland), it was a production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde. The fact that good ol’ Oscar was born just a few blocks from where we currently sat, sipping pints of Guinness and taking shots of Connemara whiskey, warmed my scriptwriter's heart.
“We’ll be back on time”, I repeated, not knowing how difficult it would be to fulfill my promise if the Irish Ghosts had anything to do with it.
The Stag's Head: Stained glass, the whiskey menu, the main bar.
The Bride of Malahide
The next morning, we left our Airbnb in the posh-ish seaside suburb of Malahide as the pale northern sun was just about rising above the estuary that separates the village from the Irish Sea. I’d gotten up earlier for a quick jog around the village and the green fields surrounding Malahide castle. I love jogging in Ireland, one minute you’re following a wet, muddy trail, the next you’re facing the ivy-covered walls of a ruined abbey with green and crooked tombstones dripping in morning dew.
I paused for a moment to admire the Castle. More like a grand old house with high castle turrets and rock walls. I’d read somewhere that the grand hall could be rented for weddings and tried to imagine having a wedding in the same hall where 14 members of the Talbot family had sat for breakfast one fine July morning in 1690, only to all be dead by dinnertime, on the bloody fields of the Battle of the Boyne. Both a family and an entire country forever changed in just one day. But that’s Ireland for you. When calamity reaches you, it’s often as harsh and unforgivable as the land is green and beautiful.
I wandered into the cemetery in the ruined Abbey grounds and stopped by a white raised tomb surrounded by metal spikes. It was the Bride of Malahide’s tomb: Maud Plunkett, she was maid, wife, and widow in one day, after her husband (Sir Walter Hussey) was killed on their wedding night in the 1490’s. People still talk about it to this day, like a dreadful affair plucked from the scandal papers. The fact that poor Sir Hussey was pierced with a spear by a love rival, who later went on to marry fair Maud Plunkett, added to the salaciousness of the whole affair that inspired a 19th-century folk ballad by Gerald Griffin called “The Bridal of Malahide.”
It all starts very well, in the first verse:
“The Bridal of Malahide”
An Irish Legend.
The joy-bells are ringing
In gay Malahide,
The fresh wind is singing
Along the sea-side;
The maids are assembling
With garlands of flowers,
And the harpstrings are trembling
In all the glad bowers."
But by verse 17 things are not so gay:
"The dead-bells are tolling
In sad Malahide,
The death-wail is rolling
Along the sea-side;
The crowds, heavy-hearted,
Withdraw from the green,
For the sun has departed
That brighten’d the scene!”
But it’s the final two verses that convene the sad optimism that permeates everything on the island of Ireland, if only you take the time to explore a bit deeper, or get up a bit earlier for a jog around a ruined abbey cemetery:
“How scant was the warning,
How briefly reveal’d,
Before on that morning
Death’s chalice was fill’d!
The hero who drunk it
There moulders in gloom,
And the form of Maud Plunket
Weeps over his tomb.
The stranger who wanders
Along the lone vale
Still sighs while he ponders
On that heavy tale:
Thus passes each pleasure
That earth can supply -
Thus joy has its measure -
We live but to die!”
This old Victorian poem based on a crime committed back in the 1490s was on my mind as we drove away from the city and into the Irish Midlands that winter morning. The pale winter sun was as gloomy as it had been back in the day Sir Hussey was skewed, his life and bride stolen. But now there are motorways on this green, sad land, and petrol stations too, and Audi dealerships and fast food, and the computerized voice of our GPS guiding us to a 1000-year-old pub in the middle of an island that had seen more sorrow that it can soak up in all its smoky bogs.
That’s when we saw it. Just another sign on the freeway: Clonmacnoise.
“What’s that? Sounds interesting”, I asked my latte-sipping fiancée, her eyes half open as she balanced a Starbucks venti cup and her smartphone in her half-gloved hands.
“It’s an old Irish monastery dating back to 544”
“Yep, not 1544, not even 1044”.
“Ok that’s even older than a 1000-year-old pub, let’s check it out”.
The GPS voice complained that we’d left the freeway, so I turned it off. All of a sudden we were racing along a wet gravel one lane country road, framed by the stone walls of farmhouses. The gravel had hardened with the morning frost and our rented VW Golf glided over the slick road with no hope of breaking if any of the Irish cows we could see along the fields decided to step out onto the road.
That’s when I saw it. A small bread van. Small for American standards, but big enough to cover the whole lane ahead of us. There was a small hill behind it that had shielded it from our view all along, until now. I knew I couldn’t stop. It was one of those moments when time slows down and your mind starts to review all the accidents Americans get into in countries where they drive on the left. You only get one chance to react, and one chance only, but if you react the American way, you’re dead.
Perhaps it was our driving vacation the year before to South Africa, or the year before that to New Zealand, that saved us that morning, I’ll never know for sure, but my reaction was mercifully the correct one. I pulled the VW Golf to the left, the opposite direction to what I should do back in California. There happened to be a large barn next to the road, with a driveway just large enough for a VW Golf to skid to a halt while the Irish bread van shot by at full speed. I felt our side mirror on the driver’s side wince and snap, clipped by the van. It had been that close, but the bread van carried on the narrow lane, at full speed, oblivious of a trembling American couple next to a red barn door in the dawn mist.
My fiancée said nothing, her latte survived with just a minor spill, but her terrified eyes said it all. I moved the wheel with my trembling hands and crawled down the path to an intersection bordering a wet estuary. Just a few feet away from us stood the ruined abbey. Appearing and disappearing in the mist, Celtic crosses dotting a very ancient cemetery. Welcome to Clonmacnoise the sign said. We had arrived. We had arrived indeed. The mist made the Celtic crosses ahead seem to be in black and white. The sky the color of lead, but the grass green and bright. Brighter than it should, considering the dim light and fog. If you fall silent you can hear the old ghosts whispering. No wonder this place has been sacred since pagan times. There's something there. Among the waters of the estuary beyond. In the cold black stones. In the frothy white fog. In the sudden rays of sunshine that break trough once in a while when you least expect it. There's something in this ancient land. In the bogs and in the firewater. For now I'm just content to suck it all it all without finding an explanation.
All words & images by Max Milano.