Saturday, July 23, 2011

History You Can Touch

Just by chance, my fiancé’s nephew, Brendan O'Keefe, mentioned following a remote trailhead near his home in the Ballymacelligott area to find a monument erected on the site where Gerald Fitzgerald, the last Earl of Desmond, was betrayed by one of his men and beheaded beneath an old oak tree in November of 1582.

Such a find wasn’t completely unexpected. Tralee, and its surrounding areas is, after all, Fitzgerald country. The powerful family, the Earls of Kildare and Desmond, with closer legitimate ties to the English throne than the Tudors, ruled here as the uncrowned kings of Ireland.

Still, my interest was piqued. This very same Gerald Fitzgerald features prominently in my novel, NELL, so, naturally, Tommy and I set out to find the marker. Verbal directions in Ireland are frustratingly nonspecific. “Go around the hill and over the rise, turn at the cross, never mind the first road, turn down by the bridge and you’ll see a dirt road. Don’t take that one, it’s a dead end. Take the grassy one with the no entry sign. Mind the bog, park the car and head straight up. Don’t go at night.” So we did, during the day.

Climbing out of the car into the ubiquitous misty rain characteristic of Ireland, we crossed over the gate with the “Do not enter” sign marked, and saw the actual site posted. Hiking up one hill after another to no avail, we finally gave up and focused on drawing in clean, deep breaths of glorious forest, the Sherwood of Ireland, around us. Breaks in the trees, now pine and conifer replacing the valuable Irish oak, and the steep slopes afforded us spectacular scenes of green meadows, cows and sheep dotting the hills, the Bay of Tralee, the river and, loveliest of all, the sun breaking through white clouds, bluing the sky after days and days of gray weather.

Promising each other we would try another day, we tramped back to the car, scraped the mud from our shoes and started back. A narrow, paved road we knew nothing about beckoned to Tommy. A native of the area, there are few country roads he hasn’t explored. Unbelievably, I glanced out the window in time to see a gray slab and the words Fitzgerald, Earl of Desmond, engraved in the granite.

What continues to regularly stop my breath here in Ireland is that her people go about their daily business, shopping, working, playing, surrounded by a history they aren’t the least bit in awe of. Other countries have their history, too, surrounded by fences, swathed in security, closed down after 6:00 P.M. Not here. Ireland’s ruins, her ancient keeps, her castles, and forts, her monasteries and cemeteries, her faerie forts and dolmans are available for anyone who doesn’t mind climbing and muddying his shoes. The best of it is, there are no crowds, in fact you may find yourself the only one there. What better place to wake the imagination than to lean against the stones of a castle ruin, close your eyes and let the images come.

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