I write this from the shaded entry of a megalithic tomb in the Bricklieve Mountains of south County Sligo. It is evening of the winter solstice and the last of the thin daylight is dying now across the limestone bluffs. I batter fretfully at my scarred and ailing Macbook, anxious to preserve the moment, with the greyish-blue light of the screen showing by my side the lip of the tomb, in the dark recesses of which some among our ancients lie resting, and waiting.
The tombs are up the side of the mountain from my house by the lake, and they are as close as we come in the vicinity to an attraction. Ravens caw gothically as they circle overhead, as though auditioning for a Siouxsie And The Banshees video sometime around 1983. Swathes of grim moorland open out and descend to the west, in the direction of Ballymote, our polestar metropolis: two streets, a square, and the Travellers market of a Thursday.
Here in the Interior North West – as I for some reason have started calling it … actually, I call it that for its Lynchian, Inland-Empire-ish feel; there is not an original bone in my body – the winter has to date been disappointingly undramatic. The last two years, at around this time, our world was a pocked and frozen expanse, like the surface of some distant planet, the ravished gale-bent trees a weird calligraphy against the ice-navy of the sky, and other such wintry phrases, ad lib to fade. The year before that, we had the great floods, with the sheep sailing past in small boats, with very sour faces on them, and there was a lost-bayou feeling, and more than a touch of swamp fever to my dreams.
Today, on the solstice, it is grey and oddly mild but as desolate as I could wish for. No people to be seen, and all to be heard is the murmuring of the ancients and cawing of the ravens and the tiny faraway drone of the N4, somewhere distant, down below.
If all this sounds a bit Kate Bush, that is because it is. I am a Romantic, and Romantics fetishise the winter (and very often fetishise Kate Bush, too). As a child, even, there was nothing worse to me than a long and perfect summer evening, all tawny and saccharine, with the laughter of youth floating on the air, and the sense of rude life pulsing everywhere – fuck off. I used to hide under the bed to be away from all that stuff. Bleak winter, by contrast, is the season of the shadows, of the long shadows thrown in the low needling sun, and it is a time to get lost in the woods, and to drift by the empty seashore, or to climb the austere Bricklieves, up past the donkey santuary, and sit by a megalithic tomb and look out, dreamily, on the Tri-State Zone …
As I have lately started calling it. It is that little nub of land where the borders of Sligo, Roscommon and Leitrim jostle up against and taunt each other, like underage footballers on a Sunday morning, cranky from last night’s beer. There is a general air of suspicion among us – we don’t say much to each other. Each to their own is the rule. The humour, if humour it be, is way beyond gallows. I am as content here as I have been any place else. Which tells you something. The lakelight is on a good day otherworldly, and we have no immediate neighbours. Winter, I still tell myself, is the sweetest time –
But somehow, as you leave youth to its ghosts and capers, the romance of it all begins to fade – winter, you realise at last, is a boy’s game. Your aged bones long for the light. You start making eyes at the cheap-flights websites. Here in the tomb, on the Macbook, on a separate window, I admit that I am, even as we speak, pricing a jaunt to Malaga for February – oh forgive me, Kate Bush, but fuck the hills and fuck austere and fuck the grey mist rising.
And as the words of the Edward Thomas poem come to mind just now, a lightness fills me, guiltily, but no lighter for that –
“Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm tops, delicate as flower of grass
What we below could not see, Winter pass.”