Thursday 27 October 2016

David Robbins: A constant struggle but the landscape is always a winner

Published 13/08/2011 | 05:00

It was raining, but we decided to go anyway. My wife said we should think of it as a "trek", a word her family uses to describe a walk on which you're going to get drenched so you might as well accept it and, well, move on.

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We walked down to Clifden Harbour, past the field where Circus Gerbola had entertained us a couple of summers before. (The hyper-flexible "Umbrella Girls" were the star turn, if I remember rightly.)

And then out along the flank of Clifden Bay, the road skirting the shore. The sea was to our left, and to our right, the land rose steeply.

There was gorse, heather and fuschia and, for me the most evocative flower of an Irish summer, montbretia.

Our daughter examined each bloom minutely, like a botanist who discovers a new species every couple of yards.

We bent to inspect a spider's web which was holding an implausible amount of water, and when we straightened, a mist had come in from the sea and we could no longer make out the mouth of the bay.

We pressed on, past the turn that led to the Abbeyglen Hotel, where President Clinton stayed and where, in the foyer, Gilbert the parrot greets newcomers.

I entertained a passing wish to be there in the hotel, before the fire, tucking into afternoon tea. Once when we were there, from some discreet aperture deep in his feathers, Gilbert passed a long stream of pungent urine on to the floor, much to my daughter's delight.

"It's grey dad, Gilbert's pee is grey!" she cried as the receptionist sighed and emerged with her bucket and cloth and a long-suffering look on her face.

But we were on a "trek" and kept going. Our goal was Clifden Castle, a ruin now, but once the fine home of the D'Arcy family, founders of the town in the early 1800s.

The road dipped and turned, and around each bend, I hoped it would open out to take in the lifeboat station and Clifden Boat Club, which would mean we were near the last climb to the castle.

At last, the Boat Club (none of your fancy "Yacht Club" thank you very much) hove into view. We stopped in for a cup of tea. "A great summer's day," I said to the barman. "You can hardly see the island out there, if it is an island."

He leapt up, and jumped on to a sofa the better to examine a map of the bay which hung on the wall. "It's an island alright, Turbot Island," he said. "We're here," he said, pointing, "about as far west as you can get."

Outside, a man was putting on his oilskins. "Are you going out in this?" I said, indicating the mist.

"Ah, I've a few lobster pots out there," he said, pointing back up the bay towards the town. "I'll just potter about and check them."

Behind him, the path to the castle led away to the right now, and up, over stiles and rocky outcrops.

The dog ran ahead, stopping every now and then to make sure we were still following. My daughter also stopped on the path to have a bramble or a gorse branch held aside for her.

There had been a gorse fire here not so long ago. The smell of burned wood was in the air, and the twisted black limbs of gorse seemed warm to the touch. Strange to think of a fire here, with so much sea and rain to hand.

We passed a bathing platform away to our left. A good spot for a swim at high tide, I thought. You'd have to dive in, mind, and how in the name of God would you get out again?

You can approach Clifden Castle from the Sky Road. Indeed, that is the way Hyacinth D'Arcy intended visitors to come, for he built an imposing gateway and avenue there.

Coming from the shore side, however, adds a bit of drama. You see the top of the tower first, and then the rest of the ruin gradually reveals itself. It must have been a grand sight when it was in its heyday.

It was built in the Gothic Revival style, with turrets and battlements and arched windows and doors. It was intended to look romantic, but now, overgrown with ivy, it looks merely forlorn.

Standing there, I think of the great families of the area: the D'Arcys of Clifden of course, and the Martins at Ballinahinch, the Morrises at Ballinaboy, the Henrys at Kylemore, the Blakes of Renvyle.

I think too of the unending struggle with the landscape that went on for centuries hereabouts and still goes on, of the thin soil, and the bogs, the rocks and the weather. The landscape always wins in the end.

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