Jan 2019

The Bard of Glendalough Valley

by Peter Arnds

 

I drove to Glendalough, parked the car, and setting off on the trail through oak woodlands walked past the grey cluster of monk dwellings, to the small beach overlooking the placid waters of the upper lake.

The beach was strewn with pebbles and dotted with a few larger rocks ground flat at the top, ideal to sit on. A set of willows stood only a few feet from the lightly lapping waves. The view opened into the glacial horseshoe-shaped valley, thick spruce forest clinging to the slopes on both sides. In the distance a small stream was cascading off the mountain side towards the far end of the lake below. There was an abrupt break in the clouds, allowing the sun to steal through, instantly warming my face.

I closed my eyes and tried to picture Saint Kevin, who had moved here to avoid the company of others. His rock bed was still out there, somewhere across the lake. One of the Wicklow rebels had once escaped to it, on the run from British soldiers. When they were hard upon him he jumped into the black water and swam right across to the other side.

A branch cracked behind me.

I noticed a young man step out of the woods, a guitar slung around his shoulder. He came right up to me, put one foot on the rock, bringing his instrument in front of him. Picking up a tune he walked up and down the beach, stopped here and there to turn to the lake as if communicating with someone in the distant wilds of the valley. Then he sat down and said:

“What brings you here, my friend?”

His eyes were a dark hue of green, his hair curly and wild, ideal for birds to nest in.

“I’m heading over to Saint Kevin’s bed.”

“American?”

“German.”

A quiet smile wandered across his face.

“It’s a dangerous passage. Life threatening, so to speak.”

“Being German?”

“Going to Saint Kevin’s bed.”

“How so?”

“Too steep. Too rocky. You could drown.”

He started playing his guitar again and sang:

“In Glendalough there lived an auld saint, renowned for his learning and piety.”

Then he stood up, grabbed a flat pebble and made it skip six or seven times across the water.

“What brings you to Ireland?”

They had asked me the same question at the interview, and I had been tempted to say ‘an airplane.’

“A job interview.”

Singing and playing again: “His manners were curious and quaint and he looked upon girls with disparity.”

The bard stared with melancholy across the water.

“Kevin had only the animals as friends, you know. One day he stretched out his hand and a blackbird landed on his open palm. When it started building a nest in it Kevin didn’t move. The bird came back day after day until the nest was built. But Kevin never stirred. Soon after, two eggs appeared. Kevin stood still, holding out his hand, waiting until they were hatched, fledged and flown. Remarkable, isn’t it? How come you sound so American, my friend?”

“I live in Kansas.”

“Kansas,” he repeated brushing across the strings of his guitar. “Well, my friend, I think you are not in Kansas anymore. In fact, you have landed in the emerald isle. When is your job interview?”

“It was today.”

“And? Will they give you the job?”

“I’ll know tomorrow.”

“And then you’ll move to the glittering land of Oz?”

“That’s the plan.”

“What’s wrong with Kansas? Don’t you like it anymore?”

“It’s isolated.”

He smiled.

“Some people might say Ireland is too. Isolation’s our very game.”

“Kansas,” I tried to explain, “has been my exile from Europe for the last thirteen years. My hermitage.”

Kansas had its hermits too. In the early days of the nineteenth century, Giovanni Maria Augustini had spent five months in a cave near Council Grove, before following the pioneer trail, walking west, and eventually ending up in New Mexico.

“Kansas is very uneventful compared to Dublin. And besides, the job here is a career step.”

And so he played again:

“Be gone out of that, said the saint, for I’m a man of great piety. Me character I wouldn’t taint by keeping such class of society.”

“What song’s that?”

“Oh, it’s an old tune, by a band called The Dubliners. It’s about the girl Saint Kevin drowned in this lake because she tempted him.”

We were staring out at the lake. It was dark and as smooth as the surface of a mirror. On both sides the slopes rose steeply to an overcast sky. It was completely still, not a bird to be heard.

I said: “You don’t think I should head to Kevin’s rock of a bed?”

“Look at you. You’re a rhymester,” he said. “I wouldn’t if I were you. Not much to see anyway. A few rocks. A bit like Kansas, I suppose.”

“Hardly. Kansas is as flat as a pancake. There are no trees. This is much more dramatic.”

He smiled wanly.

“You’ve got us figured out. The Irish, I mean. We love the drama. You’ll find out soon enough, if you move here. After a while, you may actually long to be back in Kansas again. Like Dorothy, right?”

“Have you been there?”

“Only in my mind.”

And he sang: “Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea. All we do crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see.”

“Dust in the wind.”

“Now don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky; it slips away and all your money won’t another minute buy.”

 

 

I looked back at the lake, thinking about the now and the then, and the seam between them right here in the valley of two lakes. Then I closed my eyes, the six strings of his guitar still visible on my retina, that road of tunes between Kansas, Ireland and my roots in the distant past. And here I was, never giving up on looking for a new home, at a time when the birds were flying south again. Opening my eyes again, the spot on the rock right next to me was empty. I turned around scanning the woods, but the bard was gone.




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