Want to get away from it all? Forget the sea of Sherkin and the mountains of Donegal. Arminta Wallace discovers everything she needs is in Graiguenamanagh.
Late last summer, driving back to Dublin from the southern part of Co Kilkenny, I got utterly lost. I don't quite know how it happened. One minute I was headed for that dull but dependable journey via the Naas Road, the M50 and all the rest: the next, I had merrily turned east into the mountains. "The scenic route," I thought. Sure wouldn't it be as quick as queuing up on the Mad Cow roundabout? In less than half an hour, I was hopelessly entangled in a web of tiny roads. Roads which meandered along the sides of hills, plunged around corners with reckless abandon, doubled back on themselves at the drop of a hat and appeared to have been cunningly designed never to lead anywhere. There were few signposts and there was absolutely no traffic.
It was hot, I had had no lunch, and I had an appointment in Dublin that evening. I drove every which way, getting crosser and crosser as I went. Finally I stopped the car and got out. It was at that point that I realised just what a beautiful landscape I was fretting my way through. A few minutes later I spotted a road sign. "Graiguenamanagh," it said.
I had never been to Graiguenamanagh, but my experience that day imbued the town, and the surrounding countryside, with a mysterious holy grail-type glow.
"You want to go where?" people asked, somewhat incredulously, when I explained that I thought it would be the ideal location in which to research a piece about solitude, about contemplation, about getting away from the mad commercialised rush that is contemporary Ireland and losing oneself in the landscape.
How about Sherkin Island, somebody suggested. Or somewhere in Donegal? I stuck to my guns. Getting away from it all doesn't necessarily involve a headlong rush to the sea, or to the mountains, I insisted. To go as far north/south/east/ west as you can and then gaze over into the wide blue/grey/windswept yonder is undeniably attractive. But other landscapes have attractions, too. I longed for those empty roads. I wanted to be enfolded in rolling countryside and lush trees and gentle hills. I knew where I wanted to go. And so I headed for Graiguenamanagh via Bunclody and Mount Leinster. True to form, I got lost again - but this time, it seemed somehow appropriate. Lose yourself to find yourself. It turned the trip from an assignment into an adventure.
What I didn't expect was that when I arrived I would feel, not relief, but a slight sense of panic. What on earth was I going to do, now that I'd got here? Come to think of it, where was the town? I walked around the tiny streets, and got back with dismaying promptness to where I'd started. When we get away, we all know what we want to get away from: traffic, 24-hour supermarkets, drills, cranes, multiple-choice coffee shops and the ironing. Remove them suddenly from the equation, however, and you can be left with a somewhat perplexing blank.
I was slightly reassured by the words of the Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton - who, though a great fan of solitude and author of several books on the topic, was well aware that getting away from it all is a trickier business than you might suppose. This sense of panic was one he recognised, though he possibly didn't associate it with low-fat cinnamon latte deprivation. It is, he maintains in his 30-page essay, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, more of an existential affair, to do with our tendency to divert ourselves from the real business of life - and, indeed, death - by piling on the distractions.
He would have loved Graiguenamanagh. Another contemplative type, the poet and conservationist Wendell Berry, remarked that the "best of any song is bird song in the quiet - but first you must have the quiet". There was no shortage of that, it seemed to me, in this medieval river town. I gave up on the low-fat latte and started to listen. At first I heard the linear swoosh of traffic. It took me a while to understand that what I was hearing was actually the wind in the trees and/or the river hurtling happily over the weir.
Then I began to pick up syncopated cross-rhythms. A great cheerful munching on the other side of a hedgerow turned out to be a motley band of calves, heifers, sheep and an enormous, mean-eyed bull, masticating to beat the band. The ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall of my B&B, followed with comforting regularity by the "bong" of the striking hour. I fell asleep to the lowing of cows, leaving both window and curtains wide open. It was bright until late. Dawn came early. I slept better than I had in months. It sounds ridiculous, but I felt, somehow, tuned in to the rhythm of the Earth.
Which doesn't always happen in an Irish B&B. But good fortune and a series of coincidences - or, as Thomas Merton would no doubt say, cosmic connections - brought me to Ballyogan House, a graceful farmhouse built in the 1830s a couple of miles outside Graiguenamanagh, with the looming bulk of Brandon Hill at its back and the smudged blue of the Blackstairs Mountains at the other end of an expanse of smooth lawns and elegantly dishevelled borders.
Once upon a time the owners, Fran and Robert Durie, agreed - with some misgivings - to crew on a barge which was wending its way along the River Barrow. One evening, at dusk, they found themselves in a pool of incredible stillness, surrounded by trees. "It was idyllic," Fran remembers.
It took a little longer - more than 25 years, in fact - to find the right house, extricate themselves from south Dublin, and move their family to Co Kilkenny; but here they are. Did they always plan to keep guests? No, says one. Yes, says the other. Whichever is correct, the result is the same: a pool of stillness as far from the madding crowd as you could ever wish to be, while still within easy reach of civilisation of various kinds - New Ross is just down one road, Kilkenny down another, with Carlow forming the third side of a potential retail therapy triangle - should the need arise. For a wild moment I was tempted. Then I settled into solitude.
I climbed the hill first. Peaks demand to be conquered, and Brandon is the highest point in Co Kilkenny - though at a little over 500 metres, it's eminently conquerable. It took about three and a half hours, including a couple of wrong turns in the forest and lots of loitering in the lane, admiring a variety of river views: the steeple of the village church at St Mullins on the far bank, the negative-ion drama of the weir and, from the top of Brandon, the silver sliver of water wrapping up the lush farmland like some kind of gift ribbon - which, of course, in the days when rivers were the main transport arteries into the countryside, it was.
It still is. To walk along the Barrow towpath from Graiguenamanagh to St Mullins on a sunny afternoon is to understand why certain places on this planet are considered by the cognoscenti to be spiritually "thin": meaning that the barrier between us and what has been called, with equal clumsiness, "heaven" is so transparent as to be virtually non-existent.
The browns, greens and diamanté-on-black of the water in the changing light; the meadows scented and bright with pink, white and yellow flowers which (thanks to Fran's tireless perusal of a comprehensive illustrated guide to wild flowers), I now know to be willow herb, astilbe, birds'-foot trefoil and purple loosestrife. Each bend in the river a variation on curves and angles, each bank a symphony in shades of green.
I wasn't looking at my watch - a sure sign of having, finally, gotten away from it all - and before I knew it, the day had slipped into evening. Back in Graigue, I sat and sipped wine and gazed at the kids jumping in and out of the river, the boats bobbing up and down along the quays. The town suddenly seemed, not small, but exactly the right size. Or maybe it was me who had come right.