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The Irish Landscape

An All-Ireland Exploration through Science and Literature
Peadar McArdle
The Liffey Press


From Chapter 1: Introduction

"[My purpose is to] make every lake or mountain a man can see from his own door an excitement in his imagination."
W.B. Yeats1

Landscape is easy! It's a mountain, a coastline, a river bank, or perhaps some combination of these and other physical ele­ments. It is simply a jumble of rock and soil and water! And yet instinctively we know it is more than that. Is a mountainside en­joying the warm glow of a summer's lingering evening the same as that same locality as it smarts from a dark wintry storm? Surely our perceptions of landscape are shaped just as much by our expe­riences there, be they emotional, atmospheric, historical or even mythical! The scientist may have mastery of the physical mountain but to really appreciate landscape we need a more inclusive ap­proach and poets have a strong role in this. It is they who guide our mental response and so they have a key role in this book.

Perhaps landscape can project its perceived qualities onto its poets. The steep slopes of Monaghan's drumlins may be respon­sible for a harsh parsimony that we associate with Patrick Kava-nagh's people. The warm nostalgia of Oliver Goldsmith's Auburn may find its origins in the Midland's rich farmland. On the other hand, bogs were for long considered the domain of the backward, but now their image has been transformed to that of a cherished habitat and this is partly due to Seamus Heaney's enriching in­sights. Louis MacNeice thought that Belfast's dour basalt, that callous lava, reflected the character of that city's Protestants and, further south, W.B. Yeats considered that his childhood limestone influenced the simple charms of its inhabitants.

Poets commonly appreciate their landscape as places of soli­tude, inspiration and renewal. They delight in its scenic beauty and biodiversity, especially its flowers and birds, and observe the rhythm of their lives through seasonal patterns and environmental change. Poets as early as Goldsmith saw each generation as merely custodians of our Earthly abode, responsible for handing it over in good shape to the next. In similar spirit, many avoid portraying a landscape that is exclusively human-centred despite an evident empathy between the two. But they find inspiration in their home landscape, be it bogland, river, mountain, drumlin, lake or coast­line. Such landscapes are additionally seen as places of work by farmers and engineers; of leisure by city dwellers eager to walk, climb or fish; and of pilgrimage by the spiritual. Many mining dis­tricts and places of pilgrimage have strong traditions of poetry. Po­ets are not restricted to their local landscape and many, fortified by their home experience, write confidently of foreign landscapes. The backward glance of emigrants causes them to notice not only the scenery and personalities they have left behind but also aban­doned sweethearts and a variety of patriotic sentiments.

But poets are not shy of specifically geological topics: Richard Murphy in praise of granite, Seamus Heaney's bogland, W.B. Yeats the lyricist of limestone and Louis Macneice the bard of basalt.

There is also a strong theme in Irish poetry based on landscape layers. While best known from Heaney's bogs, where bodies rang­ing from the Disappeared to ancient Bog Bodies have marked vari­ous layers, this is a robust concept that has found expression in ev­ery landscape type. Those layers may be geological, archaeological, historical, mythological or even mental. Landscape can acquire a memory so thoroughgoing that it becomes synonymous with its inhabitants, causing potent divisions in the case of Northern Ire­land's planter and native communities. But then Heaney's bog lay­ers can extend back perhaps some hundreds of million years, if we embrace lignite and coal layers, and this offers the prospect that both communities might share in this long-lived heritage.2

The fertile shades of green in Ireland's landscape are estab­lished on the widespread deposits left by melting ice sheets of another day and enriched by our currently temperate climate. This landscape is founded upon a great variety of bedrock, be it the sandstone of Kerry or the granite of Donegal, the quartzite of Mayo or the limestone of the Burren uplands. The last-mentioned is the bedrock that lies hidden beneath so much of our Midlands. These rocks carry an extensive narrative of Earth's history that includes the story of two separate oceans. The current Atlantic Ocean is still expanding and yet already is responsible for the basalt lavas of Antrim and the relatively young gas-bearing sedi­ments offshore. But there was an earlier ocean, Iapetus Ocean, Ia-petus in Greek mythology being the father of Atlantis. Our rocks retain a full record of the cycle of this ocean as it opened and then closed. Indeed it was the welding closed of its opposing margins, or tectonic plates, now largely hidden by younger sediments along a junction from Shannon Estuary to the coast of Louth, that has determined Ireland's present environment. In the interim between the two oceans, some of our most widespread rocks formed - Old Red Sandstones from weathering of the Caledonian mountains that arose as part of Iapetus closure and Carboniferous limestones in the marine inundation that followed. Our geological history is exhilarating and contains a common thread in the enduring im­portance of earthquakes and volcanoes around the country. The geology of every part of Ireland is interesting, indeed there is a volcanic and seismic element to every single county. Yes, we had a shaky past - and it was also fiery!3

This is a celebration of Irish landscape, its evolution and char­acter. By combining scientific and literary perspectives, this book seeks to enrich readers' understanding of our diverse landscapes and to encourage them to physically explore Ireland's landscape and the literary richness associated with it. Perhaps you will expe­rience something differently in your surroundings as a result and, if so, I do hope you find it rewarding.

The chapters in this book are arranged so that, broadly speak­ing, the most recent landscape events such as bogland develop­ment are treated initially. Then older events are described in order of increasing age, so that the oldest geological events are dealt with in the final chapters.