Noel Monahan – A Language For Landscapes

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A Language For Landscapes by celebrated Irish poet Noel Monahan

There are a myriad ways of defining landscape. I hope in this short essay “A Language for Landscapes” to take you through a few of my observations of how the landscape of County Cavan, Ireland has become part of my thoughts, ideas, dreams and writing. Our task is to read the story written in stone, written in the bogs, written in clay…

The earth has a much greater memory than us. Let it tell us more. The earth as window into a lost world can be found here in the landscape all about us.

Our task is to access the slow but constantly changing landscape and seascape. We know about the tides and their ebb and flow. But do we know about the sea levels rising after the last Ice Age? The landscape draws us into a deeper sense of what it means to be human. The oldest rocks in Ireland are 1,700 million years old. That is according to the fascinating book on Irish landscape: Reading The Irish Landscape, Frank Mitchell & Michael Ryan. Ireland had been covered with ice many times.

The last ice age began 30,000 years ago. Sea levels dropped. Ireland and Britain were joined together. When the ice melted the first rugged grass started to grow and juniper trees appeared. New land forms were left by the glaciers in our part of the world, Co. Cavan, Ireland. Ice on the move changed the old landscape forever.

Take the Drumlins of Cavan and the DINNSEANCHAS associated.

Dinnseanchas refers to the tradition of recording the origin of place-names and traditions, events and special characteristics associated with a particular place. The mythic and legendary figures of the past were associated with a specific place. Knowledge of place-names was an important part of early education in Ireland. It was essential knowledge for the Bardic Poets who were expected to recite poems regarding the origin of place-names. Part of the responsibility of the Bardic Poets was maintaining the Dinnseanchas in the collective memory of the people from generation to generation. Sources of the Dinnseanchas survive and are available in The Book Leinster, The Book of Ballymote and the Book of Leckan. Place names are important to us all. The following poem was inspired by the Cavan landscape as it emerged after the last ice age.



When ice moved on at the end of an age,
Piles of stones stood naked, longing for grass.
The hills hand down root words, the people say.
Song of utterance, underworld of names:
Drumalee, Drumkerry, Drumamuck, Drumbo.
Ghostly ridges of calves, sheep, pigs and cows,
Story-book of hills, fields of fairy-tales
Cling like a last good-bye.
                                         I watch them sleep
Below woollen clouds, rivers flow, lakes rest.
A beauty all to themselves, no fine curves,
No straight lines, oblique packages of earth,
Dropped, abandoned to an outspoken wind.
Hills too old for our clocks, they stand like
Unsent parcels waiting for the ice to return.

As you can observe from the poem above, Drumlins and Cavan Place-names are liberally bestowed with names of farm animals. Again, the slow change of nature lies at the heart of the poem and man’s inability to comprehend that slow movement. The DRUMLIN BELT as we call it forms part of counties: Down, Monaghan, Cavan, Tyrone, Fermanagh.


Another feature of Irish landscape is the bog-lands. The death and birth directions are one and the same when dealing with the land.In the immortal lines of the poet Patrick Kavanagh: “ The womb and tomb press lips in fondness like bride and groom”. (Patrick Kavanagh The Complete Poems, The Ploughman). A landscape can put us into a new state of mind if we take time out to read it. I’d like to give time now to Bog Energy. As you may be aware, part of Cavan landscape is bog-land. It is soft. Bog derives from the Irish word bug meaning soft.


No walls here, a bog windwardly open
To hummocks and loughs where life floats,
Moss, the only building block, holds twenty
Times its weight in water. Tiny match-sticks
Stretch above the amber and brown, waiting
For the wind to set the sphagnum spores
On fire. Frogs croak, sedge quakes, curlews call for rain.
You’ll find tenebrae
Down here in dreamless dark .
Wild heather opens a wet womb
That will pickle a body as soon as it’s dropped.
The bog holds flesh on bone, hair
On heads. The Clonycavan man was raised
With gel in his hair, the Meenybradden woman
Found aflame in a dark ocean of turf.


I cannot leave landscape without a reference to borders and the whole question of borderlands. An interest in ancient Irish Mythology is always helpful when one sets out to read the landscape.The Black Pig’s Dyke, an ancient boundary or ditch punctuates the landscape as you leave Granard, Co. Longford, Ireland and head for Cavan. It is named after the legendary Black Pig who came originally from Meath, raged westward through Ireland and tore up a deep furrow with its snout. Only sections of the dyke remain. This dyke is seen as an ancient boundary line between Ulster and the rest of the country. It may also have been used as a defence system to protect Ulster land and cattle against raids from the South. It can still be traced dating back to circa 300BC- 300AD. Running South Easterly from Lough Gowna towards Lough Kinale; A section of it, crosses the N55 outside Granard, just below Carragh Church. I feel this border and ancient myth lingers on, although scattered, it still hangs in there and I see the Black Pig as an anima energy belonging to mother earth .

The Black Pig

She has spent her entire life out here,
Sun by day, moon by night
Shadows hovering everywhere.

Night fall.
Trees talk freely in their sleep,
Every leaf a tongue to dampen:
Her mossy ears, eyebrows of cut-hay,
Gaping fieldmouth of stones,
Pig’s whiskers, tail in tatters.

Four legs astraddle,
Fed from clay, watered by river,
Rooted between places and time,
Alone dreamer and dreamed.

Morning leans over her shoulder.
Whins saddle her back, she has only
To open her eyes to see her own wreckage,
Scattered entrails of roads,
The rain eating her heart out.


And where ever we have landscape we will have borders. I will now take you from an ancient border like The Black Pig’s Dyke to the more contemporary border between the Six Counties and the Republic.


Bhí na Druimlín ag druidim
In imeall a chéile, idir an Chabháin
Is Chontae FherManach
Maidin Domhnaigh sna nóchaidí
Pobail eile ar Aifreann is mise ag roth soar
Ó Thuaidh, chun peitreal fíorshaor a fháil.

Ar mo chúl, na triúr páistí:
Niall, Cian is Ronán
Geansaithe Man United orthu.
Thar sruth teorann bhí stopadh tráchta,
Ordú stoptha ag saighdiúir coise Breataine
Smear bróg ar a aghaidh, gunna
Ina laimh, ag féachaint isteach orainn.
Bhí orm éirí as, tóin an chair a oscailt
Agus cad a bhfuair sé?
Eoraip Ó Shin Napóilean
Leabhair-staire, a scríobh Thomson,
Tada eile.

Bhí bun agus barr an scéil ag an saighdiúir
D’fhéach sé arís isteach sa chair
Bhris meangadh gáire air:
Up Man United, adúirt sé.
Is croith sé slán linn.



The drumlin hills were moving
Among themselves between
Cavan and Fermanagh
One Sunday morning in the 90s
The faithful at Mass and myself
Free-wheeling North for cheap petrol

Behind me the three boys
Niall, Cian and Ronan
Wearing Man United jerseys
Past a boundary stream
We were ordered to stop
By a British soldier, black polish
On his face, gun in hand
I had to get out and open the boot.
And what did he get?
Europe Since Napoleon
A history book by Thomson
Nothing else.

The soldier had the full story
He looked into the car again
A smile came to his face
Up Man United, he said
And he waved us on.

© Noel Monahan

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