The Way of the Dishes
The dishes flew before me.
I could see them floating
To follow was not easy. The
I saw the dishes fly to a
I parked the car and found the
The saint was a lean man.
But his servant gnawed the bones
I watched from behind a tree as he
Within the hour he will be dead and
And the feast will grow mould,
The Burren is a landscape in western Ireland composed of striated limestone, stripped by glaciers to form smoothly contoured hills, bare and grey white – pavlova hills – or expanses of flat stone pavement, cracked in orderly rectangles like huge tiles. I visited it over four days in late winter when the bare bones of the place were particularly compelling. The topographical map marked ‘St Mac Duach’s Bed’, the ‘Servant’s Grave’ and something called ‘The Way of the Dishes’.
I drove along little twisting roads through fog to a gate at the foot of a hill. There were no signs or maps or general interpretative fiddle faddle, just a faint track across the flags that looked like the marks left by the narrow wheels of small carts. There were cattle in the fields but the ground was not pocked by their hooves: the land looks too bare and rocky for farming but the sharp drainage makes it ideal for cattle, especially over winter, and the grass that grows between the pavements is especially rich in nutrients so they fatten well. Between the stones in the deep regular cracks called ‘scailps’ or ‘grykes’, grow a great variety of plants (600 species have been recorded – the greatest concentration in Ireland) in a unique mix of tundra and Mediterranean varieties. Gentians grow here at sea level alongside orchids and maidenhair fern. I followed the grooves in the limestone to the piles of stone that were the grave of the servant and the saint’s bed at the foot of a cliff: bare branches, wet rock and that stillness you get when the fog is down.
The legend is as it is told in the poem: of a feast that flew from King Guaire’s castle to feed the saint at Easter. On the way home I passed the monastery the king built for the saint near Gort: a ruined complex of church, chapels, living quarters and a high tower, needle-sharp amid a cluster of gravestones with their loving arrangements of brilliantly coloured plastic carnations and ribbons
From The Pop-Up Book of Invasions (AUP, 2007)