“Shall we go to Sligo?” my husband asked.
It was early June, and the restrictions on intercounty travel had been lifted in in Ireland just the month before.
I gave it some thought. I was thinking of the more popular Ring of Kerry experience, but Sligo had been on my mind since the time we moved to Ireland from the United Kingdom in 2018.
A friend had gifted me Sally Rooney’s Normal People as a parting present, and the central characters and much of the action in the novel takes place in Sligo.
Okay then, I said, still a little unsure of whether or not we should travel. The past months had been full of anxiety as the second wave of Covid-19 wrecked India and every day we had woken up to a text or a message that brought bad news – an ex-colleague, a family friend, someone from school – passing away because of Covid or because he or she did not get medical help on time.
I was torn apart – how does one travel or partake of any enjoyment when so many that we knew had lost their lives? But on the other hand, I also understood that my husband wanted to do a little something to mark our nine-year anniversary, which fell in June.
“I will make a cancellable reservation. If you don’t feel like going, we won’t go. We will skip the city and the crowds, and concentrate on walks, drives and trails – soothing ones, nothing too hard or strenuous,” he reassured. “It will be a trip just to have a sense of peace, even if it may be fleeting.”
Like an unfaithful boyfriend, peace had ghosted me ever since the pandemic started. I was constantly worried about my elderly, blind mother who lived on her own in India. When her night caretaker caught Covid, I couldn’t sleep for days on end, and even when she recovered, my mind never ceased worrying.
“I do not know about peace,” I said to my husband. “But it could be a good distraction.”
From Dublin, we did not drive down straight to Sligo. Instead, we first stopped at the Belvedere House Gardens and Park in County Westmeath, on the north-eastern shore of Lough Ennell. The House hadn’t reopened for the public, but we wandered around the expansive gardens – taking in its Gothic follies, and the strange, heart-breaking story of Mary Molesworth who was imprisoned for 30 years by Robert Rochfort, the first Earl of Belvedere.
We had a lunch of sandwiches at Belvedere House, and finally arrived at Rosses Point in Sligo when the day was inching closer to evening.
Once in the room, we deposited our bags in the closet area, and whilst I put the kettle on to make us some tea, my husband drew open the curtains.
I followed him to one of the windows. There were two in our room.
He was staring, mouth slightly agape, a wave of awe and wonderment washing across his face.
The windows opened up to different views. From one you could see the Coney and the Oyster islands. And you could also see the Knocknarae Mountain and the Benbulben.
His eyes were on the Benbulben.
It rose from the landscape, its flat-topped silhouette bathed in clouds – looking like a village elder, gentle, wise, strong and kind.
The Benbulben is Ireland’s most distinctive mountain – rumoured to be the abode of fairies or the ‘gentry’ and often called the island’s ‘table-mountain,’ spelled alternatively as Benbulbin or Ben Bulben as well.
We had read about it prior to making the trip – that it was named after a Gaelic chieftain, and is on the western point of the Darty mountains, and formed of the Darty limestone, it is the main physical barrier between Donegal and Sligo.
But seeing it in person was something else.
I noticed how my husband had fallen under its spell. It was immediate and instant.
Over the next few days, he repeatedly said that he loved this mountain. Though the Knocknarea Mountain (1078) was the one that also offered spectacular views from all over Sligo County, it was the Benbulben that stamped his heart.
We made two attempts to do the forest trail at the base of the Benbulben but were thwarted with rain on both days.
Oh well, I thought. That was a part of the charm. You couldn’t staycation in Ireland and not have a bit of the rain.
But wherever we travelled, the mountain came in view, marking its unique identity – on the coastal drive to Mullaghmore where we could see the Classiebawn Castle in the shadow of Benbulben, on the way to the W B Yeats grave, enroute to the Devil’s Chimney.
At one point, we parked the car, and stood silently, taking in its beauty. Did it appear green or a shade of blue, was it saying something or were the clouds a puff that it was blowing from its enchanted pipe?
My husband looked at it so longingly that I thought, why this mountain. Why not any other? What was it exactly that had captured his heart?
True, that it was steeped in folklore and many stories and was absolutely captivating, but so many mountains in Ireland or across the world, or even back home in India could be all that and more.
However, it was like asking yourself why do you fall in love with one person and not another?
Can reason and logic explain the many mysteries of love and enrapturement?
So, I started thinking of ways in which we could know the Benbulben some more.
“Do you want to attempt the forest walk again? There’s even a trail, difficult, but one that takes us atop the mountain. I am happy to attempt it,” I offered.
“No. I wanted this trip to be relaxing for you.”
“What do we do then,” I asked again.
“Nothing. We admire it. We may not be able to come back again, to climb it, to see it. But even this is enough,” he replied.
“Perhaps a magnet for our board? That way, it will be there for us every day,” I said, still thinking of ideas to make Benbulben, in any which ways, a part of our lives.
We looked for a magnet but couldn’t find one that represented in part, some of the magic and mystery of the mountain.
Then, on a whim, we decided to go to the Donegal Craft Village in Lurganboy. Among the many shops and artists there, we found one whose studio and shop showcased hand felted landscapes.
With vibrant colours, artist Michelle McKee had captured a lot of the rugged landscape of Donegal in her work. We were fascinated with her choice of colours and technique as also how the countryside had come alive in a unique way in her creations, as if myth, mystery and magic was woven in along with her threads of felt.
Then, our eyes fell on something familiar.
The Benbulben. It was there in felt and also in original, limited edition prints. One in particular, titled Towards Yeats Country, called out to us. In it, Benbulben was towering above the frenzied waters of the Atlantic Ocean and was in turn, canopied under a sky full of frothy, Cappuccino-like clouds. McKee seemed to have encompassed the real and the imagined in this piece of work – you could feel the mountain’s raw energy, and you could also very well imagine the fairy people living amongst its forested land.
The minute we saw it, I knew I had found a way to take the mountain home.
As we paid for a print, and chatted with the very friendly McKee, I thought that this love story did result in a happy ending.
This mountain – like love and memories – we would carry within ourselves for years to come. And each time we would look at the print, we would revel in the unexpectedness and the mysterious ways of love as well as in the promise of magic and wonderment that each little trip or travel may hold. We would also look at all mountains with renewed sense of magic and reverence – be it the Dublin mountains that greet us every morning from our apartment balcony or Pavagadh that lies at the outskirts of our hometown in Vadodara.
I also now knew, that for some of us, there may never really be a permanent way to escape the anxiety, grief and loss that the pandemic has brought in its wake. But there may be moments. Fleeting or lingering, in which we may seek to reengage with the mystery and wonder of the world around us. And in these moments, we may succeed in finding both – beauty as well as solace.
Thank you Benbulben for bringing that moment home for us.