Friday, September 07, 2012

Rihla (Journey 30): Marlfield, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary: COCKAYGNE, NOSTALGIA AND THE TREE OF LIFE.

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years. 


The Land of Cockaygne c1330CE

An abbey’s there, a handsome sight, 
Of monks with habits grey and white. 
The house has many rooms and halls; 
Pies and pasties form the walls, 
Made with rich fillings, fish and meat, 
The tastiest a man could eat. 

The Land of Cockaygne 
A 14th Century Irish Satire 

After travelling to southern Turkey earlier this year to see Gobekli Tepe my night dreams began, inexplicably, to incorporate images of my grandson Leon and of a large tree; a tree I immediately recognised from part of own childhood in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. On the flight home I fell into conversation with the passenger next to me. By chance he was a laconic Waterford man, a true Spartan from the Nire Valley, returning via Istanbul from Azerbajan where he had found work with a construction firm following the implosion of building sector here in Ireland. We began discussing the whole notion of imprinted memories and nostalgia, and I told him of the recent dreams and of a real desire to revisit the tree if it still existed.

He smiled as he looked at me, and observed, “Roger. There is no future in nostalgia… or in Clonmel at the moment.” 

And of course this is true. Nostalgia does not have an antonym or word opposite in the English language. There can be no emotion of future longing, a desire to re-experience something that has not yet happened. You can muse upon the present, or anticipate the future in an abstract way, but deprived of memory, of an imprint they are lesser emotions. Umberto Eco might say that nostalgia is a place to store emotions that would clutter the present and obviate the future and for many (perhaps necessarily) it can become either an indulgence or an escape. 

For me however it was the TREE. 

My brothers,sister and me on the TREE

Marfield, when I was growing up there between 1960 and 1968, was a small village on the west side of Clonmel on the road from Ardfinan. Today the village and the remainder of the parish of Inislounaght (leamh neachta – Isle of the Fresh Milk) are part of the expanded town. Marlfield was the site of a 7th century early monastic settlement on which Malachy O’Phelan, lord of the Decies and Donald Mor O’Brien, King of Munster encouraged the Cistercians of Mellifont Abbey to the south, to establish a daughter-house. 

The Abbey of Inislounaght known as de Surio was founded in 1148 and always seemed to attract trouble, both from within and without. It was the subject of a satire poem, the Land of Cockaygne, written by rival Franciscans in 1330 documenting the Cistercian delight in the good life at the Abbey and subsequently fell on hard times. In 1537 the Abbot James Butler was accused of being a man of ‘odius life’ who ‘taking yearly and daily men's wives and burgess' daughters keepeth no divine service but spends the goods of his church in voluptuosity, and mortgages the lands of his church and so the house is all decayed’. 

In 1540 the Abbey lands were surrendered to Thomas Butler, a local farmer and the first Baron Caher, although the last titular Abbot was a Laurence FitzHarris who fled the Crowellian forces to France in 1649. 

As you drive in from Ardfinan you are in the land of big houses and former big estates. Leaving Knocklofty House behind, once the home of the Earls of Donoughmore, you soon enter the village and then at the crossroads to Patricks Well and Marlfield Lake you turn right down the lane to Marlfield House, former home of the Bagwell family, and the sandy bank on the River Suir where we learnt to swim. Near the end of the road you meet on the left the entrance to St Patrick’s Church of Ireland, which stands on part of the site of where the Abbey once stood. 

St Patricks COI, Marlfield, Clonmel.
Sweet Chestnut, Avenue.

The church is an evocative place, with overgrown graves and a sentinel parade of sweet chestnut trees where every autumn as children we gathered ammunition for the ‘conker’ fights in school. The ‘Abbey Nuts’ were the very best and the effort to sneak past the house where the local ‘bogey man’ lived to get them was always worth it. 

St Patricks COI, Marlfield, Co. Tipperary.
East End Gable.

As I walked down the avenue, nostalgia had nearly completely taken over. The childhood swims in the river, the conker trees, the place where Theo English made his famous hurleys, the house where we bought fresh eggs, the house where Susan McGrath my first great passion lived. I wonder at what age does nostalgia take root? When do memories become a beacon of longing? And of course when did the ‘tree’, the tree of my childhood life take such a hold. 

Leaving the village towards Clonmel I crested the hill and slowed as the house entrance approached: Birdhill. The old house, burnt down in the 1920 reprisals that destroyed many of the old landlord homes throughout the country, was bought by my father in a poor state of repair in 1960 and when we left it in 1968 it was only partially restored. A winding avenue through the fields where my brothers and I chased each other on bareback ponies with bows and arrows (there were no cowboys only Indians) brought us to the house. Somebody had spent an enormous amount of money in reviving its former glory and I was gobsmacked by its beauty. 

So beautiful it undermined somewhat my memories of dilapidation, of freedom, of chaos and of happiness. I parked the car and knocked at the door. There was nobody at home and disappointment enveloped me. 

Birdhill, Marlfield, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary.

But then I turned to look at the tree. The tree, a specimen Monterey Cypress, rose majestically to the sky, its canopy topping out at about 100-120 ft. This tree was the rite of passage of my childhood, as each year of maturing bravado drove me higher and higher up the trunk until I crested it about the age of 10 or 11. At a recent funeral for my uncle a cousin of mine mentioned that his family had, on an early Super 8 film (first released 1965), footage of me waving down from the top of the tree. 

Mrs Bagwell's Recipe Book
Marlfield House, c1909

Beyond the tree was a fruit garden and this is where the medlars grew. This is a nostalgic taste, and by way of further documentary evidence I have in my possession still, from my time in Clonmel Mrs Bagwell of Marlfield House’s handwritten and typed personal recipe book. Amongst hints for making cheap household soap, destroying rats and Sheep Head’s Pie there is a recipe for Medlar Jelly. 

Medlar Jelly from Marlfield

I don't think I can remember the taste of medlar jelly of my childhood and thus, that is the next journey. 

And also to try and remember what Susan McGrath really looked like! 

All travel, on the road, in the mind, is a quest for the emotional warmth that only nostalgia can evoke.