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With Gerald of Wales in Ireland
James Friel

1 The uses of peppermint

It is 1232. I am with Gerald of Wales in Ireland. He is bleak-boned and his hair a bilgy mop. I walk behind him. The donkey farts in my face. From this you will learn that I am not yet tall.

The donkey's farts smell of peppermint and sage. Shamrock, too. Such plants grow by the wayside and the donkey searches them out whenever we come to a stop. I, also, chew on mint and my breath, I know, is sweet. My farts, too, I half-expect.

Gerald of Wales does not fart although he is, I think, a complete arse.


2 How he sees this land and I do not

In Ireland, says Gerald, the fish live in trees. Their nests have roofs on them to protect them from the birds. He points them out to me but all I can discern are branches, twigs and leaves and not the dang of a fish do I see or even begin to imagine.

It is clear we see the world differently.

He is Gerald of Wales, a Geraldine monk of great renown, the son of royalty, three parts Norman, one part Welsh. What the known world knows it knows because of him and I'm only some boy he picked up by the scrag of his neck in a market outside Eborac for purposes unknown to me.

So much is unknown to me but my breath and farts smell sweet and that's a skill of sorts. Snuggled up with me at night -- for warmth, he says -- I think he must appreciate this, my fragrant being, but he doesn't tell me so. He says nothing about it or me or the beds we share. He is a pure and saintly man.


3 The woman with a goat and with a beard

This morning we saw a woman milking a goat. This evening he will have it that she was shagging it. This is what they do here, he tells me. This is what the Irish are like. In Ireland, Nature forgets herself, grows distempered and absurd.

The woman had a whisker on her chin and she pulled it thoughtfully while she milked. By nightfall Gerald would also have it that it was not a whisker she had but a beard full-grown to her waist and he further adds a crest from her neck and along her spine like a horse's mane.

There was a pony in the nearby stall. Perhaps he is confused.


4 His previous visits

He has been here before. He came here first fifty years ago, a family visit for it appears a good deal of his relatives were conquering the place. King Henry said he had a tongue of gold and made a pet of him.

The King then made him tutor to Lord John and it was with Lord John he came back a second time. I do not think he rode about on a donkey in those high old days. I do not think he trotted behind Lord John with a donkey farting in his face. I think his life was very different then.

He wrote a History and Topography of Ireland, its position, its wonders, its miracles and inhabitants. He read the work aloud at Oxford before a great audience of that city's poor, its learned and its great. It took three days and was, he says, a magnificent and costly achievement, akin to the days of Homer to whom he was compared.

Perhaps the world and Ireland was exactly as he described it then and as he sees it now. Perhaps he is not seeing but remembering but I do not believe that the candlelight uses up the dark, that church bells are fugitive and flit from parish to parish depending on the goodness of its people, that cocks crow differently here, that stags have golden teeth, that fish have stones for brains, that the barnacles on pine logs are baby birds.

He tells me this and more and then catches me yawning. My mouth agape, he points at it and says, "See. That is where the devil enters. He invades us when we are tired."

I fart and say, "See. This is how I let the devil out."

I wonder he does not beat me for my cheek.


5 The shape of Ireland

Ireland is eight days long and four days wide.

"The soil is soft and watery and mostly marsh," so he claims. "Even at the tops of high, steep mountains there are pools and swamps although the land as a whole is low-lying, sandy rather than rocky, not only on its circumference but also in its very interior."

There seems a contradiction here. How can a place be mostly marsh and mostly sand?

Here is a map of Ireland as Gerald would draw it.

It is somewhat like a wolf, yes?

How can he know this? How can he draw the shape of it when we go nowhere but in a circle and always to the left?

Here is a map of Ireland as I know it.

But I am not to be trusted with a pen.

I wonder why I am here and what use I am and why he has returned. Once the whole world streamed towards him with its great questions and he answered each of them with clarity and sureness. He is tired and old now. He is stick-thin and blotched with age. He leans on me with all his weight and his weight is nothing for me to bear. At night he coughs and groans and daylight hurts his eyes. His eyes glitter with rheum and he moves as if his every sinew resented him.

He deserves to rest. His body begs for it but perhaps his soul is hungry yet.


6 The food

At night he tongues my minty arse. It is his only sustenance. He does not trust the food in Ireland. The bread is flat and tastes of beer not fully brewed. The wheat here is small grained and when milled, made flour and baked, will not rise more than the span of two arthritic fingers. It is without grace, says Gerald, sinful stuff.

He gets thinner with each passing day and there was never much of him to waste. At night I am fat in his bony arms. The butter here is lovely.


7 Its rivers

We have traveled for days and now sit in a sodden tent while he invents the names of all the rivers we have not seen -- as if naming them will bring them into existence.

Of the rivers we have seen they are remarkable and come in many colours. There are rivers of slate and rivers rose-red at sunset and chamomile at dawn.

There are rivers of pure air that stream about us as we walk, so Gerald says but I think such rivers to be merely the breeze is all. When we walk the element through which we move is air and not water for otherwise we would drown but Gerald opens and closes his mouth like a fish whenever we move along and his hands paddle and splash as if otherwise he'd drown. He bucks and rolls as if he is riding not the back of donkey but a dolphin.

I find the water here mild and good. It tastes of smoke and turf and is the colour of good ale. Gerald forbids the drinking of it. In other lands, says he, a river begins as a drop of sweat fallen on the land from God's own brow. In Ireland the rivers rise up from Hell. In other lands rivers are sacred things but in Ireland they are not for Ireland happened when God was not looking or was tired.

I will not go thirsty and I rebel but pity the poor donkey who is a servile beast and so must go without.

Only water from a well is safe, says Gerald. He carries about him pebbles he has soaked in water from a well. When he is parched with thirst, they refresh his mouth, he says.

The donkey spits them out.


8 The ravens here

One day he sits so still -- and I with him -- ravens come and perch on our outstretched hands. He bids me stay still as the birds peck at us and so I hardly breathe as a raven pulls at my ear as if it would speak with me. His feathers are not black close up but rainbowed many colours. The sun delights in them. Another raven pulls at Gerald's mouth as if it would drop words in it and they regard each other as if truly they were talking. This is a thing that never happened to me before.


9 My past

Before I was with Gerald of Wales in Ireland I was among the lost. I was a fish at the bottom of a dark stream, one of many, unconsidered and unconsidering, orphans of war, of plunder or neglect. When we became too many the brothers would take us to the market and sell us off to slave on farms, as kitchen boys, to go to the bad and end up in the noose or as bums and sucking mouths for rich men's cocks.

I figured Gerald of Wales for such a man the day he came among us all in great state and we were herded before him for his perusal.

He could have taken Hamsel who was tall and strong or Driffield with the blue eyes and hair so fair it seemed to light up the dark and who was my special friend but it was me he took, me who hid behind the others, the runt, freckled as a trout, me who didn't want to go. I loved living among things lost. I was at home.

I see now he is like the ospreys they have here, birds larger than a hawk, that have one claw open, sharp and ready to snatch and the other closed and peaceful. They hover quietly above the waves and peer great distances into the deep and see every little thing that moves and every little thing that doesn't. They dive down then and take their prey and so Gerald did with me. I am out of my element in Ireland. I should want for air or drown. I should fail and fall but I do not. Gerald, he holds me not with talons but in his peaceful claw.


10 On the Irish and the English

I am comrade and witness to his deeds.

"History does not spare the truth, and recounts rather what is in fact true than that which seems like truth."

I am on a pilgrimage -- or he is -- and so I slowly learn.

Ask me and I will tell you Ireland is somewhere all grass, slow rain and a sky that will not rest but reels about, cloud-wrapped, moving from greys to purple-blues and pitch black night with hardly any stars. It is a land of people who run away -- these are Irish -- or people who welcome Gerald as if he were a saint: these are English. "You may distinguish the two by their piety," Gerald says.

When the natives do approach us, curious and nervous for we belong to a foreign power that is not kind, Gerald has them jabber at us in the Irish tongue. He leans towards them from his seat upon the donkey and nods as if he understood them when I know he knows not one word. When they speak it is to us all "aah's" and "ee's" and clicks and gobble, angry chickens pecking an empty yard.

"Irish is not the Devil's language" he concedes, "but only the Devil and themselves would ever speak it. In Heaven we will all speak Welsh."

"Will I?" I asked for I cannot speak it now. My mother had her tongue cut off for even beginning to make it known to me and my father I never knew at all.

"For heaven to be truly Heaven," he says to me, "you will, I pray, be mute."

In the English settlements, castles, fortresses, they genuflect at his approach. If it is known we are close by, soldiers and civil servants ride out to pay him homage. Letters follow us from Canterbury and the Court. They offer him the bishoprics of Chester, Durham, Leatherhead. He refuses them. To accept such a post would be to accept the supremacy of Canterbury and he is Gerald of Wales. He would not accept a post even if it came from the Pope himself. The Pope is in Rome and Rome is in the East. Although he does not dispute the Apostolic Succession, he thinks ill that it has made its home in Italy.

Italy is in the East and the East is all that is bad. All its elements are pestiferous.

"In the East, if you put your foot upon the ground, death is upon you. If you sit on marble without taking care, death is upon you. If you uncover your head to feel the breeze, death is upon you. In the East everywhere death is at the gate."

If the East is death and he feels death is close upon him then this is why he flees perhaps. This is why he is in Ireland for Ireland is in the West. Only the West is true. The West is to the left of North and the only way out of Hell is to keep always to the left and Ireland is to the left of Wales

What lies beyond Ireland, I dare to ask.         

"The sea and it is endless," he replies with satisfaction.

Once in Cashel an English captain rode out to ask us who we were and what we were about?

"I am Gerald of Wales in Ireland," he simply said.

The captain dropped to his knees and crossed himself not out of reverence but fear.

"I thought you were dead long since."


11 Birds who make fabulous nests

There are birds here, male ones, who make fabulous nests. They make them upon the ground. They make them not like mean and tiny baskets made of twigs and spit but like palaces, galleons, cathedrals. They stud the walls with old coins and broken crockery. They make towers out of pine cones, turrets with small stones and deck them with feathers that sway in the wind and glisten in the rain.

I have yet to see such birds or the nests they make but Gerald claims we come across them often. He points them out but all I see is a broken barrel, an old sandal, a broken spade left rusting in the earth.

He tells me I do not believe the evidence of my own eyes, that I must look again, look harder or with different eyes.

"In everything material and observed there is a truth that endows the spirit."

Once I would have chewed more mint or let out a long slow fart but nowadays I find myself screwing up my eyes and trying to look again.

It is 1232.

How old is he?

He says he is too old for this world and that he never meant to live this long and I wonder if he is alive at all but a ghost who sees the world as ghosts must see it, darkly veiled and many layered and other than it is.


12 With Harold

In Connaught we are entertained by Lord John's nephew, Harold, a monumental feast of which Gerald touches not a crumb. Harold toasts both Gerald and then the only good Irishman, Patrick, the one who was made a saint, Patrick who rid the land of snakes.

It is true that there are no poisonous snakes here and that the very dust is inimical to such creatures. Here it is no hazard to walk barefoot through the grass. I have done it many times.

"He did what we must do," roars Harold, "purge the land of poisonous reptiles and beasts who do us harm."

By the look of his castle walls and the bodies that hang from them, Harold means do with the Irish what Patrick did with snakes.

This makes Gerald angry.

"Patrick no more rid the land of snakes than you will rid the Irish from their land, try as you may. As for beasts who do us harm, they exist here still. You will never rid the land of wolves. Nor foxes either. Nor, I might add, the mouse. A mouse can be a very harmful beast indeed."

He is Gerald of Wales and can say as he likes but Harold likes him less for it.

As we leave the castle in the morning, we pass through the gates at the same time as a cart ordered by our host. The cart is piled high with crates and in every crate there is a howling, scratching hissing cat.


13 The Island of Eternal Life and the Island of the Dead

Not five miles from Connaught -- if one walks in a widening circle and always to the left -- we come across a lake in which there are two islands, humps of earth in all that lustrous water. On one island are some trees, a wattle hut, a hive and on the other only grass.

Gerald tells me that the one with only grass is the Island of Eternal Life and the other with the trees, the hut and hive is the Island of the Dead.

How so, I ask for I think neither island deserves a name but, if forced to it, I'd have thought the larger one with trees and honey deserved less to be called the Island of the Dead.

"On the Island of Eternal life," he says, pointing at the smaller of the humps on which there is only grass, "a man may live as all men live until sickness and old age but he will not die of these or anything else as long as he stays upon it. Sickness, mortal sickness will rack him, true. He will endure its agony without respite but he will not die. No, he will not die."

I looked out, shielding my eyes from the sun as it glared upon the water.

"When no hope is left and strength decreases until they are so distressed they cry out to die, they are carried across to this other island with the trees, the hut and hive, and they give up their spirits even as they touch its shores. Eternal life is a dreadful thing. An endless existence is a penance. Only God could ever endure it."


14 The eagle

The eagle can stare straight into the sun. So Gerald gazes with his mind.

This is how he sees what isn't there for me. This is how he sees beyond.

The eagle flies so high, its wings are scorched and it can fly no higher. Bold and undazzled, there is still a point beyond which it cannot go. So, too, with Gerald's mind. It cannot go beyond a certain limit.

"We cannot know all, only part: otherwise we burn."

Is this why we are in Ireland? To go beyond and be consumed?

Everyday there is less of him , it seems. Mornings he is so grey he may well be made of smoke but as the day goes on he thickens into existence and I am glad of this.


15 The sparrowhawk

A sparrowhawk lives by prey. They have no time for kindness even with each other. They throw their offspring out of their nests lest they should accustom themselves to dependence and soft living. They beat them away with their wings and compel their chicks to fly. Once the chicks have left, they are forced never to return, to fend for themselves or die.

This is how it was with me. The world is cruel. I see now that in their very ruthlessness my parents were being kind.

I am not ruthless like the sparrowhawk. I must be some other bird.


16 The crane

I may well be a crane.

Communal birds, they number a hundred to a flock. There is only Gerald and me but, like the cranes, we take turns at night in watching our common safety.

The crane stands on one leg only and in its other claw it holds a stone so that, if it should sleep, the stone would fall and so waken it.

Gerald has a stone. It rolls around in his head. It is the thought that impels him to return here and, perhaps, to go beyond. There is something he does not know and, until he does, he is vigilant. He will not drop the stone.

I am his stone.

He is mine.

To think I hold him in my grasp when it is dark and he is at his weakest. The trust he has in me. I could not bear that he should fall. I could not bear to let him go.


17 One more thing about the crane

Its liver is warm and fiery. If it ate an iron bar it would digest it and be nourished. It knows love. It knows love's heat. It softens what was unyielding.

As I grow tender towards him, I wonder if it is he who transforms me or is it simply that I have grown to love him.

We have softened into union.


18 The wolves

We are on the road to Meath and last night we slept in the dreary open, a fire for warmth, a leafy tree for shelter and when darkness came so did rain and with it, slinking from the woods, a wolf.

He came up to the fire, not a thing a wolf would do, and then it spoke oddly and in English although its long snout and grinning jaw were not shaped for words.

"Do not be afraid," it said.

I was.

So, indeed, was Gerald.

We clung together tightly.

"Be not afraid," the wolf said and reminded Gerald -- but not me for I never knew before this -- that these were the very words the angel greeted the women who had come to Christ's tomb the morning of his resurrection.

"I make the reference quite deliberately," said the wolf, "to suggest I am a Christian soul and mean no harm."

The wolf said other things about God that seemed to Gerald reasonable and in this way assuaged his fears while mine, of course, remained.

"I am of Ossory," the wolf went on, settling by the fire, its forelegs crossed and its wet pelt steaming in the heat. His lolloping tongue obstructed many of his words, which came in wolfish pants.

"Every seven years, a punishment for imprecating the sanctity of the Abbot Natalis, two of us are compelled into exile not only from our home but also from our God-given shape. When the seven years are done, and if we survive, two others take our place and we will return to our homes and our true natures, more appreciative of God's grace."

He told us his partner and dear companion was not far from us but ill.

"Please solace her, holy man. Bring her in her final moments the revelation of God's mercy."

We followed him then. I was full of fear. He led us to a certain tree and in its hollow lay a she-wolf groaning and grieving in a human way. She welcomed us. Even in her agony she extended to us a civil paw.

I could not take it but Gerald did and stroked her head although it was drenched with sweat and matted with blood and pus. He uttered prayers in Latin and in Welsh and she seemed soothed by this yet still she moaned and her yellow eyes implored him.

"Viaticum," pleaded her mate. "Give her viaticum."

"I cannot," Gerald said. "I am not a priest."

Did that matter, I asked him for I was moved by the poor beast's plight. I begged him not to deny her in this way. Would God mind if a monk in desperation did a priest's work?

Gerald could only look to his hands as if they were of no use here other than to stroke the dying beast.

"I have neither bread or wine and, if I had, I have not the power to transform them into His body and His precious blood."

Yet he could see a barrel on the road and think it was a nest for birds. He could see fish in trees. He could give a woman a beard to her waist and a mane like a horse.

"I cannot do this," he said and genuinely he cried.

The she-wolf yelped and howled most horribly, not like a beast but like a woman agony turns into an animal.

I pushed Gerald to one side.

How easily, I now remember, he gave way.

I placed a pebble in her mouth and told her it was the Blessed Host. I trailed a length of spittle from my mouth along her own and told her it was Christ's blood. It gave her instant calm and so, believing, she died.

The mate howled at the moon in all that rain and Gerald looked at me and was not angry for my blasphemy nor did he leave off stroking the dead she-wolf but under his tender touch her fur gave way as if it were no more than a mantle and revealed to us an old woman, shrivelled, grey, at peace. I think she may have been my mother.

Her mate pulled back her coat still further and with his tongue licked at her back, her arms, her dugs, her neck, her unresponding face and combed with his sharp teeth her stringy hair as if, in Wolfish ways, this is how one mourns one's dead.

Gerald and I watched respectfully until the wolf was done and he pulled the fur back over his dead mate as if it were a sheet and she was wolf again.

He led us back through the wet and dripping dark and left us by our fire. Through all that rain and all that remained of night we heard him in the forest wailing but his song was sad to us, not fearsome.

Morning came and he returned to lead us back to our path before slipping away again. He had many more months of wolfishness before he could go home.

We walked on to Meath, my hand in Gerald's, his hand in mine.


19 The sea beyond Ireland

Now I see the fish in the trees.

Now I see how a whisker can become a beard.

Now I see that barnacles are birds. Full-grown they are like marsh geese only smaller but at birth they appear as excrescences on logs. They hang by their beaks like seaweed. They suckle on wood juice, their developing bodies enclosed in a protective shell. They thicken and feather and break free, slipping into the water or flying up into the free air.

"How is this done?" Gerald asks me.

"I do not know, Sir, except that if God made man from dust and slime and woman from a bone, is it so wondrous he makes a bird from wood?"

When we walk in a widening circle and always to the left I do not know these days if he is leading me or I am leading him.

"Where shall we go next?" he asks me as if I am the one in charge but the decisions we make are shared now.

I suggested once the Island of Eternal Life and the Island of the Dead for he fails fast and can hardly make it through a day. We could rest upon the Island of Eternal Life and watch the long grass dance about us and then, when the time came -- I would not let him cry out in agony but would know -- I would carry him across the Island of the Dead, lay his body on its banks and witness his soul's lingering farewell.

The idea appeals but the Islands now lie to the East of us and he must go to the West, to the left and finally the sea.

"There is no land beyond the sea or man or beast or flower but only oceans flowing on into boundless space, water rushing in unsearchable and hidden ways."

I take his hand and we walk on.



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