On the Road – The Curragh

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The N7 near Naas. Acrylic on canvas

The film Being There carried the tag line: Getting there is half the fun, being there is all of it. In terms of holiday travel, most would agree with that, up to a point. Being there is all of it, getting there is a drag. A friend of mine is loathe to prolong his holiday enjoyment beyond the wake up call on the last day. Like many, he would sooner beam to and from his holidays in the manner of Star Trek’s transporter. Beam me up, Scotty! It all depends on the nature of the holiday. I enjoy driving for leisure and many holidays I’ve taken, to America, Canada, Britain and Europe have been as much about the road as the destinations it connects. The road is constantly fascinating, forever changing, a thread connected to all destinations and to home. In a manner of speaking. Planes and boats and trains all have their own unique charm, each contributing to the adventure you started with the wake up call on day one.

The winter it has passed

and the summer’s come at last,

the small birds are singing in the trees.

I’ve been in travel limbo since mid Autumn but am currently making plans. In the meantime there are places to visit nearer home. Wicklow and Dublin offer delights of city, mountain and sea. I can step out the front door and put my foot on the road. A pen, a notebook and a camera are good companions. When I return I can write about it, paint it or picture it in the mind’s eye. Being home is part of it too.

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Leaving the Curragh Camp

Over the last few months, my most significant excursions have been to Kildare, by way of the M50 and the Naas Road. Kildare borders Dublin and Wicklow but resembles neither. Flat and landlocked, it is the marchland of the Pale. Most of our youthful motoring excursions passed along the Naas Road. This was Ireland’s first dual carriageway, the key connector between the Capital and Limerick, traversing the southern midlands. It originates at the junction of the Grand Canal and Tyrconnel Road in Inchicore, southwest Dublin. As the N7 it travels via Newlands Cross past the western border of Dublin to Naas in County Kildare. Although a dual carriageway since the sixties, and becoming a six-lane highway at the turn of the century, it only acquires motorway status passing Naas. The stretch of road to Newbridge was Irelands first motorway in the early eighties. It was around then that bypasses were built along the main national routes. Before that, motor travel was something of a chore, short bursts of highways alternating with long queues through middling Midland towns and villages. The development of motorways was mutually beneficial, most towns have blossomed in being taken off the main highway. Most towns now are twice the size they were thirty and more years ago.

And straight I will repair

to the curragh of Kildare,

for it’s there I’ll find tidings of my dear.

The Curragh, in the centre of Kildare, is a unique landscape. A huge expanse, five thousand acres, of common land. Unfenced, it harks back to an ancient uncultivated landscape. On the other hand, its herd of sheep keeps the grassland beautifully manicured. Kildare is thus known as the Short Grass County. The Curragh’s location just beyond the Pale made it an ideal point of muster for Gaelic chieftains in opposition to the invading Anglo-Normans. This was the fulchrum between the new world and the old. There remains the sensation of passing from the urbane world to a wilder, untamed one.

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Looking south over the Curragh

After 1798, when the United Irishmen’s Rebellion ran aground, the British began to use the Curragh as a fortification against further uprising. By 1880, the Curragh Camp was taking its permanent form. A collection of redbrick barracks buildings commanding the eastern portion of the Central Plain and the approaches to Dublin. Following the passing of the Home Rule Bill in 1914, the officer corps at the Curragh defied Parliament and refused to move against armed Unionist belligerents in Ulster. Although this contributed to British annexation of part of Ulster, Ireland strove for full independence. When Irish Independence was achieved in 1921, the Camp was taken over by the Irish army and became their principal training base.

A livery I’ll wear

and I’ll comb back my hair,

and in velvet so green i will appear.

The song, the Curragh of Kildare was popularised by the Johnstons and later Christy Moore. The original verse is attributed to Robbie Burns. Subsequent additions established the Curragh as its location. As a female voice it is said to concern a young woman searching for her lover who has enlisted in the Crown forces at the Curragh Camp. The male vocal would seem to imply a connection with the nearby racecourse, long the centre for the Irish racing Classics. Either way, it is a song of yearning for person and place. This evocative place can be experienced in passing or by walking its unfenced and undelineated expanse.

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The Curragh Camp. Acrylic on canvas.

Passing through the Camp recently, a flock of sheep crowded around a stand of pines. Looking slightly left, this bucolic tableau was replaced by the urban environment of the barracks buildings and squares. The giant fire station tower dominates the scattered buildings spread across woodland and heath. The area is prone to fog, adding another surreal layer, as veils conceal and reveal a shifting and often illogical landscape.

And straight I will repair

to the curragh of Kildare,

for it’s there I’ll find tidings of my dear

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