The day my family and I returned from a short overseas vacation I blearily opened the Philadelphia Inquirer to find the very mountain we had visited the day before splayed across the travel page. It was a beautiful shot of Ben Bulben, Ireland’s own Table Mountain, majestic and strange, located in the northwest part of the country. I was awestruck once again. Translated to mean “jaw-shaped peak”, Ben Bulben, from the north, juts out from a relatively flat plane near the coast, and from other vantages merges into the rest of the Dartry Mountains, an expanse that was once an ocean plateau before glaciers reformed sea boundaries. Ireland’s fickle weather and the shadows thrown from its creviced surface suggest that it is rarely the same mountain view twice. Perhaps this ability to shapeshift is what has stirred the creative juices of many an Irish poet and storyteller over centuries.
W.B. Yeats called this county of Sligo “the land of heart’s desire”; in fact, several of his poems were written about the area, including one of his most famous, “The Stolen Child”…
As evident in Yeats’ poetry, folklore is so embedded into Irish culture that it is difficult to separate it from the physical landscape. Take for example the gray patch of the mountain on the left side of the above photo, an area that appears to have been shoveled by a giant backhoe; this feature is called the “fairy door”. According to local legend, when the door opens, the weather will be wonderful for the next several days (a rarity for Ireland at any stretch of time). Ben Bulben mythology also extends to more famous tales featuring the Fianna, that great band of conquering Celtic warriors; Tir na nÓg, the land of eternal youth; and the tragic romance of Gráinne and Diarmait, to name a few.
Anyone wanting to explore this mountain is encouraged to do so from the gently-sloping south side and yet must be warned of changeable weather that can cut visibility amid dangerous gullies and, according to a local tour guide, hidden sinkholes in the underbrush. Even quicksand can form on its boggy mantle. Once on top, resilient visitors are rewarded with several magnificent vistas: a hundred shades of green sliding into the sea to the west, rolling Donegal hills to the north, and the beautiful sheep-studded Glencar lake region to the south.
While I did not personally climb Ben Bulben on this recent trip, I can say that there is something very special about the area, an aura that sparkles and shimmers and in Yeats’ words “glosses”. I have seen almost every county in Ireland and found Sligo to be uniquely varied. A trip to nearby Glencar Waterfall, for example, is everything Ben Bulben is not: jungle-like and intimate, its stone backdrop lushly sheltered by a thick layer of trees, rhododendron, ferns, and fuchsia. The meandering country roads connecting these two sites only add to the diverse charm.
For me, whether rocky highland or wandering water, Ben Bulben and surrounds are a great reminder of God’s wonderful artistry, that ever-morphing soul embrace that pushes troubles into shadow and allows clear and perfect sight, no matter the weather or vantage.