BOOK REVIEW The Road Wet, The Wind Close

As the weather grows cooler in northern climes and the days more blustery, thoughts turn to curling up with a good book.  And here’s a good one…the second in my travelogue series.

Roy, James Charles.  (1993). The Road Wet, the Wind Close.  Chester Springs, PA:  Dufour Editions.

In this combination travelogue/history, Roy, an American scholar, sets out to explore Gaelic Ireland through its archaeological sites dating from 2500 BC to 1169 AD.  The book is arranged, for the most part, by site date, allowing Roy – superb storyteller that he is – to weave the thread of Irish history from one ruin to another in the course of his travels.  Through his eyes, we visit Skellig Michael, New Grange, Tara, Cruachain, Downpatrick, the Rock of Doon, Benmore Head, Glencolumbkille, Lough Erne, Armagh, Tallaght, Clonmacnoise, Monasterboice, and Mellifont.  Many of these sites are monastic.  Roy goes into great detail on the history of the Celtic Church and the development of monastic traditions, but no chapter is a dry, academic read.  Roy brings the scandals and struggle to life, and in his interviews with prominent Irish scholars, he introduces many controversies, leaving us to draw our own conclusions.

Roy’s most exciting adventure was his daring stay on Skellig Michael – an inhospitable rock off the southwest coast.  Arranging transportation to the island itself was no small chore since the fishermen are wary of the treacherous waters.  But Roy found himself a willing boatman:

The captain eases in very carefully, even though we are protected from today’s winds and swells by the bulk of the island.  Getting ashore takes a good-sized leap.  My things are tossed from the swaying boat, he promises to return, I am left alone, nine miles out in the open Atlantic on a wet concrete dock, my only company three dead fish, apparently fresh, lying in the sunlight at my feet. (p. 3)

If the weather had taken a turn for the worse, Roy would have been stranded for many, many days – his food and water stores diminishing.  But things go well and Roy stays in one of the clocháns (stone beehive-shaped huts) in which the monks lived, survives the dreadful rain and chill, and takes us on a stunning tour of the rocky crag.  It’s a wonder how the monks survived in the seventh century — for the island could not support agriculture – with only currachs (small 3-man ox-hide boats) to transport them to and from the mainland in sometimes treacherous swells.

Roy takes us through the struggles in the North between the Ulaid tribes and the powerful Uí Néill (the O’Neills), the arrival of Christianity and its spread from the South, the influence of St. Patrick and St. Columba, the Céili Dé, one of Ireland’s most famous kings — Brian Boru – and the terror of Viking raids.  Along the way, we’re treated to the author’s brilliant commentary.  Of the high crosses he says, “What the Irish needed was something precious that in fact wasn’t worth a thing.  Also, in the light of the Norwegian penchant for burning what they couldn’t steal, it had to be fireproof.  And just in case a Viking chieftain decided out of spite to plunder the artifact in question away, it had to be heavy enough to discourage the thought.  The high cross was a logical solution” (p. 86).

My only complaint about the book is that all the beautiful photos that adorn it are reduced to a bleak two-dimensional quality in black and white.  I would have gladly paid twice the price for full-color photos.

With a plethora of scholarly notes, an index, and a bibliography of about 180 titles, you can’t go wrong with The Road Wet, the Wind Close.  Can’t afford a trip to the Emerald Isle?  This is the next best thing.  After reading this review, which I penned over 10 years ago, I’m off to read the book again!  Quality used copies can be bought from www.amazon.com and www.alibris.com

RESOURCES

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skellig_Michael

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