Once upon a long time ago, I was wandering through Ireland and I came to the monastery Joyce wrote about in “The Dead” …..Mont-somethingorother. It’ll come back to me.* Anyhow I stayed there over a weekend – a spartan room, very simple meals, no-one to talk to except the priest/monk who had the dispensation to talk. My fellow lodgers were, for Ireland, unusually untalkative. However it was a very peaceful sojourn and did my soul and heart no harm at all.
* [Mount Melleray Abbey is a community of Cistercian (Trappist) monks. The monastery is situated on the slopes of the Knockmealdown mountains in County Waterford, Ireland.]
The outstanding memory I have of Mount Melleray is of sitting on my bed looking out of the window across the sunlit garden at the very ornate wooden dovecot in the centre of the lawn – a single pole supporting a circular platform in the middle of which was a large ‘house’ with two arched doorways. A half-dozen or so pearly-white, puffed-up doves gingerly moved around their not-so-little platform, entering and exiting their rather grand castle, nodding politely and making gentle sounds of satisfaction to each other as they did so – all very civilised, very French aristocrat
looking down from the surrounding grey granite ramparts of the monastery and making ugly guttural croaking sounds was a ragged legion of black crows, very Irish peasant. The doves seemed oblivious of these creatures crowding the ramparts; the crows seemed to have little else on their minds but a sense of the injustice of it all. And that’s how it was intended, 0r so it seemed, by some hidden law: the doves in custom-built comfort, the crows outlawed to the outskirts
a solitary crow launched itself from the ramparts and landed awkwardly on the doves’ circular walkway. The doves on either side moved hurriedly away, not a panicky retreat, rather the moving away from an unwelcome newcomer with whom they wanted no contact whatsoever
another crow made a bumpy landing, this time with some excuse because it had in its beak a long twig which it carefully and cleverly, to the startled cooings and uneasy shufflings of the doves, inserted in one of the arched doorways. The doves edged closer together, the two crows, without a struggle gained free access to at least a third of the circular board. The crows cawed loudly, the doves cooed softly
a third crow descended with a twig in its beak which it duly inserted in the doorway
another and soon the half-dozen crowded doves were having to balance precariously in ever-decreasing space as they became outnumbered by the relentless nest-building crows
a door opened and a monk carrying two pails appeared. He put the pails down to shut the door behind him. Another crow descended, landed, inserted its twig. Before taking up his pails, the monk clapped his hands. Clap clap clap. With a leathery flapping of wings and more cawcawing, the crows retreated en masse back to the dreary ramparts, the monk crossed the tonsured lawn with his shiny pails on his way to the vegetable garden, pausing only to pull the twigs from the doorway of the doves’ house, the doves once more occupying the full circle of their walkway with space to spare, once more nodding and making gentle sounds of satisfaction to one another.
The ungainly crows on the ramparts hopped restlessly from one perch to another, cawing, waiting.
Church, State, Nobles, Peasants – it was all there – the history of Ireland in a monastery garden.