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From Venice to Tipperary
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From Venice to Tipperary

1. Ireland, Venice, and the Middle Ages

November. The wind roars across this hillside acre as if it wanted to wrench my garden-shed studio off its foundations and scatter the pine boards across the face of Sliabh na mBan. I live on a mountainside in a remote corner of remotest Tipperary, at the end of an unmarked lane, three miles from the nearest stop sign, four miles from a newspaper or a bottle of milk. Even when the wind is still, there is no traffic noise—no sirens, no horns. If one hears a motor, usually it means one of the neighbors is driving his tractor up the lane, bringing hay to the cattle. When a solitary airplane flies over high above, its silent passing is a singular enough event to make one look up and follow its progress across the sky.

The wind is relentless. It whispers, whistles, swoops, and swerves, rattles gutters and windowpanes. The rain-saturated meadows I see out the window glow intensely green, and there is a velvety denseness in the foliage of pines that grow along the demarcations between fields. Here and there the ghostly gray trunk of a beech tree shows through, and the black and white of Friesian cattle decorate a field. The only color other than earth’s natural tones is that of our red car parked in front of the house.

But another place fills my mind’s eye tonight. I have just returned from Venice. While I was gone a gale blew the hinges off the henhouse door, then blew the door off, and the fox killed one of the chickens. This morning when I got up I saw him out there, trying to sniff out another opening. He pranced away when he saw me, looking for all the world like a Renaissance dandy in a russet-colored tunic, his gorgeous tail pluming behind him. He was light on his feet and carried himself with the style of young courtiers in paintings by Carpaccio in the Accademia Gallery.

One goes to Venice for the intoxication of spending a few days in a place that is utterly beautiful. By comparison with many parts of the world, I already live in such a place, even though Ireland is changing every day, and not necessarily for the better. It has been many years since anyone could with a straight face call this country the land of saints and scholars.

Both Venice and the Irish hinterland still carry some flavor of life in Europe during the Middle Ages. The contemplation of both these ancient cultures raises us for a few moments above the day’s trivia. In the eighth century, when Venice was first establishing herself as a city-state with a more or less secure foundation in its lagoon, trading for salt and grain between the mainland of Lombardy and [End Page 58] the Byzantine Empire to the east, Ireland had already achieved a rich monastic culture that produced illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells and dispatched missionaries to nearby Scotland and England, as well as to Germany and Switzerland on the continent. The first Viking invasions lay a century or so in the future, and Irish monastic culture was thriving. The monks can hardly have suspected their way of life was about to be threatened and ravaged by predators sailing fast ships down from the northern fjords.

After the breakup of the Roman Empire the problem for cultures all over Europe was how to sustain commerce, trade, prayer, and the making of art and artifacts as they had been carried on under the Romans, and at the same time to keep things safe from marauders like the Vikings in northern Europe, the Goths, Visigoths, and Huns in Central Europe and Italy, and barbarians at the borders of the Byzantine Empire—the New Rome that had supplanted the old imperium. Ireland, protected from outside interference by its remoteness, never had the Romans either as conquerors or as overlords who could provide a garrison of centurions to keep watch over the sea while a monk slowly shaped the capital letter at the beginning of...