Hooking in Strange Places: Roche Castle

I really like a can-do spirit in a girl. When I say ‘girl’, I of course mean any human of the female gender. It’s a fantastic attribute in all people, but with the historic ‘you can’t’ attitude there’s been to girls and women, for us to say: “But I can!” is sometimes even today an achievement. Mind, I distance myself from the ‘If you believe in yourself, you can do anything!’ camp. That is a ridiculous thing to say. You can believe in yourself until you’re blue in the face, but you’re never going to fly without some kind of mechanical aid. You’re not going to become a commercial pilot, either, if you have to wear glasses as thick as bottle bottoms. Nor are you going to become a professional footballer if you can’t kick a ball straight.

You can get close to that, closer than anyone would have guessed you can. You can get a limited licence to fly with someone else, or practice your kicing until you can make the local team. Yet I think it’s in fact stupid to pour huge amounts of energy into learning to kick a ball so you can get into the team even though you have zero natural talent, in the process neglecting piano lessons and thus never developing your natural musical skills.

‘Can-do’ means, to me, knowing what you’re capable of and making a plan where your own skills fall short. Thus female pirates were likely not strong enough to do the most strenuous work involved in sailing and maintaining a ship, but they were good at leading people, so they did just that. I like a spot of ruthlessness as well, though those who use this quality to get what they want regardless of the cost to others will never have my unconditional admiration.

Thus it is that Roesha de Verdon is a woman I really shouldn’t like, but do. My feelings of course don’t interest her at all, because she has been dead for about eight hundred years. She lived in a time when Roman influence had, through Christianity and conquest, inflitrated and weakened the Brehon laws that had governed life in Ireland up to then. Therefore the progressive attitude to women was broken down, and the oppressive, alien, patriarchal system we still struggle to overcome today had long taken its place. I wonder, though, how much of that spirit remained. At least some of it found a home in Roesha’s heart.

She was married to Theobald le Botiller, and they owned loads of land. When he died, she was left with all this property, but limited means of developing it. Having a reputation as a difficult woman, to put it mildly, she couldn’t find a builder willing to erect a castle on her lands in Ireland, near present-day Dundalk. I suppose if ‘she had a bad temper’ as a detail of who you were survives eight hundred years, it’s understandable that no man wanted to risk becoming Roesha’s builder.

Finally, one ambitious soul approached Roesha when she resorted to offering her hand in marriage to whatever architect would do her bidding. The marriage would make him a rich man, because her lands and wealth were substantial, and would all then become his, too. Roesha no doubt smiled and accepted the offer. Her intended, whose name didn’t survive as well as rumours of Roesha’s temper, set about constructing the castle.

When at last it was done, the first order of business in the new building was a wedding feast. Everyone had a jolly old time, and in a tradition which lasts to this day ate themselves senseless and got drunk. No doubt there were numerous whoops and cheers when at last Roesha led her happy groom up the stairs to their bedchamber.

She invited him over to the large window, which provided a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside. It was hers as far as the eye could see, and by marriage now also his. “Come, look out over all our lands,” Roesha purred. Her inebriated spouse, elated, staggered over to admire his new possessions. Roesha, however, had a much closer inspection of the land in mind than he’d realised, and the inspection, as the part ownership, was very, very brief. She pushed him out of the window, and he fell to his death.

The story adds that his ghost hovered at the window he last stood at as a live man from that day onwards, driving her insane. In support of this, a window in the west wall, the one built at the top of a cliff and therefore offering a huge drop to the ground, was bricked up from the inside in her time. I have my doubts. Perhaps the last little detail was tacked on to turn the story into a cautionary tale, so other women wouldn’t get ideas. Either way, we can never know for sure. Roesha, if she even existed, is long gone, and only a ruin remains of the castle her husband of some hours built for her.

The steed I mounted to get to Roche Castle would, in Roesha’s time, have earned me respect, adulation even. Alas, these days a bus is no big wonder, and in any case, this one didn’t even take me all the way there. I travelled to the farthest stop it made on the outskirts of Fatima, then disembarked. I’d arrive at the castle itself the same way most people would have when it was new: on foot. Whether they’d have been in as much of a hurry as I was, I can’t tell.

I hadn’t planned on visiting Roche Castle that day. An unexpected morning off gave me the opportunity, but my time was limited. I’d have to walk to the ruin, do my hooking, and race back to board a bus in time to be home when my youngest son finished school. Walking is an understatement: I was charging down the country lanes to my destination.

It wasn’t the first time I headed this way with a hook and some wool. I’d visited Roche Castle months before. The scrape of winter’s claws had still marked the air when I’d trudged across the uneven ground to its gates, and now I sweated on a warm September day. A whole bunch of life stuff had happened in between, tearing my attention from the hooking through summer. But I was settled now, and excited to resume my adventures. My memory of my visit to Roesha’s home had faded, I thought it worth the effort to go back and do another little square.

As national monuments go, Roche Castle is not very visitor-friendly. There are few if any signs pointing the way there. The country lanes leading to the old castle are tarred, but narrow, their sides disappearing into trimmed-back tangles of nettles and other shrubbery. No public toilets or tourist shops await you at the site. Somehow, this makes the visit more real, the sense of majesty and desolation amplified by the silence.

Storming down the lanes to the castle was a travesty, at least as you pass the golf course. Tall trees on either side of the road meet hands overhead, forming a guard of honour. My rucsac thump-thumped on my back, my boots’ thud dulled by the mat of discarded leaves, twigs, bark and soil concealing the edge of the tar.

I wanted to slow down, to savour this shade-blessed section of the route, but I pressed on. As I trotted, I calculated in my head how much time I’d have for the walk there if I was to be on time for the bus back. Would I make it? I had no idea. I’d only ever cycled this way, driven here once or twice, and that was long ago. I couldn’t remember quite how far away it was. A little voice in the back of my head squealed that it was too far, that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I cast a few nasty threats its way, and it shut up.

I passed a little church on my right, one surrounded by graves. Headstones implored passersby to pray for the soul of this or that person. One black iron cross demanded prayers for the souls of the orphans from a certain orphanage. I wondered if the lives of the kids who lived there had been as severe, functional and robbed of beauty as this cross.

The trees were gone now, in their place a mixture of houses and farmland. A man in brown overalls seemed to be polishing a farm gate, one of those long things you get in fields. I remember, years ago as a child, you’d sometimes get a few of them along red-dust farm roads we’d travel by on long-drive holidays. You’d stop, one of the kids would jump out, open the gate, wait for the car to drive through, close the gate again, and race bare-footed across the burning dirt to dive back into the car.

There’s no dust in Ireland, that’s for sure. I could also not figure out why on earth the guy was polishing the gate. It wasn’t as if some other cows might come visit these cows and turn their noses up at them because their gate was unpolished.

I let my gaze rest on the gate-polisher, trying to see what exactly he was doing, then saw something bizarre. About a hundred metres away, in another wall, was another farm gate, and another overall-wearing man bent over in exactly the same position, polishing that gate exactly like the man I was passing did. It was like a weird living work of art. Why hadn’t I brought the camera?

On and on, I left the gate man behind and motored past the houses lining the narrow road. Now and then, I’d hear a car coming, calculate from the sound when it was close, then step off the road, dodging nettles, leaning into hedges to avoid being flattened. If looking at something could wear it out, I’d have worn my watch to a slither. If I could get there in forty-five minutes, I could do this. Maybe fifty, if I could crochet that granny square at the speed of light.

It hits you hard when you finally see the castle. You round a bend, and there it is: the crenellations atop the wall looking so much more massive than you remember. I should clarify here: Roche Castle is a baby compared to other castles scattered across Europe. It’s large and impressive, but I’ve seen houses as big. What makes this castle different is its presence. Something about it reaches straight into your chest and pokes your heart. It’s as if a wise old general sighed, putting a lifetime’s sights, sounds and wisdom into the sound, and that sigh was then transformed into stone.

I forgot about time. I forgot about buses, schedules and roaring cars. Roche Castle stood rooted in the eleventh century and refused to travel with civilisation into the modern world. It was a roughened finger of the past poking through the years and into today.

The castle is open to the public to visit, as long as the public remembers to close the darn farm gate behind them so the sheep don’t get out. Grass cover gave way here and there to let the rock beneath show through, like split skin exposing weathered bone. I scrambled over a little rise, the ground was quite rough here, then I stood at the gate of Roche Castle.

Round towers flanked the entrance on the left and right, and like King John’s castle in Carlingford, it was the size of a large door rather than a gate. The castle walls, about fifteen metres high, were made more formidable still by the fact that you had to scramble up an incline to even get to their base. I remember the first time I visited here, which was the first time I visited any castle, imagining what it must have felt like to be pointed at this colossal structure and instructed to ‘take’ it. I think I’d just hand in my resignation and go home. No doubt that would have gone down well.

Today I did something I hadn’t done before. Thinking of Roesha’s second husband, I turned left, away from the entrance, and trudged to the edge of the cliff the west wall loomed over. Wind plucked at my clothes, but it pushed into my face, trying to shoo me away from danger rather than shoving me towards it, so I wasn’t too worried. I inched closer across the grass-covered soil, and looked down. While it wasn’t completely vertical, deceptively friendly due to a blanket of heather and no more than twenty metres or so high, I still wouldn’t want to tumble down there. Add to that the height of the stone wall, and from the window you had a fall near guaranteed to be your last experience.

I turned back to the bulging towers sheltering the castle entrance. Until I visited Roche, I’d had this idea that a castle is really just a very big stone house. Some of them are, but for the most part castles are much more complicated than that. Roche is really a high outer wall enclosing an empty space.

Of course, it’s not just a flat piece of ground. To your left, when you enter, the floor is sunk, and it’s a bit of a scramble down. There are other interesting man-made holes and jutting bits, notably the remains of a very old well. Last time I’d been there, I’d turned right and trudged to the only constructed room offered by Roche Castle.

It’s a small one at the base of what I think is the east wall. What it was used for when people still called this place home, when the voices I hear echoing here were audible to more than the imagination, I have no idea. I’m sure a castle expert, or someone with a tad more common sense than me, would be able to tell you. All I know is that these days, it’s used by sheep.

I’d ducked in through the doorless doorway, surprised at how much light was let in through it and the window there. As the Tao says, a house’s usefulness depends on the nothingness of doors and windows, and nowhere do you understand that concept better than in a little dungeon like this.

A stillness out of proportion to the fact that you’re out of the wind envelops you when you step inside. It may be that it’s just a bit of a contrast. Or that the wind blows in just the right direction for the shelter of the dungeon to cut it off. Or it might be the fact that this room, unlike most rooms modern people tend to experience, has solid stone walls probably two metres or more thick, and there’s several hundred tonnes worth of more solid stone serving as a roof. Sound has this way of deciding to give up trying to travel through that.

The floor of the little room was blackish-brown mud decorated with sheep’s hoofprints. There was nowhere to sit down. I’d had the sense to bring my baa bag, a canvas shoulder bag decorated with pictures of sheep. With neon colours and goofy expressions, they had little if anything beyond four feet and a tail in common with the real deals which wandered around a stone’s throw from Roesha’s place. The ball of wool stayed in there, one end threading out and snaking around my pinky and forefinger to the hook busily darting in and out of loops, shaping stitches.

I’d known the weight of the capstone of the dolmen when I sat beneath it. Why, then, did I feel the weight of the wall above me so much more? It was as if it pressed down ever more in the silence, compressing the half-darkness around me. This castle was so much more solid, really, so much more sturdy than the colossus balanced on the pointy ends of three pillars. Logic and emotion are not bedfellows. The hook nearly smoked I crocheted so fast.

Today I didn’t even glance in the direction of the little dungeon. I turned left instead, to where the great hall and chambers had been. I galloped down to the sunken ground, to where tables laden with the wedding feast must have stood. Or beneath where they stood. From the position of the windows and the sconces in the stone walls where once thick beams rested, even I could see the building here had at least two storeys. The main hall would have been above what is now ground level.

My seating arrangement was more humble than what the guests enjoyed back then, even if they parked their derierres on nothing more spectacular than a wooden bench. I sat on a stone jutting out from the wall just enough to hold my bum. I slid my rucsack onto the thick, green grass, unzipped the pocket and scratched around for the hook and wool. It had been so long since I’d last crocheted a granny square that I wasn’t sure I remembered how.

Tick tock.

Six chain stitches? I think so. I looped them at lightning speed, hooked the beginning to the end, and we were off.

Evidence for the existence of the supernatural isn’t enough to convince me there are any gods, or unseen beings such as demons or angels. My view seems a tad at odds with my personality. At places such as Roche Castle, I always feel as if I can sense the echoes of the lives lived there. Roche especially can get me into this place where I touch the ether – which we know doesn’t exist – imprinted with laughter, animals’ bleating, the shouts and banter of everyday talk, overlaid with the roar of soldiers, the screams of the battle which took the castle’s life.

This is where the contradiction lies: I don’t like to admit that it’s all in my imagination. It makes no sense, it’s ridiculous, I’m not the only one who fancies I feel the past vibrating in places of interest. But it’s like my bicycles. I name them, I love them, I talk to them as if they’re alive. I’m not insane, I don’t believe they live, but at the same time, I do. When I write fiction, the characters become as real as my children, but exist in a world that is always just in the corner of my eye. If you were to try to look straight at it, it would disappear. So I don’t. I am content to be aware of it on the periphery of my vision, and to enjoy that extra pleasure in my life.

Today I didn’t hear the voices so much. Instead I felt Roesha. There was a vitality in the air, a brisk ruthlessness, something shrewd watching me with sharp eyes. This goes to show it’s no more than fancy, because I’d had Roesha on my mind on the way here. Of course I’d think I sensed her spirit flitting about the castle, as if she’d expected me. Or as if my focusing on her allowed me to feel her spirit, among the many still lingering there.

So what is this? Belief? Fancy? No, my friend. It’s called delight. It’s called fun, and laughter, and an extra layer of wonder added to an already wondrous world. I refuse to muddy the water by stirring it to show what lies at the bottom of this refreshing crystal pool.

One by one the little three-stitch blocks which make up the granny square took shape. I checked my watch again and again. Making it back to the bus on time was not beyond the bounds of possibility, but it would be a close shave. Loop, loop, hook, hook, and the granny square, the second made in honour of Roesha’s memory, was done. I broke the wool, zipped the little square in a pocket of my rucksack, shouldered same and set off.

Across the rugged, broken ground, to the long, grey gate, and I remembered to close it after me. Wouldn’t want the farmer’s sheep to wander onto the road. This time I didn’t speed-walk all the way. I ran some bits. I’d happily have run all the way – I’m fit enough – but hiking boots and a back-thumping rucksack are not ideal for that. If I’d been a bit smarter, I’d have taken my bum bag and dressed for a run. Lesson learned. Next time, I’ll know better.

The gate man was still polishing his grey gate, in exactly the same spot, it seemed. I still don’t know what on earth he was doing, and I was in too much of a hurry to stop and look back if his double was still in place. My feet thumped the faded tar, on and on I walked, and ran, and walked again.

On the home stretch, having covered the miles ten minutes faster than on the way to the castle, a guy stepped through a garden gate and to the driver’s door of his car. “Want a lift?” he asked when he saw me. I grinned. At least Murphy’s law still stood: when you really need to get somewhere fast, you’ll only be offered a lift once you’ve already walked there.

I thanked him, but declined. The bus stop was in sight. Soon after, the roaring beast lunged into view. It stopped with a big, puffing sigh, and let me into its belly for the journey home.

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