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The Road Wet, the Wind Close: CELTIC IRELAND by James Charles Roy, photographs by the author (Dufour Editions/Gill and Macmillan: $16.95; 219 pp.) : The Beckett Country: SAMUEL BECKETT'S IRELAND by Eoin O'Brien; photography by David H. Davison (The Black Cat/Faber & Faber: $60; 402 pp.)

June 07, 1987|Artelia Court | Court is a folklorist, writer and artist, and author of "Puck of the Droms: The Lives and Literature of the Irish Tinkers" (University of California Press).

James Charles Roy is a youngish American journalist whose passion for Irish antiquity has led him to the kind of adventure more often enjoyed by those Victorian gentlemen who found scholarship as thrilling a pastime as, say, power politics or blood sports.

Equipped with automobile, oilskins, ordnance survey maps ("one-half inch to the mile") and an impressive knowledge of the religious literature as well as the archeological history of early Ireland, Roy has embarked on a personal investigation of the historical meaning of 15 ancient sites, scattered across the island. To read this handsomely designed book with its sensitive (mostly scenic) photographs is to accompany the author on an erudite yet companionable ramble through several millennia of Irish life--from the Neolithic to the 12th Century.

Starting with Newgrange, the journey progresses through 15 chapters, each named for a site that is key to the mores and essential concerns of the Irish who built, worshiped and lived there long ago. Some sites are already known to casual tourists and perusers of picture books--places such as the town of Armagh with its obviously venerable visual charm, and the Hill of Tara, that well-established if misunderstood totem of Celtic pride, just an easy drive from Dublin. Other of Roy's choices are much less familiar and less accessible but none the less fascinating.

In County Antrim, for example, we are led up slippery, fog-shrouded Tievebullagh to the Stone Age ax quarry where workmen's tools lie as they were dropped at the end of a busy day, some time before Christ's great-great-great-great-grandfather was born. Later, we visit the remote stretch of Donegal seacoast where the 6th-Century Celtic prince, Columcille, deciding "Christ is my druid," founded a religious community whose ruins still radiate "an aura of the primitive Celtic church . . . more easily perceived than any place in Ireland." And, moving onward with the inexorable flow of centuries and Irish Christianity, we arrive at Conmacnoise in County Offaly, where two monastery towers spiral high above a flat plain--attesting to the terror of the heathen Norse who pillaged the island's very heart but then settled down to rear Irish-Viking children and practice local trade.

Pivotal to Irish history as the chosen sites and their architectural remains are, however, this book is not just a guidebook or an archeological survey. The oratories, monasteries, passage graves and other monuments Roy describes serve finally as departure points for his more lengthy descriptions of the principal phases and central personalities of Irish cultural development in this period--with special emphasis on Irish religious thought.

Drawing on wide study of such diverse sources as astronomy, folklore, church history, geology and early poetry, Roy introduces us to the society of Ireland's (perhaps) aboriginal sun worshipers, to the Heroic Age of the warmongering Celtic tribes, and to subsequent transformations in the Celtic way of life wrought by invaders, missionaries and emissaries from continental Europe--from page to page supplying vivid portraits of the likes of an aging St. Patrick, a morose St. Malachy and a manipulative Queen Maeve.

Throughout, Roy's style is that befitting a gentleman scholar--albeit a very serious one. He is lucid, conversational and free of the difficult terminology that clouds so much other writing on these subjects. He sometimes stutters his convictions incoherently: "the purest Celtic Age would never survive intact. It would, over centuries, squirm, fall back, revive, crumble." But he also possesses a good-humored candor that invites understanding of matters otherwise arcane. Discussing the beginnings of priestly celibacy in the Irish church, he confides, for example: "Abstinence from sexual relations between man and wife was a fine penitential exercise: It gave a person more time to pray."

The narrative is further warmed and made human by the author's on-going account of the present-day circumstances in which he pursued ancient truth: how he haggled with a boatman here, camped in a rainy field there, and how he encountered certain tourists, churchmen, professors, rabbits, sea birds and candy-smeared children who (often unwittingly) contributed additional insights into the nature of the Irish past.

"The Road Wet, the Wind Close" is, all told, a compassionate book, as well as a work of passion. Richly anecdotal, yet intellectually disciplined and honest, it shares with readers both the specific complexity of early Ireland and a more general joy of learning.

Once, as the 4-year-old Samuel Beckett and his mother climbed a hill near their suburban Dublin home, he remarked, "The sky is farther away than you think, is it not, mama?" And she answered him, "It is precisely as far away as it appears to be."

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