On Slieve Gullion
© By Michael Longley
for Douglas Carson
On Slieve Gullion ‘men and mountain meet’,
O’Hanlon’s territory, the rapparee,
Home of gods, backdrop for a cattle raid,
The Lake of Cailleach Beara at the top
That slaked the severed head of Conor Mor:
To the south the Border and Ravensdale
Where the torturers of Nairac left
Not even an eyelash under the leaves
Or a tooth for MacCecht the cupbearer
To rinse, then wonder where the water went.
I watch now through a gap in the hazels
A blackened face, the disembodied head
Of a mummer who has lost his bearings
Or, from the garrison at Dromintee,
A paratrooper on reconnaissance.
He draws a helicopter after him,
His beret far below, a wine-red spot
Swallowed by heathery patches and ling
As he sweats up the slopes of Slieve Gullion
With forty pounds of history on his back.
Both strangers here, we pass in silence
For he and I have dried the lakes and streams
And Conor said too long ago: ‘Noble
And valiant is MacCecht the cupbearer
Who brings water that a king might drink.’
Poem included with the permission of Michael Longley and his publisher Jonathan Cape
Michael Longley’s poem is based on the movements of army foot patrols through open countryside. Robert Nairac was an undercover soldier, murdered by the IRA, whose body was never found.