A cold, surgically clean January day. I headed west out of Newcastle on the Hilltown road. At any time one of my favourite roads in Ireland, but today ridiculously perfect. The elegant contours of the Mournes, clothed in pristine white, towered above on my left beyond the irregular boxes of granite-lined fields decorating the Shinrone valley. Sheep grazed the tight grass, at complete peace under the dazzling descending orb above. Extravagant colours seemed to exult in their beauty, rejoicing in the sun’s empowering. The wide dome of blue sky clashed with the stark white of the mountains which in turn stood in sterile aloofness to the living green pastures at their feet. Even the fields appeared manicured, as if prepared simply to please the eye.
I detoured left, up past the source of the Bann on towards Kilkeel, for the sole reason of prolonging an experience of unexpected, startling otherness. As I climbed I passed clusters of cars, abandoned by owners drawn to enter into the spectacle and willing to brave the increasingly treacherous north-facing road. I bridged the rise to be generously invited to drink in yet more delight. On my right, Spelga reservoir lay displayed, a jewel of reflected blue, the dam wall like a gateway framing the distant fertile plains of Ulster stretched out below. A temperature-inverted haze of trapped cold air shrouded any signs of human habitation. It was as if this was a day when that landscape, suddenly released after weeks of dark enforced restraint, was silently shouting ‘Look! I am here in all my glory. I was here long before you appeared and I will be here long after you have departed.’ Or it was like the mysterious power of a woman, with whom you live too closely to see, suddenly confronting you with her beauty saying ‘Notice me! Appreciate me!’ And I did.
I followed the gentle descent towards the coast, the Irish Sea merging, Aegean like, into the horizon. I rounded a corner, and was abruptly assaulted by another combination of colours on the kerbstones bordering Kilkeel. The familiar trinity of red, white and blue stunned my senses. Their claim that ‘this street, this town, this land belongs to us and not to them’ seemed all at once both fantastically absurd and laughable. Was not the land, and its maker, calling us on this perfect day to look beyond ourselves and transient concerns? Was he not silently shouting that that we understand our proper place within his creation and mocking our deluded self-important claims over something utterly beyond our reach? How could we be so foolish as to challenge such effortless might and self-evident majesty? Had our bitter struggle made us completely blind and deaf to what this exquisite landscape itself tells us every minute? – that we are only tenants without title deeds.