Fergal Keane: Only the Irish can really appreciate Hardy country

'As a people we are only beginning to emerge from the clutches of the doomed hero syndrome'
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The Independent Online

It is 20 years since I first saw Sturminster. Then I came by way of a ferry from Ireland and on by train to Dorchester, thumbing lifts along the back roads of Dorset until I reached the sweet village by the River Stour. I was with a girl from home back then and I broke my ankle. The two facts, I should add, are entirely unrelated. A doctor told me later the ankle had been waiting its moment for years. A weak, weak joint from which no good was ever likely to come. The girl and I said goodbye many years ago, but the ankle still aches in cold weather.

It is no longer attached to a 19-year-old with a rucksack on his back but to a middle-aged man on the edge of arthritis. A "man" travelling now behind the wheel of a car and back once more on the roads of Hardy Country. The car is crowded with the voices of in-laws and a small boy who is bored beyond reason. He demands to be entertained, for at five it is no less than his imperial right. Soon the others will be demanding lunch, they are already complaining of the heat. Individually we are all perfectly nice people, but crowd us into a car for a long journey on a hot summer's day and a collective panic can take over.

So the last road before lunch in that charming but eternally elusive pub can seem like a calvary.

But as we leave Dorchester and climb the hill above Blackmore Vale (see Tess for Hardy's description of same) I am back again on the roads of 1981 and as certain as ever that Dorset is not only the most beautiful of all the English counties but one of the most loveable places in these islands. I come from a country where we have a national PhD in scenery. We were reared on "views"; don't try and impress us with your Scottish lochs and glens, your great Welsh valleys or your Lake District. Stacked up against the Ring of Kerry or Connemara or the Burren in Co Clare they are but charming upstarts. So how then do I explain why Dorset sets me swooning and why I return every chance I get?

It began with the Irish Leaving Certificate, Thomas Hardy and The Mayor of Casterbridge. In 1979 Irish television broadcast the BBC adaptation of Hardy's novel and a nation was spellbound for weeks while Alan Bates gave the performance of his life as the fatally flawed and doomed mayor, Michael Henchard. Hardy didn't write for an Irish audience but you'd never have guessed it. Every time I read Tess or Far From The Madding Crowd or The Mayor of Casterbridge I can picture characters and themes from the world in which my father grew up and whose stories he passed on.

Along with Marcel Guignon of Provence , Thomas Hardy is one of those writers we might easily claim as our own. There is no evidence that Hardy spent any time in the villages of Co Kerry but he had the measure of us all right. He understood the power of land, and his work is suffused with a love of countryside, the landscape is a character, at times almost the dominant figure, in much of his work; but he knew his people too well to sentimentalise the rural world and was fiercely honest in his depiction of the ruthless pieties that governed life in the hamlets and villages of late Victorian England. But it is those words "fatally flawed" and "doomed" that give the strongest clue as to Hardy's appeal to this Irish soul. As a people we are only beginning to emerge from the clutches of the doomed hero syndrome. For centuries we built a political culture out of lost causes (gladly assisted by our colonial masters and their armies and militias!) and worshipped lost leaders. Charles Stuart Parnell, Michael Collins and Roger Casement bestrode my early childhood like divine colossi; we were martyrs to the melancholy.

In my teenage years, after I'd found rock'n'roll, I worshipped at the altar of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. Not for me back then the hero who lived sensibly into wise old age. To paraphrase Joyce, " 'twas better to burn out in the flush of some full passion than dodder into peaceful senility". Is it any wonder a figure such as Tess, carried inexorably to her doom and betrayed every step of the way by weak or rapacious men, would find such resonance in Listowel, Cahirciveen and Cork?

It was Hardy who first brought me to Dorset, but the landscape and people are the reason for my long-term addiction. The countryside doesn't have the wild bleak beauty of western Ireland but neither is it hobbled by order in the manner of so many of England's more picturesque regions. And while much of the old rural way of life has inevitably been lost, the worst of modernity has been kept at bay in rural Dorset. The spirit of ancient Wessex still hovers in the narrow lanes around Marnhull and the deer haunted glades of King's Stag. In spring and early summer the fields of rape seed explode in yellow and the hedge rows blossom.

They have survived the age of industrialised farming, so that wild England can still hide and prosper in the tangled undergrowth. The town of Dorchester has changed little in my memory and it still boasts a tea shop with the extraordinary name "The Horse With The Red Umbrella". In all these years I have never asked the owners where the name came from. Perhaps someone will write and tell. But Dorset is a fairground of weird and wonderful names. Where else would you find a place called Piddletrenthide or Affpuddle or Winterbourne Monkton, not to mention Cerne Abbas or Bere Regis?

On my first visit we thumbed a lift from Sturminster Newton back to Dorchester and were picked up by the driver of a pig lorry. His malodorous charges squealed in the back and made conversation all but impossible. But I do remember him pointing out a cottage in front of which hung a black wooden bat. He told us a witch lived there, a "real" witch. And we believed him in the way that one willingly believes in the magical at the age of 19 in a new country. I looked for the witch's cottage this time around but could find no sign.

But I found the mill at Sturminster again and walked across the river meadow to the village. They were having a fête. There were steam engines – it seemed like hundreds – laid out in a long line. The owners sat proudly beside them watching the pistons huff and puff. I made the mistake of asking about the age of one of the steaming beasts and was treated to a long dissertation on its history and mechanics. Believe me, the secret life of the steam engine is strictly for the devout.

But the man was not one of life's natural bores. He simply loved his subject and he gave me his time as if he had all the time in the world. Which being Dorset and Sturminster Newton he probably had. I wish I were there now, being bored on any subject at all. Instead, on this July Saturday I must confront the angry roads and pinch-faced gloom of my fellow inmates. But tomorrow the West Country beckons once more. Crowd the car, open the windows and set off into that land of magic. I almost feel 19 again.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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