Jonathan Self: ‘Nothing manmade — not even the greatest works of art — can match the beauty of the countryside’

After months spent in Florence, a return to Ireland brings a tear to the eye of our columnist.

Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán fhéin,’ Rose says (it means: ‘There is no fireplace like your own’) every time we turn in through our gates and catch a glimpse of the house at the end of the drive. We have been leading such a peripatetic existence of late that I had half forgotten that we even had a fireplace of our own. Indeed, when, on our return from Florence, she uttered the words for the first time in months, my heart began to race, tears welled up in my eyes and I came over all weak.

This was the opposite experience to Marie-Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal. In 1817, he travelled to Florence and was so overcome by emotion on seeing the Basilica of Santa Croce that he fainted. I must have passed Santa Croce at least 200 times in the past year alone and, although the sight never fails to lift my spirits, unlike Stendhal, I did not become confused, hallucinate or collapse.

To my mind, nothing manmade — not even the greatest works of art — can match the beauty of the countryside, in particular that surrounding our home in West Cork. True, the house is barely habitable, owing to a lengthy and ruinous renovation (home was not built in a day), but, to pass on a gem of my late mother’s wisdom: ‘East, west, home’s best.’

“A well-chosen proverb can win an argument and merely because a truth is universal makes it no less valuable”

How, by the way, my mother loved a proverb. She bombarded me with aphorisms from the moment she woke me (the early bird catches the worm) to when she tucked me in at night (a good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book). I was raised to believe that the road to hell was paved with good intentions, it was better to be safe than sorry and one got more by honey than vinegar. She was never found wanting for an appropriate proverb. Swindled? An ape’s an ape and a varlet’s a varlet, be they clad in silk or scarlet. Something gone wrong? The camel driver has his plans, the camel has his. Power cut? Many hands make light work.

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As a teenager, I mocked her maxims and saws, but omnia mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis — over time, I have changed my opinion. There is comfort to be had from their ubiquity, wisdom from their meaning and entertainment from their origins. A well-chosen proverb can win an argument and merely because a truth is universal makes it no less valuable. Anyway, the ‘proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied’ (almost 3,000 years ago) form part of the Old Testament, so what could be more kosher?

King Solomon was, of course, pretty keen on the countryside: ‘He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls.’ Our Lebanese cedar came down in a storm years ago, but the spiky violet-blue flowers of our hyssop, which is to bees what nip is to cats, are very much in evidence at the moment.

Not that they don’t face stiff competition. The remains of our garden (the builders have done it no favours), the fields, the ditches, the hedgerows, the cliffs above the beach, even the dunes are currently festooned with flowers, from tiny, exquisite purple orchids to generous, billowy clouds of white Queen Anne’s lace. Heaven.

As Rose says: ‘Is aoibhinn dul ar cuairt agus is fearr i gcónaí bheith i do thigh féin.’ (It’s nice to go on a visit, but there’s no better place to be than home.)