I’ve learned a lot of (ahem) interesting words and concepts hanging out, as I do, with Irish folk, and one of the most delightful of these is the kissing gate. (I just report these things, kids.)
I should hasten to point out this is not a uniquely Irish concept; there are kissing gates all over the British Isles. As it happens, many of the interesting things to see in this part of the world are out in the middle of nowhere, sitting on private farmland. The public has a right to access these historic sites, though, so there’s a little dichotomy between tourists and farmers, who want to keep their livestock in while allowing free access to people who’ve come to see the [stone circle, crumbling castle, altar tomb, you name it]. Farmers also prefer to keep hikers from either climbing (and potentially damaging) the fence or opening the gate (and possibly not shutting it properly).
Enter the aforementioned kissing gate. Essentially a hinged gate with the swinging edge enclosed by a curved fence that it cannot be free of, it only allows one person at a time to pass through. The first kissing gate I saw was at Glendalough, with a line of tourists on either side, waiting.
In theory, a kissing gate is too complicated for livestock. But there is a very large sheep in County Donegal that might well have learned to negotiate one.
This is a true story. We were driving back from the Inishowen Peninsula and took a wrong turn. (That’s how it always starts, no?) Getting back to the main road we stumbled across one of those brown markers—OMG, it’s a stone circle, just two kilometers!—and followed the twists and turns until finally the road just ended.
We parked and got out and wandered around a bit until a nearby farmer hollered across the field, “Looking for the stones?” He directed us up a tree-shaded lane, and off we went, experienced hikers we … ha. That little lane, however, was steeper than it looked, and pretty soon we were huffing and puffing with no end in sight; ten minutes later we glimpsed the stones on the other side of the fencerow we’d been walking along.
The lane ended at a farm-gate, and next to it, on the outside, stood a large sheep, bleating its frustration at finding itself on the wrong side of the fence from its fellows, who hovered, concerned, near the gate on the other side. (Yes, I have photographs.) The Outside Sheep looked at us warily as we approached, then skittered away as we got closer. Beside the larger farm gate was a kissing gate. Aha.
We passed through, one at a time, and the minute we did, our buddy the Outside Sheep moved right back to the gate and continued to cry to be let in. Once we were in the field, the herd moved off, and we proceeded to do our Sound of Music reenaction. The view from the top of that hill was incredible, and the stone circle was huge. I took several photographs, and we just enjoyed the view for awhile, before we picked our way back across the field (very carefully) to the kissing gate and the Outside Sheep.
We did try to open the farmer’s gate—precisely what he wouldn’t want us to do—but failed to budge it, so we left the sheep, still audibly distraught, at the top of the hill and started the (blessedly downhill) hike back to the car. About halfway down—we were deciding that we’d about had enough of climbing hills—we were startled to hear an indignant—and very loud—BAAAaaa! That sheep was tiptoeing down the hill right behind us, so close I could have touched it. The Irishman and I both jumped a foot straight up and, in the process, lost ten years off our lifetimes. Then we laughed until we were hysterical. Oh, good times, good times. (You had to be there, I think.)
But how, my friends, did that stinkin’ sheep get out? It puzzles me to this day.
As does the origin of the name for a kissing gate. There are two schools of thought. Romantics claim that in simpler times, a gentleman would pass through the gate to hold it for his lady—but would demand a kiss from her before he’d let her pass. The unromantic point out that when closed together, the pair of gates touch, or kiss; it’s an engineering term, they say. Neither explanation makes perfect sense to me, but if I must err, let it be on the side of romance.
*One of J. S. Bach’s rare secular pieces, “Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd,” BWV 208 (The Hunting Cantata), contains this beautiful aria, the fourth: “Sheep May Safely Graze.”
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