Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Islands and Irelands: Journeys, Mappings and Re-Mappings

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Islands and Irelands: Journeys, Mappings and Re-Mappings

Article excerpt

There were eight of us - my father and mother, three girls and three boys - by the time we got our first car. When holiday time came, we children watched or got in the way as the Volkswagen was loaded - suitcases went on the roof-rack, bags of clothes and all kinds of necessities were stuffed under the bonnet, under seats, behind the back seat (along with our youngest and smallest, one year at least) and, amid much drama and excitement, we all squeezed in and began the journey westwards. (As we grew bigger, one or two of us had to make our way by train, bus and bike.) Leaving the suburbs of Cork, we watched the smooth green landscape flow past until it turned rocky and became West Cork. We crossed the border into Kerry, passed through Killarney and on, till at last we were trundling up and down the twisting, bumpy roads of the Dingle Peninsula. The sea and the Iveragh peninsula were on our left, fields or rocky slopes or mountains on our right; soon the ocean was opening up out beyond the peninsulas and we knew that, past Dingle, the road would have nowhere else to go. We felt that we were moving towards the edge, the very end, of the island of Ireland and that meant that before long we would arrive at the house in Dún Chaoin where we would spend the next four weeks. Always, a few miles out to sea, whether lost in fog, pressed down-upon by a mass of cloud, half obscured by a thunder shower or just basking in sunshine, the Great Blasket lay, like a promise or a dream anchored off-shore.

This was a family pattern. We grew up in an English-speaking suburb but at home we spoke Irish, and West Kerry had happy associations for our parents. Instead of being marked out from others by language difference, for these four weeks we would have the chance to spend time in an area where everyday activities - greeting, buying crisps, chatting about the weather - took place through Irish. It was a different world: ewers and basins in the upstairs rooms; oillamps or candles making bedtime mysterious; Charlie, a little further up the boreen, using donkey-and-cart to take a couple of churns of milk to the creamery; the local men gathering to throw up a haystack in a few hours; my older brother and I free to trail after Eileen while she did the morning chores, or to tag along with Jerry (and his dog Sailor) as he checked the sheep in his few fields down by the cliff top, or even, on a special occasion, to accompany the lanky, throaty-voiced ex-islander Mike White (or was it Faight?) and his gentle sister as they made their way up the hill with donkey and baskets to collect roughcut turf.

Part of the wonder of the place for us city children was the technological gap. If this created an association between the Irish language and a simpler rural life in the west, this would not have been unusual. Since the nineteenth century, literary intellectuals who recoiled from modern urban industrial life, antiquarians who wished to open up the hidden treasure of folk culture, European travellers in search of exotic worlds near home, Anglo-Irish or unionist intellectuals who sought to tie themselves or their community into the long history of their native island, Continental philologists seeking to establish and document the family tree of European languages, anthropologists measuring skulls, nationalists who invoked a glorious past as a way of justifying their demand for political separation, activists who sought to reverse the accelerating erosion of Irish- speaking areas or to give more idiomatic flavour to their own Irish - all, in one way or another, partook of a movement along an east-west axis.

Arthur Symons (1865-1945) - poet, Francophile, translator, traveller and wonderful but almost forgotten writer on music - accompanied W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) on a visit to the Aran Islands in 1896. In an essay that leaves his companions unnamed, he conveyed a sense of the sheer otherness of life on the west coast:

Here one was absolutely at the mercy of the elements, which might at any moment become unfriendly, which, indeed, one seemed to have but apprehended in a pause of their eternal enmity. …

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