When I was a student in University College Cork I fell in love with my husband John. He loved the West Cork and Kerry Gaeltachts and so, of course, I learned to love them too. The memories of the times we spent there – often driving there and back to Cork on a Saturday – came flooding back as I read the stories in this book.
In the voices and memories of 25 women, the bleak and beautiful landscape and the unique people who live there are evoked in extraordinary and touching detail. This collection of stories is an urgent and necessary exercise in writing history. ‘It was’ says one woman ‘a different life, and there is so much that will end with my generation’. But this cultural memoir is more than that. Nearly 70 years ago Robin Flower observed that that the people of this area had a strong literary tradition and used ‘a fascinating idiom which has a natural quality of literature’ ((O’ Crohan, 1937, p.ix). That literary quality is abundantly clear in these stories making this a work of art in its own right, capturing a time, a place and a unique community in often poetic and elegiac detail.
In human affairs, there is very rarely perfection. In the West Kerry Gaeltacht it is different I think. Because, there, in these women’s lives, there is as near as human beings get to a kind of perfection in relationships.
The West Kerry Gaeltacht evoked in this book was a subsistence economy: poor, harsh, unforgiving in its demands on people. It was not immune to the peculiar cruelty of that era visited on single mothers.
If you had a child outside marriage it was a catastrophe. I think if it happened me that I would have thrown myself over the cliff. People were merciless’
‘In my youth, if you had a child out of wedlock, the whole countryside would be talking. No one would respect either the child or the mother. It was a terrible thing. Now, it has changed altogether, there is no shame now. I am glad of that. The way we used to be was senseless’
It was a world stalked by disease. Mothers who died in childhood, fathers lost at sea, brothers and sisters - victims of diphtheria, Creamery Milk fever, and most terrifying of all, TB - are remembered. The women’s accounts of their lives, although suffused with affectionate recall, are not clouded by sentimentality or self-deception.
In the next village, three fine young brothers, every one of them over six feet tall, great musicians...died in one year from TB.... God help the poor mother Neil a’ tSaorsaigh, she would come wailing down the road, morning her beautiful young men.’
‘I had a brother who died young, of TB...and it broke my father’s heart. He was a young man brimming with fun and jokes. He was sick for a year. He fought hard to recover his health, but not many did and he died alone and far away from us. It was not possible to visit him, you would have to hire a car to go and see him, and it just wasn’t possible’.
These privations and tragedies were met with a remarkable stoicism that echoes and re-echoes throughout the stories like a Greek chorus: ‘But in my life I have learned that you have to accept the things that come your way. I have shed many tears and tears are good’ ‘That is not how my life worked out...and it never occurred to me to resent it, and I don’t resent it now.’...‘We had a very different life plan, but there you are, what is meant for you is what happens to you’…..‘And that is how it was, and it was meant to be’
Even more remarkably, their evaluations of their life are almost uniformly happy, contented, even joyful. Recalling the sorrows in her life, one woman said: ‘Well, it does not matter now. I am happy. That is good enough.’
How can we explain that psychologically? I believe the explanation lies in two remarkable capacities: a capacity for intimacy – with the landscape, with each other and with the spiritual world; and a capacity for exuberance, for fun, for vitality. That capacity for intimacy created deep reserves of psychological and spiritual energy that allowed them to infuse everything with meaning. So, the suffering was bearable, and even transforming. Their capacity for exuberance – particularly their love of music, of dancing, of making fun- lit up their lives, and affirmed their strength and resilience in the face of whatever adversity life threw at them.
‘People will forget that although we were poor, we laughed and danced and worked our way through happy lives… ‘To this day I can’t resist dancing. I have to go out on the floor for a set when the music starts’…‘We didn’t know the word bored. In fact, there is no word for bored in Irish.’
Long before any of us become aware of ego – the conscious sense of self – we have a body ego. This is an elemental sense of our physical self – our boundaries, our desires, our location in the world. When that body ego is strong and sound, it forms a solid base for our emotional and thinking selves and the core of our identity. It locates us firmly in the world. At community level, the equivalent of the individual body ego is a sense of place- an elemental certainty of where our tribe is physically located in the world, a sense of belonging. That intimate sense of place is powerfully present in the people of the West Kerry Gaeltacht, bound up inextricably with their feelings and thoughts about their lives.
Like James Joyce’s recall of Dublin in Ulysses, place names form the scaffolding of their stories. By naming each inch of the landscape, they tame and domesticated its wildness.
‘Baile an Lochaigh is a very stony village, at the foot of Mount Brandon. Just inside it is Com a’ Lochaigh, dark and mysterious. It was there, in Poll na bhFod, where the salmon were six feet long, that I was found as a baby, in the year 1920. This is what my grandmother told me.....
We lived in Baile Dhaith, under the Tower, looking west to the Tiaracht’...’I am a summer child. I was born on May Day, the first day of summer, in Baile Uachtarach Thoir, and married in to this house in BAile Uachtarach Thiar, so that all my life has been spent here at the foot of Ceann Sibeal’...’I was born in Gleann Loic, under the shadow of Mount Eagle, on the last day of January 1931. At sunrise, my mother told me. Sunrise is late in Dun Chaoin, because of the bulk of the mountains to the east of us’... We thought we were special, we who lived on the Blaskets’.
And so they came home; from Swindon, from the airfields of wartime Britain, even from playing the melodeon in the cinemas of New York to where their heart was.
‘My heart was at home near Ceann Sibeal’…..‘And I can say…that I am living in the place I love best in the world’
The family and community life recalled by these women is full of intimacy and affection: between parents and children; between children themselves; between children and grandparents, aunts and uncles; between young wives and their in laws; and between neighbours. Their storytelling, naming of events and anecdotes is a huge part of celebrating that intimacy and community:
‘My father used to stretch out on the settle bed every night and sing. It was a very happy house that I grew up in, in Clochan Dubh. My mother never raised a hand to any one of us, and we loved working with our father. He was never picky or faultfinding, he always praised what you did. He would dance on a plate for you. He even taught dancing. When he was not singing, he was storytelling. Do you know now, when I go back over them, I can remember many of the songs and stories. I used to be sitting on the hearthstone, drinking them in, and they have stayed in my head’.
‘We had no running water…there were no toilets, very little space, no radio, no tv..And yet, what I remember of that small house is the warmth, the closeness and the company’
‘The bull would be bellowing on Beginish, and the cows would be lowing in the fields, but we didn’t care, we were safe’
But it was an affection founded by a strong sense of family duty. Women recall without rancour giving up promising careers, or even the chance at marriage, to come home and care for ill and aging parents:
‘Unfortunately, soon after that, my mother became ill, and I had to come home, like many others in those days. Indeed, I was happy to come. That was life, and I would not have left my mother alone without help’
That easeful sense of duty extended to neighbours:
‘And then Cait Maire came into our lives. It began quite simply. Her mother had to go to hospital in Cork, and she asked me to take Cait Maire while she was away. John and I were delighted, we were neighbours and happy to help. But Cait Maire was very small at the time, and she got used to being in our house. She refused to go homw when her mother came. There was no real decision about it. But she stayed from day to day, and was back and forth betweenthe houses. She is a beloved daughter to me, and she was the same to John amd she is still in and out of my house even thought she has her own house in Arda Mor. Her son Sean is the light of my life’.
‘Christmas was a great time to get parcels from America, or a letter with dollars. We were miserable that we had nobody there to send us parcels, but the neighbours did not let us go empty handed, we always got some little thing when a parcel came.’
In an era when most marriages were arranged, the relationships recalled seemed intimate and equal. One woman noted: ‘In those days, a girl could send a man an offer (or marriage) just as easily as a man could send one to a woman’.
Husbands and long marriages are recalled and evaluated with affection. I was most struck by the simplicity of the feelings expressed – no tension, or ambivalence, or striving for effect.
‘I met my husband when I was nineteen and I couldn’t have met a better man’…‘He was kind, he was good humoured, he was good company. In the end I decided that if I could marry him, I would be happy’….‘I met my husband…He was a nice, gentle man, good to me and to my children’… ‘I met him in Kruger’s and I liked him straight away’… ‘I didn’t go far to marry. I was born a hundred yards away from where I live now, across the stream here in Keelerih. I liked Maurice my husband. And although all the rest of my family went to America, I stayed here and married him. He was always good to me, and he still is.’
I was struck as well at an aspect of marriage that is rarely discussed now: that perceiving your spouse as competent in the role is a significant determinant of happiness.
And, indeed, these were mighty women. One of the women observed: ‘The women of this area have always struck me as being strong, resolute and admirable…you would be greatly aware of the women.’ They not only reared large families but often cooked every aspect of family meals in three-legged pots over an open fire. They were skilled at managing the ‘top coals’ when baking bread, at avoiding ‘white patches’ when salting butter’, at baking, quilting, sewing, knitting and mending. And as if that were not enough, one woman recalling Wren’s Day, tells this story:
‘My mother always loved feeding people who came to the house. She prepared a huge meal for them. She played a set for them and they danced a set. When they’d done that, they sat at the table for a meal. She left the kitchen and went upstairs. They were eating when they heard a baby cry. The cries came from upstairs. It was Hain. She was born that Wren’s Day. My mother did not let on to anyone that she was in labour. The guests went upstairs to see the baby. We used to have such fun.’
In parallel vein, their fathers’ and husbands’ traditional male skills are also fondly noted: their physical strength, their skills at farming and salting fish and building:
‘He was a stonemason, clever with his hands….He quarried stone from the quarry on the land, using only a crowbar…there was a spring on the land, and he piped water from it…There was no other house in the parish with hot and cold water at that time’.
These traditional roles also brought constrictions in the women’s lives.
‘And now I was married, I could not go out without my husband. I would stand out in the garden here to listen to the music coming from the hall in the cinema, which doubled as a dance hall. It used to break my heart…we stayed at home alone with the children.
But their natural exuberance and the embrace of motherhood brought new meaning and happiness to their lives: And as the children grew up, I had company again, and fun, and music, and I still do. If I hear a nice tune, I dance around the kitchen with the brush!
‘Well, then I married Mike. A match of course, as was the custom of the time, and we settled down. We have eleven children, including two sets of twins. I loved my children growing up, and the house full of boys and girls, my own and their friends..My children are the best thing in my life. Every single on one of them is so good to me, and they come and see us regularly. We have great Christmasses, a full house, children and grandchildren. Even some of the grandchildren are grown now, and everybody has his own story’
Even the potentially fraught area of in-law relationships was managed with ease – all the more remarkable given that these women more often than not lived a significant part of their married lives with their in laws.
‘My mother was very happy with Mike, and he was always very good to her. The day I got married was the best day of my life I think.’
‘My father in law, Peats a’ tSithigh, was one of the greatest influences of my life. He made it easy for me to fit into my new home, and he was a sound advisor, and a great confidante for me as long as he lived.’
‘My marriage was arranged..I was happy enough. I had met a good man, a fine man, and my parents in law lived with us. We got on well..My father in law lived about twelve years with me, and there was never a cross word between us. We raised six children, and that was not easy, but my father in law helped me. I could go out and milk the cows, or go to town for a couple of hours. There was no fear I would find a child in a wet nappy when I came home…And we didn’t feel life go by us. The children were fine and healthy…they all grew up well, and I am thankful to God for that much. And I am thankful that Paudi and I are well, and that we still have plenty to talk about, after all these years’
In the West Kerry Gaeltacht, the world of spirit seems palpably near, intimately woven into daily life. A devoutly Christian community, they nonetheless stay connected to an older, more primitive kind of spiritual world. They recall landscapes filled with liosanna, phiseoigs, banshees, fairy forts and fairy craft on the sea. That world of mystery entered their lives in the form of strange sights and sounds. It was a world that sometimes terrified them, intimating accidents and deaths but often consoled them to, offering up dreams and apparitions of beloved family members who were dead.
On this connection to mystery was built an unshakable faith.
‘Will I see God? I expect to, I feel I deserve to, and I also expect to see all those who have gone before, that is our faith’
‘My faith is a great help…I remember when I first came here, we used to look out at the Sound, and see the Blasket canoes coming across for Mass, six or seven of them in a line on the sea. They were a wonderful sight’
But like their relationship with the landscape, it is a faith full of human intimacy as exemplified in one woman’s description of her devotion to the late Pope: ‘I had the greatest affection for Pope John Paul II. He was like somebody I had known all my life’. When he died she framed his picture and prayed to him to grant a request.
‘So I waited a good long time and nothing was coming. So one night on my way to bed, I stopped in front of the picture. “Look here John Paul” I said “I put a frame on you…so now it’s time for you to get to work for me, I am tired of waiting”. Two days later I got what I had been asking for.’
For some, this intimacy extended all the way up to the mother of the deity.
‘He (her father) had a great devotion to Our Lady, and he died singing to her’
Their faith seems the bedrock of, or perhaps grew out of, the benign sense of simple goodness and obligations to each other that so characterises this community. That profound connection between being good and doing good is captured by their simple philosophy:
‘I prefer to think well of people and try to do right by people’
‘In the end living a good life is the important thing’
It has become almost a cliché to quote Tomas O Crohan’s lyrical description of the islanders of the Blaskets:
‘I have written minutely of much that we did, for it was my wish that somewhere there should be a memorial of it all, and I have done my best to set down the character of the people about me so that some record of us might live after us, for the like of us will never be again.’
The women of the wider West Kerry Gaeltacht here show how vital and enduring the essential character of the people is. At a psychological level, Tomas O’ Crohan’s world lives on in real time, despite the physical transformation of place, work and prosperity. The women have recalled in vivid, poetic and loving detail a world that is no more. They have recalled it in the exquisite Irish that continues to thrive in that fragile human community. They have evoked a world of near perfection in caring for each other. One woman’s description of how as children they helped each other climb the steep, dangerous cliffs of the Blaskets could serve as a good metaphor for how they did it.
‘There were no fences to protect us from the sheer cliffs, yet nobody fell. We helped each other up and down, hand over hand’
It is a lesson that we in modern Ireland could usefully learn.
O’ Crohan, T. (1937) The Islandman. Oxford University Press, London.
Originally Published as a Book Chapter in 'Bibeanna: Memories from a Corner of Ireland', (Ed) Ni Shuilleabhain, B, Mercier Press, 2007.
Posted: 01 January 2007