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Artists, writers and the west of Ireland

Second Reading
“Northern artists and writers seem to have a particular affinity with the west. Paul Henry was attracted to the ‘wild beauty of the landscape, of the colour and variety of the cloud formations, one of the special glories of the west of Ireland.’”


Fr Kevin HegartyFr Kevin Hegarty

AS the west of Ireland basks this week in the golden glow of an Indian summer, it is easy to understand why its landscape has been a source of inspiration for artists and writers.
William Butler Yeats famously encouraged John Millington Synge to leave Paris and go to the west of Ireland to explore a life that had never found expression. He took the advice and found the experience enthralling. It gave him the inspiration that underpins his plays and poetry. Leaving Inishmaan he exclaimed, “Am I not leaving there spiritual treasure unexplored whose presence is a great magnet to my soul? In this ocean alone is there not every symbol of the cosmos?”
The northern naturalist, R Lloyd Praeger agreed with him: “If I wished to show anyone the best thing in Ireland I would take him to Aran. Those grey ledges of limestone, rain-beaten and storm-swept, are different from anything else. The strangeness of the scenery, the charm of the people, the beauty of the sea and  sky, the wealth of both pagan and Christian antiquities...all these help to make a sojourn in Aran a thing never to be forgotten.”
John M Synge was just one writer who, in the early decades of the last century found imaginative sustenance in the experience of western life. Ulick O’Conner, in his book ‘Celtic Dawn’, has argued that from three great country houses in Connacht - Coole Park, Moore Hall and Tulira Castle - came the people who were to create the Irish Literary Theatre which was the foundation of the literary renaissance. Michael Collins went so far as to argue that, “It is only in such places as Achill Island that one gets a glimpse of what Ireland may become again.”
The literary critic, John Foster Wilson has claimed that the image of the western island served as “a new creation myth for an imminent order. As the Gaelic revival and new nationalism gained momentum, especially after the founding of the Gaelic League in 1893, western islands such as the Arans and Blaskets focussed the place of impending awakening, providing a symbolic and, it was hoped, actual site where Ireland would be born again. The western island came to represent Ireland’s mythic unity before the chaos of conquest; there at once were the vestige and the symbolic entirety of an undivided nation.
Northern artists and writers seem to have a particular affinity with the west. Paul Henry was attracted to the “wild beauty of the landscape, of the colour and variety of the cloud formations, one of the special glories of the west of Ireland.” Another painter, Gerard Dillon, wrote in 1951: “Think of the west and the life lived there. Then think of my childhood and youth in the middle of industrial Belfast. Is not the west and the live lived there a great strange land of wonder to the visitor from the red brick city?”
More recently, the poet Michael Longley, another Belfast man, who recently celebrated his seventieth birthday, has divined wells of inspiration in west Mayo. Since 1970 he has been coming to Carrigskeewaun, where he stays in a house owned by David Cabot, the noted ornithologist, who has just produced a fascinating study of wildfowl. As he has written: “I have been going to Carrigskeewaun with my family since 1970. My wife and I have carried each of our three children through the Owennadornaun River and the tidal channel, then across the stretch of sandy grazing behind the dunes to the rickety gate, over the low bridge where the brown trout and elvers wait, and up the last rising curves of the path to the white cottage in its little bumpy square of fuchsia hedges and stone walls.”
Carrigskeewaun, shadowed by Mweelrae mountain, has become a major influence on his life. About one third of his poems are set here. He has written: “I’d need several lifetimes to get to the bottom of this tiny townland.”
Little by little, glance by glance, he has fallen in love with this place and consummated this love in a series of poems. He has described its fauna and flora with meticulous artistic precision. He has got to know its people, men like Joe O’Toole, “who was psychic about carburettor and clutch and knew a folk cure for the starter engine.”
It is close by there that he would like to be buried where “his ghost would be befriended by the otter, the mountain hare and the ravens.”
“Where the duck rises to a small plateau
That overlooks the sand dunes from Dooaghtry,
To Roonkeel, and just beyond the cottage’s
Higgeldy perimeter fence posts
At Carrigskeewaun, bury my ashes.
For the burial mound at Templedoomore
Has been erased by wind and sea, the same
Old-stone age sea that came so far inland
As Cloonaghmany, and chose the place
That I chose as a promontory, a fort.
Let boulders at the top encircle me;
Neither a drystone wall nor a cairn, space
For the otter to die, and the mountain hare
To lick snow stains from her underside
A table for the peregrine and the ravens.”

Correction
In last week’s ‘Second Reading’, reference was made to a Fianna Fáil election rally in Belmullet in 1989 and the following sentence was included: “He (Minister for the Environment Mr Padraig Flynn) rose sourly from his seat, drew himself up to his considerable height and walked furiously towards the microphone.This should have read: “He rose slowly from his seat...and walked imperiously towards the microphone.”
Our sincere apologies to Mr Flynn and our thanks for his gracious understanding of our mistake. Our apologies also to our columnist, Fr Kevin, who was most anxious to put the record straight, for our typographical error.

MPU Mayo