Twenty years ago, during a particularly tough winter, I found myself thumbing along a country road in Beara, trying to make my way back to Cork city. To be honest, it probably wasn’t the smartest of moves given that it was New Year’s morning and the landscape was empty of human activity. In the two hours I’d spent walking in the direction of Bantry, only two vehicles had passed: a van and a Morris Minor driven by a tight-faced old woman. Both had been headed in the opposite direction.
The previous night in Glengarrif had been a typical New Year’s Eve, heavy on the traditional music and the booze and a singing session that went on till the early hours. For some reason, I still woke up at six in the morning and, despite the hangover, had this deep-rooted drive to move on. This was some weird kind of personality glitch that plagued me from my late teens until about the age of thirty, a strange apprehension that I was enjoying something too much and that, if I didn’t let the joy go voluntarily, it would somehow be taken off me. Even today, I’m still not sure what was behind all that.
After two hours of walking the empty road, I couldn’t really feel my fingers or my toes. Fortunately, there was a liquid sun that kept the worst of the cold at bay and transformed Beara’s habitual grey bleakness into one of the most beautiful landscapes I know, and which still holds a death-grip on me.
Eventually, I heard a puttering sound in the distance behind me. When I looked hopefully back over my shoulder however, it turned out to be a motorbike, a tiny Honda 50, already loaded down with two people. As it drew nearer, I realised that I recognised both the motorbike and the two people on it. The driver, was one of my best friends from university while the person on the back was a girl I’d had a romantic fling with two years earlier (ironically, the last time I’d been home to Cork). The latter was wearing a hurling facemask as they only had one helmet. She was also wearing a large black, plastic rubbish bag to keep the cold off. The motorbike didn’t sound too healthy, you could actually hear the motor’s relief as it crested the hill and started downhill towards me.
This is typical Beara of course. It’s always been a strikingly surreal place, full of fascinating characters, dreamlike encounters and an odd sense of magical realism that’s tempered with the brutal weather, the unemployment and the other harsh practical realities of living there.
In New Zealand, where I’m currently living, Maori have a word – turangawaiwai (literally, it means ‘the place where I stand’) – to express the connection between a person and a particular place, or a piece of land. The word, and the concept, really encapsulate that idea of attachment in terms of familial, generational, spiritual and cultural connection in a way that English words like ‘homeland’ (or even most Irish words I can think of) fail to capture. It’s the kind of word that necessitates a ‘walking of the land’ – a regular and consistent of land to the point where you know the ground intimately and it forms part of your vocabulary.
Down where we lived, each field had its own name, generally associated with a physical characteristic, an event or a use or a person. The field in front of our house was called ‘An Páirc Mor’ – the Big Field – nothing like stating the bleeding obvious. A bit further on, you came to An Páirc Glas – the Green Field – because of the vibrant grass colour, and so on.
I used that kind of in-depth cultural background when I wrote my first book – Beara Dark Legends – because when you first start writing, you pretty much use what you know and in that particular case, it was a means of lancing the power of homesickness. The location for much of the land where the action takes place – Carraig Dubh (pronounced ‘Corr-igg Doov’ for the non-Irish speakers) is essentially drawn from the house and surrounding land where I spent a substantial part of my childhood and I occasionally used some of the local field names.
For those who’ve read the book, that’s the house and that’s Cnoc Daod up there in the background, dominating the world with its granite bulk. Some people have asked why I never give it the English name but I suppose, for me, the English name just doesn’t sound right. It’s probably just a personal thing. I like its English name fine, but it’ll never have the same emotional resonance or connection that ‘Cnoc Daod’ has.
Living here in New Zealand has by necessity meant that I’m unable to ‘walk the land’ like I used to. It also means that I can sometimes feel my culture – and its creative associations – slipping away and I have no choice but to go back and ‘draw from the well’ once again. I’m hoping to get home again this year and will probably be spending a substantial period of time down Beara way.
Hopefully you’ll see the practical ramifications of that in future works.