Back to the Past in Beara

The accepted view is that you can never go back to the past and of course, to a degree, that’s true. Personal experiences aren’t something you can really replicate, particularly the more intense ones, the formative ones that influence or create the core of your character and make you who you are.

I managed to go back to Beara in a geographical sense in August. I’ve been back many times over the years but, to be honest, it’s never really been the same since our house was sold while I was living overseas. Losing the house in Beara severed one of my most fundamental ties to West Cork. Whenever I go home now, I no longer have that footprint, the physical anchor that attaches you firmly to a piece of land.

On this occasion, things were slightly different. K had somehow managed to find a rental cottage on the old botharín just down from our old home, a major feat given that there’d never been more than five houses on that road, two little more than stone wall skeletons.

It turned out the rental cottage was one of the latter. I remembered the building as a spooky place, a tumble-down ruin covered in ivy, but it turned out that the grandkids of the original owner (who’d emigrated to the States back in the fifties or sixties and struck it rich) had managed to do it up and now hired it out on occasion.

When we arrived at the rental that first evening, I looked north towards the old place but couldn’t see anything as it was too far off the road, obscured by trees and the curve of the land. Instead, I wandered down to the nearby strand, a small beach that’s almost private in that there’s hardly anyone ever there, particularly at that time of day. I spent a good half-hour sitting on a favourite rock, occupying the same space I’d occupied as a child forty years ago, relishing the fact that it still fit me like a glove. It was a windless evening, an occasional wave lapped half-heartedly against the rocks, gulls swooped low over the water and kept an eye on the solitary intruder. The sun was starting its descent behind the hill to the north and the distant chug of a fishing boat reverberated softly in the heavy air. I had hoped to see one of the seals that used to frequent the rocks but there were none in sight.

 

Tired, I was wandering back to the rental cottage when a flash of colour in the woods off the side of the road caught my eye. Intrigued, I moved close to the ditch, peered through the trees and managed to make out an old caravan that had been swallowed up by the vegetation. To my surprise, it was one I recognised, although it’d been a good twenty years since I’d last seen it (and I’d passed that spot several times since then). This particular sliver of land had been bought by a man who’d spent a few summers living in that caravan. One summer he wasn’t there and then I’d not heard of him again. It seemed odd to discover that fresh physical evidence of his existence.

 

I managed to get over the ditch and pushed my way through the trees to reach the vehicle. Over time, the caravan’s axle had sunk into the earth so there was no way it was ever going to move again. The exterior was mouldy and turning green, the same colour as the surrounding woods. The door had fallen off to reveal a worn curtain made up of multi-coloured strips of plastic. Every now and again, a breeze would catch it and flick some of the strips up and it was this movement that had caught my eye. Beyond the garish curtain, the caravan’s interior looked shadowed and creepy, but you could still see an old moss-covered electric kettle sitting on a battered table as though ready and waiting to boil up a cup of tea.

Clambering back the way I’d come, I returned to the road and made my way to the rental cottage. That night we slept with the window open so I could hear the sea.

*****

The following morning, to the rear of the cottage, we discovered an odd, shadowy tunnel that had been carved through the woods and which led north through the trees. When you see a passage beckoning you in like that it’s almost impossible to resist.

Naturally, we went in.

The tunnel led us in a long, slow curve and eventually deposited us in a thick wood with a labyrinth of different, weaving pathways. Like much of the woodland in this area, it had a distinct musty smell, despite the warm weather. Water flows down from the hills in Beara and much of it ends up trapped in boggy woodland like this.

Following my nose, I led the way through the shadowed trees for what felt like an age until we finally hit an overgrown jumble of briars and shrubs and a low wall with a gap in it. Stepping through the gap, I stopped dead because standing less than twenty metres away, across a wide stretch of field, was our old house. With the weaving paths in the woods, I’d lost my sense of direction and hadn’t recognised any of the terrain we’d been passing through. To be confronted by that sight in such a sudden and unexpected manner, completely threw me.

I stood staring at the house for a good while and actually felt my heart-rate quicken. An Páirc Mór – the Big Field – the pasture in which I was standing, was the same place I’d played in as a kid, carving tunnels through the thick fern, hiding in them when my mother came out to call us in for dinner. Back then, I’d never once thought of bypassing the wall I’d just walked through. Back then, that barrier has been an impenetrable obstacle. There’d been no gap. The wall hadn’t even been visible due to the tall, layers of tangled briars and trees, vegetation so thick you couldn’t even see through them.

By passing through the gap, I’d experienced a genuine sense of having passed through time and as I headed up towards the house, that feeling intensified. The building and the yard were exactly as I remembered them – although far more overgrown and clearly deserted. Approaching the windows, I looked inside, and if stepping through the gap had been like stepping into the past, looking into our old house was like tumbling headlong into it. Nothing had changed. The hall still held the same cheap, wooden cabinetry that we’d used to store our boots and coats. The fridge and the kitchen cupboards were the same. Even the dingy, old carpet in the main room and leading up the stairs hadn’t changed, which meant that it’d been sitting there for at least 35-40 years.


Looking through that foggy glass, I felt an almost irresistible urge to break in and charge up those stairs to see if my old bed was still there. Instead, I sucked in a deep breath, grabbed the window-sill with both hands and pulled myself firmly back to the present.

*****

Later, back at the rental cottage, K could tell the experience had cut me up, although at the time it was hard to articulate why. I suppose the truth of the matter was that, for a short time, I’d actually had one foot back in my own childhood and the strong surge of memories that triggered had sent me reeling. Even now, several weeks later, those memories still flush in from time to time, briefly pummeling me with waves of nostalgia for what was and what could have been, a melancholic mixture of homesickness and wistfulness for old comforts, old times, old places. Fortunately, I’m also realistic enough to recognise that even if the physical location hasn’t changed, the person who inhabited it surely has.

I’ve continued to mull over that whole experience since returning to New Zealand and now, although it still shakes me a bit, I can savour the experience for what it was. I’ve been insanely lucky. For a moment – just a moment – I was able to relive my childhood, to taste my past with an immediacy and intensity that far surpasses memory. And that, brief second life, is worth its weight in personal gold.

 

Note: This article first appeared in VÓG, our monthly newsletter of  in-depth articles on Irish culture, mythology/ folklore, occasional news on new projects, writing or other things that amuse us.

 

 

Beara Dreaming

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.

The Gateway to the Otherworld on the Beara Coast

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Most cultures have their own creation myth. And their own myth to explain the departure of the dead. The absence of life in those we love has always been a difficult concept to grasp, both emotionally and intellectually. Even now, with all our scientific data, we’re not really any closer to understanding where they go or if, in fact they go anywhere at all. Science can tell us that someone or something is biologically inactive but that’s as far as it goes.

Our ancestors had a different way of looking at things that didn’t involve scientific rationale. For them, time was cyclical. Time only ever became linear when were events were written down in sequence and calendars were added. This idea of cyclical time came from what our ancestors saw in the world about them – the continuous ebbing and flow of tides, the repeating pattern of seasons, the growth and harvest of crops and, most strikingly of all, the rise of the morning sun in the east and its sinking at night in the west.

For this reason, they also had a strong belief that the spirits of the dead departed towards the west with the setting sun, sinking with it into the Otherworld each night where it rested with the dead. Celtic cultures weren’t the only culture to believe this of course. The Greeks – amongst others – believed in Elysian Fields “at the world’s end” in the West. Ireland is, however, one of the few areas of Celtic culture the entrance to the Otherworld has actually been identified in some of the older manuscripts – Bull Rock.

Bull Rock is an islet sitting about five miles south-west of the Beara peninsula and it looks like a pyramid-shaped black from some angles. Nevertheless, it’s a substantial chunk of granite poking up out of the Atlantic and it’s the most westerly piece of land in that region). Known in Irish as Teach Donn or Tech Doinn(the House of Donn), this rock was said to be where the souls of the dead departed, following the line of the descending sun by passing via an impressively amazing passage that cuts directly through the heart of the giant rock in a westerly direction.

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[Photo from site: http://ruttledge.se/2008/01/25/bull-island/]

Donn is generally regarded as a sort of overlord of the Dead but of course he’s actually nothing more than a personification of the coming of darkness (the night) and, metaphorically, death. ‘Donn’, in Irish, means ‘brown’ (for modern Irish ) but its meaning was closer to ‘dark’ in the past. The Metrical Dindshenchas (an account of the origins of Irish place-names and traditions – which can’t always be believed) says the following about Tech Duinn. You’ll note this was written from a very Christian perspective that ‘poo-poos’ ‘the heathen’

Tech Duinn, whence the name? Not hard to say.

When the sons of Mil came from the west to Erin, their druid said to them, ‘If one of you climbs the mast’, said he, ‘and chants incantations against the Tuatha De, before they can do so, the battle will be broken against them, and their land will be ours; and he that casts the spell will die.’
They cast lots among themselves, and the lot falls on Donn to climb the mast. So was it done: Donn climbed the mast, and chanted incantations against the Tuatha De, and then came down. And he said: ‘I swear by the gods’, quoth he, ‘that now ye will not be granted right nor justice.’

The Tuatha De also chanted incantations against the sons of Mil in answer from the land. Then after they had cursed Donn, there came forthwith an ague into the ship. Said Amairgen: ‘Donn will die’, said he, ‘and it were not lucky for us to keep his body, lest we catch the disease. For if Donn be brought ashore, the disease will remain in Erin for ever.’

Said Donn: ‘Let my body be carried to one of the islands’, said he, ‘and my people will lay a blessing on me for ever.’ Then through the incantations of the druids a storm came upon them, and the ship wherein Donn was foundered.

Let his body be carried to yonder high rock’, says Amairgen: ‘his folk shall come to this spot.’ So hence it is called Tech Duinn: and for this cause, according to the heathen, the souls of sinners visit Tech Duinn before they go to hell, and give their blessing, ere they go, to the soul of Donn. But as for the righteous soul of a penitent, it beholds the place from afar, and is not borne astray. Such, at least, is the belief of the heathen. Hence Tech Duinn is so called.”

In this 12th-14th century document, the concept of ‘death’ has been personified through thousands of years of ‘Chinese whispers’ to a character called Donn who forms part of the Melesian invasion force of Ireland (according to this, the Melesians invaded Ireland, replacing the native Tuath De Danann).

Nowadays Bull Rock holds a lighthouse (established in 1889 and still in use today) and its function is about saving lives as opposed to easing them onto the afterlife. When I go home and sit on a ditch on those rare clear days when you can look out across the water, I often wonder how many people truly understand what a amazing edifice we have lying just off the coast.

Homesick Dreams and a Place to Stand

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Years ago when I was living in France, I experienced a series of amazingly detailed dreams of West-Cork, mostly involving travels around the Beara peninsula, Schull or Glandore.  Although I knew where I was in the dream, the odd thing was that I kept ending up on side roads I didn’t recognise, following twisting botharín to sights and views that could only be described as surreally breathtaking. West Cork is a beautiful place by any definition but, in a weird way, this felt as though I was seeing the landscape through a spiritual rather than a physical lens.

Aaaaaaaand I reckon, I’ve lost half of you out there by now!

Interestingly, the art of perceiving auras or chakras (and, no, this philistine has no real idea of the difference) with the naked eye has been around forever (and at least a few decades on a commercial basis). This also became a bit of a fad over in the States during the eighties, according to the late Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park fame). If you’re interested, he wrote a very pragmatic (he was medically trained at Harvard), funny and interesting chapter on it in his book ‘Travels’.

With respect to the dreams I experienced, these only occurred on an irregular basis and after a short period of two to three months, I never had them again. I’m pretty sure they were linked to a time of immense homesick because they were definitely of the “rose-tinted spectacle” variety. In the dreams, it was always sunny, warm, beautiful. In real life Ireland a single week of rain has an odd way of washing such tints away.

You don’t really need dreams of course – as long as you can get back on a relatively regular basis. Whenever I’m home, I make a point of driving up the Healy Pass, looking down on Glenmore and travelling around the whole Beara peninsula. I do it alone so I can draw it up in my head again whenever I want to, a kind of recharge to hold me over until the next time I’m back.

In New Zealand, Maori have a great word – tūrangawaewae – which literally means “a place to stand”. It’s a great concept that we don’t really have in English speaking countries and it refers to those places you feel especially connected to or empowered by. It doesn’t have to be your home or even where you come from. In that respect, Wellington is home (currently), Cork is where I’m from but Beara and West Cork will always be my tūrangawaewae. It just seems a bit of a shame there’s no similar English word to describe it.

Locations for Beara: Dark Legends

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When I write, I find it useful to have a pre-existing model for where various events or actions in the story take place. I don’t think I’m particularly lazy in this respect, I just find that having a clear mental image of a location allows me to focus more on plot and character dialogue. Obviously, with Beara: Dark Legends, I used areas down in West Cork that I’m most familiar with to recreate a location that suited the plot and feel of the novel.

When writing about Carraig Dubh (pronounced ‘Corr-igg Duv’ for the non-Irish speakers) I was trying to instil a very strong sense of heritage and ‘sanctuary’. In the book, the ‘farm’, has been in Diarmuid and Demne’s family for generations and is strongly linked to the concept of generational – almost tribal –  O’Sullivan land. The house and the surrounding area, therefore had to be described with a particular level of detail that only comes from long familiarity. I think that worked pretty well, overall. These days, when I reread sections of the novel, the ones I most enjoy most tend to be those more domestic scenes where Mos or Demne are at home or wandering around fields that I can still remember clearly after all these years.

Needless to say, that’s Cnoc Daod up there in the background, dominating the world with it’s granite bulk. People asked me 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 it’s English name fine but it’ll never have the same emotional resonance or connection that ‘Cnoc Daod’ has.

 

Come Taste the Flowers

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Whenever I feel homesick – as I did last night – I have this habit of poring through photos of the last trip home, extracting the memories associated with each particular image.

Going through this process last night, I was a bit surprised to discover the number of photographs of fuchsia hedgerows clogging up my photo library. To be honest, that’s hardly surprising. I tend to return home in the summer after all, when they’re blooming to maximum effect. Driving down some roads in Beara at that time is like driving down a passage framed by two walls of brilliant scarlet and green, interspersed with white wild flowers. In winter, of course, those same hedges resemble little more than sickly networks of pale brown sticks that give the winter land an even more skeletal aspect.

Until about ten years ago, I’d been under the impression the fuchsia was a native plant. In actual fact, it was originally sourced from South America (introduced to England in the 18th century and, subsequently, to Ireland) and because of the weather conditions in West Cork, it has absolutely thrived there.

Despite this, when I think of fuchsia, I think of childhood memories of sucking nectar, plucking scarlet outer petals to create a miniature bouquet from the purple heart.

And, of course, the scent …

Hitting your nostrils like some kind of perfumed, French, wet kiss.

 

Irish Folklore: Connecting with our Landscapes

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For a landscape to be dear to you, it has to have an emotional connection, some kind of resonance that works its way into your heart, tightens about it like a jealous fist and just doesn’t let go. Sometime this emotional resonance can be a simple familiarity with the local history (e.g. a sad tale of lovers killed in a fall from a cliff, a murder in a cave, a cow lost in a particular piece of bog, etc.). 

Sometimes that resonance is a familial one (e.g. my Da was king from that rock to that bog, over to that twisted tree then around and back – and his wife was called Queenie!).

The most powerful of all are those emotional resonances resulting from a combination of familial and historical connections (e.g. I was conceived on that particular rock in a moment of passion by my parents back in  … yadda, yadda, yadda).

Another landscape connection however, is the mythological or folklore connection; those stories or tales linked to an area of land that you are intimately familiar with. One of the strongest example of such a connection, for me, is down in the townland of Adrigole. That piece of land holds a special place in my life. Passing through there (when I take the road from Cork) always heralds the joy of an imminent return to Beara or a subsequent, heartbreaking, departure when I leave again. I’ve passed through this rugged landscape countless times since I was an infant. It never fails to wring some kind of emotion out of me.

 

 

Irish Folklore: Murder and Secrets in the Land of the Mastiff

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The valley of Cummeengadhra (which probably derives from the word ‘Coimín’ – a commonage or common land and ‘gadhra’ a mastiff) is a pretty isolated spot. It’s very typical of Beara; grey slabs of mountain granite, bogland, shredded tatters of green, incessant rain. All the rock you could eat!

These days it’s a pretty tranquil area apart from some isolated farmhouses, the Shronebirrane stone circle and, of course, The Rabach’s Way. Prior to the Great Famine, though, there was actually a relatively large community living here with at least 29 people registered in the 1824 Tithe Applotment Books. The area is probably most famous, however, because of the deeds of one particular inhabitant; Cornelius O’Sullivan (An Rabach – The Rabach).

One evening in the early 1800s, a mariner is said to have arrived at the house of the O’Sullivans Raib (ráib meaning ‘active’ or ‘bold’ was a family nickname), seeking shelter. During the course of the evening, that mariner was killed because he was believed to be carrying a sum of money. Although all of the family would probably have had some complicity in the murder, it was Cornelius O’Sullivan – the eldest of three sons – who’s said to have completed the fatal deed by cutting the mariner’s throat. Unfortunately for him, one of his neighbours (Máire Caoch) happened to be passing and saw either the murder or the subsequent disposal of the body.

Fearful of the violent O’Sullivan Raib family, Máire Caoch had the sense to keep her tongue for several years but, one day, after a period of sustained, but unrelated, harassment from the family, she foolishly threatened Cornelius by telling him:

Tá rún agam ort, agus ní ar ba ná ar caoiribhe.

I know a secret about you and it’s not about cows or sheep.

 Cornelius must have been convinced by the threat for, on a dank June morning in 1814, he followed her up into the high-country grazing pastures and strangled her to death. Once again, however, An Rabach was unfortunate in that there was a witness to this particular murder as well; Daniel Sullivan – a frail man – who was also scared of the violent farmer and decided to keep his mouth shut.

The body of Máire Caoch was discovered, ironically, by a servant girl from the Rabach household. Alerting her friends, they carried the body back to the Rabach family home where she was laid out in preparation for her burial. It was at this point that the community’s initial suspicions of An Rabach were roused. A local at the time belief with respect to murder was that, if the murderer entered into the same room as his victim, the victim’s corpse would immediately gush blood. Unwilling to take the chance, the Rabach refused to enter the house, odd behaviour in such a small community that immediately made his neighbours look at him sideways.

Whatever their suspicions however, nothing more transpired for another 16 years (1830), when Daniel Sullivan was badly injured in an accident at the Allihies mines. Convinced that he was dying, Daniel confessed what he’d seen all those years before to his priest. Horrified, the priest immediately took it to a magistrate and a warrant of arrest was issued for An Rabach.

Forewarned by other family members, An Rabach (who was now about fifty years old) fled his family home and headed much deeper into the valley, finally taking refuge in a cave (now known as The Rabach’s Cave) which offered an excellent view of anyone coming up the valley trail. In total, An Rabach remained in hiding for about nine months and there are numerous tales of the various tricks he used to evade the local authorities. Eventually, however, he was lured back to his home in January 1831 where his wife was due to give birth to his son.

The Rabach was captured by two local constables and a man called Patrick Sullivan (the son of Máire Caoch). In a capricious twist of fate, An Rabach’s son was stillborn. Escorted to Tralee Gaol, he was tried and hanged two months later.

Mise (me): The Accidental Beara Dark Legends Book Launch

It always takes me a few days to open up when I return to New Zealand. It’s a little strange I know but at those times I just want to hold my experiences in Ireland close. Interacting or talking with people in New Zealand always soak the memories and sensations away faster than I’m willing to give them up.

As ever, Ireland was fun, emotional, refreshing, filling, etc. I had some time with family and friends, did some interviews for the Beara: Dark Legends book and, surprisingly,  ended up doing a book launch for it back in Beara – something I hadn’t really anticipated.  Given that I only had two spare copies of the book with me that was a challenge.

The launch took place with little warning down at the Anam Cara Writers and Artist’s Retreat near Na hAoraí  (Eyeries) – a beautiful spot with a staggering view of the Kerry Coast across the bay. Had a very nice crowd of people (about 35-40) there but the highlight for me was seeing some of my family I haven’t seen since I was a kid. There was a nice surreal twist as well with one of the individuals attending Anam Cara turning out to be a juggler/hoola-hooper. She very kindly offered to perform while the various attendees were arriving so as they turned up they found her in full regalia hoola-hooping to some traditional music at the entrance way

In any case, I had a good night so much thanks to all the family (particularly Patrick-Gerard Murphy), Jim O’Sullivan (Beara Tourism), Sue Booth-Forbes (Anam Cara), The Allihies Museum folk and of course Kirsten and Todd (for performing duties).

Some photos of the night are on my facebook page. An interview with Cork Now magazine is also available here http://www.magazine.corknow.ie/ .

Now, back to writing.

 

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My Writing: Taking the Bog Road Home

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Finally heading home to carry out some final research on the second book of my Beara Trilogy.

With this particular series, as well as the usual thriller and mystery element, I’ve always been keen to include a strong contemporary issue that’s recently been to the fore in Ireland. Unfortunately, these days, I seem a bit spoiled for choice. Events in Ireland  over the last few years have pretty much been overshadowed by the recession but, more recently, we’ve also had to deal with a new wave of emigration, Garda upper management that cannot be trusted with issues of justice, a complete dearth of political  leadership (seriously, anyone voting for either of the two larger political parties really has to ask themselves why), the impacts of climate change in terms of flooding etc. blah, blah, blah and so on.

If you’ve read the first book in this trilogy, you’ll know of course that, structurally, it consists of two separate (but interlinking) mystery stories – a style to be reproduced in the remaining two books.  For the second book, I can finally say that I have the contemporary section completely plotted out – something that proved decidedly difficult.

Now, however, I have to work in the folklore an mythology linkages that connect the contemporary mystery not only to the Beara of the 1960s but to an issue the country faces today. I do have one particular theme in mind which I found through my research some years ago and which encompasses all of the issues raised above. It is something, in fact, so important I’m pretty shocked that it seems to have disappeared through the cracks of history.

Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to getting into it.

Once I finish the second Fionn book (due in September).

Until then, research, friends and lots of yacking beckons.

Irish Stories: Survival in Beara

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In 1602, Donal Cam (also known as The O’Sullivan Beara) was caught between a rock and a hard place.  In actual fact, he was caught between many rocks and many hard places, trapped as he was in the bleak valleys around Glenn Garbh (Glengarrif) on the Beara peninsula. Having played his hand and backing the losing side at the Battle of Kinsale, Donal Cam and his followers had lost their home, their herds and were increasingly constricted by English forces. In the middle of a freezing Irish winter, without supplies or sanctuary the situation was pretty desperate.

Most people know the story of how Donal Cam and a thousand of his supporters escaped from Glenn Garbh during the night of 31 December 1602, travelling 250 miles from Beara to the O’Rourke stronghold in Leitrim in the middle of winter. Because of the poignancy and drama associated with that particular struggle most people are unaware of the story related to the survival of his wife and child in hiding back in the valley of Coomerkane.

According to local folklore, Donal Cam left his wife and child in Glenn Garbh with one of his most trusted men so that they could secretly take a boat to Spain while their enemies were focussed on capturing him. To do this, however, they had to endure a freezing winter with no food in the valley of Coomerkane. In order to survive, the story is that Donal Cam’s man climbed up to this spot (the central white ledge) where a pair of eagles had their nest. While the parent eagles were away hunting, this brave individual tied some cord around the eaglets’ throats so that they couldn’t swallow the food. As a result, when the parents returned with the food from their hunt then flew away once more, he was able to climb up to the nest again and snatch the food which he then shared with Donal Cam’s wife and child.

In terms of facts, the story does seem a bit fanciful. European eagles tend to start nesting in March/April – by which time Donal Cam would have been well gone. From the little I know of eagles, it does seem that that the male parents tend to do most of the hunting until at least 4- 6 weeks after the eggs have hatched (when the female parent joins the hunt). The sheer physical practicalities of actually climbing a cliff, manhandling the eaglets so that they can’t swallow (while at the same time not strangling them) and then getting away without being seen by their parents also stretches the limits of credibility.

What is more likely is that someone extrapolated this story from the behaviour of cuckoos – invading the nest, taking the food intended for the young etc. etc. Whatever the case – made up or not – its still a pretty amazing story and one that effectively captures the human imagination. I’m still pretty firm in my belief that its untrue. Having said that, I’m more than happy to be corrected if anyone ever comes across any additional information they’re willing to share.