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The Rocks Remain

December 28, 2012

Last week, they came to the green fields of west Kerry from the four green fields of Ireland: from Ulster, where the Gaelic game is so important to the nationalist tradition, from the spirit of the West in Connacht, from Leinster where the men of Westmeath remembered their greatest hour at Croke Park, and from Påudî O Sé’s own Munster where the Kerry people and the folk of Corca Dhuibhne were mourning one of their own and one of their greatest.
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Kerry footballer, Påudî O Sé, embodied the people of west Kerry – in his love of his own place, his townland, his family, his language, culture and sport. He had the Gaeltacht mix of huge pride and self awareness to put achievements in context. Indeed, you couldn’t fail to appreciate man’s frailties when you looked at the mightiness of the Conor Pass or the power of the waves on Coumenoule Strand. There are those who would belittle the Irish language (Sure what good is it outside of the Gaeltacht?) and diminish the remoteness of areas like Corca Dhuibhne (A backward place on the edge of the world). However, the people of west Kerry know their worth, they know their context and they know what they have. For that reason, the funeral of PO was more than a celebration of a man – great though he was; it was a celebration of a culture, defiant in its survival, owing nothing to anyone, secure in its uniqueness, confident in its worth.

The music, the laughter, the declarative style of the tributes – they all matched the man. Indeed, passing the church in Ventry was much like passing Påudî’s pub – even to the numbers outside who couldn’t get in. The congregation mirrored the great man’s passions: GAA heroes – famous and unsung, politicians, musicians, neighbours and, emphatically, family. This peninsula is above all, about family and land, and the O Sé’s filled the chapel with their dignity in grief; what a tribute to a loved father, uncle and husband that, in remembering him, they couldn’t stop the laughter chasing their tears. And how good it was to be reassured by that voice of a thousand Sunday afternoons, Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh, who had known and encouraged Påudî all his life, from schoolboy through player to bainisteoir. Micheåal’s own background, from the tiny hamlet of Mount Sion outside Dingle, is based on the same foundations as Påudî’s – family, land, football and culture, and he set the perfect tone for the tributes, drifting from Irish to English, from humour to reflection, from tenderness to pride.

As with all great men, Påudî’s passing promoted a sense of identity for those left behind, a time to reflect and take stock, and, for me, an outsider to his culture and place, it put in train an excitement of memories, an acknowledgment of my passionate, long term and slightly mad love affair with west Kerry and the Dingle peninsula.

I’m not alone in this; no less an authority than the National Geographic described the area as ‘as near to Paradise as you’re likely to find on earth’, yet, as lovers always convince themselves, I do want to believe that my affair with Corca Dhuibhne is an epic. Tell me you hail from west Kerry and I’m liable to jump in your lap like a dog seeking attention; to even mention that you’ve been there will presage an outburst of love declarations and over repeated anecdotes. Put up Connemara, Donegal or west Cork against Corca Dhuibhne and you’ll find me in combatitive and expansive mood. Put simply, I’m mad about the place.

And yet, the attraction was almost accidental.

My connection to Ireland is based at the other end of the country. My grandfather left Co Leitrim a century ago, but, though I love Edinburgh, my birthplace, and Scotland, dearly, there is a townland on the shores of Lough Allan which will always be where I come from. I have another, deep seated love for west Clare, where I spent so many happy holidays as a teenager and where I first became familiar with Irish culture and customs.

However, like so many other people I was first made aware of west Kerry through the cinematographical skills of David Lean and his homage to the landscape in the MGM film, ‘Ryan’s Daughter’. Part of the storm scene in the film had been filmed near my holiday spot in west Clare, and I was keen to see where the major location had been built for the rest of the film. So it was, in 1969, I first crossed the Shannon into Kerry and went out to Dingle and beyond.

The Gaeltacht, and indeed most of the west of Ireland, was a very different place in those days. It could take till the evening for newspapers to arrive and only single channel RTE flickered in the minority of houses which possessed a black and white television set. Local folk dressed differently to folk back home in Edinburgh, fashion slaves were not so much in evidence, and even in Dingle, Irish was, by far, the most commonly heard tongue.

My first, brief visits, took in no more than the scenery in all its magnificence. Driven along laneways ablaze with fuschia in the hedgerows, the pattern of fields on mountainsides, the fearsome majesty of the Conor Pass, the sweep of Inch Strand, the surprise of the Blasket islands as you rounded Slea Head. I left with an impression rather than a knowledge. But I knew I wanted, very much, to return.

So the early 80s found me following my instinct – heading as far west as I could and staying at Kruger Kavanagh’s in Dun Chaoin. Kruger’s had a fame about it of which I was sublimely innocent; all I knew, as an incomer, was that it was a magnificent place to stay. The Irish breakfast, the hospitality in the guest house, the craic in the pub each night.

It’s not my intention to glorify the people of west Kerry. I would be lying if I enthused about the welcome we received. People were cordial and happy to chat but also self contained. They felt no need to put on a show for tourists; it was a case of take us as we are. As Daragh O Se mentioned at the funeral, ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ had put west Kerry on the map. MGM was nearly ruined by the £5 million production (£70 million in today’s terms) but the amount of money spent in the area by the production totally changed, for ever, the local economy. There were fishermen and farmers who, almost overnight, became taxi drivers and garage owners. Not gradually, but over a twelvemonth period, the ‘outside world’ hit west Kerry, and the place would never be the same.

Except.

It’s true to say that west Kerry lost a lot of its economic and cultural innocence in the wake of the Hollywood circus hitting Dingle. Many folk became wealthier than they could have ever dreamt was possible. However, while, for some, this was a mere reaffirmation that a better life to be found through emigration, for others it was an opportunity, not to leave, but to stay. They had the money to keep farming, update machinery, expand the business a little. These folk were nothing if not shrewd, as MGM found when they tried to extend the leases on land for locations as the film overshot its time and budget. When they’d first arrived, bargains were easily had, but once the Kerry folk had witnessed the wealth and style of these movie moguls, their business instincts kicked in and financial matters were on a far more equal basis.

This, then, was the west Kerry that I started to become familiar with in the 1980s. In a sense, those who had stayed, had the best of both worlds. They had the cash injection which enabled them to stay on the land, and that had tided them over to the point where the national infrastructure was being modernized; transport and communications improved, living in remote areas became more feasible. It came twenty years too late for the people of the Blaskets, but, by the late twentieth century, living beyond Dingle, while never easy, was no longer impractical.

In those early years, I was still learning about Irish culture. I could see the young landlord, the Fear an Ti, in Kruger’s Pub, had the respect of the locals. I could see his abilities in holding an audience, his ease in dominating the room, his social skills in setting the tone and atmosphere. I knew nothing, then, of the GAA; I didn’t know this was county footballer, Påudî O Sé.

Most nights we would go late into the pub, when the music had started; that way there was no embarrassment as there often was when the pub was quiet: those at the bar having to decide whether to continue chatting in Irish, or switch to English, as the visitors entered.

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The setting was idyllic. From the bedroom window was the small bridge in the centre of Dun Chaoin; quarter of a mile down the lane, a mystical journey after dark, was the harbour of Dun Chaoin, with its impossibly steep track down to the water, still in those days a landing point for cattle being brought over from the Blaskets for the winter or market.

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I learned every yard of the road around Ceann Slî. It was, and still is, a road that sets my heart beating faster. I can tell you when a house is built or extended, when a shop changes hands, and most of all, I can tell you what will be round the next corner.

So many favourite view points, so many secret strands, so many familiar rocks and mountain tops. The sea has always fascinated me; around Slea Head it has a thousand personalities. It can whip up a wind to keep seabirds gliding, or it can bear a gulf stream heat that brings palm trees, and leaves the birds at rest. It can put lace tapestry covers on golden sand, or froth, turquoise and angry white, on dark and shining, jagged rocks. It can reflect the bluest of skies, or offer a gunmetal grey affirmation of the rain and storm which steals the view and the air.
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Around one bend in the road it can offer an almost irresistible invitation to swim and float and surf and bathe; two hundred yards further on it can put on a show of nature’s power which is so ruthless, you would fear for your life in just watching it pound and break and lash. I’ve been there at times when it felt like you could watch it shaping the rocks and carving out the caves – not over centuries and millennia, but in the here and now.

I think Coumenoule would be my choice to symbolize my love affair with Corca Dhuibhne. It seems to contain all that the wider area has to offer, in a small scale strand.

Lines of tilted rocks stretch like fingers into the surf; they are like a brutal reminder of the sea’s power – tilted and scarred over the millennia; between these fingers, the sand, smooth as the palm of your hand, or ribbed with ebbing tidemarks. Dark caves hide under the cliffs, seabirds wheel overhead.
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In the early 80s, a container ship, the MV Ranga, on its maiden voyage, lost power off the coast here and was wrecked. For twenty years, the stern of the boat lay stranded on the rocks at the western end of this strand – each time I returned, a little higher up the rock formation, a little more rusted. It should have detracted from the majesty of the scenery, but somehow it served to emphasise the wildness, the force of the waves and the weather.
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Rock, sand, water, birds, shells and driftwood. Then, above you, the cliffs with their greenery and splashes of flora, and beyond that the careful fields, enclosed by rocks of the land; rocks and stones everywhere, more than fifty shades of grey; rocks in the fields, in the walls, on the mountains, rocks building houses and sheds, lining roads and paths, till it’s difficult to tell what is nature and what is man made. And on stormy days, sky, fields, houses and fields lie in monochrome, glistening in soft rain, gurgling with downhill streams.
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Scattered along this road, especially around Fahan, are scores of Clocháns, or ‘beehive huts’, lived in first around 4000 years ago, piles of stones, hollow cairns if you like, memorials to the history of a place and its people, living on the land, protected by the rocks that make the land so inhospitable. And the huts are indistinguishable from the land that surrounds them. Like the people.

Coumenoule is west Kerry – people, sea, fields, rocks, sky and weather – all bound together, hard as history and soft as a spring breeze. As Dougie Maclean wrote in his song, ‘Solid Ground’:

It’s the land-it is our wisdom
It’s the land-it shines us through
It’s the land-it feeds our children
It’s the land-you cannot own the land
The land owns you.

Perhaps that’s the attraction of west Kerry for me: people, land, history, culture, language and life are bound indivisibly, without fuss and in a hard bitten way. You’d be crazy to think this would be an easy place to live; but you’d be mad to want to live anywhere else.
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Looking out to sea, climbing the sprawling mountain that is Carhoo, high above Dun Chaoin, looking down on to Clogher Strand, or over flat golden greenery to Dun an Oir, the view is like a deep breath: it invigorates you, affirms your humanity, reminds you of what is important, demands appreciation of the miracle we call living.
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It’s a body scrub for the soul.

Alone, or with those you love, you find that you are holding hands with nature.

And then, of course, there are the Blaskets.
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These islands, home to so many poets and seannachi, draw you – first your eyes – humps of rock and turf across the sound, then your mind – how did they live, what was it like, and finally your soul – straining to hear the cries of men rowing naomhóg through the middle of the last century, sheep skittering on wet piers, young men lost in the egg hunt, the weekly voyage to Mass in Dun Chaoin or the market in Dingle.
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The village street on An Blascaoid Mor echoes silence, some houses no more than stones, others partially renovated or made water tight., occasionally one painted startling white, with new roof and the promise of life there still. The roads are grass but easy to follow, the strips of land still delineated, the voices of women and children long gone are not difficult to hear at the Well.
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And you wonder at the isolation of an island life lived within sight of the mainland, watching lights in distant cabins, checking the waves for possibility of escape, climbing the hill to the top of the island, blocking your ears from the sound of the gulls, the expectations of family, and the call of next Parish America.

You remember that the Blasket folk always talked of coming IN to the island, secure in their own ground.
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Some of the final 22 souls who left the island in 1953 have their final rest in the new cemetery at Dun Chaoin, sloping down towards the sea in sight of their Blasket homes; you want to mutter ‘Excuse me’ when you pass between the stones and crosses and their island view. Where better for islanders to be at rest?
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And on towards Ballyferriter – the first place you ever tried to speak Irish, joined in the Mass responses in the days when churchgoers crowded roud the back door of the church and their cars clogged the lanes.

From high on Carhoo – where Lean built his film village of Kirrary, the exhilaration of the view is intoxifying. You will shout out loud for joy here, scaring sheep and companions equally. Far below, the rocky crag at Waymont takes your eye as does the horsehoe of Clogher Strand.

At Clogher you can watch waves and rocks fight it out to the death, immovable stone facing unstoppable wave, every last atom of energy squeezed out of the enclosing strand, spray, birds, foam, water, air and sound – cast about in a kind of madness of nature – till you feel you should be asking permission to watch.
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You might sidetrack to Gallarus Oratory – a tiny chapel, possibly dating from as early as the 6th Century, a receptacle for continuity, local stones hewn to fit each other perfectly, another metaphor for the Corca Dhuibhne people, an upside down boat in shape that sheltered pilgrims from the storms of difficult lives. Wherever you look in place or time here the stones protect their message – here we are and here we stay.

Like anyone in love, I’m not responsible for my actions on the strands of West Kerry. I jump, I run, I shout. Frequently I laugh or cry for no appreciable reason – other than the joy of its magnificence. I suspect I’m not very good company, too busy reaching out to take the hands of too many memories, opening my ears to songs that only I can hear, drinking in my surroundings, getting drunk on the fresh air of beauty.

And when locals tell me, as they often do: “You can’t eat scenery!”, my response is sometimes spoken, sometimes not: “But you can feed your Faith with it!”
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This, then, is my love for Corca Dhuibhne: not a beautiful, romantic chimera, but a long term, hard won, difficult journey over grey rocks and stones, with many a twisted ankle and grazed knee; with as much fear as comfort, and with a sense of awe that will never let us be equals, nor permit me comfort.

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I can’t help but remember the lyrics of Horslips’ classic track: “The Rocks Remain”:

Silks and satins and crimson velvet will someday fade away
but the stones will stand across the land and love will have its day.

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