Thursday, 16 June 2016

Libraries at The Edge of The World





The protagonist of my latest book is a local librarian called Hanna Casey and I’ve created a fictional county for her to live in. It’s on the south west coast - say somewhere between Cork, Kerry and Clare - Wild Atlantic Way country where the stunning scenery brings hosts of summer holidaymakers and the local council is bent on keeping the tourist numbers up. 


We’re talking feelgood summer reading here, so Hanna starts out as a sad divorcee living in the back bedroom of her monstrous mother’s retirement bungalow, and ends up independent, re-empowered and reinvigorated, taking her time before taking the plunge into an affair with a younger man. 

So far, so fictional. But as well as writing what in effect is pastoral comedy, I wanted to explore the realities of contemporary rural Irish life and the importance of focal points like library buildings and of the mobile services that bring library books to those who can't otherwise access them.

In my novel a scattered, dysfunctional community comes together to oppose the closure of its local library, the value of which hadn’t even been noticed until it came under threat. My characters’ belated awareness of the need to assert their own cultural requirements is a reflection of a growing concern in the real rural Ireland; how do you maintain a balance between branding and selling your locality as a tourist destination and maintaining it as a place where you yourself would want to live? 


In the countryside, where a sense of isolation often results in high stress levels, local schools, post offices, libraries, police stations and social services are vitally important. Their absence or presence is barely noticeable to tourists who turn up for a few days in one place and then move on to the next. But, for the people who run the B&Bs and the boat trips, juggle farm work with shifts in call-centres, teach, keep shops, and own small businesses, they’re necessary for a healthy community life. They don’t, however, matter to a mind-set that sees the countryside as a sort of theme park in which the primary function of those who actually live there is to provide increasing streams of tourists with a dash of local colour.


That’s a view that makes sense if your sole concern is to thrust Ireland to the forefront of an aggressive global marketplace. But clearly there ought to be more to our thinking than that. In any given locality the actual point of seeking to increase tourist figures is the economic benefit that ensues if your efforts succeed. Local people work in local businesses. The local economy is what provides the option to build a desirable and viable future in the place where you grew up or have family roots. Here in Ireland having that option is still a significant matter; most of us over the age of forty can remember a time when emigration was the norm. You left because you had to, choice didn’t enter into it. And, in tourist areas at least, the spectre of emigration has never really gone away. A serious shift in exchange rates, one terrorist incident, even a couple of lousy reviews on TripAdvisor, and last year’s destination of choice can become this year’s wasteland. 

So rural Ireland knows that it has to keep ahead of the game. People adapt – brilliantly in most cases – rebranding what they have to offer in accordance with perceived fashion, and watching with eagle eyes for discernible trends. Foodie Breaks become Wellness Weekends; Walking Trips are resold as Adventure Experiences; and Cultural Tourism has knocked plain old Holidays into a cocked hat.
 
And nothing wrong with that, you might say. But if ‘cultural tourism’ is to be anything more than a cynical catch-phrase, the living culture of an area is just as important as a carefully-packaged version of its past. As voters, we empower central and local government to choose where to target our tax-spend. But we also need to consider the results of choices made on our behalf. How, for example, do we justify investing in a centre that interprets an area’s heritage for visitors if we fail to invest in the cultural future of those of us who actually live there? 

Communities require focal points, and local libraries are a brilliant example of what that means in practice. Library buildings are centres for community information and venues for book clubs and other gatherings, as well as repositories of books and digital material. They’re cross-generational spaces serving groups and individuals from childhood to old age. They offer a portal to other libraries and resources via the internet. And if you’re isolated, housebound or suffering from rural Ireland’s lack of consistent broadband, their mobile library services provide physical links to the mother ships which can change people’s lives.


In fact, as a breed, local and community librarians ceaselessly challenge the constraints of isolation, and not only in the countryside. As an author who lives both in Ireland and the UK, I’m often in a position to admire their dedication and enterprise. London’s Hackney, for example, has a Telephone Book Club for housebound and handicapped readers whose age-range spans more than seven decades. According to Chris Garnsworthy, the librarian, the changing face of Hackney is increasingly affecting the club’s older members; their daycentre has closed, the local pub is boarded up, and the church has turned into six trendy flats. But by creating a new sense of community the book club’s existence has mitigated a damaging sense of dislocation. 


The kind of change Chris describes is familiar here in Ireland, and maybe it’s inevitable. Indeed, there’s a case for calling it preferable to the ‘heritage’ approach that, for fear of losing their perceived attractiveness to tourists, refuses to allow rural communities to develop. But if change is important, so is continuity; and, if our tourist destinations are genuinely to thrive, so must the people who live and work and rear families in them.



 A version of this piece appeared in The Irish Times Culture Section June 8th 2016

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Bábóg na Bealtaine: Mayday Ritual In Ireland





May Day, on May 1st, is celebrated throughout the northern hemisphere as the first day of summer. In Ireland the roots of the festival lie in ancient Celtic rituals held at the turning point between the seasons of Imbolc and Bealtaine. 




Here in Corca Dhuibhne May brings a new awareness of the garden. Each day, from first light, the air rings with birdsong. Nesting crows creak past overhead. Bees hum on blossoms and tiny, blood-red fuchsia buds shine against deep green foliage. One year behind the old byre I found flowers on a pear tree which, two years previously, we'd liberated from a supermarket. It had been a sad, dry stick with its roots wrapped in plastic. Now each year , as the sap rises, it promises baked fruit puddings flavoured with ginger and honey.




The word Bealtaine (Pronounced something like 'Bee-owl-tin-neh'), said to come from Bel Tine which means 'Bel Fire', is the Irish language word for the month of May. Bel was one of the names of the Celtic sun god whose power was symbolised by fire. Ritual re-enactments of his marriage to the fertility goddess Danú were believed to promote the sunshine and rainfall required for crops to thrive.








In Ireland, as imagery merged across milennia, the blossom which once symbolised Danú's fertility became a symbol, on May altars, of the Virgin Mary's purity. 




The Celts' fertility goddess had three aspects, encompassing potential, fulfilment and death. She was the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone, an image of an optimistic world view which saw ageing as a vital stage in a cycle in which death leads to rebirth as inevitably as winter leads to spring.

In rural Ireland, within living memory, it was a May custom for girls to carry a doll, or bábóg (baw-bogue), decked in lace and flowers from door to door, singing to welcome the summer. It's a ritual as ancient as the worship of Danú, whom the bábóg originally represented. Schoolchildren here in Corca Dhuibhne sing the same song today.

"Bábóg na Bealtaine,
Maighdean an tSamhraidh,
Suas gach cnoc isn. síos gach gleann,
Cailíní maiseacha bán-gheala gléasta,
Thugamar fhéin an tSamhraidh linn.                                                                                                                                                                   
           

May-time Dolly,
Maiden of Summer,
Up each hill and down each glen,
Girls dressed up in bright-white garments,
We brought the Summer along with us."




Friday, 22 April 2016

The Big Walk




As the 1916 centenary commemorations continue, two things become increasingly evident. First, that the Dublin-centric version of Ireland's Easter Rising on which many of us were raised has obscured a far wider national story. Secondly, how many personal stories have yet to come to light.

Marion Stokes. Cumann na mBan. Enniscorthy garrison Easter Rising 1916

My book A Woven Silence: Memory, History & Remembrance was inspired by a sense that I ought to know more about my grandmother’s cousin, Marion Stokes, one of three Cumann na mBan women who raised the tricolour over Enniscorthy’s Athenaeum in Easter Week 1916. County Wexford rose late, confused at first, like the rest of the country, by MacNeill’s order countermanding the rising, then responding to subsequent orders from the GPO to destroy the eastern railway approaches to Dublin. The Athenaeum garrison was the last to surrender, holding out stubbornly until its commanders were brought under a white flag to Kilmainham to receive personal orders from Pearse as Commander In Chief.

In writing the book – and as a result of responses to it I’ve received through social media – I’ve learned much about Marion and her comrades. I've also learned a great deal about how little most Irish men and women were taught about what happened outside the capital before, during and after Easter Week. The reasons for that ignorance are complex and, I believe, should be explored and understood as part of the centenary commemorations. It’s heartening, therefore, to see how many stories are emerging across the country. 

On Easter Monday morning I was in Dublin, speaking about lost memories of the women of 1916 as part of RTÉ’s Reflecting The Rising. That afternoon I was in Enniscorthy where the Athenaeum has been beautifully restored for the centenary. This week I’m back in Corca Dhuibhne, in a stone house that was once home to a couple called Paddy Martin (An Máirtíneach) and Neillí Mhuiris Ní Conchubhair. 
Neillí Mhuiris Ní Conchubhair and her brother James.
I’ve lived here for fifteen years but it’s only now in the year of the centenary that I’ve found Neillí was a member of Cumann na mBan and that, on April 22nd 1916, Paddy, a fisherman, took part in a night march across the Conor Pass with over a hundred other armed Volunteers from the Gaeltacht and Dingle town. The weather was bad and the road worse and many of them reached Tralee barefoot. Their mission, though at the time they were unaware of it, was to liaise with Casement after the landing of the Aud, the ship on which he was bringing arms from Germany.

In the 1960s personal statements were collected from surviving Gaeltacht participants in the march, all of whom had assumed they were marching to battle. They tell an extraordinary story of courage and physical resilience. Among them is one from Paddy who remarks, almost in passing, that he and a companion undertook the forty mile trek to Tralee after a sleepless night out fishing off Ard na Caithne.  
The Conor Pass

When one of the men who set out to cross the Conor Pass was warned that he might not return he replied philosophically: ‘más é ár lá é, ‘sé ár lá é’- ‘if it’s our day, it’s our day’. But in the event, Casement was captured, the Aud with its cargo of arms was scuttled and Robert Monteith, who had accompanied Casement from Germany, brought the news to Tralee where the men of West Kerry were waiting. It was the discovery of the loss of the Aud that precipitated MacNeill's order to postpone the rising. And as Pearse and others frantically made plans to go ahead anyway, those who had gone on An tSiúlóid Mhór (The Big Walk) returned from Tralee to Dingle on a train commandeered by their captain. 

It’s easy to forget that throughout Ireland similar Volunteer and Cumann na mBan companies were ready and prepared to rise during Easter Week, and that the fact that they didn’t doesn’t change the fact that they’re part of the 1916 story.   

As with the story of Marion Stokes and her companions in Enniscorthy, An tSiúlóid Mhór has never had a place in the wider national consciousness. But today members of the families of the men who made that march are re-enacting it on foot, starting from An Buailtín, Baile ‘n Fheirtéaraigh. When they gathered this morning they were joined by girls from the local school and others, and the beginning of the long march over the mountain was accompanied by pipers and other musicians. A hundred years ago the local Volunteers gathered on a nearby beach and made their way to join their comrades in Dingle in secret.
An Buailtín April 22nd 2016


Among those who attended the preparations for the re-enactment wearing their families' 1916 medals was the nephew of Mary Sheehy (Mold) of Baile Eaglaise who, like her neighbour Neillí here in Corca Dhuibhne and Marion in Enniscorthy, was only in her teens when she joined Cumann na mBan. During the War of Independence that followed the Rising, Mary Sheehy and other  Cumann na mBan members all over Ireland acted as a network of support for their male companions in arms. Gearóid Mac an tSíthigh, Mary's nephew, said he was there to make sure she was remembered. 


As I'm typing this the marchers are on their way to Dingle. 
Tonight they'll cross The Conor Pass.


 And in a Gaeltacht area where the oral tradition still flourishes the story of An tSiúlóid Mhór will be remembered and passed on as integral to the story of the Rising.
Mary Sheehy's Cumann na mBan medals

Mary Sheehy (Mold) in old age (photo send me by her nephew Gearóid April 27 2016)