Sarah Poyntz’s essay gems in The Guardian’s Country Diary have come to an end. Her subject was the Burren, a place where I love to ramble and ruminate.
In her final contribution she watches starlings wheel as she walks between Abbey and Turlough hills, an area which was ‘a platinum setting for myriad jewels, as light and water combined to dazzle’.
We wish her well.
Columnist who gave her readers glimpse of the Burren calls it a day
Each month since 1987, the Co Wexford native has written a “Country Diary” for the London-based newspaper, recounting to readers, in carefully crafted despatches of 350 words, the surprises and beauty the Burren landscape reveals.
In her recently published final diary entry, she recounts a dawn walk in the Burren near Corcomroe Abbey, where she witnessed “the most perfect rainbow” over the bay, interrupted by a flash of lightning, telling readers how she said aloud in response, “This, our Burren, is beautiful beyond compare”.
A Ballyvaughan resident since 1984, Poyntz said yesterday: “I still walk the Burren and now have to remind myself that I don’t have to write about what I see for the Guardian .”
She remarked: “I’m the wrong side of 84. I’m 85 in March. It was time to stop. I’m quite happy. The column kept going for a long time.”
She added: “I love the Burren and above all I love its people. I love the peace and beauty here. It gives me a complete life as one can have.”
Mercier Press last year published Poyntz’s Burren Villages , which includes contributions from a number of writers on the Burren, and which followed her earlier work, A Burren Journal .
The author and diarist said yesterday that she has been “overwhelmed” by the response from readers since she told them her December column would be her last.
She said: “Some of the letters were upsetting as there was a couple from people who enjoyed the column, but made them very nostalgic and sad for home. They are our people.”
One reader wrote to say, “No more from Black Head, Ballyvaughan and the Burren. Sarah’s observations of the natural world in that wondrous corner of Ireland certainly made this exile feel closer to home.”
Another reader told her by letter, “I didn’t realise I had been ‘hooked’ on your diaries for so long. You will be very much missed by us all.”
The columns allowed Poyntz to combine her love for the English language with her passion for nature.
Her love of English and French led to her spending an afternoon sharing a bottle of wine with Samuel Beckett in Paris in the early 1960s.
She said yesterday: “I loved his work and wrote to him, saying that I would love to see him and he sent me a postcard and we arranged to meet.”
A UCD arts graduate, Poyntz taught at a number of English schools before a bout of ill-health forced her to retire early from teaching
In the week that Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain was published, four of us – me, Joan, Deirdre and Mary – wound our way along the blue waymarked path around Mullaghmore in the Burren. The heat of the day was blunted by a lively breeze and Mary asked us, Did you hear Seamus Heaney on the radio this morning talking about how he searched his father’s suit pocket for cigarette butts? He had a way of describing the look and smell of that suit but for the life of me I can’t remember the words he used. I said I could tell them about it after Sunday since I was going to hear Seamus read from his new collection at the Abbey Theatre two days later.
Then we followed the red-arrowed path that took us between Mullaghmore and its sister hill Sliabh Rua for a spot of lunch and chat and then down the west side with a fine view of Craggy Island Parochial Hall – Father Ted’s House – and back to Corofin and a drink in Bofey Quinn’s where a girl paraded in a blood-red bridesmaid dress.
The sun had deserted Dublin by late Sunday afternoon and drenched hurling supporters waited at the Luas stop beside the Abbey – the Tipperary fans the happier after dethroning the Cats – and I met up with my friend, Heather, and soon I had a signed copy of Human Chain in my hands. There it was, the description of the blue serge suit in the poem, ‘The Butts’, and that smell: stale smoke and oxter-sweat/came at you in a stirred-up brew/when you reached in.
The poet ranged over and back between old poems and new ones ‘written in sudden swoops’ and in a nice symmetry ended with an earlier piece ‘Postcript’ that is set in The Burren: And some time make the time to drive out west/Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore/In September or October, when the wind/And the light are working off each other …
We headed back in a grey night drizzle, caught up in the Kilkenny and Premier County traffic after the hurling heroics. I knew the summer days were over.
I picked early blackberries this week on the road that connects the main arteries from Kilkee to Doonbeg to the north and Kilkee to Kilrush to the south. It is the West Clare area of Corca Baiscinn and that has to be one of the most musical place names that I know of. The roadside is aglow with blooming montbretia and a woman with wild hair is sweeping at the road’s verge as if it is a hearth with a blazing fire.
The road climbs to a hill-top where you can see for miles around and across to Scattery Island. It is said to be the site of a penal mass rock and there are a series of memorial stones to St Senan, patron saint of Inis Cathaigh – Scattery Island. One of the plaques has an image of the holy man receiving a bell from heaven – lifting it down from the clouds. This was one of the stories collected by the children at Bansha School, just down the hill from me, as part of the Schools’ Folklore Scheme (1937-1938).
St Senan’s Well is in Kiltenane Cemetery, down the hill and just across from the school and in a place so serene and nestled in the quiet of the landscape that you think to yourself that this must be the most ideal of resting places. And after that you pick more blackberries until you figure you have enough for an apple and blackberry crumble .
Before heading back – purple blackberry juice staining your fingers and the orange glow of montretia all around – you start thinking that there is the stuff of a poem in this place.
At the weekend I stood on Querrin Pier in West Clare at full tide in a fresh wind and watched the round tower on Scattery Island out on the Shannon Estuary. The first time I visited the place was via a boat ride from Limerick down through the estuary past strange places like ‘Scarlet Reach’ and ‘The Dead Woman’s Rock’ where lines of cormorants hovered – all black and silent. I had spent the journey tidying up the Contacts on my mobile phone when, suddenly, the round tower of Scattery loomed up ahead of us.
Another time while I watched Scattery in the distance, a fisherman was gathering bait at the pier and he told me that he fished for wrasse at the Arches of Ross on the Loop Head Peninsula. He waited each year, he said, for the bloom of the flag iris to arrive before he started to fish for wrasse.
The layers of history on Scattery start with the 6th century round tower – the largest in Ireland and the ruins of six churches and the holy well of St. Senan. Another layer is that of the sea pilots, for which Scattery was a centre in the nineteenth century, when the pilots guided ships From Kilbaha at the mouth of the estuary as far as Limerick Port. The most poignant layer is the recent community whose signature is in the line of deserted cottages facing the mainland; the last two islanders left in 1978. A former lighthouse keeper, Don Scanlon, has written a vivid Scattery Memoir.
As I am promising myself to visit the island again soon on a fine day with my notebook, the eighty year old Jennifer Johnston is being interviewed on radio and talks of her writing as being ‘like breathing’ and culture as that which ‘drives people into the future with dreams in their heads’. Her words make me wonder about what dreams the generations of islanders in Scattery held in their heads as they stared out across at the mainland.