Glad to see The Irish Times recently publish my nomination of Erris in its Best Place to Holiday in Ireland series. This is a hidden gem in the north-west corner of my native County Mayo that is immortalised as the setting of J M Synge’s drama The Playboy of the Western World.
Controversy has a way of revolving around words in Ireland in a strange way. Even when Barak Obama, President of the United States, visits we get caught up in a national debate about Enda Kenny’s welcoming speech in College Green, Dublin, and his use of Barak Obama’s very own words.
But, An Taoiseach’s gift of words to the Obamas was inspired: a copy of Padraic Colum’s Legends of Hawaii for their daughters, Malia and Sasha. In 1922, as a new independent Irish State was taking shape, the Hawaiian legislature commissioned Padraic Colum to collect myths and legends from their State and write them as children’s stories. Dr Padraic Whyte of Trinity College, remarking during the week about the appropriateness of the gift for the Obamas, said that ‘myths not only explain where we come from, but they can also guide us to where we want to go to.’
I have my own connection with words and Barak Obama and Enda Kenny’s native County Mayo. For, on the day of President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, I made a trip to the Erris Peninsula – in the footsteps of John Millington Synge – while I listened on radio to Obama’s inauguration ceremony.
It was the inauguration verse of the Harlem-born poet, Elizabeth Alexander, that caught my imagination on the car radio in Erris that day: ‘We encounter each other in words, words / spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed, / words to consider, reconsider.’
Obama – and The Queen – have gone. We are left with the images, and the words, and the controversy.
There are a host of literary things to do in Erris – the area in the north-west corner of County Mayo, Ireland, bordering the Atlantic Ocean. A thrilling place for the literary inclined. Here are a half-dozen suggestions of things to do and texts to read:
- Read Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Belderg’ at the Ceide Fields – the most extensive Stone Age monument in the world dating from 5000 years ago: ‘A landscape fossilized, / Its stone-wall patternings / Repeated before your eyes / In the stone walls of Mayo / Before I turn to go.’
- Follow in the footsteps of JM Synge and Jack Yeats who visited Erris in 1905 on their Congested Districts Tour. Read Synge’s account: ‘Belmullet itself is curiously placed on an isthmus – recently pierced by a canal – that divides Broad Haven form Blacksod Bay. Beyond the isthmus there is a long peninsula some fourteen miles in length, running north and south, and separating these two bays from the Atlantic.’
- Walk the six-mile Children of Lir Loop at Carrowteigue in the North Mayo Gaeltacht near Benwee Head after you have read the legend of the childrens’ wanderings until they found rest on Inishglora out in the Atlantic west of the Mullet Peninsula. View the one hundred metre long earth and stone mound sculpture that is part of the North Mayo Sculpture Trail.
- Take a boat from Blacksod to the deserted Inishkea Islands off the Mullet Peninsula armed with Brian Doran’s, Mayo Lost Island: The Inishkeas. View the remnants of the whaling station. Visit Ionad Deirbhle Heritage Centre at Aughleam to see wonderful film footage of men at the whaling station a century ago.
- Drive across the strand to the island of Claggan and read the words of poet Derek Mahon (‘Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’) engraved on a stone at Marion O’Donnell’s sculpture at the burial site of the anonymous dead: ‘They are begging us you see in their wordless way, / To do something to speak on their behalf, / Or at least not to close the door again.’
- Visit Geesala where JM Synge once boarded and watched girls picking cockles on the strand at Doolough which gave him the inspiration for the ‘village girls’ – Sara Tansey, Susan Brady and Honor Blake in The Playboy of the Western World. Druid Theatre group visited here in 2004 while rehearsing a 21st century version of The Playboy.
Ireland is agog with her – with Molly Allgood. What would she have thought if she had even the faintest imagining that her name would be flying around the nation on the airwaves, on the web, in rooms and libraries where book club members gather in 2010? It seems that Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light has made Molly more famous than her ‘tweedy tramp’, Johnny Synge, whom she carried in her head all her days.
She did not like all the walking but she traipsed after him on the Wicklow hills while the cancer was growing within him and he told her of the strange work he was writing about a storyteller in Mayo as they tramped over the crushed butterwurt and heather. And he read her a few soliloquies from The Playboy and told her the play was driving him mad.
I went in Synge’s footsteps once to the places in North Mayo, in Mullet and Erris, where Synge travelled – briefly in 1904 – and for a month with Jack Yeats in 1905. My trip was the day of Barak Obama’s inauguration on a bleak January day in Belmullet when I listened on the car radio to Elizabeth Alexander read the inauguration verse: ‘Sing the names of the dead who brought us here.’
The drizzle was rolling in when I reached Doolough where Synge watched the girls picking cockles; a red fishing boat bobbled in the water at Doohoma where the ‘Achill boat’ once came in. This was the boat where, in Playboy, the Widow Quinn and Sara Tansey wanted to conceal Christy Mahon and whisk him away.
Though they never visited these parts together, I imagine Molly and Johnny ‘astray in Erris’ – an easier image on the imagination than the inebriated old woman meandering around the streets of London, unable to get him out of her head.