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Walk in Paul Henry’s Achill Footsteps

01/03/2012 Comments off

You can walk in the footsteps of the artist Paul Henry, following the shoreline from Dooagh to Keel, as part of the May bank-holiday Achill Walks Festival. There are a half-dozen walks, some on the island, some on the north-west Mayo mainland in Ballycroy National Park and the Nephin mountain range.

A century ago Paul Henry and his wife Grace first came to Achill on a Midland Great Western Railway train and stayed on and off for a decade. The area between Kell and Dooagh, taking in Pollagh and Gubelennaun, was the focal point for much of Henry’s painting. The Achill walk will include the bog road made famous by Henry in one of his Achill landscapes.

Henry’s autobiography, An Irish Portrait (1951) is mainly about his experiences on Achill Island and his artist’s desire ‘to express a life that has never been expressed’.

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I’d like these books for Christmas (if I didn’t have them already)

04/12/2010 5 comments

This is my half-dozen list of  books from Ireland or by Irish writers that I think would make great Christmas gifts.  And not a whiff of misery writing about the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger or the sorry IMF/ECB bailout.

Emma Donoghue’s Room  was my book of the year before it won the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year prize.  Asked at the awards ceremony why she thought the book had such an impact Emma said, ‘I think it touches on the universal theme of a young person discovering there’s more to life their own little world.’  That little world of Jack and Ma incarcerated in a room is richly imagined and conveyed with humour and freshness through the voice of the child narrator.

I was at the launch of Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain at the Abbey Theatre in September where the poet roamed over and back between old poems and new. This is his twelfth collection. John Banville said: ‘Human Chain marks many deaths but all the markings are a celebration of what was lived.’

The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story is edited by Anne Enright. How on earth did she make her selection from a century of Irish short story writing? ‘I wanted to put together a book that was varied and good to read, with a strong eye to the contemporary,’ she said.  It is a delight to have O Faolain and O’Connor, Mary Lavin and Maeve Brennan, Kevin Barry, Claire Keegan and many others in one volume.

A legendary Irish text-book has been reprinted. Soundings, a poetry anthology edited by Gus Martin will evoke mixed emotions if you sat your Leaving Cert between 1969 and 2000. Joseph O’Connor describes it well:  ‘Amid the ink-stains of our adolescence, the shocking sweetness of first kisses, the pimples and growth-spurts and uncertainties and aches, it saw to it that poetry would find a way of seeding itself.’

The Thank You Book is edited by Roisin Ingle and is a fund-raising initiative of the Irish Hospice Foundation. The book will be largely written by you as you fill the pages with your gratitude lists in these dismal times.

There’s a personal bias in my last selection, Michael Viney’s Wild Mayo. It is my native county but the places are familiar to many through Michael’s weekly column in the Irish Times. Described as ‘a poem to a place’, it captures a county’s natural history and evokes a wild landscape of peatlands and islands and rocky shores illustrated with sumptuous photos.

(If you are looking for other Irish book ideas, Publishing Ireland have a list of 25 to choose from here.)

Any suggestions? Of Irish books as Christmas gifts? Would love to hear.

Deserted Island Boost for Writing

19/07/2010 Comments off

Islands, especially uninhabited ones, boost my imagination. It is as if you can see layers of life and memory wrapped within them in a stark way.

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.

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