Tuesday, 26 March 2013


I've just been to the Radio Orkney studio to take part in Tullimentan's Book Group. Tullimentan is Radio Orkney's monthly arts programme and will be broadcast tomorrow night locally. If you are on Facebook you can click the link above to see more of what they do.

The group is presented by Fionn McArthur and run by local writer Morag MacInnes and today we discussed Twenty Years A-Growing by Maurice O'Sullivan.

It's the autobiography of the author's years growing up on the Great Blasket, the largest of the Blasket Islands of the south west coast of Ireland.

It is a charming account - in the way only an account by a native Gael can be - with prose that reads like poetry flowing and undulating like the islands themselves. 

'Be up at the chirp of the sparrow, so,' they say to one another if they need to be up early for some ploy. Like catching rabbits or puffins, or stealing off to the Ventry Races in defiance of their parents' wishes.

Every adventure has an epic quality and it's easy to imagine it being told and retold round the fire till it rings like the myths and stories of old Ireland. 

And it captures a way of life that was disappearing even by the time the author was in his teens, for his sisters and friends were all heading off for America, leaving behind their ageing parents:

'The chief livelihood - that's the fishing - is gone under foot, and when the fishing is gone under foot the Blasket is gone under foot, for all the boys and girls who have any vigour in them will go over the sea ... Suppose now that we stayed at home to care for [our parents], maybe we would be threescore years of age before we would lay the last clod on them in Ventry churchyard, and then we would be too old to go anywhere and who would lay the clod on ourselves?'

This is Maurice's account of a conversation with one of the girls still on the island. A couple of years later he is gone himself to Dublin.

So it's an elegy for a lost way of life, beautifully written and as immediate as if it had just happened. These are stories that have gained, not lost in the retelling - stories of encounters with whales that might overset the curragh and drown all the men in it; of curragh races; of hunting for rabbits and thrushes and seabirds to eat; of the beauty of the light on the island and the flowers and bird life.

And even the routine brutality of schoolmistresses and masters described near the beginning takes on a humourous, lightsome quality through the lilting language, though it can't have been experienced like that.

It puts me in mind of Seamus Heaney's poem, Senior Infants from District and Circle:

'...Well, for Jesus' sake', cried Duffy, coming at me
with his stick in the air and two wide open arms,
'For Jesus' sake! D'you mind the sally rod?'

This was the willow wand the infants' teacher used to 'cut the legs off' them, remembered seventy years later as soon as Duffy clapped eyes on his old classmate, Seamus. But it has the same lightness and humour that O'Sullivan uses in his book. Maybe it is a strong strand in Irish literary tradition, because Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt has a similar way of expressing unimaginable horrors with a touch that makes it bearable. It could be we have to turn to John McGahern to get the other side of it.

But made light of or no, the stories in Twenty Years A-Growing are as vivid now as when they were lived and that's no mean feat.

On the very last page the author describes returning after two years in Dublin:

'There was a great change in two years - green grass growing on the paths for lack of walking; five or six houses shut up and the people gone out to the mainland; fields which had once had fine stone walls around them left to ruin; the big red patches on the Sandhills made by the feet of the boys and girls dancing - there was not a trace of them now.'

It's an experience islanders will recognise. Certainly there were many echoes for those of us who grew up in Orkney.

Morag led a good discussion today with Caroline Wickam-Jones, Jack MacInnes and me. If you miss it on Radio Orkney tomorrow night, you will be able to hear it on Sound Cloud from Thursday. Meantime, here's a link to the February edition of Tullimentan.


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