Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Sense of Place

What's in a Place?

It is often said that we Irish traditionally have, or had, an acute sense of place or locality. Many of our popular ballads may often consist of little more than strings of place names. When we meet others for the first time the question, “Where are you from?” is one of the first questions to be asked. Moreover, there is much current interest in the origins of place names, or in “logainmníocht” as it is called in Irish. This strong attachment to place would seem to be rooted in our history. Firstly, there was no Industrial Revolution to displace the population. Secondly, there was instead the long and painful tragedy of emigration. Little wonder, then, that those who stayed felt all the more identified with the places where they lived and that those who left tended to exaggerate the beauty of their native island with dewy-eyed nostalgia.

“Dindshenchus”, or the lore of places, was traditionally part of the common culture. The preservation and promotion of this lore was a specific duty of the poets who shared a lot of responsibilities with lawyers and historians. Place-lore was second in importance only to genealogical lore which, when recorded and recited in poetic form, laid the basis for the taoiseach's claim to power. The term 'Dindshenchus' refers to that body of 300 poems with prose synopsis which was compiled into one great unit in the twelfth century. Each of these poems sought to explain the origin of their title which was a place name. Their explanations were often strained and highly imaginative.

However, this attachment to place was a strong literary convention which reached further back than the twelfth century. From the earliest times, for example in the sagas and the romances, a story was fixed topographically and the characters were defined in terms of where they came from. For instance, let us take the example of the supposed origin of the name Sliabh Mis, south-west of Tralee in Co. Kerry. Several strands or layers make up this story: a definite foundation in mediaeval place-lore, a romance written in the fifteenth century and a further literary retelling from the eighteenth century. We read that Mis was the daughter of Dáire Donn who was killed by the Fianna at the Battle of Ventry. Having found her father's dead body on the battlefield and having drunk his blood, she became insane and fled to Sliabh Mis. She terrorised the whole barony until the local taoiseach sent his harper, Dubh Rois, to tame her with his music and his sexual prowess. He succeeded admirably in his task and restored her to sanity. On a similar note, it takes little imagination to see why the ancient holy mountain of Cíocha Danann or the Breasts of Danu (in Sliabh Luachra, Co. Kerry) was so called. Dan£ or Dana was the mother of all Irish gods and the great earth-mother, and she was worshipped from antiquity by the Celts.  

While the texts of the 'Dindshenchus' had little influence on the oral tradition, folklore shows an enduring interest of its own in local lore. It embraces such matters as historical happenings, supposed connections with heroes and saints, ghosts and fairies. Many humorous legends grew up with regard to the origin of place names. For instance, a beggar man was said to have complained that the inhabitants of a certain Derry town were 'done giving', thereby leading to the invention of the name Dungiven for that particular place. Another hilarious etymology relates to the story of St. Patrick who, having been struck by a stone, complained of the 'wicked low' people who lived there - no prizes for guessing the name of this town.

Lough Neagh also attracted the myth-makers. Its waters were said to be able to turn wood to stone. The great Fionn Mac Cumhaill was said to have scooped Lough Neagh out and to have thrown what he had scooped out into the sea to form the Isle of Man. Such lore lives on in the poetic imagination as instanced in Seamus Heaney's 'A Lough Neagh Sequence':

                The Lough will claim a victim every year.
It has virtue that hardens wood to stone.
There is a town sunk beneath its water.
It is the scar left by the Isle of Man.          (1)

In practically all Irish writers a sense of place is central, and Heaney is no exception, but perhaps Kavanagh is its greatest exponent. Seán Ó Tuama judges the poetry of the latter to be the best example of the continuity that occurred between Irish literature and English literature in Ireland as regards this attachment to place. (2) As an emigrant in England, Kavanagh could not rid himself of his obsession with his native soil. In a poem entitled 'Kerr's Ass' he found himself naming the 'several names' of local Irish towns from the distance of London,

                Until a world comes to life-
Morning, the silent bog,
And the God of imagination waking
In a Mucker fog.                    (3)

Here, we have illustrated for us this enchantment with locality: a dynamic mixture of landscape, town land and imagination - a very Gaelic trait. Kavanagh did not lack a sense of humour as regards his native place. In The Green Fool (1938) we read: “The name of my birthplace was Mucker...The name was a corrupted Gaelic word signifying a place where pigs were bred in abundance. Long before my arrival there was much aesthetic heart-aching among the folk who had to put up with, and up in, such a pig-named townland. In spite of all this the townland stuck to its title and it was in Mucker I was born.”(4) But those “black hills”, at once inspiring and terrifying, make their presence felt often in his poetry and reflect his love-hate relationship with the soil. He calls them sarcastically his “Alps” and his “Matterhorn” – “hungry hills” forsaken even by the snipe. (5) These very hills, he realises, are the centre of his universe. In another poem, “Epic”, he informs us that he has lived in “important places” and that a local row over boundaries by two neighbouring farmers almost killed his faith in the importance of such local townlands like Ballyrush and Gortin. But then he remembers that Homer made his epic, the Iliad, “from such a local row.” (6) Ó Tuama argues that Kavanagh is here following in the Gaelic tradition of loyalty to place and that, further, his final line “gods make their own importance” suggests his hankering after the ancient Gaelic mythology associated with place. (7)

Brian Friel's excellent play, Translations (1980), centres around the anglicization of Irish place names by the British Ordnance Survey (1833), spearheaded by officers and men from the corps of Royal Engineers. Many themes intertwine in this play. It is at once a play about language per se, the death of the Irish language, land-surveying, a sense of place, the activity of naming places, transition from the old to the new and the fear of change along with all the complications and complexities these issues promote. All in all, the wholeness and the integrity of the Gaelic past pervade the play, coupled with the fear of the people of Ballybeg for its future and their own. Their hedge school is going to be replaced by one of the new national schools where tuition is totally through English; there is recurring potato blight; they have to acquire a new language; and because their townland is going to be renamed, everything that is familiar is becoming strange.

The sense of attachment to place has haunted practically every writer of Irish nationality whether in Gaelic or English. At the beginning of this century the poet, Pádraig Ó hÉigeartaigh, wrote a moving lament for his son, Donnchadh, who was drowned in Boston. The father regretted the fact that his son was buried on foreign soil and wished that he could be buried in more homely and welcoming earth:

Dá  mbéadh an codladh so i gCill na Dromad ort nó in uaigh san Iarthar         
mo bhrón do bhogfadh, cé gur mhór mo dhochar, is ní bhéinn id'dhiaidh air. (8)

Louis MacNeice, who was born in Belfast and spent the first ten years of his life in Carrickfergus before residing in England for good, was haunted by his native land even though he was often very critical of her violence, provincialism and conservatism: “And I thought I was well out of it.../ Though her name keeps ringing like a bell in an under-water bellfry.” (9) Are there echoes here of that mythical saint's bell that woke the four children of Lir from their spell and from their  centuries' captivity in the shape of swans, and which welcomed them home to the dry land of their birth and a Christian burial?


1. Seamus Heaney, see 'A Lough Neagh Sequence' in Selected Poems, Faber, 1980, p. 40.      

2. See Seán Ó Tuama, “Omós Áite: a rian ar scríbhneoirí in Éirinn', alt in Comhar, Bealtaine, 1992, lch., 177.

3. Patrick Kavanagh, see 'Kerr's Ass' in Collected Poems, London,     1972, p. 135.

4. Patrick Kavanagh, The Green Fool, Penguin, 1977, p. 8.

5. Patrick Kavanagh, see “Shancoduff” in op. cit. at 3, p. 30.

6. ibid., p. 136.

7. See S. Ó Tuama, op. cit. at 2 above, lch. 178.

8. See Caoimhghín Ó GÓilidhe, Díolaim Filíochta, Folens, 1974, lgh. 399-400.

9. Louis MacNeice, see 'Autumn Journal' in Collected Poems, Faber, 1980

The above picture is one I took of Dublin Bay from Clontarf. You can see the two ESB power station chimneys in the background.

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