Friday, December 11, 2009

Theo Dorgan on West Cork

I was on a flight between Edinburgh and Dublin this week, and picked up the Aer Lingus in-flight magazine, Cara. Thumbing through it to while away the 45 minute flight, I came across an article on West Cork in Ireland - from where my wife comes.

It's actually more of an homage than an article - written by poet Theo Dorgan, it's an amazing hand-held walk through the emotions, magic, mystery, and enchantment of West Cork. Maybe I'm just getting more emotional in my old age, but I got a huge lump in my throat reading it. I love West Cork, and Dorgan's writing is really a perfected example of the type of writing I try and fail to do occasionally - evocative, heady emotional and slightly ambiguous journeys through subtle hyperbole.

[I'm reproducing the entire article here without the permission of Aer Lingus, Cara, or Theo Dorgan. As far as I'm aware I'm not infringing any copyright. Anyone concerned should feel free to contact me for removal]

It's an astounding piece of writing - more of this please, Aer Lingus.

West Cork really is amazing. Thank you Theo Dorgan.

- - -

WEST CORK IS a mountain fastness on the edge of the world, a land of secrets and dreams, of immemorial communities, standing stones, ruined monasteries, a deep-indented coastline washed by the long bulk and sprawl of the Atlantic. Small farms in hollows and valleys, prosperous knowing towns curled in on themselves and their mysteries, roads that jink and jive between high hedges, sudden dizzying views of mountains folded back as far as the eye can see.

Drive west from Cork through Bandon, that solid market town set among fields of grain, and small town by small town you are fed down to the sea at Bantry, the broad acres with their fine trees giving way to thin soil; pinched fields on the sides of hills; thick hedges where moments ago there were white painted fences. The colours brighten as you slide west and south, blues and reds on doors and windows, white gables, mauve of tall foxgloves, the flash of gorse in the high sun. You see the mountains in the distance, rank after rank, solid and blue and grey, and perhaps you get a sense that you are entering deeper and deeper into some half-remembered version of your life.

Or, leave Cork towards the northwest, along the rich valley of the River Lee. Beyond Macroom, you might start drifting north bit by bit until with a sudden instinctive resolution you pull the wheel to the left and feed yourself over Ráth an Ghaiscígh, the Rath of the Warrior, down through Tír na Spideoige, the Land of Sparrows, into Inchigeela and then Ballingeary, and you are solidly in the heartland again. On up the road to Gougane Barra, wellspring of the Lee, then down the long, winding road through sheep pastures and pine plantations, past the Hobbit-like buildings of Future Forests, a garden nursery, until you meet the easternmost inlet of Bantry Bay.

The sea again. The mountains again, this time shouldering you, leaning over you. Or you take the third way, south from Cork airport to the bustling, colourful harbour of Kinsale. A cosmopolitan town, studded with busy pubs and gourmet restaurants, the clash of halyards on masts in the harbour where yachts from all over the world are constantly making in, making out. You follow the Bandon river for a while, going left when you can, keeping to the swooping coastline; you make for Baltimore, perhaps, then Schull – the yellow gorse, the red fuschia beckoning you onward until Bantry.

Oh, but there are pathways into West Cork not laid down on maps. Maybe you’ll walk in, through Cúil Aodha, for instance, that hidden Gaeltacht the far side of Macroom. Maybe you’ll get the bus to drop you at Gougane Barra and hike up to the lake, where Finbarre’s stone church sits on its island, in a forest quiet. Or perhaps you’ll come in from the sea, spray-lashed, salt-crusted, working the helm and the sails, making in under the white beacon, Lot’s Wife, standing sentinel over Baltimore harbour.

You must understand this: West Cork is not just a territory on a map, a piece of real estate to be surveyed, traversed, absorbed and filed in your memories. This is a dangerous place for the unwary. I may have lost you already. We were coming down through the Land of Sparrows, remember? We stopped in Creedons for a pint and a sandwich? And you started thinking, I could feel the drift begin inside you, you started thinking ‘What if I didn’t go home? I could live here, in this steady quiet, I could find a small house under the ridge and be peaceful here.’ I heard the words stirring inside you, I saw the signs. Or, maybe, coming up from Schull we turned off for Mizen Head before Bantry and as we drove out and west through that high stony land you had a sudden illumination: you thought of your life and decided, with sudden clarity, I need to change. I saw it happening, saw you step out of the car and look around, the weight and beauty of that wild place settling inside you. You’re not the first, you won’t be the last. So many thousands have settled here in my lifetime, so many thousands who came with maps, plans, itineraries...

Ah, but you think you are made of sterner stuff than that? Perhaps you are. There are no flying columns ghosting through your ancestral memories, no Spanish fleets flying west from Kinsale, no ships of the French Revolution storm-beaten in Bantry Bay. Perhaps you are the sort of person who says, approving the wisdom, you can’t eat scenery. You notice the heavy traffic on the roads, you look for and find reassuring signs of normal life in the present day.

Let me bring you on west from Bantry through the storybook beauty of Glengariff, and west again through Adrigole, the minatory bare bulk of Hungry Hill shadowing us to the north. I land you down in Castletownbere, and you approve of the bustling busyness of the place, the fishing fleet, the ice plant, the trucks from France and Spain backing and filling in the busy harbour. And then I lead you quietly away down the pier to where the painter Sarah Walker has built herself a studio and gallery at the water’s edge. Did you linger there a little longer than you’d meant to? West again, the sun beginning to slant down towards the sea. I bring you to Dzogchen Beara, a Buddhist monastery in Beara, perched high on a cliff, and suddenly you are gazing out over an ocean without limits, you are gazing out into sunlit eternity. And now you get it. I see it in your eyes as the journey catches up with you. All those small fields, those dim sunken roads, the small hills and the sudden bulk of mountains, the dark world of the forestry, the bright, busy banter in shop and pub – vista by vista, moment by moment, unheard, unfelt, unnoticed, West Cork has been winding you into its spell, laying its enchantment deep inside you until now it owns your very breath.

Well, what am I to do with you? You have a life elsewhere, work, family, responsibilities. One last short journey, then, before you turn for home. A few miles more and we stop where the road curls round into a final vision for you. Below and to the left a bright-gold beach. Neat fields, long grasses, cows, horses, two cars stopped side by side, neighbours having a chat down there beneath us. You lift your eyes and you see the village of Allihies, its multicoloured houses piled in a bright pyramid on the far slope, under the mountain with its copper-mine chimneys, its glinting, water-bright ridge. The last of the sun gives an otherworldly light to the panorama before you, broad bands of red and orange and black to the left, the unkempt grasses a brilliant green below us, the far off houses bright with promises. Skellig on the horizon, appearing, disappearing on a whim.

I am taking you to my favourite pub in all the world, Jimmy’s. It might be a well of quiet this evening, or perhaps Ecky will be in, our German musician friend, long-settled here, or the poet O’Leary, or Mighty the raconteur. We could settle into conversation with Eily the postmistress, with the artists Charlie Tyrrell or Rachel Parry, the ceramicist Cormac Boydell. We might sit by ourselves, without speaking. I’ve brought you here so that you can settle yourself over a pint or three of Murphy’s stout, so that you can ease down and persuade yourself that after all it’s only a holiday, only a place you will have visited. How do I explain to you what you are already beginning to sense, that you may indeed go home, tomorrow, the day after, but now you will never leave West Cork?


Carol from Canada said...

Thanks for the Theo Dorgan article. My heart belongs to West Cork, and this piece was the perfect antidote for a cold, windy, Canadian day.

John Braine said...

I love moments like that; when you unexpectantly find a bit of art that really hits the spot.

Realta said...

I have lived in Macroom - and loved it - Moving now to Union hall or Glandore...
come away O human childe
to the waters
the wilde