Editor’s note: The Courier is pleased to publish the first of five installments in the series “Writer’s Notebook: Ireland” in celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day.
“In Search of My Character”
I’ve come to Ireland in search of my character. The character of my novel-in-progress. The cottage I am staying in has small heating units in each room and I have to pay for whatever I use. Electric heating is expensive, so I’ll be making use of the cottage’s fireplace. With cold March temperatures outside the main room’s large bay window overlooking the sea, it may be that two possible meanings of finding my character are true.
The main character in my novel-in-progress is named Brigid and on the plane ride over, I shared a three-seat row on the Aer Lingus flight from JFK to Shannon Airport with a woman named Marie and another named Brigid. It was hard not to think that a good omen. When they heard about my reason for traveling to Ireland for two months, both were eager to read the finished work. Maybe, they’ll be my first readers. It only seems right – a Brigid and a Marie the first ones to read the novel.
I slept for most of the flight, so my first day was not wasted in a jet-lagged fog. It is early, as the overnight flight arrives in just before six a.m. As I travel with my companion – an Irish monk, with ancestral local wisdom – from Shannon Airport in County Clare to County Kerry, I take notes of what Brigid would have seen as she traveled onto the Dingle peninsula, for she had made that journey too, in 1977. Brigid was seeking exile from a violent past in Belfast, during the time of ‘The Troubles.’ When I began the novel, several years ago, I looked at a map of Ireland and put my finger on the place that seemed to be the furthest away from Belfast – the Dingle Peninsula. And, on that peninsula, I located a small area called Dunquin on its furthest tip. As the locals like to say, “the next parish is New York.” I had never been to the Dingle peninsula, but I was certain that it was where Brigid would seek refuge. Dunquin is the most westerly point in Europe and all one sees from the rugged coastline there is a seemingly endless expanse of Atlantic dotted with the five, now-uninhabited, Blasket Islands.
What is most striking as one drives onto the peninsula are the rolling green fields scattered with stone farmhouses and sheep, as the still sleeping Kerry hills come into view. Some of the hillside is blackened in spots, as there has just been an annual burning of the furze, a yellow flowered shrub that farmers burn out to encourage new grass growth. This year, the burn has been more extensive, spreading out of control and requiring local fire brigades to intervene in controlling it. Houses on the hillside were in danger of being engulfed by the very flames that had been intentionally set by neighboring farmers. The government subsidizes these burns so there is motivation for farmers to do it, however environmentalists mostly object to the practice. This year’s wide-spread destruction has only strengthened their arguments against it. There are daffodils already fully in bloom along the roadside and in farmhouse gardens – I left behind six inches of snow with no sign of spring in sight back in Connecticut. The bleating cry of sheep, their young nursing under them in the field is the only sound I hear when I step out of the car to take a picture of the bucolic scene. It is Ireland in all its Irish, rural landscape glory.
We take the Conor Pass, a windy, narrow road across the Slieve Mish range. I write a note. “As she reached the summit of the Pass, the sea and the small town of Dingle appeared below. In the valley to Brigid’s left, the Green Road, where people had traveled centuries before on horseback across the Pass, was still visible.”
The views are otherworldly along the Pass with steep rocky summits, a waterfall nearly falling onto the road from the Pedlar’s Lake high above, and deep flat valleys with small lakes. On the way to the cottage, we stop at Doonsheane Beach where I am reminded of Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Peninsula,” for, truly, water and ground are in their extremity here:
When you have nothing more to say, just drive
For a day all-round the peninsula.
The sky is tall as over a runway,
The land without marks, so you will not arrive
But pass through, though always skirting landfall.
At dusk, horizons drink down sea and hill,
The ploughed field swallows the whitewashed gable
And you’re in the dark again. Now recall
The glazed foreshore and silhouetted log,
That rock where breakers shredded into rags,
The leggy birds stilted on their own legs,
Islands riding themselves out into the fog,
And drive back home, still with nothing to say
Except that now you will uncode all landscapes
By this: things founded clean on their own shapes,
Water and ground in their extremity.
-Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)
When we arrive at the cottage, the caretaker is there with the key and a stack of towels. He reminds me about the electric, as the owner had before I left. I do wear a wool hat and three layers when I land in bed the first night but, despite the cold, I am grateful to be on the Dingle Peninsula just as Brigid was before me.
Day Two: Writer’s Notebook: ‘Journey to Gobnait’s Holy Well’
Marie Hulme is a local writer who resides in Weston and teaches at Sacred Heart University. She earned her B.A. in English from Smith College, an M.A. in British and American Literature from NYU, an M.A. in Teaching from SHU and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Fairfield University. Prof. Hulme has received national awards for her creative writing in fiction and non-fiction, and previous to her life as an academic, she worked as a journalist for ABC News in London.