Editor’s note: This is the second article in a five-part series entitled “Writer’s Notebook: Ireland.”
Dingle to Dunquin via Ventry
“Journey to Gobnait’s Holy Well”
I drive along the Slea Head Road heading onward to Saint Gobnait’s Holy Well in Dunquin – “Dún Chaoin” in the Irish language – the setting of the last scene of the novel. Just beyond Dingle there are a number of ancient Celtic stone formations, beehive huts, and “fairy forts” in the fields on the side of the road which is lined with fuchsia hedges that will bloom into a flaming purplish red in June. Now, the dormant hedges are only dotted with daffodils at the bottom. Down a turning off the left side of the road, there are a number of ancient Ogham Stones, dating back to the 4th., which are irregular, rectangular-shaped stones of varying heights with short diagonal markings – the earliest form of writing in Ireland. I imagine Brigid would have been interested the ancient Celtic presence so pervasive on this peninsula. She was raised in a family that embraced those traditions as a way to reaffirm their identity as Catholics in the religiously divided, predominantly British culture of Belfast. In an early scene of the novel, Brigid’s father is celebrating that his daughters are learning the Irish language. I am moved by them too, as my family has Irish roots. The first time I visited this area, in 2015, I felt an immediate sense of belonging and a strange feeling of familiarity, as if arriving home. I’ve heard that others have experienced that here too.
Ventry – or “Ceann Trá” – is the first small village on the Slea Head Road, which traverses around the Dingle peninsula or “Corca Dhuibhne.” Just past the old stone Church of St. Cáitlín, and across from a pub named for a famous Kerry soccer player Paidí Ó Se, there is a narrow road on the right that takes me on the mám clasach – Irish for a gap in the hill – up between Mount Eagle on the left and the pyramid-shaped Croagh Marhin on the right, as a short-cut to Dunquin. I climb up the steep, narrow road, pulling off to the side when a car approaches from the other direction to let it pass. The other driver almost always lifts a hand or nods in acknowledgement of the act, despite not recognizing me. It is a small gesture, but I notice it and appreciate the spirit of it. It’s that kind of place. It is a route that Brigid would have taken if she was driving back from town to her cottage. At this time of year, the hedges on either side of the narrow road are dry and brown and there is evidence everywhere of the recent burn on the hillsides. It is not surprising, given how dry everything is here at the moment, that the fires over the past week before I arrived traveled so quickly and widely. When Brigid would have been driving this road, it would have been dirt, not paved.
As I reach the top of the sloping road, just before it descends back down onto the other side of the peninsula, I stop. The sea and the Blasket Islands have come into view, and I write a note next to a photograph. “She pulled her car over at the foot of Croagh Marhin to take it in, again, as she never grew tired of the majestic view of the Sleeping Giant and the other Blaskets, of the fields heavy with sheep sloping down into the sea. There was nowhere in Ireland that Brigid could put Belfast behind her more completely than from that point she gazed down upon now – Dunquin. Only a few cottages dotted the landscape of individual fields which appeared like misshapen rectangles divvied up by the brown ditches. It was a sight she had come to love.”
Through the small hamlet of Dunquin, I drive past another famous pub, Kruger’s, and take a left turn towards the sea, up a small incline of a dirt road to where there is a farmer’s gate. To the left cows are grazing, their view over the Atlantic and the Blaskets an enviable one. Stopping first to open the gate, I pull forward into a small square patch. Like a good traveler, I return to the gate to secure myself and the livestock in. I’ve arrived at the last scene of the novel, St. Gobnait’s Holy Well.
St. Gobnait was an early Christian Saint and hermit who had her hermitage nearby, just up the hill from her Well. She is revered in Kerry, like Saint Brigid, as the Patron Saint of Springtime, of new growth. Both Brigid and Gobnait inherited a lot of the stories of the pre-Christian Celtic Goddess Brigit. I think Irish women are as much attracted to the Celtic goddesses – fierce and powerful – as they are to the latter-day Saints who bear their names. Perhaps, more so. When I first began my novel, the protagonists name was Maggie, after one of my great-Aunts in Belfast. Later, when I was introduced to the legend of the Celtic Goddess Brigid, I changed her name to reflect a woman who was known as both warrior and peacemaker. After the name change, the writing unfolded much more easily for me, as if my character had been waiting for me to recognize her so that she could reveal her story to me.
From the dirt parking area, I make my way down a ragged, rocky path covered in thick, straw-like grass that has been trampled and flattened by previous pilgrims to the Well. About half-way down to the sea, is a semi-circular rock outcropping hugging the side of the hillside surrounded by a worn path. At the center, is the small Well. At the back of the Well is a sculpted carving of Gobnait’s head by the famous Irish sculptor, Clíodhna Cussen, but I will have to check if it was there when Brigid would have visited it in the late 1970s.
I walk around the well nine times, a perfect number in many faith traditions, though some walk around three or even seven – all sacred numbers, signifying devotion in one manner or another. I ask Gobnait for words to come to me, words that honor her memory and the memory of Brigid. I have drunk from the Well on a previous visit, but today, instead, I run my finger three times along the indented mark of a cross embedded on a stone at the top of the Well and finalize my prayer.
Gobnait’s Well plays an important role in the novel, in addition to be the setting of the last scene. Brigid’s reclusive life in exile is in a small stone cottage nearby. She comes here often to paint and to walk around the Well. But today I am thinking about that very last scene and continue on to find the details of it in the landscape.
Further down the path, off to the right, are the skeletal stone remains of a schoolhouse built for the 1969 film “Ryan’s Daughter” which was shot on location all around Dunquin. Hollywood money brought changes to Dingle and that’s when tourism began to increase significantly. There was an authentic village set built on a farmer’s field nearby with an access road that is still there, although the buildings were taken down in the months after the filming ended. It seems a lost opportunity for a kind of artisan or craft area, but a local told me it would have divided the town if it was there to fight over. In that way, this community chose unity over potential profit.
In front of me, the sky and sea meld together in varying shades of blue and grey and the air is cold with a biting wind. I make my way to the windswept cliff, at the ocean’s edge, traveling in Brigid’s footsteps. It’s here she will set up her easel, as she will have done many times before in the ten years of her exile in Dunquin. She’ll begin to sketch in the contours of the Sleeping Giant or, as he is also called, the Dead Man – one of the Blasket Islands which is directly in view. She’ll begin to paint broad strokes that capture shadow and light – chiaroscuro – two apparently antagonistic elements, yet so completely reliant on each other. I write my notes. “Brigid wiped the brush and set it down on the palette of blue, white, and black that had melded into puddles of the varying colors of sea and sky. She retrieved a small cotton bag from her coat pocket where she had carried some bread and cheese from the cottage. She would have her lunch here today, instead of walking back. Setting off down along the rocks that jetted out beyond the grassy cliff head, Brigid walked carefully but confidently further downward until she reached a large flattish rock, the one she often sat on to gaze out onto the Sleeping Giant, the subject of her painting. It was only in this place, and when she painted, that her past was fully arrested, fully behind her. The fierce noise of the Atlantic stifled out any of the voices in her head and, as she looked out, she thought only of how she would finish the canvas that waited for her return.”
The monk tells me about the Sí Ghaoith wind that comes out of nowhere in these parts. They are also known as the fairy wind, and I think how I will use them in the novel. That is the benefit – and also the mystery of – immersive research, for I’m not sure I would have learned about that in any books to fill in the details of Brigid’s story. The ending has been written long ago, but the middle is still in progress. Brigid’s journey to this place, on this day, is part of the journey I am taking over these seven weeks in Ireland.
Day Three: Writer’s Notebook: ‘The Green Road’
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.