The West's Awake by Cormac MacConnell
The light in the sky and merriment in the streets - the lovely signs of summer in Ireland
Posted on Friday, June 01, 2012 at 09:17 AM
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|Illustration by Caty Bartholomew|
At the height of the merriment in one of the bars clustered around the end of the Pier, I took a break for myself and walked up the hill. Behind me a good ballad singer was making a fine effort at the classic "Shores of Amerikay" made popular again a couple of decades ago by Sarah and Rita Keane.
"To the mountains grand of my own native land/I'm bidding a last farewell,” they sang.
The Galway mainland lights are gently golden on a calm May night and the sea is as calm as a mountain lough. I'm a little merry, not drunk by any means, and as happy as Larry.
And exactly at the right moment from the glen below the old castle once occupied by a Cromwellian garrison, a corncrake begins to throw his harsh voice over the island.
Those of you who were lucky enough to be born in the Ireland of 40 years ago will easily recall the "crek-crek" call of the corncrake. It was a staccato sound of the real early summer, often a nuisance for a child trying to fall asleep while there was still daylight outside the curtains.
There were countless corncrakes in the meadows of yesterday. They were the sound of childhood.
A change in farming practice which saw silage replace the traditional haymaking saw the big machines begin to enter the meadows much earlier than before, during the nesting season. The corncrake population was virtually wiped out except in a few designated sanctuaries on the mainland and on the western islands. Today there are many Irish people who have never ever heard one.
When I hear this fellow I stop in my tracks. The sound spans many memories.
This lad is probably a direct descendant of the corncrake I heard on my last visit to lovely and lively Innishboffin Island off the Galway coast four years ago. The birds are ventriloquists, and this one is throwing his voice all over the glen.
It's a protective measure for the species if you get too close to the nest, and it works well even if it did not protect them from the silage machines.
Suddenly, all alone there amidst such beauty and calm, I'm 10 years old again and my whole life before me.
It's a surreal but beautiful feeling.
I close my eyes and smile a smile that nobody sees or feels but me. And my corncrake sings away.
Below in the pub my sons and daughter are gathered. In a plan which I recommend to all parents of adult children, we had earlier said farewell for the weekend to all wives and partners, and the core MacConnell clan had headed for Cleggan and the ferry to Innishboffin. The ways of the world determine this cannot happen often.
It was perfect timing too because third son Dara, when he joined us for the trip, announced that himself and his lovely wife Aine from Donegal are about to become parents for the first time before the end of the year.
We are celebrating this and the fact that only daughter Ciara is with us on this trip. The circle is complete.
After all these years of hackery I still am not certain if one should insert family stuff into a piece at all. But I feel it is okay.
We are very close because I raised them after their mother Ann died before her time, we survived some hard times and good times, and I love them dearly naturally. They are good people and good friends.
Anyway, is not most of life and living meshed in with family matters one way or another for all of us? I'm going to be a grandfather again and I'm as happy as Larry (who the hell was Larry anyway?) and we are on the magic island of Innishboffin. And a corncrake is calling.
Leaving family matters aside, and corncrakes too, it is extremely rewarding for we Irish still based in the homeland to keep in closer touch with the genuine Hidden Ireland that modern lifestyles tend to push into the background.
It is still there, rich, vibrant, infinitely resilient. Remarkably so.
The recession seems pleasantly distant and matterless on the shoreline of Innishboffin. The hotels are full, the bar tills are ringing, the music never stops all night. There is craic everywhere. Mainstream Ireland and the Hidden Ireland wonderfully mesh.
Our route to the Cleggan ferry brought us through Clifden, for example, and if there was a huge cut-price
German supermarket there it is also true that the approach to the town was congested heavily by the horseboxes and jeeps gathered for a big sale of the fabled Connemara ponies.
Back at Maam Cross down the road there was a big farmers market on the roadside with hens and ducks and bonhams (young pigs) for sale amid the stalls of flowers and vegetables.
There is a national political debate going on, for further example, about EC regulations being introduced to protect Ireland's raised bogs. It's an environmental measure dictated by our European masters.
Many turf cutters, it seems, will be compensated for ceasing the ancient practice of cutting turf for winter fuel. That is the official picture, but the reality along the huge reaches of Connemara bogland along our route is that the family turf cutting is proceeding as normal this year.
Most of the bog banks are being cut by hand with the old long sleans (turf spades). The marks of the father's labor for his family are written clearly in the clean strokes on the new bog banks, much of the new turf is already saved and stacked in plastic bags for the eventual journey to the home hearth. Life goes on.
Tradition is a hardy plant. Roadside signage announces that curragh racing will take place in Spiddal in a few days. It was always part of the summer ritual.
Back to Innishboffin, and an Italian visitor with far better English than mine tells me that he has relatives in an earthquake zone back home, but they survived the earthquake of the previous day.
He also says he has traveled all over Europe and much of the world, and nothing comes scenically close to the beauties of Connemara or the quality of the Cead Mile Failte on Innishboffin. I'm happy to agree of course!
On the TV Leinster's rugby players comfortably defeat Ulster in a major European rugby final which is all-Irish, and I'm delighted that boxer Katie Taylor, our best bet for an Olympic gold medal, wins her fourth successive world title and is also awarded a second gold medal for being the best boxer of the entire tournament. She's a magnificent sporting ambassador, a real golden girl, a national treasure.
And my family is all delighted when Galway's footballers easily hammer neighbors Roscommon in the opening round of the All-Ireland championship. Another sign of summer.
Ciara brings me home to Clare at the end of the weekend and keeps going down the road home to Cork as the family circle dissolves again. Life goes on again far from Innishboffin.
A little while ago I took a writing break for a coffee and cigarette out in the cottage garden, and dammit if I did not clearly hear my first cuckoo of the season. I enjoyed that a lot.