Page 6, 4th February 1983

4th February 1983
Page 6
Page 6, 4th February 1983 — Haunted by poetry

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Locations: Dublin, Oxford


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Haunted by poetry

Twenty Years A-Growing by Maurice O'Sullivan (Oxford Paperbacks, L2.50).

PUFFIN hunting: "I began digging it out, and it was easy enough, for 1 had only to thrust my hand back and lift up the, edge of a stone. There was a fine fat young puffin in it. I thrust my hand to draw it out, but, if so, I wished I had not, for it gave me a savage bite with its beak. When I caught it by the throat it dug its claws into me so that my hand was streaming with blood. At last 1 drew it out and killed it."

This was a typical scene of life on the Great Blasket Island, off the coast of Kerry, as reported by Maurice O'Sullivan who was born there in 1904 and spent his youth there till he was persuaded to join the new Irish Civic Guard in 1929. By then the island was being rapidly depopulated, to be left desolate like so many Scottish Highland crofts.

O'Sullivan was a contemporary of Tomas 0 Crohan, whose reminiscences of island life are also available in a translation from the Irish in Oxford paperbacks. It seems to us an astonishingly hard life, though during the great famine the population of the Blaskets actually grew, with refugees from the hungry inland fields. Yet O'Sullivan, remembering the same life as 0 Crohan, makes it sunnier and not quite so pinching.

O'Sullivan lived in a feltroofed one-roomed cottage, while 0 Crohan recalls how, when perished with hunger, they would crawl into the ragged thatch which dripped on to the earth floor, to find a stray egg from the chickens that had made their nests there.

If O'Sullivan bloodied his hands catching puffins, 0 Crohan once lost a chunkof his leg with the bite of a seal that he was clubbing to death with a stone on the shore. But the rejoicing over the meat from both kills was the same.

O'Sullivan's is a young man's book, first published at the end of his twenties in 1933. He was drowned in 1950, and his memoirs of island youth are haunted by the poetry and fears of death. This and the sea are the twO forces which most move him.

The melancholy and superstition surrounding death and the sea come from the Irish folklore that O'Sullivan soaked up in long talks with his grandfather in the sultry summer days, lying on the scrubby turf on top of the island. At the age of seven, O'Sullivan, having been schooled in Dingle, spoke no Irish. Soon after his return to the island of his birth, the people of ancient myth came to fill his mind and speech.

Days on the island were spent in arduous fishing trips for pollock, mackerel or lobsters in light curraghs on treacherous seas. In cutting turf and lugging it home for the fire on the back of an ass. In tending the tiny earthless fields for potatoes, made fertile with seaweed humped up from the shore.

It is no wonder that men took comfort in drinking sprees when they could. That, and tobacco pipes for men and women, were the main pleasures to accompany dances and wakes. O'Sullivan recounts his first experiments with tobacco and porter with the humour that pervades his book, but does not dwell on the drinking bouts that punctuated the lives of men like 0 Crohan.

It is not surprising that when the fishing brought no return and the modern world beckoned with tempting prosperity, the young people moved away, mostly to America. One of the most delightful passages in O'Sullivan's book is his selfmocking description of his first train journey to Dublin, when he marvels at the very railway footbridge as a great monument to man's ingenuity.

If O'Sullivan was less than happy with life away from the island, there was nothing he could have done about it. The good life he had known there was gone. The community has died out now, and the island bought up by Charles Haughey.

Christopher Howse

IT IS natural enough. I suppose, that different fields of broadcasting should steal, borrow and adapt each other's ideas, methods and gimmicks. But the results are not always beneficial. For instance, it has long been my opinion that radio news and current affairs programmes made a great mistake years ago when they followed television's lead by increasing use of the interview to expound and explain current affairs.

Initially, television was simply seeking a way to bring a trifle more animation to their product when use of the "talking face" they so much dreaded seemed unavoidable, although it was, of course, also urged that there was a commendable honesty in letting people speak for themselves. The politicians lost no time in cashing in on this useful piece of superficial thinking, and soon the screens were full, as they are to this day, of eyes gleaming with insincerity, as fit accompaniment to voices, deceptively smooth and comforting, or bogusly forthright, uttering half truths and dodging questions. It was, and still is, scandalously timewasting in an industry where every tick of the clock costs a great deal of money. It has also spread much disinformation and cant, and helped further to confuse that vast section of the electorate which never reads real newspapers.

However, I must not ride a hobby-horse. What I really want to write about this week is a programme which seems to me to have borrowed with great success the methods of the current affairs people. This is the BBC 2 occasional programme, Timewatch, described as "the history programme that brings the past up to date". Well, I can't say I know what this label means, or could mean, and possibly it is simply a bright thought from someone in the publicity department; but what the programme does do is to present interestingly, intelligibly and even relevantly — which might be the point of the label — little bits of history, some fairly recent, some very old.

Essentially, it uses techniques similar to those of Newsnight and Panorama: and it even has a Newsnight presenter, John Tusa, whose faint air of mildlyamused, polite scepticism has always seemed to me entirely appropriate amid the stumbling impertinences of much current affairs broadcasting. Michael

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