Sunday, July 26, 2009

Description is revelation, attention is prayer

Stand at the mountain pass between Dunquin and Ventry on the Dingle Peninsula in the west of Ireland and you can see essentially what young Maurice O'Sullivan saw nearly a century ago when he came to the mainland from the Blasket Island, and described in the Irish folk classic Twenty Years A-Growing:
We had a brilliant view before our eyes, southwards over the parish of Ventry and the parish of Maurhan and north to the parish of Kill, green fields covered in flowers on either side of us, a lonely house here and there away at the foot of the mountain, Ventry harbour to the southeast, lying still, three or four sailing-boats at anchor, and a curragh or two creeping like beetles across the water, the mountains beyond nodding their heads one above the other.
It is extraordinary that this view -- including the curraghs, traditional fishing boats -- has survived pretty much unchanged. And there it is, outside my window, the beetle boats, the nodding peaks.

There is a line in a poem of Seamus Heaney that quotes the writer Michael McLaverty: "Description is revelation." Young Maurice O'Sullivan stood in the mountain pass and described what he saw; he had all the revelation he needed. No voice from a burning bush or sacred scripture could have offered him more to sustain a life than that view from the mountain pass of the broad green expanse of Ireland.

Twenty Years A-Growing has remained in print all these years as an Oxford Classic not because O'Sullivan was a great literary man in the tradition of a James Joyce or Seamus Heaney, but because of the purity of his description. The 19th-century critic John Ruskin said: "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way."

(Click to enlarge Anne's pic.)