Monday, September 06, 2010

Honey from the hill


Peig Sayers' An Old Woman's Reflections is one of the classics in the Irish language. Peig married into the Blasket Island, a few miles off the western tip of the Dingle Peninsula in 1892, and lived within that tiny Irish-speaking community for 50 years. On the penultimate page of her book (translated by Seamus Ennis) she recalls happy times gathering turf on the high backbone of the island:
It was like honey for my poor tormented heart to rise up on the shoulder of the mountain footing the turf or gathering the sods on each other. Very often I'd throw myself back in the green heather, resting. It wasn't for bone-laziness I'd do it, but for the beauty of the hills and the rumble of the waves that would be grieving down from me, in dark caves where the seals of the sea lived -- those and the blue sky without a cloud travelling it, over me -- it was those made me do it, because those were the pictures most pleasant to my heart….
It was no easy life in that hard place, gathering sods for the smoky hearth where the woman of the house must cook the potatoes and warm the tea. In winter the island might be isolated from the mainland for weeks at a time.

Today, fast boats ferry tourists back and forth across the strait, and a museum/interpretive center on the mainland celebrates the remarkable contributions the islanders made to Irish literature. A few mainland farmers still cut turf, although they have tractors to get themselves to the bog and back with the sods. Every now and then we get some local turf to burn in our fireplace; it doesn't give much heat, but I'm told it smells deliciously sweet.

Peig is right about this: After a sweat it is particularly sweet to lie back in the heather and savor the beauty of the landscape. For me, that mostly means a hard climb up Mount Brandon or into one of the trackless corries on its flanks. What Peig and her fellow islanders did to stay alive, I and my walking companions do for the bone-aching challenge alone -- and for the pleasure that comes when we at last collapse on a sunlit summit or beside a rushing mountain stream and savor in our weariness "what is most pleasant to my heart." The harder the access, the sweeter the repose.