An imagination nourished by the landscape of the west
The primal land of Carrigskeewaun, brooded over by Mweelrea Mountain, is where Michael Longley goes for inspiration, writes MICHAEL VINEY
Here my imagination
Tangles through a turfstack
Like skeins of sheep’s wool:
Is a bull’s horn silting
With powdery seashells.
MAYO’S TURFSTACKS are fewer today – though due for a revival, given the times – and a scatter of hillside bungalows has dispossessed some of the sheep. But the west coast landscape that has stirred Michael Longley’s imagination for almost 40 years and nourished at least one third of his poems is still remarkably intact.
The townland of Carrigskeewaun is a raven’s shout across the hillside from me, a primal-seeming no-man’s-land of rock and sand-dune, sandy machair, sandy lakes, cliffs dark with ivy, a wild topography brooded over by Mweelrea Mountain and hemmed around by sea. Now almost “empty” in the human sense, with bothy ruins and lazy-beds as ghosts among its contours, it is the refuge of otters, badgers and stoats, the whooper swans of winter, the waders whirling along the shore.
Perched between two lakes is the cottage of Longley family holidays and the poet’s solitary writing sojourns out of season, when “all the washing on the line adds up to me alone” – these courtesy of ornithologist David Cabot through family friendships dating from Trinity days. “Seamus Heaney has his Bellaghy,” Longley says, “Montague has his Gervaghy, Muldoon the Moy. Coming from suburban Belfast, I’ve had to borrow Carrigskeewaun.”
From 1970 onwards, his July arrival with wife and children chimed with the regular middle-class exodus from Belfast to the west coast a few days before the Twelfth. He has seemed unduly defensive about this, as if accused of some treasonable escape from Belfast’s poisonous summer tensions. “In my Mayo poems,” he wrote, in The Lake Without A Name, his book with wood engraver
Jeffrey Morgan, “I am not writing about a cosy community. Nor do I dwell among the calls of waterbirds and the psychedelic blaze of summer flowers to escape from from Ulster’s political violence. I want the light from Carrigskeewaun to irradiate the northern confusion.”
Without the rural birthright of Heaney or Muldoon, Longley tuned into the life of west Mayo through slow friendships, the locals warming to his Hemingway beam and respectful inquisitions. The darker speculations of his early work, Mayo Monologues, were not repeated.
Between Hovers mourns the loss of a neighbour, Joe O’Toole, “who was psychic about carburettor and clutch and knew a folk-cure for the starter engine”. Joe could also tell about the 13 O’Tooles “each of them a singer or fiddler” who made music in David Cabot’s cottage when they moved ashore from Inishdeigil a century ago.
An attentive resonance of place and past, with all the names spelled right and relished for their euphony, embraces work that generations of Irish Leaving Cert students will think of as “nature poetry” – also, one hopes, retaining some sense of deeper connections. Longley was himself a teacher for several years, but what sings through his lines is his own urge to look and learn. Coming to this great arena, with its far and lofty horizons, he ended up “on hands and knees, almost at prayer, looking at the faces of flowers and taking it all in”.
A 40-year friendship with the late Raymond Piper, a superb painter of orchids and himself an obsessive student of nature, led to botanising expeditions in his company and a flow of revelation that, for Longley, “changed the way I look at the world . . . he taught me patience and reverence and how to read the lie of the land and the weather’s drift”.
It was Michael, in turn, who found me my first Autumn Lady’s Tresses, their tiny ivory spirals a mere stone’s throw from the wall around Cabot’s cottage. Aside from family pleasures, back and forth, with memorable starlit wading of the tidal river at the duach, our sharing of the landscape has generally been separately pursued, his boot-prints often hours ahead of mine along a virgin tideline. We did walk the mountain together, when, at a stream through the bog, Michael found the point between two chuckles of water at which its music balanced in the ear, then invited me into it – a magical space that only a child might know.
As successive books of his poems appear, I am like any local, looking to see what he has said about us this time – “us” being the landscape and wildlife that have nourished both our writings.
Scattered through his poems come pleasing leaps of recognition, as his way of seeing something suddenly offers the perfect recollection: the otter “tying and untying knots in the undertow”; the shell fragments like “the toe- and fingernail parings of the sea”. Even in a Special Area of Conservation, nature herself has erased iconic landmarks of Carrigskeewaun: the ancient timber wreck, Longley’s “ship of death, wood hard as stone that keeps/ Coming ashore with its cargo of sand and sandy water”; the burial mound of sand and rocks excavated by the spring tide “seeping after sun and moon to pour cupfuls into the larks’ nests”.
There was a river ford we both loved, with the dipper’s waterfall and the sandmartins’ nests, now culverted in concrete pipes on the way to the new county council car park.
In the final verses of The Lake Without A Name, Longley welcomed his baby grandson, Ben, to his first night in Carrigskeewaun (“ The Owennadornaun is so full of rain/ You arrived in Paddy Morrison’s tractor . . .”). His grandfather’s poems give a second chance to so much: the gift of a safe place for the past.