Beachcomber extraordinaire


CENTRAL to the classic reportage of J.M. Synge's The Aran Islands (1907) is the author's awareness that he is an outsider and can never become an islander and that the islanders themselves know this and have also noted that he is equally conscious of it. The same respectful sense of self distance applies to writer, artist and naturalist Michael Viney who decided 20 years ago to abandon city living and settle on an acre in Thallabawn, south Mayo, on a hillside above the Atlantic, near Killary.

It is a murky day, with heavy constant rain given to sporadic glutting, the kind of rain which slides into your boots and moves deftly down your neck, into your coat. Croagh Patrick is shrouded in cloud. There are no long views today the countryside appears almost bled of colour. The grey sea looks angry. The Viney house, with its two roofs and barrier of trees in a place of few trees, is easy to find. Part of a sperm whale's backbone stands in the front garden, petrified by time and the elements.

Several other natural and salvaged treasures are on display: driftwood, stones, exotic, green glass buoys as well as the common, orange plastic ones. Long, narrow, curiously elegant, a dramatic form stands by the front door; it could be an elongated stone anchor or a Barbara Hepworth sculpture. It is, in fact, the skull of another whale.

Whales have featured in Viney's Mayo since the early days. During his first winter, he found his first whale. As he writes in A Year's Turning, a personalised, atmospheric memoir of sorts published next week. I described it in print as a killer whale. I was chancing my arm, inexcusably gauche. And I might have got away with it but for the presence in University College Galway of the zoologist James Fairley, whose Irish - Whales and Whaling was the book I should have had on my shelf. He drove out through the mountains, stood in disgust before the very ordinary corpse of a pilot whale and went home to pen an acerbic letter to the editor of The Irish Times. I sulked about this for a good while; no geilean would sneak in on a fellow like that. It is a typical Viney anecdote. He enjoys telling stories in which he features as the hapless fall guy.

Inside the house is further evidence of the shared Viney sharp eye for salvaging beautiful, as well as odd, objects. An impressive collection of sea urchins, stones, fossils and shells share windowsills, pelmet boards and most flat surfaces. I found myself staring enviously at a large, magnificent sea urchin possessing a distinctive, pinky orange glow either born entirely of itself or perhaps enhanced by the light coming in through the window. According to Viney this trophy is an example of the largest of Irish sea urchins "and the biggest specimen of Echinu acritus we are ever likely to find".

Residing in cotton wool in a small Perspex box is a pair of translucent seashells. In size and shape no different from the common garden snail, these delicate shells are, however, deep violet blue in colour. The Vineys each found one within a half hour or so on the same expanse of sand. A small basket holds a collection of what looks like flat, polished wooden heart shapes. Dark brown, beautiful, warm and smooth to the touch, they are in fact tropical beans, or entadagigas, which have floated across the seas from the West Indies to be washed up on a beach in Co Mayo and found by the Vineys.

Marvellous things are displayed throughout the small, comfortable, book filled house with its twin offices. This is the home of a pair of beachcombers, extraordinaire.

Several careers led Viney to Co Mayo and the life which has resulted in A Year's Turning, in which observation and Viney's practicality help keep his inate romanticism at bay. It is a physically beautiful, old fashioned volume, sensitively enhanced by Viney's graceful line drawings. There is neither rhetoric nor polemic. As he admits. "I've not had a very eventful life, so it couldn't be a conventional memoir", while as a naturalist, he is interested rather than raptly obsessed". Viney, though a natural worrier, is a calm, remote, emphatic character clearly capable of relaxing and still very English. At 63, he is a fine looking, big man who would probably look at home in any setting.

Apprenticed at 16 to journalism instead of art, he began working on the Brighton & Hove Herald, a local newspaper which eventually brought him to Fleet Street via theatre reviewing, court and crime reporting and feature writing. Then on to Ireland, which he made home after spending a year's sabbatical in Tully in Connemara.

"I had previously come over from London to stay with a friend who had a cottage. I liked that first visit so much I came back for a year and then moved over." He joined the Irish Times in 1962, as a feature writer, and quickly enjoyed substantial editorial freedom which resulted in several pioneering five or six part series on highly controversial subjects such as old age, mental illness, alcoholism, unmarried mothers the Irish language, "Last Chance for the Language?", and one bearing an ominous title, "The Five Per Cent", which examined the dwindling of Protestants in the Republic.

His "Drugs in Ireland" series was writ "ten in the mid 1960s, a time when man still believed there was no such problem. This was a period predating the emergence; of sociology in the universities. Viney approached these subjects as an investigator not a campaigner.

"They were exercises in curiosity and analysis. I did not wear my heart on my sleeve," he says. It was factual material, possibly introducing investigative journalism in, Ireland, and was later published by, The Irish Times in booklet form. Following, his articles on mental illness which also included some research in the US, Viney was appointed by the then Minister for Health the late Donagh O Malley, to the Government Commission of Inquiry into Mental Illness.

SHORTLY after moving to RTE, where he worked as a presenter before training, as a television director, he and his wife, Ethna, decided they had spent enough time driving back and forth across Ireland at the weekends. Both were enjoying their work as television producer/directors yet agreed it was time to move west and stay. They did, bringing the bee hives across Ireland limited to 30 miles an hour and pursued by some disgruntled bees. Transforming the Viney holiday home into a permanent one, he and Ethna and their then small daughter, Michele embarked on a life of near self sufficiency which he initially chronicled in Another Life, his Irish Times column.

Over the years the column has progressed from personal, record to a wider, closely observed chronicle of the movement of the seasons and the life cycles of plants and animals together with farming and planting rituals. Experience ensured that the column would develop its own voice as he acquired increasing confidence in the countryside, establishing his own lifestyle and so became more open to less personal concerns. As any newcomer soon learns, being an outsider also often becomes equated with being an intrusive spy. I was soon warned `You're not going to make a Tailor and Ansty out of us', when I first came here."

As he reports in his book: "In the early days, when everything was new, I used to relate in my column how Fergus did this or, Martin said that, all to give a colour to vents and all, I hoped, tactfully done (usually to make a point against myself). But the same Ferguses and Martins (names which do not, to my knowledge belong to this own land) soon began to make their unhappiness clear. It was not, perhaps, what I actually wrote that worried them, but the jokes that could be spun at their expense from a casual phrase or adjective of mine. This became a pub sport, with its own little lurches into cruelty, and my careful vaguenesses about identity seemed no defence against it: they all knew at once who I meant".

Describing himself as a loner, he says: "I'm not gregarious, I like being on my own." Ethna endorses this and says: "I'd be happy to be a hermit." Both are content to be working on their own, together and have also collaborated on several documentaries. Their new, six part series, Loclann na mBanta (The Pharmacy of the Fields), begins next month on Telefis na Gaeilge. He seems to be comfortably vague, enjoying the fact that Ethna the organiser takes charge of the family accounts.

"She makes the arrangements and writes the cheques. This has gone down rather oddly in the small farm culture around us, where my luxurious freedom from business dealings and book keeping, must seem deeply suspect. It is years indeed since anyone with something to sell has knocked on the door and tried to insist on talking to `Himself'." Ethna is quick, clever, resourceful and clearly the sort of individual who could fix the gas flue and hazard a pretty good guess as to what has gone wrong with a car. Born into a Cavan family, which later moved to Westport, she also knew Co Mayo well as a girl and ran a chemist shop in Killala before moving to Dublin to study politics and economic at UCD.

Of Ethna Michael Viney states simply. "She's an intellectual". Her ambitious new book, Dancing to Different Tunes - Sexuality and its Misconceptions, should generate some debate.

In 1991, the Vineys worked on Folding Landscapes, a programme about the writer, thinker and map maker Tim Robinson, whose remarkable quest has rediscovered and restored many place names on Aran, the Burren and Connemara. Viney is, characteristically matter of fact on the subject of Robinson whom he admires: "He's a genius". The film is a brave piece of effectively unobtrusive work. There is no narrative, no voice over. Robinson's singular, obsessive imagination, mathematical and lyrical, is given full freedom to articulate his ideas.

Viney has also directed wildlife films of two Irish expeditions to Greenland and approached the story of the Ceide Fields which were excavated in the 1970s by archaeologist Seamus Caulfield. He was determined to pay tribute to Caulfield's father, Patrick, the local schoolmaster who had discovered during the 1930s the existence of the Stone Age farming settlement concealed beneath the north Mayo bog, near Ballycastle. "A landscape fossilized,/ Its tone wall patternings/ Repeated before our eyes/ In the stone walls of Mayo," wrote Seamus Heaney in "Belderg" (from North, 1975).

The film also proves an exciting chapter of social history: "It is a wonderful story, here we have the schoolmaster, traditionally the man of learning in a small community," says Viney. The same sense of history steered his perceptive essay "The Irish Peatlands" (1988) commissioned by the Irish Peatland Conservation Council. In it he argued: "The idea of wild, landscape of any kind being valuable for itself, or especially beautiful, or an inspiration to poets and writers and artists, is a comparatively modern one... Three or four hundred years ago, for example, the ideal landscape in the eyes of educated people was a tamed, cleared and cultivated countryside. Bog and mountain and wild woodland were thought barbarous and horrible to look at. Man was the master of everything in creation and nature and wildlife existed only for his benefit.

Unlike England, Ireland had, no industrial revolution to initiate a reaction against the city. Prior to the early years of this century and its accompanying growth of nationalist sentiment, Viney stresses that the inspirational value of Ireland's bogland had yet to be discovered. "To most Irish people", he argues, "the bog was synonymous with hardship and the poorest way of life." In his new book he describes the destruction caused by over glazing and mining on the bog as having left "black bruises".

His own childhood in Brighton where he was born in 1933 was marked by the war. But it wasn't frightening. War is an exciting business for a young boy. Viney witnessed many things while sitting on the shoulders of his elder brother, his senior by nine years. Although a shy, reserved man, Michael Viney reveals much candour in a memoir which continually edges away from his own life. Through his involvement with Brighton's theatre world, he felt himself beginning a process of self improvement which included censuring his eccentric Hampshire widower father. "For a while I was an awful snob," he admits. But when he tried to get a job on a posh national Sunday newspaper, he was quickly made aware of his lack of Oxbridge pedigree. "My lack of education in general."

THROUGHOUT his life he has experienced a tension between art and writing. The Brighton boy had inherited a feeling for the countryside from his Oxfordshire mother and as a youth had enjoyed long, cycling trips around England. A Year's Turning is a delight, but it is realistic not romantic and certainly less complacent than - might be expected of a person who has obviously found his paradise. Late in it, he asks: "But then what is landscape, except one of, nature's accidents? A mere accretion of geological thrusts and faults, a vegetation conditioned by man and climate - a trick of the light." Experiencing the raw debris of the Greenland landscape forced this rethink: "I have had to beat down a scepticism of what we admire as scenery" and he quotes Simon Schama's insistence on the role of memory and culture in shaping our view of beauty. Landscape says Schama, "is the work of the mind." It is probably the absence of dogma which makes Viney's quiet observations so persuasive.

You asked me if I felt more like a countryman now?" he saying his precise even way, referring to an earlier comment. Viney often returns to a question, having mulled it over. Initially he had, said, not really", explaining that one's inevitable cultural baggage tends to determine our own view of ourselves.

"While I think that it is true, I don't have that sense of continuity. But I have opened up increasingly to the landscape and the weather. I love the fact that birds come back on cue and the plants come into flower at a set time. I think I can celebrate the seasons without sentimentalising them." Surely he has arrived at a realism which enables him to observe, record and appreciate without romanticising his environment. Viney the outsider in his careful, deliberate, respectful way now belongs to the west, a world he decided he liked a long time ago and one which has finally, largely claimed him.