Achill, from Böll to Dawe and Reaney
Hugo Hamilton on Crossing the Sound by poet Gerald Dawe and artist Padraic Reaney
One of Padraic Reaney’s illustrations
Writing about his arrival in the west of Ireland, the German writer Heinrich Böll remarked on how the distance in the landscape can sometimes hurt your eyes. There was something about the place he discovered on the outer rim of Europe which confronted his war-wounded vision. It had the power to change him, it was full of exaggeration and silence, colours that seemed implausible, the emptiness of abandoned homes, people who spoke to him like he was back among them after a long time away. He was a traveller coming across a part of the world where they defied the cruel beauty of the earth with the trick of life, with children, with stories, with blind optimism in their talk, they took him in, they made him part of the family.
Crossing the Sound brings together the artist Pádraic Reaney and the poet Gerald Dawe, travelling in a landscape which is both deserted and full of encounters with people and places where “jokes and drink and smoke conspire together”. There is deep longing in the images and the words. The ghost architecture of homes left empty is matched by the lives of those who stayed behind. The hollow windows, the ribs of the roof showing, the ruins of emigration accompanied by the news of what happens “here and abroad”, by the coming and going in towns, by the sheepdog barking at a car.
The gift of this volume is that artistic companionship between painter and writer. Reaney has grown up in a landscape from which not only the people disappeared but the houses in which they once lived are swiftly fading out of sight. He is the visual keeper of this crumbling memory. He keeps alive those forgotten homes like the language that was once spoken inside. He paints the emptiness with an extraordinary force that was there in the people he grew up with, in each house, in the stories and songs they left after them. His work is both a lament and a roar at forgetting.
It is into these silent places in the west of Ireland that the Belfast poet Gerald Dawe comes to find the great surge of life in the landscape and the people. In powerfully drawn moments, he is brought home by the houses that have “fallen into the past” as much as he is by the vivid layers of human stories that unfold around him. He finds belonging in the cliffs and the sea and the salmon weir, in locations where parts of tractors and cars lie about, in the small talk, what he calls the “smattering of words”, the longevity of a Volkswagen, the contents of a pike’s stomach caught by a boy out fishing the lake. He comes across a house which is moored like a boat, where “… chairs, teapots, family pictures will float up to the trees”. The observations are full of memory and things that cannot be fixed down, where the poet finds himself saying “…I still can’t tell for certain the direction I am facing”.
The title of this collection – Crossing the Sound – is taken from a poem which describes the journey made by Heinrich Böll some decades before him, the “man in a beret”, the man “laughing with a furrowed brow”, making his way across the bridge to Achill island. A spider’s web has formed in the window of the cottage in Dugort that became his “home from home”. Inside this sanctuary on the edge of Europe, Dawe finds the words left behind by the German writer long after he has gone, “… we are very happy here.” This is a book that echoes with celebration of what is gone and what has remained intact.
by Gerald Dawe
Alongside the foreshore
I take from the sea
muskets, boxes of butter,
timber for house-building,
a lopsided mine and shark’s fin;
vestments, and the last
landlord’s swollen ledgers.
Crossing the Sound is a collaboration between poet Gerald Dawe and the artist Padraic Reaney. They met back in the mid-1970s in Galway where Gerald had moved from Belfast to study at UCG, as it then was, and eventually settle down before moving to Dublin in 1992. “On a return to Galway the early years returned to me along with some new poems and during several conversations with Padraic we decided to collect a representative sample of the poems I had written out of the west – Galway, but also Mayo – and include alongside the poems a series of images which Padraic had been working on from his various and long-established fascination with the smaller islands of the western seaboard, including Inishark. Padraic’s images, some of which were on display during the Heinrich Böll weekend in Achill Island, will feature in an exhibition of his paintings and graphics scheduled for Kenny Art Gallery, Galway this autumn. The highly regarded novelist Hugo Hamilton has contributed a preface to Crossing the Sound. Gerald Dawe is a distinguished poet with over 20 books published since 1978. He was professor of English and Fellow of Trinity College Dublin until his retirement in 2017. Padraic Reaney is one of Ireland’s most distinctive visual artists. His paintings are in numerous individual and institutional collections and art galleries throughout Ireland, Europe and the US. He lives in his native Co Galway. All profits from the sales of Crossing the Sound will be donated to Mayo-based cancer charity, Pink Ribbon. Copies are only available by contacting email@example.com
Gerald Dawe and Padraic Reaney will launch Crossing the Sound in the Creel Café in Westport today, Wednesday, June 13th, at 8pm