An English woman’s love affair with Kerry
Rainsongs is an outsider’s love letter to a place that allows for a slowing of body and spirit
Cill Rialaig is about as far west as you can go in Europe without falling off the edge
I lost my heart from the moment I first saw it. Cill Rialaig is about as far west as you can go in Europe without falling off the edge. A magical place set in a wild landscape full of ghosts and memories, it’s a pre-famine village that clings to a steep slope, 300ft above the sea in Kerry, on the west coast of Ireland.
In winter the sea boils and rages against the cliffs as storms sweep in from the Atlantic. Hugging the hillside, it looks southwest towards the Béara Peninsula and the tiny uninhabited islands of Scariff and Deenish, and eastward beyond Waterville to MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. At the right time of year, you might see seals or, if you are lucky, a leatherback turtle. Abandoned by the inhabitants, the collapsed cottages – a few refurbished, now, to create an artists’ retreat – stare out to sea like a collection of grieving widows. The one-time fields and tillage-plots that lie on either side of the road are half hidden by rocks and boulders. Criss-crossed by drystone walls, they are full of spongy tussocks of boggy grass, gorse and bracken. Grazing sheep, marked with the Day-Glo blue and pink dyes of their owners, shimmy up the hill, wiggling their backsides like muddy go-go dancers.
As the mist comes in, settling over the headland like a white duvet, and the rain beats against the windows in the winter gales, it’s not difficult to imagine how hard life must have been up here. Unlike other parts of Europe, the plough was unknown, and the cultivation of the staple, potatoes, was dependent on the spade. Those living here must have been permanently damp, their skin kippered from turf smoke, their lungs full of bronchitis. Young women became prematurely old, worn down by incessant childbirth and hard work.
It is here that, ringed by sacred sites and standing stones, the pre-Augustinian monks, who became the central pulse to my new novel, Rainsongs, built their beehive huts and prepared for the more demanding retreat on Skellig Michael. Some eight miles from the mainland, Skellig can only be reached for a few months in the summer by a lenient sea. No boatman worth his salt, however beautiful the day may seem, will waste time making the crossing when he knows landing is impossible in the heaving Atlantic swell. Both Skellig Michael and its jagged companion Small Skellig, a gannet sanctuary stained white with guano that can be smelt on the wind as you approach, rise from the sea like something out of a Wagnerian opera. But nothing prepares for the mystical atmosphere of Skellig Michael with its 670 hand-hewn steps leading up above the sea to the clutch of 6th-century monastic domes that, even now, seem only a hair’s breadth away from heaven.
I’ve been going to this part of Kerry for some 10 years now and published a series of poems with the Irish artist Donald Teskey written there, The Idea of Islands, (Occasional Press). But as my acquaintance with the place grew, and I kept going back, the stories and rhythms of the locality and its people bore deeper into my imagination. As an English writer it was with respect and trepidation that I began Rainsongs. Mindful of the great tradition of Irish novelists from Joyce to Tóibín, I didn’t want to write a faux “Oirish” novel, to appropriate what was not mine to own. Instead Rainsongs is the love-letter of an outsider to a part of the world which, in this postmodern world, is still connected to its history and roots, a place that allows for a slowing of the body and spirit to consider what is perennial and important.
This unmitigated landscape forms the central motif of Rainsongs, much in the way that the Yorkshire moors do for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. It becomes a metaphor for loss, for longing and desire, for a sense of deep connection that is universal. But it’s also a place that is fragile, like much else that is truly authentic. And it is this battle between modernity and rootedness that is played out in the book, between the English widow Martha, Eugene a property developer, Paddy a hill farmer and the young poet-musician Colm. For each of them the place has a different resonance.
If ever you should happen to pass this way, walk out along the empty headland to the end of the track until you reach a low, whitewashed cottage with a corrugated roof that sits in isolation on the edge of the cliff with an uninterrupted view of the whole bay. The path of its immaculate, windblown garden is lined with pebbles from the beach, and the peat stack built with the precision of a Zen sculpture. This is the cottage of one of Kerry’s last farming bachelors, my inspiration for Paddy O’Connell, who represents a state of being that’s all but lost in the ubiquitous hurly-burly of contemporary life. Once, passing him while out walking, I stopped to say that he must live in the most beautiful spot in the whole world. He simply smiled and nodded, then went slowly about his business. Hill-farmers like him are a dying breed. Rainsongs is a paean to a slowly vanishing way of life.
Rainsongs by Sue Hubbard is published by Gerald Duckworth, at £11.99