Michael Viney’s first article for The Irish Times appeared on Tuesday, May 29th, 1962, preceded by the italicised introduction below. We reproduce the piece here to accompany Fintan O’Toole’s conversation with Michael Viney about his 60 years — and counting — at The Irish Times. The photographs with this article are from a series that Tom Lawlor took in 1977, when Michael and his wife, Ethna, left Dublin for Co Mayo, where they have lived ever since, Michael writing Another Life and Ethna, for 33 years, writing Eye on Nature
From the Evening Standard, September 28th, 1961: “In a few days’ time, Michael Viney throws up a £1,500 a year job to go and live in a Connemara cottage on £6 a week. Mr Viney, 28, has been editing a background to the news page and a psychological series for a magazine. But London began to oppress him, so he saved until he could afford a sabbatical year. ‘I’m going to write and I’m going to see if I’m a painter,’ he says. ‘I’ll supplement my larder by fishing ... I can cook, anyway ... I’ll be a different person in a year’s time. I’m going to buy a radio that gets the Third Programme. I’ll burn peat.’ He looked happy.”
When first I escaped to Tully, I lighted the turf fires with income tax forms and let the clock stop in the night. I was still in the grip of metropolitan superstition, and nervous of pursuit. Now that eight months have passed, it seems that nothing terrible will happen after all. They will let you out of the rat race if you feign madness and say “no” to everything. They don‘t follow over mountains. Fleet street closed its ranks adroitly and agreed a safe phrase for my defection. I had left, so I learned, for “a sabbatical year,” whereas I had thought I was just getting the hell out of there.
The people of Connemara know a refugee when they see one; know his need to get his hands on something solid. They disguised me with gumboots and three days’ growth, and tucked me away in their sheepfold for the spiritually dispossessed
The people of Connemara found me wandering dazed among the falling fuchsia and led me off through rainbows to build a dry stone wall. They know a refugee when they see one; know his need to get his hands on something solid. They disguised me with gumboots and three days’ growth, and tucked me away in their sheepfold for the spiritually dispossessed. By degrees (of winter frost, of gale force) I became “the man in the cottage”. They called him “plain and innocent,” and I had to relearn the straight meaning of words to take it for a compliment.
Like any immigrant to a promised land, I came determined to love everything and everybody. And while I had no illusions about the “dignity” of rural poverty or the “innocence of remote communities” it took the dole-day boozers and the gossips watchful as hooded crows to shake me into a more sensible affection.
“Of course,” I had been warned, “you’re going to be terribly lonely” — as if London were one big happy family and not a mammoth conurbation of reluctant strangers. What I got was solitude, and a silence so intense that spiders march in studded boots and a mouse announces Armageddon.
Suddenly, too, I was without the familiar eyes and voices which had told me who I was: the mirrors of identity. I had to make my own acquaintance all over again. I am older than I thought, and know less.
When the mud had crept under my fingernails to stay and the wind had worn down my voice to a more respectful pitch, I felt emboldened to grow a beard — just to see. But Rousseau’s idea of the natural man is not that of Connemara. It is one thing not to shave; quite another to grow a beard. It was an estranging piece of atavism — as if I had gone back to “Good afternoon” in the Connemara evening, or wanting to buy curry powder in Paddy Coyne’s. Fortunately, he does have scissors.
It was about this time, too, that letters from WC2 invited me to write about “getting away from it all.” But it soon became clear that I misunderstood them. I was not supposed to be enjoying it. I could find it all frightfully funny. Better still, I could be cold, miserable, in danger of my life and pining for the affluent society. What I must not be was thoroughly, lyrically happy and full of encouragement to others.
For months I disbelieved the villagers who said there were trout in the brook beneath my window; and the otters coughing on a silver lawn must surely be rats. Yet there were trout, and they were otters, and all I could do was giggle in incredulous hysteria
This was odd, for I remembered all those Lyons tea-shop conversations in which it seemed that the day-dream of escape was a common affliction. It was as if, by doing it and liking it, I had offended a convention in which day-dreams, to keep their flavour, must never be tasted; or if tasted, not be sweet.
I admit that I had never dared expect my city fantasies would be so perfectly fulfilled. That I could really listen to Beethoven with an Atlantic gale thudding at the windows; that Christmas might indeed be attended by virgin snow and a full moon; that daffodils really do grow wild in meadows by the sea: how utterly unlikely!
For months I disbelieved the villagers who said there were trout in the brook beneath my window; and the otters coughing on a silver lawn must surely be rats. Yet there were trout, and they were otters, and all I could do was giggle in incredulous hysteria.
There must be a proper reaction to moments of unreality which disconcert like the flicker of déjà vu. Mine was to reach for a Post Office savings book and check the total once again. As a romantic, I was still the nervous amateur.
The other night I went with the village drama group to Inishbofin, a subdued but stubborn island nine miles out in the bay. Of course, the sun was setting; of course, our little trawler chugged across a flat calm; of course, Johnny had brought his fiddle
Now the half-way mark has passed on the calendar, and the few months left to me are being sung away by cuckoo and corncrake, are burning away in a golden blaze of furze. I catch myself laying down nostalgia like a vintage wine, for Connemara is as profligate with the potent image as Robbe-Grillet.
The other night, for example, I went with the village drama group to Inishbofin, a subdued but stubborn island nine miles out in the bay. Of course, the sun was setting; of course, our little trawler chugged across a flat calm; of course, Johnny had brought his fiddle. You see? And just to give me what the Americans would call a “personalised souvenir,” I found myself on the schoolhouse stage giving out to the islanders with Finnegans Wake.
We left like smugglers at five in the morning from a dark and echoing beach. A slice of moon came upon cue and hung itself on the mast.
I’m all for escapism, really.