I was at a New Year’s Eve party in a hostel in the west of Ireland. It was originally a church building. The high windows had gothic arches, and a rock band played where the minister might have once stood at “the table of the Lord”.
I had taken off my jacket before we queued for finger food, and the belt of my trousers was visible. The man behind me was from England and had served as a soldier in Northern Ireland.
“That’s an interesting belt,” he mused. “Is it Gaelic?”
In fact the belt was made in Portlaoise Prison by IRA prisoners years ago. There was thick black lettering printed into the leather.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s a Gaelic word.”
“What does it say,” he wondered.
“Saoirse,” I said.
“Ah,” he replied, somewhat relieved. “Saoirse Ronan?”
“Exactly,” I said. “Saoirse Ronan.”
Not that I wanted to deceive him. But nor did I want to be labelled. For me the belt is functional. It holds up my trousers.
Down the drain
A few nights later I watched Patrick Pearse on RTÉ and it occurred to me that perhaps he would have grown to be a very sorrowful old man like myself if he had lived long enough, alone in his Rosmuc cottage, with the rain lashing at the windows and the nation outside going down the drain.
But he didn’t get that chance. Once he had committed himself to the big shoot-out at the GPO, he probably knew he wouldn’t be burning any more turf the following winter.
So all we have now are a few photographs of the side of his face, although eventually he grew into a formidable legend whose mythic shadow stretched fully across the 20th century.
Being forever young, his heroic youth remains untarnished, his idealism and poetry as pure as the day he was shot, and I suppose with the oncoming rerun of the Rising on television screen and stage, he might well be resuscitated as a potently fresh mythic vessel for the 21st century.
But I suspect that he lived his life on the edge of sorrow, looking at nature’s beauty around him but being disengaged from it, as romantic men often are, before romance turns to melancholy.
And I suppose there will be lots of speculation over the next few months about what kind of a fellow Pearse might have turned out to be. If Pearse were here now, what would he think of water charges, the film Brooklyn or the price of diesel? What would he say about Corrib gas? That leviathan of metal pipes, rising from the ocean near Belmullet that grips the land with its silvery claw and breathes out great flares of fire over Mayo at night, dwarfing the bungalows on the coastline. Clearly any delusions the locals had of living out old age in the quiet serenity of nature have been shattered by the fact the industrial revolution finally arrived on the Wild Atlantic Way on the first day of 2016.
I saw the flares of burning methane off the coast on an iPhone, and it occurred to me that Shell is lucky John O’Donohue isn’t around any more. O’Donohue was a writer, an intellectual warrior with a coach and horses at the ready to charge against industrialists, developers or any multinationals who would plunder mother Earth.
He was once asked what was so important about nature. His answer didn’t focus on ecology or Alpine plants. After all, he was a philosopher, not a scientist. He was concerned with the “given world”, not the “known world”. His feet touched the ground as a child might touch a mother, trusting that the earth around him had been given to him as the outer manifestation of some hidden and sacred mystery. So when asked why it was so important to retain the unspoiled beauty of the coastline, he simply replied that the wilderness along the Atlantic coast was a tabernacle of sacred being.
Sadly O’Donohue won’t have anything further to say about what is or is not sacred in the west of Ireland. Like Pearse he died too young, and will never again hear the birds above the wailing of the rain on the wild Atlantic coast.
“So how well do you think poor old Ireland is doing now?” I asked the former British soldier at the party, as the rock band shook the walls of the unused church, and far away in west Mayo a flare of methane gas at the Corrib plant continued to blaze in the night sky.