A changing coastal culture

Memoir In a world of whirling change, a memoir by a man in his nineties is almost bound to chronicle "a way of life that is …

MemoirIn a world of whirling change, a memoir by a man in his nineties is almost bound to chronicle "a way of life that is almost lost", with all that so often implies of nostalgia and regret. But the latest book from Michael Kirby of Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry, born in 1906, is about something bigger: a way of being, seeing and feeling, of Gaelic Irishness, whose loss will be cultural impoverishment indeed.

Kirby himself (otherwise Mícheál Ua Ciarmhaic, author of eight books in Irish) wastes little space on regret: his appetite for life and modern marvels is too keen. But some of the costs of change - pollution of rivers and lakes, encounters with oil-blinded seals - do move him to dismay. His intense feeling for the natural world speaks for sensibilities nourished and protected within the dwindling habitats of the Gaeltacht, wrapped as they are in sea and raw weather. How much of this feeling belongs to the culture, and how much uniquely to the man, offers a tantalising sub-text.

The cover photograph shows Kirby in his element, at the tiller of a small fishing boat, squinting into the sun. In the late 1920s, the slavery of work on small, gombeen-owned trawlers drove him briefly to America, but he returned to care for a widowed mother and to fish for lobster beneath the awesome cliffs of the Kerry headlands and islands.

"The smell of tar, the smell of salt fish, the smell of frothy brine" - Kirby's keen senses are wonderfully evocative. Sheltered in the mouth of the Black Cave, he savours sea-smells like messages on the wind: plankton, fish-oil from distant shoals of mackerel, herring, pilchard and sprat. At night, it is sound that has meaning, as the surf breaking on this strand or that warns of changes in the weather.

The book's bestiary of marine life makes it something of a match for The Shores of Connemara, Seamas Mac an Iomaire's magical account of a Galway coastal community around the time Kirby was born. Razor-clam chowder and crisp-fried sand-eels were also among the seafood of the house in Ballinskelligs, to which Kirby adds the delicacies of roast bass and gurnard roe (fish intimately known from gutting and skinning).

Many of his seabirds are special to the south-west promontories and islands, not least the 30,000 gannets of the Little Skellig, each plummeting into the sea "like a spear cast from the heavens". If his natural history is sometimes a bit bookish, there are nice flashes of first-hand feeling, as for the nondescript little rock pipit, an beagéan carraige, snatching its food between splashes of spray.

Kirby is a Kerry performer, with a poet's relish of words. His stories (wartime mines, the emigrant ship, the washed-up cask of rum) vie with set-pieces of heroic prose: "He will guide her with steady hand among the furious frothing white-maned stallions of the storm that come charging down from the green-bellied mountains, shaking their hoary heads, rearing and snarling without rein or rider, derisively spitting white-raged froth ... . . ." Stirring stuff, anchored just sufficiently in his own years of fishing the gliomach without benefit of pot-hauler. Fragments of Irish salt nearly every page, in the names of strange fish and the hidden places of the coast, in local aphorisms and even in the cries of birds (the herring gulls call in perfect Irish: "Tá agam, ta agam!").

Kirby's book testifies to the rich and different mindset framed by the language and its landscape.

Michael Viney is an Irish Times columnist and writer on nature and ecology

Skelligs Calling By Michael Kirby Lilliput, 158 pp, €9.99

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

Michael Viney is an Irish Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author