The BBC shipping forecast feeds a nightly reverie, unwinding in the dark beside my pillow. I follow it from north and south Utsire (so that’s how it’s spelled!) off the tip of Norway, then clockwise round the coast of Britain to Fastnet, Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides.
Gales, strong gales, storms and violent storms make me glad I’m not a fisherman. I wait for coastal tidings to conjure more neighbourly islands, cliffs and bays. No one mentions Thallabawn, or even Ireland, but I know where these belong in our windswept archipelago.
Archipelago was the inspirational, embracing name of an occasional magazine of literature and art launched by Seamus Heaney at Oxford’s Bodleian Library in 2007. Founded and edited by scholar-poet Andrew McNeillie, it ran for 12 issues to 2019 and drew on a vibrant collaboration of 50 or so writers, poets and artists from both islands.
A selection of their work now makes up Archipelago: A Reader, a monster paperback of nearly 600 pages, published by Lilliput Press at €25. With such a remarkable abundance of good writing and poems about coastal places, their people and natural world, it becomes the perfect Christmas bedside book for readers of this column.
Its original drive was McNeillie’s personal enchantment with the Aran Islands and the corresponding literary treasure of Tim Robinson’s books and maps. The same creative thrust took Robert Macfarlane to Tory in the company of Norman Ackroyd, England’s incomparable etcher of the sea.
His images are paced through the book. Darkly intense and atmospheric, they conjure wild waves off Inishbofin, a whirl of gulls off Inishturk, the ghostly pyramids of the Blaskets and more. Offered full page, they help the book to even greater heights of anthology.
Connemara also brings poet Richard Murphy, building a house with stones from tumbled bothies and repairing fishing boats that lay “in skirts of seaweed at the quay”. Echoes of the Cleggan disaster prompt Deirdre Ní Chonghaile to an angry meditation on a whole coast of island drownings.
The Irish section of Archipelago, launched with a poem by Derek Mahon, is the modest opening to a very big book. Sections on Scotland, England and Wales enlist familiar top talents in nature writing (Tim Dee, Mark Cocker, Roger Deakin, Kathleen Jamie) and poems by Heaney, Longley, Moya Cannon and more. From the Shetlands to Cornwall, Yorkshire and Wales, they shape the many creative bonds to coastal places and people.
For more and more Dubliners, the mountains on the southern skyline offer a weekend escape to hilltops, valleys and rivers in landscapes still notably colourful and even wild. The attraction is obvious and never stronger or more popular than in the darker times of the pandemic. There is a national park and way-marked trails and an anorak pocket for the mobile phone.
Go back to the 1930s and the texture of the uplands was very different. As Robert Lloyd Praeger described in The Way That I Went, “You can set foot on the heather six miles from the centre of Dublin and, save for crossing two roads, not leave it till you drop down on Aughrim, thirty miles to the southward . . .”
At that time, in the outskirts of south Dublin, most minor roads were still gravelled and the Military Road was tarred only to the Co Wicklow boundary. Upland farms were webbed with grassy boreens.
This was the landscape, viewed from Rathgar in 1932 that drew the eye of young JB Malone, newly arrived from England. He set out to explore it . A long walk on the lower slopes left him "crippled for a week" but committed to a thorough discovery of the valleys, rivers, cliffs and summits of the Dublin and Wicklow hills.
Malone kept notes as he walked, and these fed a long-running column in the Evening Herald. Over the years, this and four books drew more and more Dubliners to the hills. Malone pioneered development of the Wicklow Way promoted Ireland’s network of way-marked trails and helped in the preparation of the Wicklow National Park.
All this, as Michael Fewer suggests in his biography of Malone, puts him “in a pantheon that includes Robert Lloyd Praeger, Tim Robinson and Frank Mitchell, men who devoted their lives and studies to aspects of Ireland’s nature and heritage”.
JB Malone: The Life and Times of a Walking Pioneer and an Explorer of the Nearby is published by South Dublin Libraries (available for purchase at €20 in all SDL branches). An architect with excellent outdoors writing of his own, Fewer recaptures Malone’s fascination with “those treeless wastes” south of the city.
Lastly, there's a small hardback by an obviously lovely man. In Stolen Moments (Veritas, €17), retired RTÉ broadcaster John Quinn's second collection of random topics prompts things worth feeling and sharing. From the lost art of whistling to the loss of dream time in the lives of the young, he offers much insight and delight.