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On the Beara Peninsula: Written in Stone

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 17, Number 3, Autumn/Fómhar, 2013
pp. 9-14 | 10.1353/nhr.2013.0034

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Andrew’s first visit to my homeplace, before we were married, comes in winter-time. The air is sharp and bright with the slant, cool stare of the sun. The trees, in such a treeless place, are bare (all the better to view the Christmas-lit homes) and the bouldering rocks bed deeper into the mountains. The Beara Peninsula is mild and echoing. The sense most in tune is hearing: any sound comes as a surprise and makes room for itself. Robins, thrushes, blackbirds, sparrows are all quiet, but even though it is midwinter things are, as Eavan Boland writes in “This Moment,” beginning to happen “out of sight.” After rain the mountain is roaring with water. There is scent in the air and the warm of last summer is wading deeply somewhere out in the Atlantic.

Andrew came to Cork from Toronto, via England, where his parents are from, and I am nervous and a bit shy to have him meet my family—to have my youngest, giggling sisters meet my “new friend,” and I am also nervous to find ways to entertain him; I don’t yet drive and we live eight miles out of Castle-townbere, five miles out of Eyeries village. Someone has accidentally put petrol in our diesel car. The house is full to the brim with my six siblings, parents, and grandmother and all the while my sisters’ ginger and blonde heads are bobbling continually, eavesdropping around corners and over the backs of chairs, shrieking if they catch us holding hands, or sneaking a kiss. Thank my stars, he loves to walk.

But before we set out I must start with myself, to “place” myself, as they say.

When Andrew and I arrived off the bus in Castletownbere a few mornings earlier we bumped into another Béarach returning home for the holidays. By virtue of family resemblance he took the chance to approach me to ask, Which one of the Seers are you? I tell him, I’m Leanne Seer, Donal Seer’s daughter, out in Gorth.

Andrew looked puzzled. He was probably wondering if a family of “Seers” was what he bargained for this Christmas. I explained to him, and here take pleasure in telling it again, that in Beara there are so many O’Sullivans that to differentiate the families we all acquired nicknames down through the years. My own family, of course being O’Sullivan (mother’s maiden name Sullivan), earned the name of “Seer,” an Anglicized form of the Irish “saor adhmaid,” a phrase meaning “carpenter.” This name is a personal touchstone. Although I am slow to place the word “poet” either before or after my own name, I have lately been bold enough to think of the Greek word for poet, “poiētēs” or “maker,” alongside the “saor adhmaid” hidden in myself. Thinking of writing in this way gives me a particularly exciting sense of place and direction—the rite of apprenticeship to a work that is full of mystery and surprise, resonant with activity and the transformative powers of its own narrative. This is one way I make sense of myself, and my future husband is gathering clues.

Andrew and I begin our walk “around the ring,” about four miles of quiet road verged by thickets of sleeping hawthorn and heather, furze, woodbine, saileach or sallies, and bracken. I point out the school, and the field we used to cross to get to it.

  • —This field is called Páirc na Sí, or, the Spiky Gate Field.

  • —Is that what it means in English?

  • —No. In Irish it means a Fairy Field.

  • —So where’s the Spiky Gate?

  • —Long gone.

  • —And the fairies?

As a child I was fortunate to have had as my teacher the local genealogist, who was also a historian and musician. Whenever there was a chance and fine weather we took our lessons outdoors and learned, through his storytelling and memory, about the place. There were nature walks, history walks, music and verse. This was a classroom where we learned the names of our townlands, translating the Anglicized sounds into Irish and back again into the familiar mirror world of our English...



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