By Brenda Buchanan
Though more than a month has passed since our April visit to Ireland, the experience continues to resonate. I often dream I’m there, dreams so vivid I’m surprised to open my eyes and find myself in Maine.
In my waking hours I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling, which is more than a pastime in Ireland, it’s a fundamental aspect of the culture. This makes perfect sense, when you think about it. In rural communities where education was limited, nurturing the oral tradition was a critical means to preserve history.
My grandparents’ and parents’ generations carried on the storytelling culture in America, where every conceivable event—from First Communions to wakes—were an opportunity for convivial extended family gatherings. As a child I remember wondering if the adults would ever stop talking. Now I wish I’d stayed at the table to listen.
My grandmother, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1905, seems to have been the source of my mother’s Ireland stories because most were about County Kerry. At age 24 Ellen Fenton traveled from Ventry to Cobh (then known as Queenstown) in County Cork, where her feet last touched Irish soil. She crossed the North Atlantic on the crowded SS Ivernia, a voyage of about ten days, to her new life in my hometown of Fitchburg, Massachusetts.
I never knew my grandmother—she died when my mother was twelve—but many of her immediate and extended family members also emigrated to Fitchburg and to Springfield, some 80 miles to the southwest. Among my many second and third cousins, a good number were, as they say, off the boat. I grew up hearing their voices and their stories, but didn’t realize the immutable impact of that until I was in Ireland.
The brogues of the men, thick as honey, evoked something akin to déjà vu. I have no conscious recollection of my grandfather, who lived with my family in the last years of his life and died when I was not yet two years old. His accent would have differed somewhat from those in County Kerry given that he was from Mayo, but the cadence of male voices on the Dingle Peninsula was so familiar I realized my grandfather’s voice has been imprinted in my brain all these years, waiting for a trigger to bring the memory forth. It’s a fact about myself I never knew before.
The Irish storytelling tradition is showcased at the stunning Great Blasket Centre in Dunquin, fifteen kilometers along stunning Slea Head Drive from my grandmother’s townland of Baile an Chotaigh. Like a number of other islands off the west coast of Ireland, Great Blasket is abandoned now except for tourists who ferry out for an afternoon hike around the ruined stone cottages. In 1953, the island’s residents were resettled on the mainland at the insistence of the government, which said it could no longer provide emergency supplies and transport.
Great Blasket yielded a number of remarkable writers and storytellers and because of their work, the island and its people will not be forgotten. One of the most famous is Peig Sayers, whose autobiography I inhaled one Sunday afternoon a month before we left for Ireland. Eight years my grandmother’s senior, the stories of Peig Sayers’ life are compulsory reading in Irish secondary schools. Remarkably—because she spoke Irish but never was taught to write in her native language—she dictated the book to her son. It describes in vivid language a rural culture where people had no money and few choices.
My people had little property, she says in the opening chapter. All the land they possessed was the grass of two cows.
The tale is bleak for the most part, a contrast to the stories of the Dingle Peninsula handed down through my mother. Perhaps my grandmother didn’t tell her children about the privation of her own childhood, wishing to spare them knowledge of the hardships she and her large family must have endured, scratching out a living on a small farm in a destitute place. Or maybe by the time my grandmother had children of her own the difficult memories had been replaced by a yearning to see her homeland again.
One thing I do know is there’s good reason so many of my family’s stories extol the beauty of the Dingle Peninsula. It is green, of course, and because of its intimate relationship with the sea, windblown and salt-saturated.
The squat, stone houses built centuries ago still stand amid modern houses as plentiful as mushrooms in a damp spring. The walls of the old places hold the stories of my ancestors, and this time I listened.
Brenda Buchanan is the author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series, featuring a diehard Maine newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. Three books—QUICK PIVOT, COVER STORY and TRUTH BEAT—are available through Carina Press or wherever ebooks are sold.