In all my years as a writer, I’ve written many book reviews. But I’ve never before reviewed a book that uses one of my photographs as its cover. I’m talking about The Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland, by Rebecca Solnit, which has been a joy to read, and an honour to become connected with. I was unaware of Solnit’s work until May 24th of this year, when I read her insightful article the Strauss-Kahn affair, colonisation and the IMF: Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite. That afternoon, I received an email from Bob Bhamra, of Verso Books, asking me if he could use my image of the Burren for a new editon of The Book of Migrations. Serendipity. We cut a deal.
A couple of months pass, and a copy of The Book of Migrations arrives. I take it with me on a train from Amsterdam to Perpignan, and fall in love with the text. Solnit’s book is an exploration of the nature of being, place and travel, overlaying a real, physical itinerary around Ireland. First published in 1997, it talks of an Ireland that existed then, Irelands that are long gone, and Irelands that will go on existing and evolving. The author never slips into the obsequiousness that haunts many Irish-American writers – on the contrary, her prose, and her understanding of the transient subtleties and cultural inconsistencies of any country – in this case Ireland – make her a trustworthy commentator. Solnit not only has a deep reach when it comes to historical and cultural knowledge, she has the craft and perspective to draw together and connect the multiple patterns she has observed.
As Solnit walks the roads of Ireland, through Cork, Kerry, Clare, Galway and Mayo, she muses on the issues that, despite the expectations of visitors – especially – Irish Americans, Ireland is a fixed pin in place and time, a constantly shifting concept, and like a fractal, the closer you look, the more detail emerges. Like distance. It’s something I’ve long felt about Ireland – for a tiny country, it’s very very big. When you’re used to crossing our island, talks by Americans or Australians, or mainland Europeans of six or eight hour drives are unfathomable. I’ve driven Sydney to Melbourne in day, sailed by ship across the equator and towards both poles, yet a one hour drive in Co. Clare can provide more distraction than a marathon journey across some larger land. I’m forever dissuading foreign visitors of the assumption that an Irish 100km can be breached within a mere standard hour. They scorn me, then turn up hours late, laden with yarns of sheep and cattle and pubs and bad directions.
As Solnit writes:
“On my previous trip my sense of scale had veered wildly shaped as it is by continental and interstate scale: I would look at a place on the map and say We can’t go there, it’s all the way across the country, the realize the country was hardly a hundred and fifty miles across, only a few hours on a straight highway, and finally find that the slow winding roads of the countryside keep the island large after all, in a way that has nothing to do with notions of objective scale. The roads had been built not for long-distance travel, but to connect the dots of adjoining towns, and they do so in a serpentine lines that writhe even more to accommodate the steep terrain of the west.”
Through her travels Solnit touches on the bizarre Dublin Dead Zoo, the butterfly legacy of Roger Casement, the pirate queen Grace O’Malley, Sweeney – a king destined to live as a bird amongst the trees, the Dublin of James Joyce and Leopold Bloom the Irish Traveller culture, the deforestation of Ireland, the Great Famine and the subsequent decades of emigration, The Destruction Of Da Derga’s Hostel, tourism, travel and oral culture:
“At least for outsiders much of Ireland’s charm is that it is still, however literate, an oral culture. Talk is a principal form of entertainment and art, and internal memory hasn’t been entirely eclipsed by recorded history or amnesia. Storytelling itself has been in long decline elsewhere, in part because the generations are all but segregated in most industrial societies, because a tale requires a leisurely pace for both tell and listeners, and because telling has been replaced by commercial entertainment. The appetite for stories seems undiminished, but the information and entertainment media have evolved to fill it with narratives in which the listener is forever inaudible and invisible, never the teller or part of the tale. These sources don’t really replace firsthand stories, which cast their glow over the events and places of one’s own life, incorporate one into a community of meanings.”
Apart from our photographic & literary crossover, Solnit’s wanderings – both geographical and philosophical – seem to intersect my own. My photograph on the cover of The Book of the Migrations the Burren, in Co. Clare shows the clints and grikes of the limestone karst, the positive-negative, +/_ wave forms of the frozen stone. Romantically assumed to be a barren, desolate and hostile landscape, the Burren (boireann, meaning stoney place) is anything but – farms and hundreds of bronze age stone forts are sprinkled throughout the landscape. Dozens of species of orchids grace the landscape, and Alpine and Mediterranean grow alongside each other. Wild goats, viviparous lizards and slow worms, foxes and ravens makes their homes here.
I may be a Wexfordman, but with a Galway mother, my heart is firmly on the west coast. Co. Clare, while it may lack the serious mountain ranges of Kerry or Galway, is a magical place – a county of musicians and storytellers and matchmakers, where the routing of a dual carriageway close to a fairy tree causes havoc. The veil is thin in Co. Clare, between this world and the next – the only other place in Ireland I have this profound sense is Sligo.
I made the Burren photograph in the summer of 2006, while working on a migration of my own – I had decided to up sticks and move from Dublin city centre to the surf town Lahinch. I spent a weekend checking out houses in the area, and ended up on the Green Road across the Burren with my notorious accomplice Damien, where I made the Burren photograph. The image ended up in my online library, waiting for its day, until discovered by Bob, from Verso and progressed to gracing Rebecca Solnit’s book.
Next week, early October 2011, I’ll be hiking through the ancient oak forests of Co. Kerry, to witness the autumn rut of the red deer. Solnit too describes her experiences in the woods around Killarney, and I hope I can return with images to match her prose.