Monday, September 02, 2013

The Burren

Seamus Heaney has died and, if I may borrow some links from Arts & Letters Daily, you can read tributes everywhere: NY Times, Irish Times, Boston Globe, Telegraph, Dan Chiasson, Chronicle of Higher Ed, Poetry, Sean Brady, Daily Beast, Guardian, LA Times, Henri Cole, Boston Review...  Back in January I wrote here about the treatment of landscape in some of his poems.  One of these was  'Postscript', which describes a drive to the Flaggy Shore: 'the ocean on one side is wild / With foam and glitter, / and inland among stones / The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit / By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans.'  A fortnight ago we were on this very road, led by Heaney's poem in the hope of experiencing a landscape epiphany, although when we stopped the car (ignoring the poet's advice) it was spitting with rain and the swans looked forlorn under dark clouds, floating around on the muddy brown water.  But our few days in the Burren also yielded moments of joyous surprise, like the realisation that we had a sunlit limestone pavement all to ourselves, stretching away to the sea, a moment to 'catch the heart off guard and blow it open.'

The Burren, as Robert Macfarlane says in The Wild Places, 'rises, silver, in the north of County Clare, on the mid-west coast of Ireland.  Its name comes from the Gaelic boireann, meaning 'rocky place', and the region is so called because most of its surface is made up of smoothed limestone, intercut with bands of clay and shale.'  I think one of the reasons we went there this summer was that it has featured so often on this blog, as the subject of film, art, music and literature.  I thought therefore I would return here to those old posts, beginning with the most recent, Field Notes, on the writings of Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson.  There I mentioned The Flowering Rock, 'a new collection of poems describing the landscape of the Burren: madder and thrift, eyebright and hart's tongue living in the seams between the shattered rocks; beneath them, arterial passages where the 'wailing notes / of water and wind' create 'hollow songs / of hollow hills.''  As I write this I'm listening to 'Of the Sea' from Verse of Birds, the album that was composed in response to this landscape.

Last October, in Wild Track, I talked about Pat Collins' film Silence in which the protagonist, a field recordist, sets up his microphone at Mullaghmore (above) before moving on to locations further north.  The film recently came out on general release and has received muted praised, although Philip French, in one of his last reviews for the Observer, saw nothing in it that that would stick in his memory.  The most fatuous comment I've seen was the FT''s suggestion that you 'think of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, then imagine it refilmed by a team of Trappist monks.'  Look instead at the BFI site, which has a Sight and Sound review by Mark Sinker and an appreciative article by Geoff Andrew

In a post about Jeremy Deller's inflatable Stonehenge last summer I mentioned that there had been some controversy over its resemblance to 'a 2010 work by Jim Ricks, the Poulnabrone Bouncy Dolmen, a twice-scale replica of the megalithic portal tomb in the Burren; but it all got sorted out amicably.  Perhaps we need more of these structures, hyperreal bouncy simulacra at every prehistoric site, leaving the actual stones to become poetic, overgrown ruins again.'  As you can see (below) we got to see the real Dolmen, albeit roped off.  Running round it proved almost as much fun as the bouncy Stonehenge, although it is easy to lose your footing among the clints and grykes (there were tears before we left).

There is another passing reference to this part of the world in my post Theoryscapes, describing a seminar on landscape theory that was held in 2006 at the Burren College of Art.  The focus of discussion was on culture and geography generally, rather than the specific qualities of the Burren.  However, it is relevant to distinctions between land and landscape: the participants recognised that there has been a long history of habitation here - it is not simply a starkly beautiful wilderness - and that this part of Ireland has been important in resisting British rule and preserving the language. Nevertheless the seminar leader, art writer James Elkins, detected in his colleagues an intoxication in their experience of the Burren that he ascribed to 'our not-so-secret addiction' to 'ideas of landscape articulated by the romantics, and more directly to second-, third-generation, regional, local and belated romantic Western landscape painters, filmmakers and photographers.'

Rebecca Solnit was one of the participants in that seminar, but she had visited the area previously, as described in A Book of MigrationsOn that earlier trip she couldn't fail to be struck by the Burren's strange hills, resembling topographical maps, 'eroded into ledges or sills as regular as elevation lines'.  However, she obviously had miserable weather and felt that the influence of tourism and the efforts of environmental campaigners was turning an old 'local' place into something 'almost exclusively exotic'.  In my post I quoted what she had to say about the Cliffs of Moher, just to the south of the Burren, seeing there, 'a deeper blue than my own churning gray Pacific, blue as though different dreams had been dumped into it, blue as ink.  I imagined filling a fountain pen with it and wondered what one would write with that ocean.'  This passage had slipped my mind when we visited the cliffs, but I was so struck by the colour of the Atlantic there that I took a photograph of it...

Finally, back in 2007, in The Wildness of the Gryke, I quoted a review of Robert Macfarlane's Wild Places and made a connection with Auden and his poem
‘In Praise of Limestone’ (1948).  In his chapter on the Burren, Macfarlane talks about the special qualities of its rock.  'Limestone's solubility in water means that any fault-lines in the original rock get slowly deepened by a process of soft liquid wear.  In this way, the form into which limestone grows over time is determined by its first flaws. For Auden, this was a human as well as a geological quality: he found in limestone an honesty - an acknowledgement that we are as defined by our faults as by our substance.'

All photographs from our holiday, August 2013


Diana Hale said...

Wonderful tribute for Seamus Heaney.

David Nulty said...

A beautifully curated piece that celebrates the life and work of 'Famous Seamus' as a poet described him to me the other day.

A little like the bountiful fruiting this is predicted for this Autumn we are blessed with excellent writers and observers of our world at the moment.

Jackie said...

Wonderful..photographs and writing. I used the Burren as inspiration for a series of textile pieces. I love the colour of the sea rocks and mosses and lichens.