Writer’s Notes is a series that invites writers to detail their projects at any stage in their process. In this third installment by author Phil Hanrahan, he discusses his research trip and continuing work on a book about the Burren College of Art in western Ireland’s singular Burren region. The book is currently titled Moonlight in County Clare. You can read Phil’s previous installments here. All photos were contributed by the author.
Beyond Burren hiking and history guides I’d been dipping into for years, I knew of only one Burren-set piece of writing before beginning this book: Seamus Heaney’s sixteen-line poem Postscript. “And some time make the time to drive out west/ Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,” it begins, revisiting a drive Heaney took along a small local peninsula on a bright, windy autumn day in the 1990s. The peninsula is Finavarra. The shore gets its name from the flagstone-flat slabs of limestone washed by Galway Bay surf along the peninsula’s northern edge.
Swans on a slate-gray pond. A play of wind and light. Foaming, glittering sea. Heaney conjures a scene, then briefly meditates on experiences of natural inspiration. A moment like the one he witnessed on Finavarra, he suggests, can “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
These beautiful words are known to many who live in the Burren. They’re often quoted by Burren College of Art cofounder and president Mary Hawkes Greene. I first encountered them in the inaugural BCA catalog back in 1994, where Postscript was printed in full with Heaney’s permission.
This summer Burren College joined Finavarra’s Russell Gallery in hosting a 19-artist exhibition called Postscript: Artists Respond to Seamus Heaney’s Poem. One of the nineteen was Gordon D’Arcy, a painter, illustrator, Burren College Irish Studies instructor, and top Irish naturalist. He’s also the author of several excellent books, including The Natural History of the Burren and The Burren Wall. But as I discovered this year, D’Arcy’s got company when it comes to writing well of the Burren. Robert Macfarlane, Rebecca Solnit, Tim Robinson, and Fintan O’Toole — a world-class quartet — have all set their skills to evoking this place of stone. Their efforts are not extensive — a chapter, an introduction, an article, a book section — but the superlative writing gets a lot done in a limited space. Even Booker-winning Irish novelist Anne Enright recently set much of her new novel The Green Road in the Burren. It tells the story of four adult children who come home to a spot just west of Burren College to join their mother for Christmas.
As you might imagine, I was a little daunted when I began learning how many top writers had turned their attention, however briefly, to the Burren. I’m still a little daunted. But I’m also excited.
The Burren’s been on my mind since 1994, when I first visited. I first wrote about it in 1999, for an Irish America magazine article on BCA. I’ve hiked much of it. So it’s been a thrill to see Anne Enright, for example, bring alive lanes and vistas and changes of light I know so well. It’s also been an education. A kind of writing workshop. I try to pay attention down to the level of the word. Those stony, stairstep hills — how have writers described them? Some say “terraced.” Others say “tiered.” To me they resemble ziggurats. A nineteenth-century writer called them “amphitheatrical.” Solnit in her 1997 Irish travelogue A Book of Migrations put it this way: “The hills looked like topographical maps because they had eroded into ledges or sills as regular as elevation lines.”
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I’m writing about more than landscape, though. I’m writing about love and art and family and home. I’m writing about faith, farming, death and mourning. I’m writing about the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger economy, and the digital revolution’s impact on art. I’m writing about Burren environmentalism, Irish history, creativity, life in a small Irish village. I’m writing about JRR Tolkien coming to the Burren and how manuscript evidence suggests the look of the place influenced his vision of Middle-Earth in The Lord of the Rings.
I’m also writing about a castle, restoring a castle. The five-story, sixteenth-century limestone tower house was falling down when renovation began: roofless, damaged or missing floors, crumbling spiral stairs. Today Newton Castle serves as a funky gallery and event space.
Most of all, I’m writing about an amazing shared dream. Two people who meet on a moonlit night, marry, become parents, then one day decide to chase a vision. An art college in the place of stone. They had little money, minimal free time, no arts background, and were barely thirty years old. But they made it happen.
“This place came out of Mary and Michael’s recognition that practicality, getting things done, getting on with things, does not have to preclude inspiration and dream,” said Fintan O’Toole during BCA’s twentieth-anniversary dinner in July 2014. “It is a celebration of the impossible.”
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I gave up my New York apartment in April. My life for a while will be mostly here. The Burren’s a place of layers and subtleties — terrain, history, ecology, culture — to give yourself a chance of grasping its textures you need to be present for a stretch, listening, observing.
This year I got a sense of the ways the Burren has been portrayed in writing, and how often — at least in terms of travel literature and scientific scrutiny. But no one has published a Burren-set work of narrative nonfiction, which is what I’m writing. And when it comes to my main audience, U.S. readers, the Burren is fresh territory, even for most Irish-Americans.
Moreover, even when I consider the most covered aspect of the Burren, its strange and beautiful limestone fantasia, its haunting ancient ruins, I do so through a lens that hasn’t been used before: the art college lens, twenty years' worth of artists and art students — painters, sculptors, installationists, photographers, multimedia artists, video artists, performance artists — coming to a land whose neolithic tombs sit on plateaus like works of public art and whose water-shaped blocks of limestone could be sculptures by Noguchi, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth.
What do they see when they look at the Burren? What did Conceptual Art pioneer John Baldessari see when he came to Burren College from southern California a few years back? Baldessari now sits on the BCA board alongside Fintan O’Toole. He’s part of my story.
It was O’Toole who called my attention to a flaw in some written portraits of the Burren contributed by outsiders. Introducing the collection Burren Villages, he cites depictions that could be describing an unpeopled land, an abandoned “lunar” realm. The singular landscape overshadowed Burren inhabitants to the point of invisibility. (Lake District sheep-farmer James Rebanks hits a similar theme in his new memoir The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape: landscape-besotted visitors coming and going without ever really seeing, in any meaningful way, the deeply-rooted farm families who live and work there.)
But the story I’m telling is a human story. And it co-stars a Burren local, from an ancient Burren farming family, a man who was managing his maternal family’s Ballyvaughan hotel when his art-college dream arrived.
During my time here, I am not going to be able to get to know the Burren as intimately as Tim Robinson did while producing his spectacularly detailed Burren map (I’ve burned through five copies over the years), or as he did while mapping the biggest Aran island as a resident and while writing his two-part landscape masterpiece Stones of Aran. But I am trying to get to know two places as deeply as possible: Cappanawalla Mountain, whose foothill cradles Burren College, and Finavarra, whose southern border sits across a cove from where I write this. I walk the hill and the peninsula as often as I can, and I read about their geology, botany, archaeology, cultural history, and other dimensions.
I saw my first badger on top of Cappanawalla this summer, striped fur lit by late sun slanting in beneath clouds over the Aran Islands. I saw my first large-flowered butterwort, a Mediterranean beauty of transcendent blue, and my first bee orchid. The flora grew steps away from a hillside spring and the traces of a fulacht fia, a prehistoric cooking place. Just south of this spot, hidden by a hazel wood, sit the more recent traces of a tiny foothill settlement wiped out by the Famine.
Cappanawalla’s plateau summit is breathtaking. Limestone “pavement” — that’s the geologists’ word — stretches for a good half mile, gridded into rectangles by rainwater erosion fissures called grikes. The first time I saw the silvery expanse it made me think of an ancient landing strip engineered by some forgotten race to welcome the spacecraft of alien visitors.
As for Finavarra, I’ve had special moments there, too. One of them happened the night of the Postscript exhibition opening. After the event, I walked west along the peninsula past Lady Gregory’s summer home, where she used to entertain W.B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw (both men set plays or parts of plays on Finavarra), then carried around the pond beside the Flaggy Shore and watched the swans a while. After that, headed home, I paused before a window-sized opening in an old high wall fencing what used to be the eighteenth-century Finavarra House estate. The gabled ruin, a roofless shell, looked profoundly Gothic in the velvet low light, silhouette backdropped by three shadowed mainland hills. Then I saw it. Loping across the former great house lawn, plume tail twilit. An Irish red fox. The first I’d ever seen. Just enough gloaming to illuminate its rich, Irish Setter coloration. The fox stopped and looked back at me, this human form framed in a wall window at dusk, then carried on toward a hazel hedge.
My heart — it blew open a little.
There was another memorable moment this summer, and it happened inside, while I was doing research. At the end of a 1978 local-history pamphlet called Burren Journey, I came upon an appendix titled “Eight Burren Families.” One of the eight was O’Lochlainn, the clan whose members built Newtown Castle. Another was Ó Dálaigh, Ireland’s preeminent bardic family who established a poetry academy on Finavarra eight hundred years ago. A third family was O’Honeen, ancestors of Michael Greene. O’Honeen, said the entry, is “usually translated as Greene.” A fourth ancient Burren family was O’Hanrahan.
I stared at the page. We don’t know much about my dad’s dad’s roots — he left the family early on. We’ve never done genealogical research. I’m going to do some while here. It might be that I discover, if I discover anything, that my paternal roots trace back to a different part of Clare or to neighboring County Galway, where the name also has history. But for now, while out hiking Cappanawalla, or walking Finavarra, I’m letting myself believe my roots are here, here in this place of stone.