Celtic Junction Arts Review
Marsh of the Moor
Editorial note: the following is an excerpt from a book-length manuscript titled Homeward/Abhaile describing this Irish-American author’s experience of a deep and living connection to Ireland, its language, landscape, and her family roots in county Leitrim.
The sounds of the names –‘that sigh like a pressed melodeon’ across the landscape. –John Montague1
The man from Reynolds Providers rang for directions. He was down below somewhere scratching his head. Had he gone past the small crossroads? He had. He’d have to go back. Did he know the Dolan place? It’d be the next gate on the left. It’s red, I told him. He wasn’t sure, he said, and asked would I please meet him on the road. It was a fine day, with as much warmth in the sun as there’d been in the two months since I moved to Ireland, and I was happy to stand in the road and survey the green world around me.
I’m scanning the stanzas of distances. This land compels my eyes to rove far and near. And this land I see with more than my eyes. I feel its green pulse. I feel it as some kind of living presence, a consciousness even. It also has an eye, and it’s looking back at me.
And now I see that the fresh cowpat on the road not far from my feet is not a cowpat. It’s a large muscular frog dressed in camouflage fatigues. I greet him – it is a he I’m sure of it. Why are you sitting on this dry road when there’s a vast marsh all around you? A van is coming from Carrick-on-Shannon with my new compost bin. Do you want to be squashed on the road? But but here now the sound of an engine, the down shifting of the delivery van, though still out of sight. When I look down again, my frog prince is gone. He must have cleared the road in one supernatural bound. I think I should’ve kissed him while I had the chance.
The other day a man in Carrick asked, where are you from? When I said, the States, he said, well now, that’s an awfully big place. So, I said, Minnesota. Well, he replied, that narrows it a bit. Here, I don’t live in Ireland so much as I live in my townland. My whereabouts and the nature of my whereabouts can be located in the name of my townland, Sheskinacurry, the anglicised version of Seascann an Churraigh, Marsh of the Moor. Or, as my neighbour Dinny says, the Marshy Marsh.
This name explains why I bought a pair of wellingtons soon after I arrived. Down-rushing streams sluice this townland night and day. It’s so ambiently wet that ferns grow in the high crooks of trees and moss has rooted itself on the tops of the fence posts along my laneway. And now rushes have sprouted in the moss, so it looks as if my fence posts are wearing jaunty lady hats. When I step onto the green moat that surrounds my cottage my boots sink. Inside, five-inch slugs slither across the kitchen slates. My cottage is so damp I wonder if it was built over a stream. If dowsers should have been consulted.
Townland is a tricky word, and misleading, as it refers to a Gaelic system in which towns had no place. Indeed, townland – a loan word from English – has nothing to do with towns. The Irish were not town builders or town dwellers, a fact observed by Gerald of Wales in the late twelfth century when he noted most disparagingly in his Topographica Hibernica that the Irish preferred to live in forests.
Townland is the awkward translation of baile fearainn, which means, literally, home land. And this gives a clearer sense of the townland, which was a settlement of anywhere from fifteen to thirty households. Townlands, says scholar Henry Glassie, who made a deep study of them, “are as small as they can be and still afford their inhabitants all the kinds of dirt necessary to life…”2
There are some sixty thousand extant townland names in Ireland, and the townland remains the key identifier in the rural postal address. When the Ordnance Survey mapped Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century, all place names – of townlands, towns, cities, rivers, loughs, hills – were anglicized, or we could say, phonetized for the ease of English speakers. So Seascann an Churraigh, for example, is most commonly spelled Sheskinacurry.
My townland, Sheskinacurry, may be among the oldest of the townlands. It was recorded as Seascann an Churraigh in the Book of Survey and Distribution in 1660, which means, it had no doubt been in existence for centuries before that. For some people even today, the townland is a source of identity providing links to a tradition and to a localised and particular geography and history. Leitrimer John McGahern observed that
Until recently there was no uniformity of spirit or manners in the country. Ways of speaking and ways of thinking could be very different within just a few miles. In fact there were thousands of little countries making up Ireland….3
And I know now that the thousands of little countries were its townlands.
Townland names are like tiny books. Each preserves a small story about the land – some names describe it or what grows on it, who lived on it or what happened there. A sampling of some townlands in this parish: a slope of hollies, height of the pigeon, oak grove of the well, wood of the tradesmen, a ruin surrounded by a cluster of trees, a little rampart, Mangin’s Hill.
I’ve only barely arrived in this townland, yet it provides me with a vocabulary of feeling. I can’t explain this, or resist it. Here I dwell. I take this boggy land with its rushes, and whins personally. I am falling into this place. And because I live in a townland called Sheskinacurry, I have a fixed and particular location on the earth, and thus a relationship with the earth. My location is not a number or a street name applied to the land by a developer. It’s a description of the land, marsh of the moor. The nearest town, Drumshanbo, is the ridge of the old huts and I live within the former Gaelic kingdom of Bréifne now known as Leitrim, Liatoma, grey ridge. What seems to govern my townland is its weathers. The fog and mist. The streams and mountain. The animals that graze on it. The people who walk on it. This townland has already given me a sense of place and why this should be so, particularly for me, barely a blow-in, remains a mystery.
This townland is also a mood, and when I wander along the road or off it, I’m cut loose from my rational moorings. This townland may be a dream state. Except for the harsh geometry of the forestry plantations on the mountain’s slope, this is not a modern landscape. Nor is it what we moderns would call scenic. It seems to exist outside time. And yet it encloses time, is vocative of the past.
All along the fern-greened streams, the sharp shiny holly runs rampant as the ivy that twines the townland’s every limb and post, and stone. The grey stones, the ruins. As my sight slows and sharpens more and more ruins come into focus. In some places a spill of stones is all that’s left of a house, these ruins the only record of the lives of the people who populated this and the adjoining townlands before the famine and after when succeeding waves of emigration emptied these cottages.
I want now to find the tumbled stones that belonged to my own ancestors. But first I must find the name of their townland. If I could find the townland I would know something of what they left behind when they left Leitrim, and what, perhaps, they carried with them to Minnesota.
It was already getting dark when I pulled my jacket off the hook and left for my walk. It had begun to rain, but I’m sworn to walk every day no matter the weather. The world here goes on, even in the darkening, and, of course, in the rain. Dinny was in the road loading a bale of silage onto his tractor. The road will be nice and clean for ye, he said, tipping his head toward the rain, the sheeted spray billowing now west to east.
The evening was warm, and the rain didn’t matter. It fell on all of us together, the cow-pied road and, somewhere out in the marsh, my frog prince. It fell on the shed where the newly weaned calves were crying. It fell on the two-story new-build with the garish lights already glaring, and it fell on each hillock of grass and hedgerow, no longer green and shining but turning from dove to ash grey as the last light left the townland. My townland, my damp dwelling place, my soft boggy ground, my lonesome heart’s desire.
1John Montague, ‘Last Journey’ in Selected Poems, p. 92, quoted in Patrick Duffy, “Unwritten Landscapes: Reflections on Minor Place-names and Sense of Place in the Irish Countryside.”
2Henry Glassie, Passing the Time in Ballymenone, p. 19.
3John McGahern quoted in Nicholas Wroe, “Ireland’s rural elegist,” The Guardian, 4 January 2002.
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