Growing up in Cornwall, the ‘land of saints’, there were multiple reminders in place names of the ancient links between the county and Ireland. The patron saint of Ireland, St Patrick, was known as Petroc in Cornwall. Legend has it that after sailing across the Irish Sea and landing on the north Cornish coast he set up his first church in what later became the port of Padstow – or ‘Petroc’s town’.
Petroc’s church still stands, a mile back from the harbour, with its ancient Celtic crosses, famous carving of a fox preaching to geese, and glorious stained-glass windows.
St Patrick’s Day celebrations will have been held all over the world on Friday. And like many families, ours had its own legend of Irish heritage. It seemed to be founded on the recurrence of what was claimed to be ‘Irish colouring’ down through the generations – brilliant blue eyes and black hair – and a 19th century ancestor having supervised the building of the Dublin to Cork railway.
It started with a horse
Despite this, my knowledge of the country remained woefully thin. Over the years my love of Irish literature and music grew, but it was actually a very different enthusiasm that drove my first visit to the country. Together with several friends I had embarked on a hobby of sport-horse breeding and I wanted a good match for a mare who had been retired from her eventing career after a ligament injury. Ireland, home to some of the greatest-ever sport horses, was the obvious place to look.
With that first visit my deep love affair with Ireland began. It was an eye-opener in so many ways. The stunning beauty of co Kerry and the Shannon Estuary, the hospitality of the farmers and breeders that we visited in the search for a suitable stallion, the empty roads making driving a joy, the music and good craÌc in village pubs every evening – and a strange feeling on my part that somehow we didn’t deserve the level of open-heartedness and goodwill that we met with.
As representatives of a race that had for centuries repressed the language, the religion, even the national sports, there was a lingering sense of shame. A visit to the Great Famine Exhibition in the Heritage Centre at Skibbereen underlined the appalling and unnecessary suffering inflicted on the Irish small farmer by absentee English landlords and their agents in the 19th century. And yet the Irish – or the majority of them – forgive the Brits time and again, over and over. Now, with the confidence and prosperity that membership of the EU has brought, they can afford a sense of superiority over their shambolic neighbour.
From James Joyce to The Pogues
I’ve long wondered at the extraordinary number of writers, artists and musicians that Ireland has produced over the years, from James Joyce to Seamus Heaney, from Sinéad O’Connor to The Pogues, WB Yeats to Colm Tóibín. Those long and tipsy evenings in Irish village pubs gave me a hint as to why – perhaps helped by the musicality of the language – an enthusiasm and talent for story-telling, a wry humour, and sense of culture has survived against the odds. Over many centuries, music and word of mouth was the only way for the Irish to share their history, culture and language. It resulted in a flowering of literature and music when British rule ended.
The landscape has an enormously important role in shaping many of Ireland’s greatest writings. The contrasts within a small island are extraordinary, from the black and towering cliffs of the Donegal coastline to the bleak peat moorlands of the midlands. Some of my favourite places are the less dramatic, less visited spots, such as the little ancient holy wells beside rural roads, the colour-washed houses in small villages and towns. Then there is the softer coastline of County Cork. The long quiet stretches of the River Shannon as it winds its way down to the sea and into the Atlantic Ocean. The sense of deep history on the Dingle Peninsula as you stand in the tiny upturned-boat-shaped 1,000-year-old Gallarus Oratory. And, of course, ‘Dublin’s fair city’ with all its Joycean shades.
As with all love affairs, the view of the other is inevitably partial and simplified. I realise that, like many others, I have fallen into the trap of romanticising the place and its people. There seems to be something about the island of Ireland that almost invites the creation of an imaginary land.
What’s missing from my descriptions, of course, is the other – contemporary – Ireland. The Ireland of thriving hi-tech industries around Dublin and Cork, of young Eastern European entrepreneurs setting up businesses in small towns; the Ireland that is admired for its diplomacy and the respect it has earned within the EU.
So here’s to the land of saints and sinners, of cruelty and open-heartedness, of wonderful lyricism and mind-numbing parochialism, of deep history and new-born hope, as we celebrate that most complex of saints, Patrick – is litir ghrá í seo go tír m’anama – this is a love letter to the country of my soul.
We need your help!
The press in our country is dominated by billionaire-owned media, many offshore and avoiding paying tax. We are a citizen journalism publication but still have significant costs.
If you believe in what we do, please consider subscribing to the Bylines Gazette from as little as £2 a month🙏