The Kingdom of Brandon
The place where burials are only at low tide
Our first winter in Michael Walsh’s little cottage had taught us how to cope with the harshness of the climate. The view we had before our eyes, to the east, was magnificent. There were no houses in front of us. Beyond the lake, on which swans floated like distant bouquets of white flowers, the Twelve Bens mountain range barred the horizon. They changed colour, just as the lake did, at different hours of the day. The sky in the morning had a pinkish tinge when sunny, a dirty grey when rainy. At times, the mountains were hard to distinguish, even to the other side of the lake. Sometimes the former disappeared completely, drowned in the sky as we were in the rain. At other times, they were nothing more than atmospheric vapour of uncertain outlines. On a good day however, they were boldly outlined in the sky, navy blue and practically violet in the evening.
The mountains were distant enough not to obscure our view of the vast sky. It was often a deep blue, but just as often partly or completely concealed by white or light grey clouds, even nearly black at times when they brought the showers we could see falling in the distance. It changed from one hour to the next, sometimes from one minute to the next. Here, there was none of that harsh glaring luminosity of the Mediterranean countries, where the sky is colourless with its practically unchanging whiteness. Here the sky breathed, moved, changed. It was alive: transforming the earth’s colours playing with the sun, the clouds and the rain.
But the contemplation of the view could not make us forget the daily tasks. It was a constant battle against the elements, especially when the rain fell or the wind raged. The pathway to the road had been paved with stones: it was relatively dry. However, the boggy soil of the field surrounding us was nearly always mired and impregnated with blackish water. When it was raining, we could not go out without wearing wellington boots. It was also necessary to wear an oilskin raincoat or a fairly heavy coat to absorb the rain. We had some protection from the sea winds with the small cliff that separated us from the open sea. We could hear the ocean but could not see it. But the blasts of wind from the southeast, the wet winds from the south lashed straight at us. The wind blew noisily down the large chimney that, fortunately, seldom smoked. It shook the loosely fitted windows and rattled the tiles on the roof. We had to put bags, newspapers or cloths against the bottom of the entrance door to stop the rain that ran down it being blown in under it. Sometimes, on stormy days, blasts of wind blew the rain in under the tiles, and drops would drip down onto the children’s beds, as their room was on that side. We had to cover the beds with raincoats and newspapers. It was a struggle going outside to fill bags of turf, going to the lake to fetch buckets of water, digging the holes in the field where I emptied the waste bucket, and sometimes also walking the two or three hundred metres that separated us from the pond along a difficult path.
All of this was sorely trying on nerves, endurance and perseverance. I hastened as much as possible the house building work; asking myself sometimes if our neighbours were not right in thinking that the “family from the city” that we were, would never adjust to the harshness of the climate, the fury of the elements, the sly penetration of the rain and the isolation of our existence. We did not return to Dublin except to take or collect John from boarding school. Marie-Madeleine, like myself, courageously faced up to it all, taken up with the daily occupations of the household. We managed to find some local domestic help, used to the climate. Two or three followed in succession: but for them as for their brothers and sisters, there was usually no future prospect of a different life other than emigration to the towns, in England or America, where they nearly all had family members already.
We were still in the little cottage when, in the summer of 1951, Marie-Madeleine became pregnant for the fourth time. The child was due in March, at the end of the winter. Samzun was by then doing business with the Ouhlen, whose lobster boat the Rossko, under the command of young captain Salaün, was scheduled to put in at Cleggan two or three times during the summer of 1951, to take delivery of shellfish and winkles that we had for them. I had therefore asked my father to contact Alain Ouhlen, owner of the Rossko, to make an arrangement for the bringing over on the boat of the wicker cradle that had been used for our first three children, as well as several other items we had been obliged to leave behind and that would be useful for our new house. We did not have the means at the time to buy all of these again. The Rossko had therefore brought over several boxes for us, packed by my parents, containing various objects, utensils and books that we unpacked with mixed feelings. Had it not taken us four years to arrive at the end of our journey, to put an end to the nomadic and uncertain existence that we had been forced into by circumstances?
Unfortunately, in the course of that winter, Marie-Madeleine’s health deteriorated. She suffered from frequent hemorrhages that weakened her physically and morally. Doctor Casey eventually diagnosed a placenta previa that needed to be watched closely. At the beginning of January, during a particularly severe hemorrhage, he decided to have her brought urgently by ambulance to Galway hospital: the nearest place equipped to deal with complications of this nature.
The two eldest were still on holidays and the three children were there when at nightfall the ambulance from Clifden arrived to collect Marie-Madeleine. The front door into the little passageway was so narrow that the stretcher could not be maneuvered in. The nurse, the chauffeur and myself had to carry Marie-Madeleine in our arms in order to place her on the stretcher left outside the door. Fortunately, the weather was good: it was mild and the stars shone. However, the journey was a hundred kilometres long, over difficult roads. Marie-Madeleine remembers that journey as a nightmare.
At the time we had no help: I could not leave the children and, the following afternoon, I had to pack three tons of lobsters and crayfish and take them to Shannon, by night, for loading onto a plane specially chartered by the Breton wholesalers. A neighbour arrived to help us out the following morning. By telephone – to do this I had to go to the public call box in Claddaghduff – I made inquiries from the maternity ward of Galway hospital. I was told that Marie-Madeleine had arrived safely the night before, but that she was weak from loss of blood and that the surgeon gynaecologist had not made a decision yet regarding her. That evening I was in the middle of the packing when I received a telegram through the usual channels, brought by messenger on a bicycle, advising me of the birth of a little girl. I replied in the same manner that I would call into the hospital that night.
To transport the merchandise, I had rented a lorry from W.Diamond, a road hauler from Renvyle who did the driving himself. It was more spacious and trustworthy than ours. I had to be in Shannon by six the following morning. I had the lorry stop by the door of the hospital at around one o clock in the morning and, while the chauffeur rested in the cab, I was able to spend two hours with Marie-Madeleine who was very weak, so we only exchanged a few words so as not to tire her. I learnt then that a cesarean had been performed and that the little girl had been placed in an incubator. On my return from Shannon, I called in again and was able to see the surgeon who had performed the operation.
“Your wife has lost a lot of blood,” he told me. “She continued bleeding after arriving at the hospital. I could not leave her like this. The operation went normally and I gave her a blood transfusion. She should recover normally; I have no major worries as far as she is concerned. I am less optimistic on the baby’s chances of survival. She is very small and very weak. Nonetheless, premature babies born after only seven months of pregnancy have a good chance of pulling through. But we will probably have to keep her for several weeks in an incubator.”
On the first floor, I was finally able to see through the glass of the collective incubator reserved for premature babies my second daughter whom a nurse pointed out to me. I had never seen such a small baby. Her fingers seemed scarcely larger than the prongs of a fork: but she had very fine little features and seemed very much alive, disturbed from her lethargic sleep.
Marie-Madeleine took a long time to recover however. Our living conditions were so uncomfortable and difficult that we felt it was better for her to spend a couple of weeks in a hotel in Galway after leaving the hospital, in order to have a better rest and be able to visit little Anne-Benedict still in the incubator. We also decided to arrange a visit for a few months from my sister in law, Genevieve, who was free at the time, and would help us with the baby and the household tasks. It was not until the beginning of March that I was finally able to bring all of them, including the baby, back to our little cottage. Fortunately, spring was in the air already. It was also our off-season.
Not long after, we were able to obtain the services of Mary Murray. She was old enough and responsible enough that we could leave her in charge of the house even, if necessary, in our absence. She became particularly attached to little Benig who, from when she learnt to speak, always called her Nana. Mary was a colourful character. Forty or so, graying hair, practically white, she had been crippled since birth. She had a tanned craggy face like that of a seaman. She had only one hand, the left hand being simply replaced by a stump. This did not prevent her from fulfilling numerous domestic tasks, her only hand being endowed with great strength. With her difficult temperament, her unpredictable changes of humour, she had quarrelled with her father who lived less than a kilometre away from our place, and who had no other daughter. Since then, she stayed mainly with various people, without any fixed abode, helping out here and there. She liked to “visit” the homes of friends and could often be seen at all hours of the night on the roads. She communicated with the departed as much as with the living. I rediscovered, when speaking with her, a number of traditions and beliefs similar to those of the Brittany of my youth. They must come from some sort of source, common to all Celtic people, full of invisible characters, of mysterious beings and spirits. Mary took great care, in the evening; to bring into the house the baby’s washing that had been put outside to dry, as the bad fairies, at night, could have carried away the washing with the baby. “Leprechauns” – little creatures that can be quite nasty, replaced the ‘Korrigan’ in Brittany here. Mary’s bad temper and mood-swings were often the cause of scenes and clashes between Marie-Madeleine and herself. Hardly a season went by without her packing her bags vowing she would not return. Marie-Madeleine sometimes went after her, catching up with her on the road.
Mary’s mood-swings and fancifulness were not the exception. The three or four men that I employed on a regular basis were nearly just as sensitive, often taking badly the least remark. It was necessary to apply great diplomacy with them, suggestion rather than ordering. They had little continuity and detested monotony. They never worked as well as when they were given a change to other work. Variety seemed necessary for them, as well as changes. They considered also, without saying it, that they were the ones helping you out by working for you, and not the other way around.
Their untidiness distressed me. They abandoned their tools anywhere, in the place where they had been using them at the end of the previous day. I sometimes found saws, hammers or keys in the field, forgotten, rusty and abandoned. I had a board made with the outline of the tools we used so that at the end of the day they could hang them back up in their place. Nothing worked. The hammer was hung on to the place for the cutting key or the latter on to the place for the metal saw.
Their unpunctuality also disconcerted me. The time and the hour are totally relative concepts in Ireland. Marcel Samzun had confided that the main reason he had built his concrete cube, was so that he could be on the spot. If he were not there himself, practically nobody would have arrived by the end of the morning. I never knew precisely when or even whether they would be at work the next day. It was not up to them to let me know if they would be absent: it was up to me to know that, because there was a funeral, or races, or a religious feast day, they would not be coming to work. Monday was a critical day. It was usually the priest who organised dances on Sunday nights in a disused school, in order to give the young and not so young of the parish an opportunity to enjoy themselves and to meet other than in the pub. People therefore went to bed that night even later than usual. It is true that to organise a dance on a Saturday would be the cause of many absentees from Sunday mass. It was undoubtedly more serious than to be absent from work on Monday.
When the house was being built, I regularly employed young Owen O’Reilly or one of his brothers to help the bricklayer: on Monday morning, it was often their father who arrived, telling me apologetically:
” I could not wake my sons up this morning. So I have come to replace them today, I hope you do not mind.”
On the other hand, I was spoilt for choice if I needed to hire extra workers at night for the packing, usually done between ten at night and midnight. At that hour in any case the pub was theoretically closed. I had finally become accustomed to all of that, though without quite succeeding to accept it. An author, English of course, V.S.Pritchett, said that in Ireland protestants were distinguishable from the Catholics by the way that the former go to bed early, whilst the latter go to bed late. But even if I had had a choice, I could not have exercised it: there were no protestant workers nearby, only catholic ones. I was therefore unable to verify if what he said was exact.
I was also annoyed by the lack of precision and the ‘more or less’ attitude that seemed to be the main characteristic of the unqualified labour force, the only kind available there. Any kind of tool was used for any kind of work. I found one of them once, sharpening a pencil with a hatchet, and they would have just as easily tried to cut wood with a knife. The use of the spirit level, or the string with a weight on the end was virtually unknown, as was a straight line. The walls of the pond were as sinuous as the minds of those that had built them, or as the dry stone walls that marked out the fields.
John Delappe was the oldest of our workers: he had been one of those who, under the guidance of the Samzun brothers, had helped to set up the pond in the thirties. He had the advantage of living on the spot: his house was only a hundred metres away. It was said that he had built it on the cheap. At a time when work was scarce, he apparently only hired those employed to build the pond for the Samzuns, who also agreed to work extra days free to build his house. He still had several children at home when I arrived, and sought work for his sons with us. They nearly all learnt to drive thanks to our lorries. They were all adaptable and relatively skilful, though not exempt from the ‘more or less’ attitude. However, I tried to diversify my labour force, not wanting the members from just one family having all the work that I could offer. Gerry, the youngest of John’s sons, became one of our most faithful and devoted workers. But Gerry did not always get on with his brothers, nor did John get on well with all his sons. He was a difficult person and probably resented that, because of my presence, he was no longer considered, at least during Samzun’s absence, as the only one in charge. Sometimes when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw me approaching the workshop or the building site, he grabbed a hammer and banged on a plank or a rock to give me the illusion that he was working hard. It did not stop him saying to me as I approached: “Oh! You frightened me; I did not hear you coming”. I continued to employ him however: he helped with the packing and the preparation of food for the shellfish.
If John sometimes made it look as if he was boss at the pond, he was certainly not the boss at home. His wife, who died about ten years after our arrival, was a character. Tall, she liked to wear the dark skirt and traditional shawl of the Connemara women. She had white hair in a long plait down her back. Her serious and rather solemn features lent her an air of natural nobility. Should she meet an unknown face along the path near her place, she did not hesitate to express a welcome to these shores that she considered as belonging to her. It is in fact the custom in rural areas, in Ireland as in Brittany, to greet those you meet with a few words on the sunshine, the rain or the weather.
Another of our most faithful workers, aside from John Delappe, Gerry and John O’Neil, was Tom Coyne. He was taciturn and was also quite a difficult character. However, he got on well with Gerry who had a good laugh whenever Tom came out with a string of curses. Like Gerry, he was used to the work at the pond, the sorting, feeding and care of the shellfish. He had been a bachelor for a long time. But after the death of his parents, when he was already well past his forties, the parish priest had arranged to marry him off to an unmarried mother, who was more or less without any means, to look after his household and his disabled sister. The young woman had been brought up by her grandmother, as, her own mother, also an unmarried mother, had abandoned her for a bagpipes player, who had probably lured her with the prospect of the bright lights associated with the practice of his art in the city. He had never been seen again in that part of the country.
So it was that late in life, Tom had quite a large number of children. He went practically every evening to the pub in Claddaghduff with one or two of his neighbours. He was only talkative when he had had a few drinks. He had fallen into the habit of communicating with his wife through signs, pointing to his feet when he wanted her to bring him his boots, to his head when he wanted her to bring him his cap. He was personally attached to us, especially after an incident that had occurred when he was returning with me from collecting a consignment of shellfish in Turk South. Marie-Madeleine and one of the children had also accompanied us. After turning off the motor of the launch, before reaching the wall of the pond, it was advisable to use an oar to soften the force of the collision between the front of the boat and the wall. Instead of holding the oar with two hands, to the side, Tom held it straight in front of him. The force of the collision knocked him over and he fell into the water, sinking straight down to the bottom, leaving only his cap floating. He resurfaced fairly quickly, thrashing about, but he was no more able to swim than most of the fishermen around. I signalled to Marie-Madeleine, a strong swimmer, who understood immediately. She jumped into the water fully dressed, giving Tom the moral support he needed. Erwan, who had come to meet us at the wall, ran to alert the men. We were able to fish Tom out straight away, without too much trouble. He was luckily more agile than, and not as heavy, as Pat Concannon. Marie-Madeleine, also soaked, took him up to our kitchen and made him swallow half a glass of cognac before he went running home a kilometre away, where he was able to dry himself out and change. The local papers got hold of the story and embellished it.
Gerry, like Mary and like the others also, probably, though not admitting to it as readily, believed in fairies, in spirits and in ghosts. But whilst the former had an unconquerable fear of the dark, Mary, on the other hand was completely at ease conversing with the other world. In the middle of the night, after the packing of our consignments, Gerry usually had to be accompanied to the door of his place. Mary, on the other hand, went out at all hours of the night. The long winter nights, the evening gatherings, the strange light of the moon on the still lakes, the greyness of the rain, the fury and murmurs of the wind, the isolation and solitude, all generate mystery. Graves that have been obliterated, have become invisible, long since forgotten, unknown drowned bodies washed up on the beaches, young children’s graves buried all over the place around homes at the time of the Great famine, still haunt the memories and imagination of the living. Mary told me that one day Tom, during the war years, had found the body of a dead sailor washed up on the beach near his place, whose nationality was unknown. After having gone through the pockets of the body, as nothing must be wasted, Tom had alerted the priest and the authorities of his find. But he had kept the dead man’s black beret, considering that it could be useful. He wore it quite often going to the pub. One moonless night, on his way home, the beret was removed from his head by an unknown hand and disappeared.
“It was the sailor that had come back to retrieve it,” Mary added.
I wanted to find out the truth and, shortly after, I spoke to Tom about it. He confirmed the story, adding that he had never been able to recover the beret, not that night nor the following day in broad daylight, when he returned to the spot to look for it.
“The wind must have carried it off,” I said to Tom.
“Certainly not, as the night was very calm. There was not a puff of wind. I think Mary’s explanation is the correct one and I cannot see any other myself.”
Tom, of course, sometimes drank, but rarely to excess. On the other hand, neither Mary nor Gerry drank. The only fault Gerry had was betting on the horses. A large part of his salary was lost this way; the rest was probably all spent on gifts here and there, to children and his friends. He never had any savings, living from day to day, like the birds in the sky, in total harmony with nature and the community of people in which he lived, worked, played and was happy.
Some years later, a long time after Mary had told me the story of the dead sailor and his disappeared beret, Kevin, one of our young workers recently hired, asked Gerry: who was the lady he had not seen before who had been, that morning, when he came to work, cleaning the windows of the little apartment that I had built over the pond buildings (as accommodation for a caretaker, foreman or manager able to take my place during my absences)? Gerry asked him to describe the lady, indicating that nobody was then living in the apartment.
“But that is Mrs.O’Donnell,” said Gerry blessing himself. “God rest her soul. She only lived there a few months, three or four years ago. She probably came back to finish the work she had started and had not been able to finish before she left and never came back.”
Mrs. O’Donnell was indeed the first wife of Bernard O’Donnell, who had worked for me as both caretaker and accountant, and lived for a few years in the apartment over the pond. She died of cancer and was only able to live a few months there with her husband.
Why, after all, should the souls of the departed not return to the places that had provided the framework of their lives? Why should their invisible spirits not come at times to join in with their circle of family and friends, haunting their old homes, and pathways dear to their hearts? Time is perhaps only an illusion of our senses. We are nothing more than infinitesimal points in the unlimited space of the universe. Who has not felt an invisible presence in solitary places where those who preceded us lived long ago? And is not the boundary between life and death always unclear?
One day, Marie-Madeleine and one of her sisters in law, Suzanne Mauger, who had come to us for a prolonged visit, went to Omey, the island with the oratory and sacred fountain to St. Feichin. It is virtually impossible to walk across the strand to it except at low tide. It is on Omey that the parish cemetery is situated. It is easy to dig the graves in the sandy soil of the island, whereas everywhere else you quickly encounter rock. In Cleggan and in Claddaghduff, the dead can only be buried at low tide, and times for burial services, celebrated in the church overlooking the strand, vary according to tides and phases of the moon. The cemetery is situated on the edge of the route whose boundaries have to be respected when crossing over at low tide. That evening it was already quite late and a fine rain had started to fall, distorting the blurred outlines of rocks, hiding the shore, when Marie-Madeleine and her companion started back along the strand towards Claddaghduff, the church and the mainland. They were afraid of being caught by the rising tide and of losing their way should the horizon become more overcast and the light mist of the drizzle become thicker. They started to run along the wet sand, through puddles of water, holding their shoes in their hands in order to go faster. All of a sudden, coming from Claddaghduff, in the direction of the island, the silhouettes of two other young women appeared. They stopped suddenly, dumbfounded at seeing these two figures in billowing robes on the deserted sand that seemed to be coming directly from the cemetery on the island, running in their direction. Marie Madeleine called out and signalled to them. Terrified, they started running in the opposite direction, retracing their steps. They disappeared and were soon lost in the blurred immensity of the strand.
I do not spend as much time as I used to in my ocean refuge, anchored on the rocks of the kingdom of Brandon. My children return there often: they like to recapture the rather mysterious and enchanted world that was the setting of their childhood. Benig, the second youngest of my daughters, is unable to stay there longer than a few days without being haunted some night by the same vision drawing her little by little from sleep. The white figure of a little girl appears. She feels the passing of cold air on her face that usually accompanies the souls in their peregrinations on earth. She invites the little shadow to come and warm herself alongside her. But it refuses and shows her a dark hole or a well hollowed out in the ground, then fades away and disappears once more. Death and its mysteries, deeper even than those of life.
One of our dogs, a Labrador with a reddish brown coat that we were all particularly fond of for his intelligence, gentleness and sensitivity, that we called Seizeg, on account of the silkiness of his coat, still seems to haunt the spots he was fond of. He probably wants to come back to them from time to time. He had the habit of turning right around twice before dropping in a ball on the mat at the foot of the stairs. David, one of my sons in law, alone one night reading by the fire in our big living room, swears that he distinctly heard Seizeg doing his usual roundabout before dropping down on the mat. He immediately opened the door, but Seizeg had disappeared.
Marie-Madeleine and some of the children want to be buried on Omey. We already have a little grand daughter there who only lived for a few days. Morgane, in her tiny grave on the edge of the strand, is already performing her role of little fairy beside the ocean. A young Breton, son of Jean Le Dorven, has recently come to join her there: he bore the name of Nevenoé. As for myself, my grave is already prepared in Brittany. However, I will probably sometimes be found, at nightfall, haunting these far western strands, as also the laneways and secret paths of Callac and Evran, after I have fallen into the big sleep.
The move into our house, just before the summer of 1953, had considerably altered our way of life. Everything was easier. It was still necessary to pump the water by hand from the cistern to the tank under the roof, but at least we now had hot and cold water on tap. The stove that was turf fuelled was used for heating the water and for cooking, with our little Calor gas cooker only used now as a back up. The septic tank worked and the toilet flushed. The bathroom had a washbasin and a bath. It even included a bidet, a completely unknown object in that part of the world, which was the source of much curiosity in the neighbourhood. Our supplier in Galway had one in stock, a sample that had been there for several years and did not sell. Thus I was able to obtain it at a particularly reduced price. After this strange object (nobody seemed to know what it could possibly be used for) had been installed, and before we moved into the house, John Delappe, who liked playing tricks, would bring the neighbours to show it to them. Once the visitor was bending over the bidet, he would suddenly turn on the jet of cold water straight into their faces.
Of course, we had no electricity. We were obliged to use candles and to walk around from room to room with our paraffin lamps. It was no different from what I had known in Rennes, in Callac, or in Clermont de l’Oise in my childhood and my youth. Electricity was slowly being brought to towns and villages west of Galway. A certain number of large dwellings in Clifden and the surrounding countryside had already set up their own generators and electrical systems that were battery operated. It was possible to find reasonably priced second hand ones, now that electricity was gradually coming. I therefore acquired a diesel motor and a generator with batteries. The power of the generator enabled us to have light in the house and also to power a small pump to take the water from the cistern to our tanks in the attic. This was another considerable improvement to our lives although it was of course necessary to see to the running and upkeep of this new equipment. I had installed the generator, on account of the noise it made, in an outhouse that I built on the cliff overlooking the pond.
It was only in 1958, five years after we moved into the new house, that electricity reached this far western point of ours. It brought with it, of course, ugly poles, particularly noticeable in this countryside with no trees, which had actually already been disfigured by telephone poles. This enabled me to have lights in my workshops and greatly facilitated our work at night. It also allowed me, soon after, to install a cold room: the need for it becoming increasingly apparent, if only for making ice, enabling us to improve the quality and freshness of our consignments. I was thus able to include a sachet of ice to the boxes we packed: the ice being hermetically sealed so that it did not spill over in the boxes when it melted on the journey. The airlines would not have accepted them otherwise. Before the cold room I had had to make the ice in a fridge operating on paraffin, like our lamps, built according to a model used by the English in tropical countries during their explorations and in their settlements throughout the world.
There was no shortage of work to be done. The summer season that coincided with the fishing was the busiest, on account of the relatively numerous journeys to make the collections from the various fishing centres, the Aran Islands and Roundstone in the south, Achill and Blacksod to the north. In the first few months of the season we also exported a certain amount of merchandise, generally packing at night for flights from Shannon, sometimes packing by day for the Ouhlen’s lobster boats that called into Cleggan harbour. It was generally the Rossko that came, sometimes also the Mariannick with a greater capacity. That ship was the ex hospital ship of Father Yvon, who had used it to bring assistance to sailors on the big fishing expeditions to Newfoundland before the Second World War. The new owners had modified it for its new function. John and Erwan once made the journey on board the Rossko, from Cleggan to Roscoff, weathering a severe storm that did not tempt them to renew the experience. Some of our summer visitors, notably Ronan de Fréminville, Yann Poupinot and several Breton students coming over to help us during the summer season, availed themselves of these means of transport.
Whenever the packing was taking place, or when a consignment had to be sorted and weighed on arrival, everybody lent a hand. From a very young age, my children, boys and girls, learnt to sort and pack the shellfish. Personally, every season, each unit of the thirty or forty tons of shellfish that we dealt with annually passed through my hands. I saw to the sorting by size and the weighing before they were packed in boxes for export. At first these were made of strong cardboard, as weight had to be reduced as much as possible on account of the high cost of air freight, then much later, of polystyrene. I had to prepare invoices and custom documents beforehand. In full season, my workdays were sometimes ten to fifteen hours long, especially at weekends. Seldom could my workers or I finish on Saturdays before late into the night, on account of the journeys to collection points and deliveries that were preferably done at night. But it was at that price, together with a constant personal involvement, that the business could exist and develop.
Every day was not as long. Towards the end of the summer, there was always a slowing down of activity and autumn was, like spring, a slack season. Fishing with pots generally came to an end between September and October, depending on weather and sea conditions, and the air freighting of merchandise only started up again in November, when the price of shellfish on the continent allowed us to make a profit and to make the most out of the stock we had built up. After the end of year festivities, we were generally completely out of stock. All we had to do then was to prepare for the next fishing season, which seldom started before the month of May, to balance the accounts for the year and to make the necessary repairs to the pond. Making the most of these slack periods in our activities, I was able to take up some personal projects. I undertook the French translation of the writer and jurist J.P.Veale’s, “Advance to barbarism”, giving it the French title of “L’Europe a l’heure des barbares”. I was unfortunately unsuccessful in my efforts to have it published. I also wrote up numerous passages and a certain number of articles that I used later to write “La Bretagne Ecartelé” and “L’Europe aux cent drapeaux”. We had been able to purchase a radio and have an antenna installed, thus breaking the isolation that had been ours until then.
It was early in 1954 that Olwen was born, our youngest daughter and fifth child. On account of our previous experience with Benig, I had some apprehensions as to the manner in which this new birth would take place. Shortly before the due date, I therefore took Marie-Madeleine to Galway, settling her into the Santa-Maria hotel, so that she would be on the spot, close to the new clinic just opened in Renmore, on the road to Dublin. It was run by the blue sisters of the Little Company of Mary missionary order, founded by Mother Mary Martin, who had long ago been a nurse in Glenstal. Olwen’s birth was a perfectly normal one and shortly afterwards I was able to bring home to our new and much more comfortable house, our new baby and her mother.
All of our little ones were growing up without any major mishaps, incidents or accidents, tanned with the wind from the open sea and the sunshine of the long summer days. Erwan, at not quite six years old, went to join his older brother in Dublin, at the Dominican boarding school in Cabra. But for all the holidays, long or short, they were back with us. We also started receiving some visits during the summer from Breton students and militants. At Easter of 1953, Galway city had received a group of Breton dancers, singers and bagpipe players, directed by Polig and Zaïck Monjarret with Youenn Gwernig amongst them, shortly before he voluntarily emigrated to America. In spite of the considerable expense for my purse at the time, I wanted Rozenn and John to witness the events and concerts they were giving that would introduce them to the rich culture of their country. But it had also revived my distress and regrets at still being separated from it.
“What a surprise,” Polig had exclaimed on seeing me. “But what are you doing here?”
Polig had been a member of the Bagadou Storm for a few years.
“I live here,” I simply replied. “With my family.”
The following summer, I was also able to attend a few sessions of the Inter Celtic Congress being held in Dublin once again. Word of my presence in the West of Ireland had spread throughout Brittany, even though one still did not dare speak of the outlawed Bretons except in secret.
At the congress in Dublin, I was pleased to meet Ronan Huon again; I also made the acquaintance of Pierre Lemoine who brought me greetings from all the Ker Vreizh team. Ronan with his wife, Pierre Lemoine and his brother, in Ireland on an agricultural work placement at the time, came afterwards to visit us in Cleggan for a few days. The student Borius, son of a Breton admiral, followed them soon after. Many years later, the latter became Mayor of Sarzeau and organised the twinning of his commune with that of Clifden. A few months later, Christian Hudin and Patrick Coué, came to visit me during a tour of Ireland. They were both finishing their studies and were militants of Kendalc’h, the cultural organisation recently founded by Pierre Mocaër and Pierre Roy. But apart from close friends and relations, we only began to have more visitors after I was free to return to France, after my acquittal in June 1955.
In the summer, our visitors accompanied us when we sometimes organised to go troll fishing in the afternoons at the rising tide, around reefs and along small islands, the usual route for pollack or for mackerel when migrating. There was an abundance of both species: it was not unusual to return with tens of kilos of pollack after two hours of fishing. Of course, one had to find the time. This was not always easy during the season. During their holidays, the children often accompanied us. They all became expert in the art of handling our launch with the outboard motor. The smaller size of our craft, able to draw in little water when it was not loaded, enabled us to get through more easily in between the rocks. Sometimes also, we went ashore on Shark or Boffin, only a few miles away from us. I came to know the entrance to Boffin harbour and the narrow passageway that separated our beach from the open sea, as well as the frequently rough passageway between the two rocky points that, from the open sea, allowed access to the outer wall of the pond. All of this was more or less a part of my new trade. We often took a picnic with us and a bag of small driftwood with a few sods of turf to light a fire between the rocks, enabling us to make tea on the spot, in the small deserted islands of Friar and Cruagh.
Friar was frequented by seals that played in its small creeks or dozed on its rocks. They would dive into the water when they saw us approaching but, with their curious natures, kept their heads and moustached snouts just out of the water in order to observe us. In summer, some fishermen sometimes camped on the island, sleeping in the shelter of their overturned currach, mooring their pots around the reefs. One day, one of them had taken two young newly married Dutch tourists there, who wanted to spend one or two nights alone, on a deserted island in the ocean. I knew I could collect them, as I was taking Youenn Drezenn and Poulain with their wives to visit Boffin; they were on a tour of Ireland and had come to see me. On our way back from Boffin, I put in to Friar. When the young woman with her long blond plaits appeared on the rocks, coming towards us, she irresistibly reminded me of a Blonde Yseult, surging out of the ocean at Tristan’s call.
When the weather was favourable, as the sea had to be very calm, we sometimes ventured as far as High Island, another deserted island, with high inhospitable cliffs constantly bordered with white from the generally rough seas around them. Seagulls of different kinds with various plumages, nesting in great numbers in the hollows of the cliffs, deafened those who tried to come ashore. We also found a great number of other birds there, petrels, cormorants, curlews, sea-snipe, golden plovers, terns and guillemots. All of these winged creatures darken the sky as you approach, and make a deafening noise that mingles with that of the sea. Beyond, there is only the open sea, the infiniteness of its solitude on a moving desert of water, so often battered by the winds, still scarcely frequented.
I took André Guilcher there one day; a geographer of untiring curiosity who had just returned from Easter Island when he came to visit us. In order to reach High Island and to shorten the journey, I generally passed through between the two sections of Friar, abrupt rocks separated by a long deep corridor that was only a few metres wide. Whereas it is relatively easy to put ashore on Friar with its central small creek, it is much more difficult to do so on High: the launch has to be moored between the rocks on the east coast of the island and carefully made fast on both sides. Then there is a climb up a steep hill before reaching its lowest part. Its soil is relatively fertile and a number of sheep graze there. But they have to be thrown into the water to lead them over to the island and to lead them back, as they then swim to the nearest shore. The same thing is done for the cattle in the smaller islands of Aran: but here the shore is too steep for the larger cattle to gain a foothold. High Island remains the sheep’s and sea birds’ domain. At one extremity, near its highest point, dominating the ocean, at the bottom of a sort of basin formed by folds in the land, some dry stone structures can be seen, built in the shape of beehives, grouped around a small lake of sweet water. These were the monks’ cells, the only remains left, with the ruins of an ancient chapel, of the important monastery on the island in the Middle Ages. It is only because the winds from the sea prevent any vegetation from growing there that it is still possible to make them out, the same as on the other islands scattered along the Atlantic coast from Inish Glora to Skelligs. Only grass, scarce but thick and always impregnated with salt, which the sheep feed on, can survive there.
It is difficult to imagine that it was in these solitary and practically inaccessible places that primitive Christian civilisation took refuge with its art, its rituals and traditions, its distinctive form of worship, of living and thinking. At the time when these monasteries were founded on the most western lands of our continent, Roman Europe was forced to yield under the weight of the barbarian invasions. Across the water, the great Island itself was often the scene of raids by Scandinavian looters. That was in fact how Dublin was founded. The sea and its perils were obstacles the Vikings knew very well how to master. But the West of Ireland as also the West of Scotland were probably too poor and too barren to tempt them into settling there. So it was that monastic establishments multiplied there during the early centuries of our era. Later on, towards the end of the barbarian invasions, the Celtic monks set off again to spiritually conquer a continent that they evangelised over time, from the shores of the ocean to the old Celtic homeland, in high Alpine valleys and the Danube to the fertile plains of the Po valley.
It is difficult to know whether these Celtic monasteries multiplied in spite of or because of the rules, harsh discipline and asceticism they practiced. Fasting and extreme sobriety, the single daily meal of herbs or fish, submersion in icy water, constant mortification of the flesh, making it impossible to sin, were common practice. The rule could impose up to three hundred prostrations a day, in order to better serve the Lord. It strictly controlled punishments that penalised the least offense: six disciplinary actions had to be inflicted for not taking the time to shave before serving Mass. Friar, Brother’s island, was probably the penitentiary for High Island. There is no well or any sweet water there, and few places where herbs could grow. Fasting and complete isolation on its barren soil must have been one of the worst punishments.
Our world and humankind that have become oversensitive are unable to imagine and much less understand the reason for these severe mortifications. But there are still traces of the Celtic Church’s severity in Ireland today. The pilgrimage to Logh Derg that attracts twenty to thirty thousand pilgrims every year between the 1st of June and 15th of August is one of these. Over a period of twenty-four hours, no sleep and no food are allowed, apart from a few pieces of dry bread and cups of black tea. Prolonged stops in the open air at various stations, in all kinds of weather, during the short summer nights, in bare feet or kneeling on the hard stones of the place where the monks’ cells had been. The vigil is interspersed with constant prayers in the church erected to the glory of St. Patrick on this isolated little island on the lake. It is expected that you will wake your neighbour should you notice that perchance he has fallen asleep.
The pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick that always brings together thirty to forty thousand pilgrims on the last Sunday of July is also not exempt from physical ordeal. The eight hundred metre high mountain has to be climbed on foot: the last couple of hundred metres on a steep stony track, with loose rolling and, sometimes, sharp stones. It is not without its dangers, on account of shifting stones, and accidents are not uncommon. The stretcher-bearers of the Order of Malta often have to intervene. Some still make the pilgrimage barefoot, up and down. The ascent must be started at night or in the early hours of the morning, in order to be able to attend one of the Masses that are celebrated continuously in the little chapel erected on the summit of the mountain. Generally, the Archbishop of Tuam and his clergy accompany the pilgrims up to the narrow summit, sometimes lost in the clouds that prevent one from seeing the admirable view from there in clear weather.
High Island is one of those bare isolated islands at the end of the world. Its monastery, founded by St. Fechin in the middle of the 7th century, had been one of the most important of the west of Ireland. Saint Gormgal died there. One of the oldest manuscripts about Saint Feichin was written there. Saint Fechin also had a base in Omey: his well, now filled in, is still pointed out. Every year, he attracts a few pilgrims on his feast day. However, the Irish Roman Catholic Church shows no more veneration and respect for the old Celtic saints than the Church in Brittany does. They are still too unorthodox and have a smack of “heresy” about them. Nonetheless, Roman dogma, guardian of a much less austere and easier religion, will always find it difficult to eradicate the memory of them.
On leaving Omey, in the event of a crisis or grave danger, Fechin was no doubt able to seek refuge with his monks on High Island. Emulators of St. Brendan, they must have been outstanding navigators on their light currachs in the midst of the reefs and violent currents of these harsh seas. On visiting the places they had frequented, I thought not so much of their nautical prowess as of the wonderful Christianity they introduced into Irish tradition, which in fact fits in very well with the Celtic wonders that it takes after. It is to them that we owe the perpetuation of the irrational in a world slowly being sacrificed to pure reason that little by little ceases to believe in what the eyes can not see, nor the intelligence comprehend. When they wanted to travel and cross the sea, the evangelists and their saints only had stone boats at their disposal, like St. Aaron and St.Guirec who landed on the north coast of Armorica, which was gradually becoming Breton. St. Brigid, in sunny weather, would hang her coat on a ray of sunshine. St. Ciaran was always accompanied by a fox that carried his Psalter in a leather bag, and by a stag that would kneel and present his antlers to his master as a lectern for reading the holy books. It was on leaving these shores that Brendan travelled with his companions through “ice cathedrals” floating on grey seas, and fragrant islands on the blue seas of the gulfs. Whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and other large sea animals followed them in their wanderings and protected them.
We often came across seals and porpoises on our way back. At times, during these long Irish summer evenings, with endless nightfall, we would return over a glassy sea. It seemed as if the wind was resting as night approached. The droning of the outboard motor at reduced speed, carried for kilometres. The sun sank slowly, splashing sky and sea with extraordinary colours. Its red glow changing slowly to orange, violet and pink, colouring the floating clouds, painting the islands and mountains navy blue, enveloping them in mystery, separating them at times from the land and the water, outlining new vistas on the horizon. Only in these parts of northern Europe is it possible to witness such splendid sunsets.
At times, as we landed on the beach or began our packing at night, we moved around in a mauve world. The sky gradually gave way to the stars that emerged here and there, around clouds still bright against the deep blue sky. Night lived as day had lived. In June and July, in clear weather, it was never fully night: a vague light remained in the extreme northwest. It was the trail of the sun setting. But at the extreme northeast another light appeared already. It grew little by little as the other light disappeared: it was dawn emerging already.
At times, the night itself was broken by darts of light, the kind that the Aurora Borealis cast. They danced like beacons in the dark sky, animating it as if away in space there was a busy main road. Today, one can follow the satellites’ routes that shine like stars, lit by rays of the sun already set. They cross the sky from end to end in pursuit of their infinite journey.
There is always a sort of magic in the west of Ireland scenery. It casts its spell while one is lost in admiration of it. It can rob your body and soul of any desire for action. There is a strong temptation to let yourself go, living there as a plant does. During his travels, discovering this scenery that I had myself gradually discovered living in the midst of it for many years, the writer Philippe Le Guillou still wonders if he could have lived and worked there. Would I be able to write, he wondered, “at times the scenery provokes such intense emotion that it kills inspiration.” J.J. Mourreau who came to visit me several times in my Irish solitude felt the same sensation. On one of his visits, he had some papers and articles to finish. I had settled him into the little thirty-foot pleasure boat on the beach that we had purchased from Maurice Fitzgerald. We no longer used it, through lack of time during the only season we could make use of it. It had two bunk beds and a folding table. We had anchored it, well moored, at the very top of the beach, out of reach of the tides. It made an ideal retreat for our guests. I went down the day after his arrival to invite him to our first meal. I did not find him sitting in front of his typewriter but deep in contemplation on the deck. He barely heard me arriving.
“But how do you manage to work here,” he said. “It is extraordinary. We are in an immense theatre; islands and rocks seem to appear, and then disappear, only to appear again. Even the mountains on the horizon seem to move. At times, they are half hidden and at others they dominate the sea from on high and float over the earth. And all this changes colour and appearance according to the hour and the sun and cloud effects.”
This magic that is detected straight away by those more sensitive and intuitive, is certainly not conducive to work. Temptation is strong to fall under its spell. “This scenery grows on you”, said one of my friends one day. I think I myself only managed to escape by realising that from time to time I had to tear myself away. I had to flee from the charms of the contemplation of its mysteries, to regain my footing, recover the wish for action, for thirst of the unknown, for curiosity of the living. Connor Cruise O’ Brien, that paradoxical Irish man, penetrating analyst of Edmond Burke, but as versatile as the sky of his country, who was deputy and minister in Dublin for some time after being a mediocre diplomat, has no hesitation in saying that he can not be happy unless “he is able to spend plenty of time in Ireland, but also plenty of time away from it”. As far as I am concerned, I have grown new roots here, my children even more so.
D.D. Coyle, the same who had employed Célestin Lainé in his small chemical factory in Galway, was surprised when he noticed one day that the bank statements he received from the bank in Clifden showed no credit entries at all for the hotel business he had in Renvyle, on the other side of Letterfrack. Yet the summer season was in full swing. He therefore went to visit the hotel manager. He seemed very satisfied with the business.
“Therefore you must have money coming in,” D.D.Coyle said to him. “The bank does not show any. Where is it all going?”
The young man was taken aback for a moment.
“Oh! But there is some,” he said, and opened one of his drawers containing a large number of cheques that he had omitted to lodge in the bank.
He was also probably a victim of the spell woven by the scenery, the contemplation of the sea, the islands, mountains and lakes, the sound of waves breaking over shingles along practically deserted beaches, and the magic of the setting sun over the bay.
Beautiful as is the scenery, however, it often switches over into the unknown. It hides behind a curtain of rain, or the droplets of drizzle, the greyness and dampness of cloud hanging over the earth. The light itself becomes grey, undecided, uncertain. The bogs cast spells around themselves. Sounds are muted. The cries and songs of the birds can no longer be heard. The sea can no longer be seen: distinguishable only by the white border around the nearest rocks. An unknown world peopled by vague shadows and shapes takes over the earth again.
The weather often changes very quickly. The change is generally announced by schools of porpoises and dolphins playing in Cleggan bay and sometimes bounding past as they file by our windows, on the other side of the barrier, formed by the rocks, that protects the beach. However, the barometer of my crayfish was the most accurate of all. If at high tide they climbed up the sides of the walls of the pond, with sometimes just their antennas showing out of the water, I could be sure that the sea would be calm over the next few days. On the other hand, if on the contrary they all remained motionless on the bottom, it meant that there was a gale, heavy seas or a storm on its way. There are terrible powerful and unpredictable winds. Breton as I was, I did not know much about the wind until I came to settle on this sort of Irish Pointe du Raz or Ile de Sein.
I quickly learnt how to protect myself against it. All houses here have two doors, two entrances situated opposite each other. One or other is used according to whether it is situated or not on the opposite side to the direction of the wind. Double doors are also used, separated from each other by one or two metres. One winter’s morning, I found the first of my doors lying across the road. Most probably not properly closed the night before, during the night it had been torn from its hinges by the wind. The racket was such that I had not heard it banging. On very windy days, when you stop in front the house, you have to be very careful to hold on to the car door as you get out: otherwise it could be torn off, as could also the bonnet.
Yet, the wind begins gently: it knows how to be kind. . A light sea breeze is seldom absent, fresh in the summer with the west wind, dryer if it comes from the east. It is often just a simple caress with a slightly salty tang. However, when seasons change or heavy weather is announced, the breeze becomes more insistent: it begins playing gently on three notes, vibrating the metal joints that help to make windows more airtight. Already it is advisable to tighten up. Time to pull boats and currachs out of the water, up the shore, and moor them. The murmur of the wind becomes a hum as it takes over from the breeze. It insists, accelerates its pressure, uses the least little interstice. Begins to whistle. Soon the whistling becomes louder and louder. The hum becomes stronger: increasing until it becomes a tumult. Outside on the sea it blows whitecaps onto the waves.
The wind explores interstices, rushes into cracks and passages, blows hard down chimneys. It catches on the gables’ arris and on the stones of walls, annoyed at these obstacles. Makes doors tremble and shake. It attacks: bending and flattening vegetation, calls for reinforcements that come rushing from the ends of the horizon, sometimes all of a sudden, sometimes in blasts with the powerful muffled noise of a heavy convoy seeming to emerge from the bowels of the earth. It seeks to tear off roof tiles, which can be heard straining and rattling on the bituminized felt covering the joists. The whole roof trembles, making rafters creak.
It is the storm, the hurricane. It slams doors shut so hard; they cannot be opened again. Its racket, din and howls whirl around with a noise like thunder and bombing that carries on for several days sometimes. Crashing and tumult fill the sky where clouds race along. The sea is covered in foam. It shakes off spray like long white hair. It takes on a melted lead colour. The storm blows away turf sods, empty crates and anything in its path that is not solidly tied down. The outer walls of the pond are inaccessible. They are covered in viscous seaweed, torn from rocks, and with a thick coating of moving foam, knee deep. If you go outside, the wind attempts to strip the clothes from you. It knocks the breath out of you: until bending forward and catching hold of something to avoid being knocked down, seeking any kind of shelter, you manage to get your breath back.
At times, heavy rain showers accompany the storm. In that case, it is even worse: the rain virtually falls horizontally; it stings and scratches your face; it runs into your clothes. Pushed by the hurricane it penetrates through the least little interstice, infiltrates under the roof tiles, between the door and window frames. Irresistibly it penetrates, bubbling or seeping through inside. All the openings have to be stopped up, lined with floor cloths, rags, canvas bags or old newspapers that are soon soaked. All the gutters overflow, if they have not already been blown away.
There have been times when I have had to hang on with my men to ropes looped over the fibro-cement roof joists of our workshops to increase their resistance to the blasts of wind. And when a storm coincides with a high tide, it is a catastrophy. The end walls of the pond cannot be seen, nor the rocks bordering the beach, with grey glaucous waves riding over them. The tree trunks that we use to support our shade netting in the summer are swept away with the concrete blocks and the mooring ropes: they float in the middle of the foam. Our floating tanks break from their anchorage, sometimes shattering against the walls. When the wind finally stops, exhausted, after a few hours or a few days, and we can go outside with no danger, there is nothing else for it but to take stock of the damages and repair them. This can take days, weeks or months sometimes.