My article in The Sunday Times.
General disparagement that anyone concerned with their own patch must be a small-minded xenophobe fuelled the Brexit debate. Such lazy stereotyping of Leave voters by the liberal collective undermines its own self-perception as open-minded.
In the midst of this continuing existential maelstrom, my metaphysical GPS has been happily trekking a terrain of books based on the idea of place and our connection to it. The volumes are very different in style, sensibility, and age. But each one possesses a common thread: a love of the local, be it knowledge; the land; or the language we attach to it.
This convergence of homegrown thought enveloped a strong environmental message too. The books are a perfect rebuke to anyone who vaingloriously carries a lumpen backpack around the globe (with the associated grotesque carbon footprint) in an effort to accumulate knowledge about the world. The writings prompt questions: why do we disdain knowledge of the wild flowers that grow in our own fields, for example; why do we think learning is only impressive when the flowers grow 6000 miles away?
One of the books is by Hubert Butler, who died 25 years ago this year. His relatively littleknown voice is fortunately abloom again in a collection of essays published by Notting Hill Editions called ‘The Eggman and the Fairies’. I am grateful, otherwise I might not have found this tactful and enlightening writer. Butler’s unfussy talent might have been tucked away quietly in his home county of Kilkenny, travelling no further than the libraries of the literati.
The central philosophy of Butler’s connection with civic consciousness literally jumps off the page – the engraved quote on the cover reads: “I have always believed that local history is more important than national history. Where life is fully and consciously lived in our own neighbourhood, we are cushioned a little from the impact of great far-off events which should be of only marginal concern to us”. His inherent sense of locus is a refutation to the hate-lacquered acronym NIMBYISM and its implied curtain-twitching malevolence. Instead, Butler’s cipher could read: KYOBISM, Know Your Own Backyard: for there you will find a world of wonder to be getting on with.
In his introduction to the book John Banville places Butler alongside Hazlitt, Orwell, and Robert Louis Stevenson in the canon of great essayists. Banville describes him as “the least noisy of writers”, which is delineating as one moves through the pages with Butler, for he seemingly shuffles through places such as the River Nore or Fethard-on-Sea.
His markings are usually near to hand, but his mind is always large, pan-European, in spirit.
The sensibility can remain broad, even if the eyes are restricted. “These essays appear to be about Russia or Greece or Spain or Yugoslavia, (but) they are really about Ireland”, he writes in the preface, before expounding on subjects as diverse as Wolfe Tone or plans to build ‘a new Geneva’ on the River Suir in Waterford. “I go on believing that the strength to live comes from an understanding of ourselves and our neighbours or the diaspora that has replaced them”.
Butler was born in 1900. After an education at Charterhouse in England and St John’s College, Oxford, followed by some travel through Europe, he returned to his birthplace Maidenhall in Kilkenny for the rest of his days. His family was part of the landed gentry, yet he was staunchly Irish, describing himself as part of Ireland’s rich strain of Protestant Republicanism. The essays were written over a period of sixty years for various newspapers and magazines, as he cleaved – to use Banville’s word – steadfastly to the home place. The book is a treasure trove of knowledge, shared with dignity and a deliberate style. The topics are unapologetically indigenous, yet the themes resound universally, in an artful synthesis akin to Orwell’s musing on that quintessential English subject: the per-fect cup of tea.
Michael Harkin contrasts markedly to Hubert Butler in background, but when it comes to wit they could have been brothers. Born in Carndonagh, Donegal in 1830, he penned a precious jewel of local history while working as a post office master, ‘Inishowen – its History, Traditions, and Antiquities’ under the nom de plume Maghtochair. “Our legends and traditions are dying, the customs and habits of the olden time are nearly extinct, but in order to preserve some of them from total oblivion I thought it well to gather this collection”, he declares. The book is a tidy volume of rural life and community in microcosm: mixing topography, history, songs, anecdotes, and verse. Just like Butler, Harkin drew beauty and depth and anchored a deep-seated affection, in the local. Presented in gazette format, these segments also appeared initially in a newspaper, The Derry Journal(how many local or regional papers carry such columns today?). The stories were inspired by Harkin’s travels around the Donegal peninsula in a rattling little car, stuffed with books of poetry and prose, collating information from the local seanachies all the while. In Maghtochair, the people in the Big Houses are sidelined. Instead we find monks or clergy, and issues such as the fight for better rights for farmers in rural Ireland: “Was it the landlords who made our valleys smile with plenty and teem with fertility?”, Maghtochair asks pointedly. “Certainly not; it was the peasantry”.
A chapter on ‘Illicit Distillation’ is a joy to drink in, combining fact with plenty of fiction in all likelihood. It humorously sends up officialdom’s presumptive interference and folly in trying to reform human nature. He seems to say, “we like things that are bad for us: if you commit to the futility of preventing us from enjoying them, we will only enjoy them even more”. Maghtochair describes “the lynx-eyed constables of the Revenue Board” tilting at windmills with their still-hunting and concludes, not without reason, that the production of contraband Inishowen whiskey “probably will be carried on while light and dark succeed each other”. The imagination flickers at the thought of the Donegal night sky being lit up with torches firing across the landscape as a warning of custom men on the prowl.
Scraping and shaping of language is local too and can be carved in the land, as John R Stilgoe argues in ‘What is Landscape?’. Landscape is a noun, he tells us, stripped of ornament and necessity. Stilgoe is Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape at Harvard University and his love of language and the land sees him ploughing through outdated and specialist dictionaries for our benefit, in this illuminating and entertaining book (apparently Chambers Dictionary still champions Scottish perspectives unlike the Anglocentric Oxford English Dictionary (OED), he tells us). Reading this will have you thinking anew about words, as it breaks down both the language and the land that it may originate from or be attached to. Some words have been simply lost through time, fallen through sinkholes in our syntax. “Swashbuckler”, for example. Does it have any relevance in modern terms? Swash as a verb or noun can relate to water; but usually we take it to mean flamboyantly to swagger about, or to wield a sword (the word’s origin is to “make a noise like swords clashing or beating on shields” according to the OED; combined then with “buckler”, a small round shield worn on the forearm). We use the word rarely now, describing a film or a sportsperson’s style say, but swash still has everyday usage for local fisherman: to them it usually means a stretch of low-tide water snaking through sandbars.
Stilgoe’s book flows with sparkling streams of enlightenment; how language with the land can give it different meaning, and he unearths such diamond words as ensamhet, unique to Sweden, meaning “the restorative, relaxing effect of being solitary and thoughtful, but not lonely”. Along the way he notes plenty of quirks too: how experienced beach-goers know how to sit on sand; the idea of classrooms in the sky momentarily posed by the advent of aviation; how the mariner measures land with his fist. All robust and succulent.
‘What is Landscape?’ is a great read to dip into (another phrase I’m sure Stilgoe could give many new shades). Reading part of its preface again, it could apply to any of the three books mentioned: “neither dictionary nor field guide, it is only an invitation to walk, to notice, to ask, sometimes to look up and around, sometimes to look up in a dictionary…”. A nudge, to look around.
The Eggman and the Fairies – Irish Essays By Hubert Butler
(Notting Hill Editions)
What is Landscape? By John R Stilgoe
(The MIT Press)
Inishowen – its History, Traditions, and Antiquities by Maghtochair (Three Candles Printers, Dublin)
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