For me, the maps of the world start with a place—a village called Munfrees along the northwestern coast of Donegal.
Munfrees lies at the end of a narrow road extending south off the N54. The road runs down the center of a nameless uninhabited valley between craggy hills covered with low-growing vegetation. In the late summer when the gorse and furze are in bloom, the valley becomes spotted with colour. No one would call it Eden, but surely it is a remnant of another primeval garden, one without apples or serpents. At least I find it so. Perhaps I am romanticising. Most, I suspect, see a barren landscape devoid of charm or beauty.
The road parallels a rocky stream bed. Usually only a trickle of water flows in it, almost hidden beneath the boulders, silent threads of water oozing between the rocks and the grasses that force their way up between them. Occasionally a storm will fill the stream for a few minutes, and the water will briefly surge noisily down the valley, a passing tempest. But overt drama is rare in this corner of the world.
Eighteen kilometres above the junction with the N54, the road climbs towards the head of the valley in a series of sharp hairpin bends. At the top of the hill, the vista suddenly opens to a green expanse perhaps fifteen kilometres wide and three kilometres deep extending upward to the crests of the hills that shelter that landbound island. In the relatively level area between the sea and the hills, stone fences mark the borders of the fields and lines of bushes the courses of the few streams.
Beyond the slate outcroppings that form the shore, the Atlantic appears grey or blue or green, depending on the weather. There are no islands offshore. The ocean extends unbroken to the horizon. A limitless expanse of water and sky facing a strip of land limited on all sides by boundaries.
The village of Munfrees is located on a shallow inlet near the north end of the valley. Perhaps seventy people live in the valley year around now. There are a few more who live elsewhere but own houses there and visit from time to time.
What I most remember of my childhood there was the freedom. I rose early and completed my lessons for the day as quickly as I could. Unless the weather were such to threaten serious physical harm, I was encouraged to spend the rest of the day roaming in order to give my mother and Alyce quiet to work. As long as I returned home in time for supper and didn’t get too dirty or tear my clothes too badly, I was allowed to roam where I wished. And I did. I followed the thin pathway that ran between the shore and the stone fences of the fields. I climbed the hills. I investigated every bothy in the fields. I inventoried every sheep and lamb in each of the fields. I knew every dog, every cat. They often joined me on my rambles, the chance of accompanying a fellow rover outweighing the fortuitous ties of ownership.
When the tide was out, I walked the narrow beach, investigating tidepools and gathering driftwood and piling it up above the tideline to dry. That was my job as it were—helping to find wood to feed the kitchen fires. Everyone who could did that. Wood and fuel were too scarce to waste. The piles of wood were there for everyone. You took what you needed and no more. Now that the electricity has come, most of us have electric stoves and heaters. I still pile up the driftwood, though, when I am out walking. Perhaps someone needs it.
One of my favourite places was a shallow cove of land high in the hills. It was sheltered on the three landward sides and open toward the sea. It was a relatively warm spot when the afternoon sun was shining on it. A flat boulder formed a natural bench. It had to be approached from above, along a narrow ledge that even as a small boy I could negotiate only by grasping the low trunks of the tough bushes rooted in the hillside. A scree of small rounded rocks covered the slope below it. My many attempts to walk up that slope always ended in defeat. I would succeed in gaining perhaps twenty feet before the rocks gave way beneath my feet and I slid gently back down the hill, my feet sinking into the pebbles as I rode the rockslide downward. That was part of the game. There was a danger, at least I thought so, that the entire slope would give way and I would be propelled backward and then buried beneath a rockfall. The threat itself posed a certain attraction, although I was sure it would never happen to me. I couldn’t imagine that that land would harm me. Danger was an abstraction for adults to brandish as a threat to keep one from exploring. More fools they to believe in it. Boys know better than to worry.
I think I was among the few ever to have visited that place. Certainly there were no signs of other wayfarers. A straying sheep might draw a farmer into the hills but that seldom happened. I suppose that was another of its attractions—the knowledge that I was not only alone but also unobserved.
From that height, I could see far out over the ocean and watch the waves move slowly toward the land. From the shore the sea might appear flat and calm. But from the hills, the passage of each swell was visible as a broad band of energy moving through the water lifted the ocean. Out at sea the wave was always straight, but as it neared the shore, it would curve as it began to fit itself to the demands of the shoaling land.
I learned to read the signs of distant storms through the larger waves. Long before the clouds appeared on the horizon, the ocean would be roiled. And then a smudge of grey, often imagined before I could actually see it, would blur that almost invisible line between water and sky. The front of the storm would approach like a wall upon the water. Only when it drew within a few miles of the land would the clouds appear separate from the water. I grew skilled in estimating if and when I had to leave the hills and return home in time to avoid a soaking.
From late autumn until early spring, that coast is frequently covered by low-lying rain clouds and fogs, trapped by the hills that surround the valley. The route to my perch in the hills led upward through the clouds. As I entered the clouds, they would close around me. Nothing beyond a few feet would be visible. A bush that marked a familiar landmark on the path would remain hidden until I was almost upon it, and then it would emerge suddenly, swathed in the grey mist. Sometimes even my secret place would be in the clouds, and on those days I abandoned it and moved higher. Eventually the clouds would begin to thin. The light would begin to grow, the mist to break up into patches. I would emerge into the sunlight, surrounded by the crests of the hills. Alyce often set me writing assignments. “Describe what you feel like when you stand on the shore.” “Describe what you saw on your walk yesterday.” “Write down the conversation you had with Mr Ahern about his dog. Remember to tell us how he looked and what you were thinking.” And I would comply by describing my investigations of the tidal pools or the seal I had seen hunting close to the shore or the news about Mr Ahern’s dog. But I never told her about that solitude above the clouds—or the magic that happened there. Those were mine.
Occasionally I was rewarded with the sight of a ship near the horizon. Bad weather in the North Atlantic sometimes forced ships passing to and from the Baltic closer to the land, where they inspired a boy’s rambles further afield than his legs could carry him.
I also liked to watch the birds from above. The hawks would drift in the sky below me, barely moving their wings as they floated on the currents of air, tilting from side to side. And they would fold their wings and plunge downward, only to rise a few seconds later, their talons carrying the vole or rat they had snatched from the ground. Once, in early autumn, I saw a flock of swifts, flying in formation. There must have been several hundred of them. They were moving very rapidly, and at some unheard signal, all of them would shift direction simultaneously. Looking back on it, I suppose they were feeding on insects I could not see, but at the time they seemed to be flying for the sheer joy of it. They filled the air for a half hour of wonder and then suddenly they ceased being a flock and flew off separately.
My perch also allowed me to watch Munfrees and the villagers. The inhabitants of that valley followed set daily routines. The front sitting rooms of the better off might have a clock that chimed the quarter hours and the hours, but they were more ornamental than utilitarian. The demands of the land, of the animals that lived on it, the daily and weekly routines of living—those were stricter taskmasters than any closely timed production line.
So much has changed since my youth half a century ago. Many of the fields have been abandoned. The stone fences remain, but even they are decaying. No one walks the land now and resets the stones that have fallen. I try sometimes to lift a rock back into place, but I lack the eye to see the natural cradle. Instead of resting securely in place, my stones totter and rock. My efforts do not survive the first frost, I fear.
The many vacant houses in the village bear witness to Munfrees’s biggest export—people. For generations, the more ambitious young people left, for Dublin or Belfast, for England, many of them for America or Australia. They were navvies, maids, labourers. The village grew old. There are no children now. Even though I am in my sixties, I am still known as the Brennan ‘boy’. Occasionally I am promoted to ‘lad’. In comparison to most of the inhabitants, I am young. I am one of the few not dependent on the old-age pension to survive.
I spend most of the year here now. The solitude and quiet suit me. The ocean is an endless screen for the stories in my mind. My writing flourishes on them, this chance inheritance that contrasts so strongly with the urban life in my books.
The village is not cut off, however. Especially during the summer, there are many visitors, the great-grandchildren and the great-great-grandchildren of those who left. Munfrees’ emigrants had so many descendents, and so many seem to feel a need to come here. I wonder what stories of Munfrees have been passed down in these families. Did those who left speak of a paradise at the end of a narrow road through a dry valley, a green garden between the hills and the sea? What impossible dream of a lost home draws these people back to their ancestral source? From elsewhere in Ireland, from England and Scotland, from the States, even from Australia and New Zealand, they come.
Until a few years ago, our visitors’ disappointment was all too apparent. They would park in front of the old quay and emerge stiffly from their hired cars. They would look around and ask if there was anyone named Cullen left in the village. Was there anywhere they could find information on a Michael Brady and his wife Mary, maiden name unknown, who left in 1849? When we told them no, they would shrug and then walk around for a time, taking pictures of themselves in front of our houses, before climbing back into their car and leaving. The occasional visitor might find someone with the same surname and claim a lost kinship, but the local accent usually defeated their attempts at communication.
I suspect our greatest offence in their eyes, however, was the smell. We were not then a village of bathers. We were not unwashed, but the fitful water supply and the lack of means to heat it made a daily bath out of the question. We were perhaps more neglectful of the laundry than all these visitors, and some of the villagers wore the same clothes for weeks between washings. We were also somewhat behind the times in sanitary facilities and other ‘mod cons’. Every house had a bog out the back, and we lived more familiarly with sheep and other animals than most inhabitants of cities.
Perhaps it was the poverty that offended them—these successful offspring of our emigrants. Their shocked looks as they emerged from their cars and took in the dilapidation of the village made the source of their disgust evident. Nor did the native inhabitants of the village encourage them to a better view of Munfries. As soon as one of the villagers spoke, the lack of access to medical and dental care was visible in the endless racking coughs and the chipped and misaligned teeth. Poverty and bad nutrition breed a special kind of thinness. There were many whose bodies bore witness to a lifetime of skimping on food but not on cigarettes and alcohol. But what did our visitors expect to see? Did they think their ancestors were different? If their ancestors had been rich and Munfrees properous, would they have left?