Munfrees is a child of nature.
The ocean pulls at the land, each wave claiming its bit of rock, of soil. The tumbled rocks below the cliffs at each end of the valley bear witness to the slow undermining of our land. Our sky is an ocean sky; it reproduces the colour of the sea—blue, green, grey. Our fogs and clouds make landfall on currents that begin far to the west. Our rains taste salty and smell of the ocean. The sea is always there, at the corner of your vision. Even when you turn away and look to the hills, the sound is there, and the scent.
Our visitors often remark on how peaceful Munfrees is and how quiet are our nights. A bird calling, the bleating of a lamb, the soft closing of a door, the tread of a passerby, the passage of a star—all of these ring loudly in the silence of the sleeping village. And underneath all the silence is the sea. On calm nights, as the waves swell along the shore, the water hisses as it bubbles over the shale outcroppings, and then runs back soughing between the tilted layers of those midnight rocks. And on stormy nights, the wind catches the spume of the waves and hurls it beating against the seaward walls of our cottages. But these are shore sounds. The sea muffles all these sounds deep within itself.
The sea even steals our light. The hills to the east keep the village in shadow for two to three hours after sunrise. On land the light remains dim long after the sea is alight. For us the day is apparent first high in the sky and far out at sea. And then two waves of light, one spilling down from the crests of the hills and the other racing towards us from the ocean, flood the valley with colour. But even then the sea is brighter than the land, so bright that it hurts the eyes to look seaward. The colour of the sea determines the colour of the land. If the sea is grey and heavy, it mutes the greens and browns of the land. If the sea is brilliant, so is the land. And at night, the sea magnifies the moon, absorbing its light and leaving the land a darkness under the lowering stars. The land absorbs the light; the sea shatters it into thousands of pieces, each as bright as the original.
The sea is, I think, even part of our language. Its motion is there in the way we speak. Like the ocean, Irish is a language that foregrounds action. Sentences begin with verbs. ‘Moves the wind the barley.’ ‘Opened the child the door.’ ‘Walked he with the sun through the green stubbled fields of autumn.’ When Irish speakers ventured into English, they carried that sentence order with them into the new language, where the initial verb mimicked the sentence order of English questions and became the habit of expressing statements as interrogatives.
I think the endless movement of the sea is also there in the habit of beginning conversations with ‘and’ or ‘so’. The Irish word for and, ‘agus’, is commonly shortened to ‘s’ at the beginning of utterances. I have often wondered if so was simply the closest English phonic equivalent to that ‘s’. That initial sibilant signals a new wave of speech, a recognition of the ceaseless motion of our thoughts.
I must have seen the Irish Sea when we lived in Dublin. I don’t recall that, however. Those placid confined waters apparently made little impression on me. It wasn’t until we arrived in Munfrees that I encountered the living ocean. On my first day there, I stood on a rock outcropping watching the water surge over the rocks below me. It was the first of the many mysterious forces that are part of my life in Munfrees.
Among the permanent inhabitants of Munfrees, I am one of the few who loves the sea. Most of my fellow villagers live with their backs to it. It is there, but they are not mindful of it. The sea is simply part of the landscape, like the hills.
They do not fear the hills, however. But fear and caution are uppermost in dealing with the sea. The inhabitants of Munfrees find the notion of swimming in the ocean incomprehensible, and most of them would not willingly ride in a boat, either for work or recreation. Drowning is considered the eventual fate of all those who take to the sea. Given the temperature of the waters off Munfrees and the bulky clothing and heavy boots most of us wear, falling overboard is almost a death sentence. Even those who are pulled alive from the ocean are thought certain to die shortly from fevers or the chills.
The villagers may live with nature, but they do not live with Nature, that romanticised notion of the natural world surrounding us. They may look out at the ocean to check on the weather heading toward us, but they do not see hints of the sublime Ocean. As I look back at those first years in Munfrees, I recall only one other person watching the ocean with joy.
Máire Ahern stood on a rock outcropping above the ocean, shielding her eyes from the bright sunlight with one of her hands. She was dressed in clothes as black as the shale on which she stood. She must have been fourteen or fifteen at the time. Her parents lived in the village, but that was the first time I met her. She was usually absent attending school in Sligo, an education funded by an aunt who had emigrated many years earlier.
She turned when she heard me approaching. “You must be the Brennan lad, Patrick, is it?” She examined me briefly and then turned back to the sea. “In two weeks, I going to cross the ocean. In an ‘ocean liner’.” She pronounced the term carefully, using the English phrase. She stared intently at the horizon as if the very intentness of her gaze could make her destination visible.
“Where are you going?” I climbed up on the rock and stood beside her, trying to see what she was seeing.
“My auntie is coming to get me. She lives in Boston—that’s in the United States—and she’s going to take me back with her. She and her husband own a store, a supermarket they call it. They don’t have any children and I’m going to work there. It has everything. She says it’s a hundred times bigger than Feelihy’s. There is a field for cars around it so that people can park while they shop, and she says it’s bigger than all of Munfrees.”
I turned and looked back along the shore to Munfrees trying to gauge the size of a parking lot larger than the whole village. I couldn’t see Feelihy’s because of the other buildings, but I tried to imagine a store a hundred times its size surrounded by a gigantic field filled with cars. “There is a big store in Dublin, a department store. My mother took me there once.” I trotted out my superior knowledge of large cities.
Máire waved Dublin into insignificance. “That’s nothing. America is full of big stores. And everything’s new. Everything here is so old. Even this dress—it belonged to my mother before me, when she was my age, before she got too big to wear it. And after I leave, someone else will wear it. I’m not going to take anything of Munfrees with me. I’m going to have everything new. I’ll be like your mother and aunt and have all the clothes I want.”
“But . . .” My mother and my aunt had lectured me on not bragging about our relatively greater wealth, and they were careful not to spend money freely. We were not by any means rich, but we did have more than the villagers. I felt compelled to defend them against this casual charge of extravagance. Máire Ahern wasn’t interested in anything I might say, however. Her grand vision of the life she would shortly be leading had already transported her to America.
“And I’ll eat ice cream every day. Have you ever had ice cream? They have it down in Sligo, and I’ve had it twice. Auntie says that they have a dozen different flavours in their store. I will have a different one each night. And I’ll go to the cinema. The nuns at school showed us a moving picture once—it was a story of the Holy Mother’s visitation at Lourdes. It was so beautiful. There’s a cinema in Sligo, but we’re not permitted to go. The nuns say it’s a temptation to evil. But the nuns won’t be able to tell me what to do when I reach America. I’ll go to the cinema every week. One of the girls at school has a magazine with pictures of all the stars in Hollywood—that’s where they make the moving pictures—they’re so beautiful. I’m going to be just like them. And I won’t have to wear my hair in braids. I can get it cut and waved. . . .”
Máire continued the story of her life in America for several more minutes. When I realised that she had forgotten I was there, I edged quietly away and left her looking out to sea, with her dreams for America.
Máire wrote her parents once a month. Her mother read her letters to the women of the village. Máire’s life was filled with her new possessions, her days in school, her work in the store. Her life in America more than met her expectations. She never to my knowledge expressed regrets or felt homesick for Munfrees.
When I was sent away to begin my own formal schooling, Máire ceased to be part of my world. When, after many years, I returned to Munfrees, her parents had died, and she was no longer known in the village.
About fifteen years ago, my American publisher arranged a publicity tour when The Garden After the Fall was issued there. One of the stops was a bookstore across the street from the gates of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, north of Boston. I spoke for a half-hour about the book and how I had used my knowledge of life in Munfrees in the early 1950s as a basis for the fictional village of Scamall. I was trying to make the point that the novel drew upon my experiences but without replicating them accurately. To judge from the question period that followed most people in the audience did not believe me. Most assumed that The Garden and my other works about rural Ireland were barely disguised autobiography.
After the talk, I autographed copies of the book. As the line wound to an end and the crowd thinned out, I noticed a well-dressed white-haired woman looking at me. She stood off to one side and appeared to be waiting for the book signing to end before approaching me. Most members of the audience that night were from the university, and in contrast to their academic version of casual, she wore a tailored suit with a silk blouse and several strings of pearls. Her hair owed much to the hairdresser’s skills. She had, as the saying goes, the map of Ireland written all over her face. With the proper clothing and less attention to her hair and makeup, she could have played any of the female characters in The Garden.
“You wouldn’t remember me, but I’m from Munfrees. My name is Mary Ryan. In Munfrees I was Máire Ahern. I’ve been trying to remember, but I think we spoke only once. It would have been in the summer of 1952 just before I came here.” Her handshake was cool and confident, the handshake of someone who performs that act dozens of times a week. Her pronunciation was standard educated American except when she pronounced Máire Ahern.
As soon as she spoke, I could see her standing above the ocean at Munfrees and speaking of her dreams. “Yes, I remember you. Did you get all the ice cream you wanted?” For some reason, her remarks about ice cream popped into my mind.
She smiled, I think with pleasure at being remembered, but also with puzzlement. “Ice cream?”
“Yes, you told me that you would eat ice cream every day in America.”
“I don’t remember that, but my notions of life here centred around clothes and food and the movies. Having enough to eat was a large part of my idea of America.”
“You seem to have prospered here. Ryan is your married name?”
“Yes. My husband couldn’t come with me tonight. He’s in New York on business. We own a chain of supermarkets.” She offered that statement with pride.
In answer to my questions, she revealed that her aunt and uncle had sent her to business school and that she had taken over their market and expanded it into a regional chain. She had three children, all of them successful according to her account. As she spoke, I grew curious about her reasons for speaking to me. She seemed anxious that I understand that she had prospered. My immediate reaction was that very little of Munfrees remained in her. This knowledgeable and articulate woman was no relation of the villagers of Munfrees. It was a curious reaction. I didn’t begrudge her her accomplishments or her prosperity, but to my mind her very success removed her even further from Munfrees.
“You’ve come a long way from Munfrees,” I finally said, if for no reason other than to stop her smug recital of her triumphs.
“We both have.”
I nodded and began to consider how I could bring the conversation to a close. The minder from my American publisher and the clerks in the store were shuffling about in the background, obviously wanting the evening to end.
Before I could speak, Mary Ryan said, “They didn’t understand what you were saying about the village in the book not being real. They want the legend, you know. It’s more romantic and it fits their idea of Ireland.”
“Yes. I’ve read your books. I know it isn’t Munfrees that you describe. It wasn’t as awful as you describe, but neither was it filled with your hardy peasants who remain cheerful in the face of adversity, always ready to burst into song. I don’t blame you for offering readers that. I’ve done the same when I’ve been interviewed about my life or when I’m invited to speak. It makes my climb more meaningful.”
“My descriptions aren’t totally divorced from real life.” I felt I had to defend my works. “The problem is that no work of fiction can ever capture all of reality.”
“No, not totally. But you ignore a lot of things, important things. It’s not your fault. You only ever saw our life from the outside. The big difference was that you and your mother and your aunt could chose to stay or leave. We had to leave, to escape. There was nothing for us there. We knew that from the time we were six or seven.” She spoke with some bitterness.
“You could have stayed. Several of your cousins did.” I was beginning to grow impatient with Mary Ryan.
“And do what? I couldn’t even have married within the village. Even if there had been boys my age, I would have been too closely related to them. I would have had to go to another village like Munfrees. And for what? A chance to work hard all day long and have nothing more at the end of the day than I began with? A chance to be like ‘me mam’?” She spat out the Irish term.
“She had a fierce pride and dignity. Her life had poetry.”
“She had to have pride. Pride is what you eat when you have nothing else. And dignity is the face you put on for the neighbours so you don’t have to acknowledge that’s all you have. That’s what you’ve never understood. That ‘fierce pride and dignity’ that all your characters have is an admission that they have no reason to be proud or dignified. It’s a way of hiding your shame. As for the poetry, that’s what you chase when justice is out of reach.”
“Why did you come here tonight?”
“I came to congratulate you on your success. On the success of your books. I visited Munfrees last summer. I didn’t tell anyone who I was. As far as they knew, I was just another tourist visiting the famous Munfrees, the village your works have made famous. But it wasn’t the village I remembered. All those cousins of mine—they were like actors in a play, a play you wrote. They were so busy being the characters in P. R. Brennan’s books that they weren’t themselves any longer. You and your family are worse than the English. You betrayed us. You took what we were and left only the shadows. You’ve stolen everything from us.”
For a few seconds, her face shone with her mother’s fierceness. Then she turned on her heels and walked away.
The fierceness of the sea is in Munfrees’ blood.