Portrait of Ireland
This April I had the pleasure of returning to West County Kerry, the rural towns my mother’s family came from. An unforgiving but stunningly beautiful land of rock and sea, mountains and mist; the people are warm and open, the sheep are plentiful. It was lambing season, and every field was dotted with babies under bush-like tufts of grass or eager teens bouncing around on springlike legs.
I had come through 13 years before, looking for family members, and while that is a long time in one person’s life, it is but a blink in a place where Iron Age Stone Forts sit in the midst of fields, ancient ogam stones stand by the marsh, and priest paths still are delineated to be explored by tourists.
My first day back in Caherdaniel I crashed a funeral, having watched the whole town process to the island cemetery across the wide sands of the strand, exposed during low tide, impossibly timeless, sad, and beautiful all at once. The reddish wooden casket floated high above a sea of black from my distant vantage point, and I unthinkingly went to the pub, forgetting that that kind of day ends there as well. But I was most welcome of course.
I spent the week hill-walking, exploring valleys and mountains in villages I had seen during my last trip and in new ones, ending most days at the local pub. I saw my first Gaelic football match in the impossibly perfect town of Portmagee, two local towns pitted against each other. There was a lot of talk as rival towns Sneem and Caherdaniel, hometowns of my great grandmother and great grandfather, had recently had to merge as the youth continue to emigrate due to a lack of jobs and any real economy beyond farming and tourism.
More than anything though, it was a week of sky, salty air, and reflection. I thought about family past, far distant, and more recent. I reflected on how a place can be so beautiful and magnetic and inhospitable at the same time.
Mayo has a saying: if beauty were wealth we would be the richest county, and I think it’s true of Kerry too. These wild places, so stunning and so hard.