There was a sign on the old N7 at the turnoff for Ballina/Killaloe saying “Ireland’s best kept secret”. Maybe it’s still there but I’ve stopped noticing it after all these years. I was never sure what the secret was exactly, or why people would go to such lengths to hide a place from other people. It also occurred to me that the sign was kind of ruining the secret.
I figured out eventually that it was a way of directing people to the lakeside villages of Ballina and Killaloe and warning them that there was a danger that they were going to miss out on something special if they didn’t turn off the main road and take a wander down by Lough Derg, through its green and lovely foreshores and the villages that sit like jewels all along its sparkling banks. But I couldn’t imagine as a child why anyone would want to spend a holiday in the place where I lived.
It’s funny how growing up in a place affords you an intimate knowledge of its geography, its language, the preoccupations and peculiarities of its people, while also blurring your vision of the place as a whole. It’s hard to be objective about a place you know deeply and, without fully realising it, love dearly. I dwell in my imagination in a pristine version of my native place, and I set almost everything I write in a sometimes expanded, sometimes contorted, yet spiritually faithful rendering of it.
I wrote a novel a few years ago that might some day be published (if I ever get the time to fix it) about a man from Youghalarra, Co Tipperary, where I was born, who spends his whole life on a smallholding he inherits from his parents, except for seven years he spends as a pirate off the coast of southern Europe and north Africa. I based my descriptions of the land and seascapes he occupies on his adventures on my fleeting visits to those places as a holidaymaker and a reluctant book-tourer, fashioning from my brief real-life experiences and from my imagination images through the character’s eyes of beautiful but wild and alien places.
When he gets back to Ireland I have him abandon ship off the south coast and walk across Cork and into Limerick and Tipperary, sleeping in barns and under trees.
Those passages describing his extended homecoming were the most comforting I’ve ever written, and the most vivid. The moment of his return to Youghalarra, to his parents’ cottage, wrote itself; I just sat here holding the pen. He was a man now, having spent seven years on the high seas but he was returning in a way to his childhood, to the safety of his innocence. That’s why, I suppose, I return to those places in my fiction over and over again, or a mildly re-rendered version of them. I was most innocent there, most carefree, knowing nothing of the evils of the world.
North Tipperary is my wellspring and my refuge, and I feel a fierce, proprietary protectiveness towards it, even though I’ve lived in a city now for more than half of my life. I think most people have an emotional as well as a physical home, and I feel privileged to be able draw on the language and landscape of my native place over and over again for inspiration.
I’m tied by blood and love and history to the small expanse of Ireland between the Arra Mountains and the Silvermines, to the town of Nenagh, to Kilmastulla and Holyford and Burgess and the callows of the Shannon at Youghalarra, to the shore of Lough Derg and across to Ogonneloe and Mountshannon and Scarriff on the Clare shore where some of my ancestors lived.
I’m tied now too to west Limerick, to Dromcollogher and Kilmeedy where my wife’s people come from, where part of my children’s blood history lies. There’s a depth of history in the fractured syntax and lilting cadence of the speech of the people native to these places, an inbuilt, unconscious impulse towards the poetic, and I hope that I honour those voices in my work.
These are precious places, as all places are to someone, places we have to cherish and protect. Rural Ireland should never be seen as a problem that needs to be solved but rather as a solution in itself to our society’s problems. There’s immense and sustainable wealth in our fertile soil, our life-giving rain, our constant wind, our lakes and rivers and hills and forests, our glistening coastlines, our territorial seas; there’s way more than enough of everything for everyone. There’s an infinity of stories there, too, waiting to be found.
The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan is out now. The Queen of Dirt Island is largely set in rural Tipperary, with a farm and inheritance playing a central role in the plot. It deals with themes of misogyny and prejudice.