Ithaca Blog

Friday, March 14, 2008


Ireland, as I first knew it, was a place of work, piety, and poetry. No money. There is money now, but hopefully the things before are not entirely left behind.

I went as a 13-year old from Brooklyn, to meet relatives my grandmother had left 50 years before and not seen since. I worked on a farm for the summer.

It was a small, subsistance farm. The only money came from cream from milk from four cows. The main crop was hay.

We spent every day cutting and baling hay. The place was Sligo, the home of Yeats.

I had never heard of Yeats. But we worked in the shadow of a mountain he made famous in a poem, "Under Ben Bulben."

The landscape was beautiful. Ben Bulben was a striking presence.

As we worked, we could look miles across the valley and see dozens of others working too. At noon each day, church bells rang for the Angelus, a prayer to the Blessed Mother. Across the valley, everyone stopped all movement, and bared and bowed their heads.

Work could go long into the day, as the summer sun stays out until almost 10 p.m. that far north.

At night, there was no television to gather around, as I was used to with family at home. Instead, we read Yeats, aloud. Aunt Bridget was a retired school teacher with a great affection for him.

And we said the Rosary. Kneeling, against chairs, in a room with a stove with a peat fire, which was necessary even in summer in cold, rainy Sligo.

As I say, it was a place of piety and poetry, and no money. We ate meat once that summer, a Sunday chicken. It was stringy and not too delicious. "It's contrary," Uncle Paddy said.

Sometimes, the poverty impinged on the piety. The peat for the stove came from a bog at the foot of Ben Bulben. It was privately owned. I never met the owner. We only visited at night, with shovels and flashlights.

No doubt there is more food and heat in households now than then, with wonderful, historic economic changes in the country. Hopefully, there is still time for Yeats. And some spirit of laughing diggers.

From Yeats's "A Teller of Tales":

Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart longs for, and have no fear.
Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth only a little dust under our feet.

Stephen Patrick Burke
for Ithaca Blog

No comments: