We lived on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia from 1971 to 2001, and thus were privileged to learn about a folk culture just as it was expiring. When we moved to our remote farm there were about a dozen inhabited places within two or three miles, typically a small farm peopled by an old couple with a cow or two, a horse, a pig, and a few hens, but by the time we left there was only one place left; everyone else had died or moved to the city, and the countryside was empty, its culture only a fading memory. Folk cultures have been anachronisms for a long time; they survive only in isolated corners. Cape Breton had been settled in the early years of the 19th century largely by fishermen and crofters from the Hebrides and Highlands of Scotland, members of a fiercely self-contained folk culture, who doggedly clung to the old ways until the 1890s when a steel mill was established on the island, drawing the more enterprising young men from the subsistence farms, at the same time that the burgeoning economy in New England drew the men to factories and the women to domestic work in around Boston. Most of our neighbors, born between 1900 and 1910, were those who had been left behind, and they still bore traces of the old culture in nuances of thought and behavior and speech. To live among them, to work beside them in the fields and woods, even as they were passing, was a rare experience. My point here is not to describe Cape Breton culture, but to assert that it existed and that I knew it, because the book we are considering this time is the only account I know of a folk culture written from inside.
The place is Great Blasket Island, about three miles off the southwest coast of Ireland, the time is from the early 1900s to 1927, when the author left the island. The population, slowly declining since the mid 19th century, was about 200 when the author was a boy, but was less than 150 by the 1920s. Fishing, their only trade, was failing, and the young were emigrating to America. The author, Maurice O'Sullivan, wrote the account in Irish for his own pleasure and for that of his friends on the island. It was published in an excellent English translation in 1933.
Much has been written from the outside about the Irish peasantry, mostly notably by J. M. Synge in his plays, and wonderful as they are, there is an inevitable staginess about them. To understand this issue, consider the second sentence of Twenty Years A-Growing.
I am a boy who was born and bred in the Great Blasket, a small truly Gaelic island which lies north-west of the coast of Kerry, where the storms of the sky and the wild sea beat without ceasing from end to end of the year and from generation to generation against the wrinkled rocks which stand above the waves that wash in and out of the coves where the seals make their homes.
Unaccustomed to such writing, the reader will be struck by their lilt and rhythm of the language, its poetry, but rereading it, he will see that the prose is simple and clear, and the rhythm is underlain by frank realism. I think the writings of Synge and others, like Lady Gregory, are a little false because they emphasize the poetry at the expense of the realism. Here's a description of the end of a day of fishing after they set sail for home.
We were seated at our ease without a trouble or a care in the world, though there is seldom such a thing on a man of the sea. It was a comfortable time - the boat down to gunwale with fine pollock, not a touch of stress on us as we made for home, but the curragh moving east and ploughing the sea before her, we pulling at our pipes and talking and discussing the affairs of the world.
The first thing to notice is the qualification in the first sentence, the notice that absence from care is a rare thing for a fisherman, made not in a dramatic way but matter-of-factly. There follows a description of the essential conditions of the voyage, the catch and the smooth sailing, concluding with a masterstroke of realism and self-deprecatory humor - "discussing the affairs of the world" - making the scene vividly clear. Here's the boy going on his first lobstering expedition.
When June came, it was very fine. It would gladden your heart to look out to sea, the sea-raven standing on the rock with his wings outspread, the ring-plover and sea-pie foraging among the stones, the sea-gulls picking the limpets, the limpet itself relaxing its grip and the periwinkle the same, the crab and the rock-pool trout coming out of their holes in the stillness of the sea to take a draught of the sweet-smelling air. So that it was no wonder for the sinner to feel a happiness of heart as he travelled the road.
When we had the pots ready we turned our faces west to Inish-na-Bro - my father, my uncle, and myself. It was a great change of life for me, doing a man's hunting now. We laid a pot in every crack in the rocks along the north coast of Inish-na-Bro. It was a wild backward place, great dizzy cliffs above my head in which hundreds and thousands of birds were nesting, the guillemot, whippeen, common puffin, red puffin, black-backed gull, petrel, sea-raven, breeding together in the wild cliffs; seals in couples here and there sunning themselves on the rocks, each bird with its own cry and the seals with their moan, a dead calm on the sea but for the little ripples moving in and making a glug-glag up through the crevices of the rocks.
We feel his excitement and pleasure in exuberant life, and the joy is reflected in the lilting language that at the same time is exactly descriptive: "The little ripples moving in and making a glug-glag up through the crevices of the rocks." But after a month of it, everything changes.
. . . But one day when we were out as usual, I noted a difference. The fine view was not to be seen, there was no gladness in my Heart, the birds were not singing nor the seal sunning himself on the ledge, no heron, ring-plover, nor sea-pie was at the water's edge picking the limpets, no path of gold in the Bay of Dingle, nor ripples glittering in the sunshine, no sultry haze in the bosom of the hills, no rabbits to be seen seated with ears coked on the clumps of thrift. A gale was blowing from the south, and where the water lapped before, the waves were now hurling themselves with a roar against the rocks, not a bird's cry to be heard but all of them cowering in their holes, big clouds sweeping across the sky ready to burst with the weight of the rain, the wind howling through the coves, The bright flowers above me twisted together in the storm, and no Delight in my heart but cold and distress.
When he gets home there is this:
It is little desire I had to be telling my grandfather of the beauty of the place that night.
Well, Mirrisheen, you have had your first day of the struggle of the world.
I think, daddo, there is nothing so bad as fishing.
You may be sure of it, my bright love.
These passages are very revealing, not only of the obvious - that the author is not suited for the only life open to him on the island - but of the way his mind, conditioned by his folk culture, works. He does not say he is disillusioned, he does not draw and state a logical conclusion; instead, he describes the same things he saw a month before, but now they are absent or changed by the bad weather, and there was "no gladness in my heart," "no delight in my heart but cold and distress." His feelings and thoughts are not expressed as abstract deductions but in material terms; he sees ideas as aspects of the things of his world. This is very important to grasp because it is the key to the poetry of the prose. The translators rework "the rich highly colored" range of the Irish language with its "ancient poetical tradition," but I would assert that it owes a great deal to the fact that it must use the obdurate facts of its material world to express everything. It must be highly colored, it must bring to vivid life its world in order to convey a complex of thoughts and feelings. In a modern culture we can express ideas as ideas, we have names and phrases for all kinds of emotional and mental states, but Maurice O'Sullivan can tell his story only through the nuances of his perceptions of the physical world around him (including his fellow islanders), because abstract language means nothing in a folk culture.
That's why Twenty Years A-Growing is such an enchanting book - I have never met disappointed reader - and that's what makes it unique. *