Thursday, 9 April 2009

Hungry for Home by Cole Moreton

Curragh Press
Cole Morton's extraordinary prose has a light coming from it like the Atlantic light that suffuses the Blaskets.
His account starts with Seánín ó Cearna, a strong, wiry young man who came staggering down from his work on the hill on the Great Blasket Island just before Christmas in 1946.
Seánín was dying of meningitis, but his family - which extended through the families of the island through intermarriage - could get no help.
The Atlantic storms had come down on the island, and the radio telephone was not working. Since it had been installed, the wind-powered batteries had burned out again and again under the force of the terrible gales.
When the young man died, four of the young islandmen took a currach and dodged out into the sea during a brief moment of calm, rowing fast across the sound between the islands and Dunquin, to get a coffin to bring the body back to the mainland.
The people of the Great Blasket had come there in the Famine, but still sent their dead back to be buried in the old home places around the Kerry coast.
The trauma of the days-long wait with the body laid out on the kitchen table - washed and prepared by his young sister, their mother being dead - broke the islanders.
Soon afterwards, starving in a stormy winter, they were appealing to de Valera. Officially they were moved off the island and into the care of their government. Unofficially, there was a mass migration of the young to Springfield, Massachusetts.
It's a tragic story - no one in their sane senses would want to leave the beautiful place that was their home, if they had any choice, but the life on the Blaskets was too hard to be borne, and there was no help then from the government, and God knows there is little now.
But it is not just the story that makes this book essential to every shelf; it is Moreton's transparent and beautiful style. It is as if the writers and storytellers who grew out of the Blaskets had touched his shoulder as he wrote.
He takes the story from the death of the 24-year-old Seánín to the community that settled in Springfield with its smoky factories and 90-degree heat - where you'd know the islandmen because they still walked one after another in single file, as they had on the island.
And he follows it to the third generation, where the American grandchildren - children of those who had got educated, passed exams, done well - fled onwards across America.
Londoner Morton's writing puts you right in the middle. Here's the opening:

Christmas Eve 1946
This is the end of the world. The air is full of a terrible wailing. A gale scalps the waves, spilling foam. Gulls shriek as they tumble, caught between the spray, the rain and the low, dark clouds. A mountain stands alone in the sea, its back breaking the wind so that the invisible forces are scattered over its slopes as raiders from the north once were, howling and running down from all directions on to the shuttered buildings of a settlement.

Publisher's site