Irish Tales III: Go to Hell or Connaugh

By Brian Arsenault

The West of Ireland may be more Irish than Ireland. There’s a reason for such — that bastard Cromwell, who did his best to invent genocide and said the native Irish (read Catholics) could choose Hell — he slaughtered many — or Connaugh in the far West of the country.

Many fled there. And in the far West of Connaugh there is a land that meets the Atlantic. Windswept, rockier than the rest of the country, criss-crossed endlessly with rough hewn rock walls. Starkly beautiful.

Such a place is Carna, where Kathy’s forebears came from and where there is still family living, though not many. Carna has less than 2,000 full time residents. There were about 8,000 before the potato famine in the 1840s and the population never recovered.

Still, the town and the surrounding area are a center for the study of the Irish language. “Gaelic” is what Americans call it, but in Ireland you hear that people “speak Irish.”

Kathy’s grandmother grew up in a house high on a knoll with her parents and nine siblings, the house no larger than the double garage of many American homes. The house still stands and is used as a shed next to the new family home, also modest in size but housing only one older fellow, retired from a job in the States and come home.

The scale of those old Irish thatched houses make you feel like you have too much — too big a house, too many possessions, too much of everything.

The pull of the land there is strong. When we visited, so too had come other relatives from as far away as San Francisco. A family wedding is enough to fly 15 hours.

Peat is still the major heat source for many families and it is available in abundance for only the cost of hard work digging it. The mule cart to bring it to the house has been replaced by a pickup or a small wagon behind the family car.

Into the 1950s a horse cart was used to transport the departed to the cemetery near the ocean’s edge where a cousin told us it is said the wind never stops blowing. All the headstones face east so that on the final day the resurrected will face that last sunrise and their Maker.

The family of a Maine governor came from Carna. Director John Ford’s (Feeny) family came from the West as well. The regular folks worked the Portland docks when there was cargo to unload and prayed for a case of Irish whiskey headed for Canada during Prohibition.

There are relatives of Kathy’s not only in Maine but predominantly Chicago, a city that drew many Irish with opportunities for work, as did Boston and New York.

In much of the West, there are lovely hillside fields as green as the green in Ford’s The Quiet Man. Remember Maureen O’Hara’s hair whipped alluringly around her face by strong wind?

The green fields in the west of Ireland

As you drive west of Galway, though, the ground gets rougher, hillier, boulders strewn about, peaks in the distance getting closer and closer. Already narrow roads skinny down to little more than a single lane. You sometimes stop and pull over a bit for a car going the other way, often at a high rate of speed. It’s a long way to anywhere as you head deeper into the country.

Then you finally reach a place where people still speak of banshees and other spirits, where it is sometimes said the space between this world and the next grows thin. Where to fall asleep under an oak tree, if you can find one, means you might awaken in the land of the faeries.

Of course, we are modern and cynical even of our own myths. We wouldn’t believe in such things. Still to stand on a high rise above the sea in the wild West and feel that wind journeyed across the whole Atlantic whirl about you. . . then you just might become a little Irish.

Photos by Kathy Arsenault

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

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