Weather Report: On Beauty
Post #11: "Thirty-Two Words for Field: Lost words of the Irish landscape", by Manchán Magan
If you have a copy of my book, Weather Report: A 90-day journal for reflection and well-being, with the aid of the Beaufort Wind Scale, you might have noticed two things; that you are daily invited to write or draw, 'one thing you found beautiful today', and a list of reading resources at the back. These are not unconnected.
This is a year-long project to write weekly, choosing one of the books from that list with a few wildcards too. I want to go deeper into the subject of beauty and, together with you who join me here, to deepen my own understanding of why it is important. Some of the books on the list are very recent; others are long-standing companions that I return to over and over. To me these are the kind of books that, having read them, I can gain solace simply from having them on my shelves.
I have a memory of my late father talking about some of the fields of his rural childhood and their names. The one that has stuck in my mind is one named eireaball, the Irish word for ‘tail’, simply because the field was shaped like a tail.
However, Machán Magan’s wonderful book, Thirty-Two Words for Field, is not just about fields, although that does have its own fascinating chapter. The book deals with how the rich resource of language, in this case the Irish language, “brings with it many concepts and ways of seeing the world, concerning our empathy with animals, our connection to the environment and the things we choose to do with the time we have at our disposal.” (p. 48/49) The thirty-two words of the title had subtle differences and layers of meaning, all of which had accreted over centuries and generations.
“Looking at fields through the prism of Irish makes it clear how central they were to society. A gort was a priceless, almost sacred thing handed down through generations, having first been built up over centuries, sometimes by hauling seaweed from the shore to fertilise it; by burning limestone in kilns to enrich its alkalinity; by sending pigs in to root it up, cows to fertilise it and hens to condition the soil; and by having children pick stones out of it after each hard frost when the earth would disgorge ever more from deep underground. A gort, like a forest, was something begun by one generation and nurtured by the next in hopes that, in time, it would develop its true potential.
There was an understanding that it wasn’t merely a unit of production: it was a living organism. In this view… a field was a collective of biodiverse interactions, from the microorganisms labouring away on every leaf, stem and speck of soil to the miles of mycelium pulsating through the soil, connecting every atom in a natural network of unfathomable complexity.” (p. 131/2)
Magan credits his rich childhood experiences in the Kerry Gaeltacht, spent with his grandmother Sighle Humphreys, and the consequent exposure to a living Irish language in daily use, with his evident deep connection to language and place. It was a mere few hours away from his suburban middle-class Dublin city home, but worlds away too.
Despite its title, and as I’ve already said, this book is about far more than fields and their rich naming. There are chapters that explore thresholds, fairy psychology, seaweed, cows and copper and more, much more. In the chapter titled ‘Winds’, we see how a deep understanding of wind, and the cardinal points, becomes poetic:
“Corcra (‘crimson’ or ‘purple’) signifies the dawn in the east, as opposed to the ebbing light of evening in the west, which is give a dun colour. That northern black wind is as full of all the connotations that dubh (‘black’) has today;: tempestuous, rough, dark. It summons up the frigid, stormy terrain to the north, whereas the white of the southern wind represents the light and warmth that come from the equator. It conveys that it is from this direction that the rebirth of spring spreads, together with the gradually warming land and seas, and with insects and flocks of migrating birds.”(p. 321)
Magan also brings the reader through the compelling evidence of connections between Arabic and Irish, noting the musical arabesques common in Irish traditional music, and “the elaborate decorations that cover every inch of free space in the Book of Kells… reminiscent of the elaborate swirling decorations that typify the arabesque ornamentation covering the walls of mosques or… of Alhambra palace in Granada.” (p. 204). Then he moves to consider the influence of India and writes of being introduced to the idea that Govinda / Krishna is the same god as that of the River Boyne in Co. Meath. (p.217)
I don’t know the exact location of my previously mentioned field named eireaball but it was most likely in one of three townslands in Co. Waterford: Reatagh, where my dad was born and reared, or it could be either Tinhalla or Portnaboe which were both adjacent. Reatagh translates roughly as ‘the cleared land’; Tinhalla, or Tigh an Chalaidh, means House of the Ferry and it has a landing spot that was traditionally used by fishermen on the River Suir; Portnaboe, Port Úth na Bó, is Embankment of the Cow’s Udder (from its shape).In his chapter, 'Deciphering Place', Magan writes that, “Through a place name we get to renew or enliven the land and revitalise our relationship with it… You will become linked to a place in a way that is the polar opposite of our current sense of disconnection and alienation from our surroundings.” (p. 156)
Footnote: In an interesting bit of serendipity I am currently reading a newly-published book by Dougald Hine, At Work in the Ruins,, where he writes in one chapter about 'knowing', as opposed to ‘knowledge’; the latter something we can hold at arms length, the former something that happens when that distance is collapsed: ‘… the power of this experience of knowing is formative: there is a tenderness of attention to places and creatures which few other practices of modern life allow for, and to spend time with its practitioners is to witness something it’s hard not to call love.’ (Hine, p. 73)
For me, Manchán Magan is one such practitioner, as was my dad.
All meanings sourced from The Place Names of the Decies by Rev. P. Canon Power
At Work in the Ruins: Finding our place in the time of science, climate change, pandemics and all the other emergencies by Dougald Hine (2023, Chelsea Green publishing) I highly recommend it.
Absolutely love this week's newsletter, Margaret. It reminds me of my village, and all the (nick)names that "meant" something. Either a landmark, or a memory.
And this sentence is beautiful: "The thirty-two words of the title had subtle differences and layers of meaning, all of which had accreted over centuries and generations." What a great use of accreated.
This, as well as your discussion on knowing vs knowledge.