THE Camino de Santiago pilgrimage walk has proved irresistible to many, including to poet, Liam Ó Muirthile.
“I was attracted to the idea of it — the distance, the journey, the historical significance, the metaphor of the journey itself. Any artist of any worth has undertaken a small-scale Camino — the only place you can find your art is in yourself,” he says.
The Cork-born poet’s love for language extends beyond Irish to work in French, Spanish, and also translations of poetry from former colonies such as Senegal, Guadalupe, and Martinique. The Camino also gave him the chance to ruminate on national and regional identity, a topic given an added frisson by recent events in Catalonia.
“Spain is a very fragile democracy; it is barely out of nappies. I remember the day Franco died; I was working as a journalist. The Camino provides a fascinating encounter with different regional cultures — the Basque country, Asturias, Catalunya, and Galicia. When you are standing in Bayonne, you are in France, but you are also in the Basque country — Catalunya is just over the border. Where does Catalunya begin and end; where does the Basque country begin and end? Are they natural frontiers, imposed frontiers? Where does regional identity begin and where does it finish?”
Dublin-based Ó Muirthile likens the Basques to his southern brethren, while, in Galicia, he experienced an even stronger connection to Ireland.
“The Basques are like the Corkonians of Spain. They call them fanfarrónes, which means a boastful people. They eat a lot, drink a lot, and talk a lot,” he laughs. “Galicia is a second home in a strange, spiritual sense, even though I banned the word ‘spiritual’ from my own vocabulary, in terms of the Camino, because it is terribly abused.”
Ó Muirthile walked the Camino Française, a total of 770km, across the Pyrenees from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela, in the autumn of 2015. A journal of his travels, Oilithreach Pinn (A Literary Pilgrimage), has just been published, and poems from the journey will be published next year, in Irish, English, Spanish, and Galego [Galician].
“I wanted to write a collection of poems that came only from the rhythm of walking. I composed the poems in my head, which confined them… because you can’t do complex imagery in your head. There are no sub-clauses, conditional clauses or metaphors. It is all short lines. You can construct a poem any day of the week, but if it doesn’t carry the sweat and dust and spit of the road, maybe it isn’t carrying that weight for you.”
Ó Muirthile grew up on Douglas Street, where his mother ran The Gables pub, and he attended school in South Presentation and Coláiste Chríost Rí.
“My parents weren’t Irish speakers and my first encounter with Irish was in school. I had a need for something and it was fulfilled by language. My mother and father came from West Cork, so there was a strong storytelling culture in the family. Growing up in the pub, a lot of country people came in and there was a feeling of ‘scoraíocht’, where you call into a house, have a cup of tea, and tell stories and get all the news.
“Douglas Street, when I was growing up, was like something out of a Brueghel painting. You had Lunhams [bacon factory], the slaughterhouse, blood flowing down the street, butchers coming into the pub, knives clanking. I still have a strong feeling for the place.
“It is also steeped in literary history; there was a place down in White Street called Joyce’s Alley. James Joyce’s grandfather had stables down there. Frank O’Connor was born across the street.”
This feeling of connection with the past was also something that sustained Ó Muirthile on the Camino.
“I am a believer in pilgrimage in a medieval sense. It functions to ground us in some way. We have unsettled souls; we are human beings, bound for mortality, wondering about eternity. There is a consolation in doing something that is a ritual — there have been many before us, many will come after us, and we are part of something greater than ourselves, if only for a moment.”
- Liam Ó Muirthile reads extracts from Oilithreach Pinn at Poetry Ireland, Dublin, on October 20, as part of the IMRAM festival; www.imram.ie