New collection shines a light on the Skelligs

A new book collects the writings and lore on the famous Kerry islands and surrounding area by a man who lived most of his life in Ballinskelligs, says Marjorie Brennan.

New collection shines a light on the Skelligs

A new book collects the writings and lore on the famous Kerry islands and surrounding area by a man who lived most of his life in Ballinskelligs, says Marjorie Brennan.

LONG before Luke Skywalker took his light sabre to the Skelligs, the rocky islands off the coast of Kerry’s Iveragh peninsula had a starring role in literature and lore, inspiring everyone from monks to naturalists to storytellers down the centuries.

One of those who fell under the Skelligs spell was the late Michael Kirby, whose prose and poetry have been gathered in a new collection, Skelligs Haul.

Apart from a brief period in the US during the Depression, Kirby, who died in 2005, lived most of his 98 years in Ballinskelligs, where he fished and farmed across from Skellig Michael (and its sibling Little Skellig).

Kirby’s masterful command of Irish and English and his appreciation for the bounty of nature and wildlife which surrounded him leap from the pages of Skelligs Haul. Like the islands that inspired him, Kirby’s deceptively simple writing exerts a mesmerising pull, and it is hard to believe his work wasn’t published until he was 78-years-old.

The circumstances under which he came to writing were challenging in themselves, according to former DCU English lecturer, Mary Shine Thompson, who edited the collection.

“He was ill, following a heart attack and he had been given orders to sort out his affairs,” she says. “His son-in-law Pat [Coffey] brought Mikey two copybooks and some biros, so he could fill his time. He never looked back — he just had a natural gift for writing a beautiful sentence, with all sorts of complexity to it,” she says.

Kirby went on to accumulate two decades of published work, as well as paintings of the local landscape, which are reproduced in the book. It draws from Kirby’s poetry written in Irish under the name of Mícheál Ua Ciarmhaic and an earlier trilogy of memoir and storytelling, Skelligside (1990), Skelligs Calling (2003) and Skelligs Sunset (2006), previously published by Lilliput Press but now out of print.

“I edited the posthumous Skelligs Sunset in 2006. But now, 13 years later, a new generation has grown up without seeing the old books, and it seemed like there was a lacuna there, that somebody needed to go through the work and compile a nice collection which would tempt people to look further at Mikey’s work,” says Shine Thompson.

Shine Thompson says that because Kirby’s life spanned the 20th century as well as bridging two millennia, it gave him a unique perspective on how society, and his own surroundings, changed in that time. “He was almost 99 when he died in 2005, so he had lived the whole of the 20th century, and observed all the changes of that century, which is amazing.

“He saw the ebb and flow of modernisation — there was a railway which went right out onto the peninsula, and he also witnessed the coming and closing of the cable station. A whole millennium of thought has gone into the writing of this book — even more because of his closeness to nature.”

SCHOOL OF LIFE

Like many people at the time Kirby did not go on to secondary school because of the prohibitive cost.

“He left school at about 13 and had no further education after that. But what is interesting is you can see traces of Wordsworth and Shakespeare, the British canon, from when he attended school. It wasn’t a nice experience for him though; it was quite violent in the way of the time, though clearly he was intelligent and interested in learning.

“He seemed to get a love of literature despite the difficulties of schooling and he has a sense of the importance of the local literature and people like the folklorist and storyteller Seán Ó Conaill — the latter couldn’t read or write but had an extraordinary cache of local lore.”

One of Kirby's paintings of the Skelligs.
One of Kirby's paintings of the Skelligs.

The knowledge that was handed down to Kirby in terms of nature, landscape and place was also enviably broad in scope. The place names featured in his work are an invaluable repository of knowledge in their own right, according to Shine Thompson.

“There are nearly 300 place names that he mentions that I have included in the index of the local places — and that is just around the peninsula. Some of those are caves and inlets that nobody knows about anymore, and nobody would know apart from the occasional fisherman, or Mikey’s own son Declan,” she says.

DUAL TEXTS

The book features dual texts of poems by Kirby, from Irish to English and vice-versa.

“One of his favourite lines was that when he was growing up people had good Irish and bad English, but now, he said, we have bad Irish and bad English,” says Shine Thompson. “I thought he was hard on people saying that but he did have such elegant English, the kind that is difficult to achieve — it’s beyond complexity, to get something as crystal clear as he gets it is very difficult.”

Shine Thompson also praises his descriptive powers, often bestowed with a sly humour. “He also has that direct link to the land, he’s telling you what he’s seen and he has an acute vision — he doesn’t try to fiddle around with or change what he sees.”

For example, he writes of the skua seabird: “Tomáisín chac na bhFaoileán, or in English, ‘Little Tommy Gull-shit’, is the pirate robber and tormentor of other birds, devouring all unwanted matter… It can manoeuvre in the air like a falcon — chasing, hunting and harrying the other gulls until they drop a piece of fish, regurgitate or discharge excreta — at the same time uttering a wild, terrifying cry, ‘Scheer Scheer’, frightening the honest bird to abandon its piece of fish. I have often watched the pirate in pursuit of its repulsive occupation.”

Shine Thompson observes: “That has scientific accuracy about it and it’s also a kind of earthy, immediate response to the bird. Everything about it seems to be in keeping with the skua itself.”

Kirby’s manuscripts are now archived in UCC and Shine Thompson believes his work are of significant academic value.

I’m hoping the book will also renew interest in his work among scholars. There’s a lot of scholarly work to be undertaken here, to do with place names, local knowledge, and genealogy — as there are over 200 people’s names in the book, going back to the early 1800s.

Shine Thompson also hopes that Skelligs Haul brings his significant talents to a new generation of readers.

“One of my hopes is that this is a book for everyone to read and enjoy — including the generation of people who have come to know the Skelligs through the Stars Wars films. They put the Skelligs on the map in a different way but I’m hoping the book gets people to come back and look at it differently again.”

What does she think Kirby would have made of the Hollywood circus coming to his beloved Skelligs?

“I think he would probably be concerned about the sustainability aspect. You have the sense that he is at one with the environment, that every blade of grass, every bird, every animal matters as much to him as every human being does.

"All have their dignity and their place and I think he’d be concerned about preserving that. On the other hand, he was a great man to tell a story so I think he would have enjoyed the storytelling side of it.”

Skelligs Haul, by Michael Kirby, ed. Mary Shine Thompson, Lilliput Press

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