He was continuing this journey down the coast of Spain and Portugal when he died, writes Victoria White.
THE sea is, “as rough, as cruel, as unwelcoming, as devious, as deadly as anything you’ll ever encounter”. So said musician Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich in the recent TG4 documentary Camino an tSáile.
His words rung true at the weekend when the news broke that the Kerry poet, writer, boat-builder and stonemason Domhnall Mac Síthigh had died following an accident with his traditional “naomhóg” (currach) at the mouth of the River Minho between Spain and Portugal. There was something particularly tragic about this death, because it happened to a man who built a dream and was rowing in it.
The surviving crew members, who swam to shore with Danny, as he was always called, shared this dream from its beginnings in the Grainstore Youth Arts Centre in Dublin’s Cabinteely just before the turn of the millennium.
They are all extraordinary in their own right. Pádraigh Ó Duinnín founded the community boat-building venture, Meitheal Mara in Crosses Green, Cork, which has transformed the lives of many young people. Liam Ó Maonlaí is an astonishing singer and multi-instrumentalist in many genres. Breanndán Ó Beaghlaíoch is a famous West Kerry traditional musician.
All of them are also, like Danny, philosophers and spiritual adventurers, in a quest for truth. The traditional naomhóg was, on this occasion, the chosen vehicle for that quest.
Danny was first a stonemason and his book on the stone walls of Kerry, Allagar na gCloch, is a bit of a collector’s item. He sees the humanity in each wall, in each stone which must have been touched by the human hand of someone long dead.
This vision brings an incredible richness to how we see the landscape and Danny adds the words in Irish which describe the nine types of stone he sees: “carraigeacha, clocha talún, galláin, ceaisteanna, bioráin, fardhóirse, leacacha, clocha, spallaí, agus mionchlocha…” It brings to mind that line from the poet Paul Mudoon, “Twenty-eight words for seaweed whitening on the strand.”
Danny was devoted to his native Kerry Irish and warned of the importance of handing it on to the next generation. But I fear we grieve in him one of the last generation who truly spoke the language.
Danny had never made a traditional naomhóg before he was asked to do so for a community arts project in the late 1990s but he saw a connection between the work of stonemason and boat-builder. They are called “saor cloiche” and “soar báid” in Irish — “saor” means “free” in Irish — and they both require the “freedom to see”.
The boat-building process led him back to lost childhood memories of the fishing community in the West Kerry Gaeltacht. There is a moving moment in his boat-building memoir, Fan Inti, when the carcass of his new naomh/og brings forth the buried image of two long-dead fishermen from the Blasket Islands standing with the naomhóg carcass they had made in Dún Chaoin in the middle of the last century.
The naomhóg is particularly associated with Kerry and though it is claimed by some in Clare that it originated there, this notion is not popular in Kerry. Danny contends this was the type of boat used there in the time of St. Brendan the Navigator. The word “naomhóg” is the diminutive of the old Irish “nae” which comes from the Latin for boat, “navis”. The boats were covered in horse skins until the early 1830s, we are told, but from then on canvas was used.
The process of making the naomhóg is profound in itself. Danny used four types of wood. The “turning” of the wood — with the help of steam produced by a kettle with a dicky lid — required huge patience and expertise.
The boat is made by human hand for the human body and has, as Breanndán Ó Beaglaíoch says, a human shape. In Fan Inti Danny often sees the naomhóg as having a human life of its own: the first, failed attempt is like a miscarriage and the “skeleton” of the boat seems to him like a child born without skin.
Making the boat and putting it on the water becomes an exploration of man’s relationship with nature, with history, with spirituality. Danny explains to his students at the Grainstore that there is no straight line on a “naomhóg” because there is no straight line on the sea, except the horizon, which we never reach.
And through the naomhóg the dead generations speak loudly to him, including his many ancestors who were lost at sea. As is typical in traditional cultures, he is grateful to them for handing down their knowledge to him and he wishes them “steady boats” on the seas of eternity.
So much of this is poignant in the context of his own tragedy. He writes, for instance, of the beautiful sight of a coffin being carried from the Blaskets by naomhóg, the oars making the sign of the cross: “It’s a pity that this is one of the true wonders of the world which is gone from our life”, he says, “and we are much poorer for it.” Danny was not lost at sea, of course, which must be a comfort to his grieving family. He himself wrote of the horror facing a family which could not bury a drowned relation.
I wonder did he have with him his Native American charm, presented to him by Liam Ó Maonlaí when his first naomhóg was launched? It was said to bring a man safe out of the water and he did reach the shore safely, where he subsequently became ill.
He joked about having Holy Water in one hand and Native American charms in the other at the launch of his first boat. Call it superstition or faith, depending on your outlook, but spirituality was absolutely central to Danny’s journeys and those of the people he brought with him.
The first naomhóg was blessed by a priest and then launched by Liam Ó Maonlaí with water from a Brigidine well on Shankill Beach. A seal obligingly popped up and swam around the boat.
Danny’s boat journeys were pilgrimages, the first to bring a bible in Irish to the island of Iona, the second to follow the path of Irish pilgrims, first travelled 800 years ago when they sailed and then walked the Camino to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. He was continuing this journey down the coast of Spain and Portugal when he died.
“Are the dead living?” he wrote when he looked at the hand-made walls of West Kerry and heard them speak.
Danny’s legacy of living in harmony with nature and his courageous search for truth are needed today like never before. It falls to us, the living, to follow his pilgrim’s path.
He was continuing this journey down the coast of Spain and Portugal when he died
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