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Traveling in Style : SURVIVAL OF THE IRISH : On Ireland's Dingle Peninsula, the Landscape and the Language Are Revered, And You'll Hear More Poetry Than Can Be Found in Most Books

March 05, 1995|Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill | Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill is an Irish-language poet and author of the collection "The Astrakhan Cloak," with English translation by Paul Muldoon (Wake Forest Press). She lives in Dublin.

I MUST BE MAD. IT IS A MISERABLE DAY AND I AM TRUDGING AROUND A wind-swept graveyard in the parish of Ventry, on the Dingle peninsula. This is the most westerly point in Ireland--"next parish, America." Sudden squalls, mixed with hailstones, batter the gravestones. Yet, ever since daybreak, people have been braving the elements to make the three, seven or nine clockwise rounds that are prescribed by the ritual of the turus, or "pattern." They say a decade of the rosary with each round and a special prayer for the occasion, which starts in Irish, Go mbeannaithear duit a Chaitli n Naofa ("Hail to you, Blessed Catherine").

Today is the feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria in Egypt, Ventry's patron saint. Though not an official church holiday anywhere else, today is a special day in this parish. Apart from absolutely necessary duties such as milking the odd cow, no normal work is permitted. There has been a special Mass for the Feastday at 10 o'clock and the rest of the day is one long celebration.

Old people and sick people and recluses who have not emerged from their houses all year arise from their beds and make the supreme effort to perform the turus and, greatly invigorated by the exercise, are later found in the nearby pub, toasting each others' health and that of the saint with Guinness and gusto. People from the surrounding parishes come to do the rounds and to take part in the evening revelries. Expats like myself, forlorn in linguistic exile in Dublin, make the 200-mile journey with their families, daring life and limb on treacherous, rain-slicked roads to get home for the pattern.

Linguistic exile? Yes, nothing less, because this is the Gaeltacht , or Irish-speaking area, of the Dingle peninsula, Corcha Dhuibhne . Composed of the seven ancient parishes on the peninsula's westernmost tip, this approximately 12-by-7-mile area is one of the last strongholds of the Munster dialect of Irish, by far the most musical and resonant of the three main dialects, the others being the Connacht and Ulster dialects. It was in the province of Munster that the old literary and manuscript tradition was kept alive. And it is here that the language has held out in almost pristine form, in spite of the constant danger of erosion by the ever-powerful presence of English.

It was here to my aunt's house in the village of Cahiratrant that I was fostered out at the age of 5. Until then, I had lived quite happily in England, and though Irish was spoken in the house, I had only a passive knowledge of the language. But what I was to experience on the Dingle peninsula was a great sense of relief, a sense of belonging, of being a link in a long familial chain. What delighted me more than anything else was the dinnsheanchas , the stories we tell each other about the landscape as we walk around it. And with an unbroken literary tradition of 1,500 years and countless millennia of an oral tradition behind it, this mytho-poetic dimension to the landscape is rich and variegated and deeply nuanced.

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THIRTY-SEVEN MILES LONG AND NEVER MORE THAN 10 MILES WIDE, the Dingle peninsula rises out of the broad Atlantic like some humped, mythical sea creature. Its stunning scenery is probably best known to Americans from David Lean's epic "Ryan's Daughter." Even the Irish National Tourist Agency assiduously markets the area as " 'Ryan's Daughter' Country"--to the chagrin of us locals, who, in the course of going to work and to church and raising families, know better. And as dramatic as the scenery looks in Technicolor, the best camera work cannot capture the effects achieved naturally here by the simple play of light on water: from the thrilling shine of silver when the sea is calm to the purple and indigo hues that color it in full swell. All four seasons of the year can be encountered here in a single day: from the spring light of morning to a torrid, almost subtropical midday, to wet, high winds toward evening, followed by cool night breezes.

There are other good reasons to come , from the fishing and Gulf Stream sea life (including great tortoises and Fungie, the famously friendly dolphin of Dingle town harbor) to the local artists and crafts people to the beautiful and desolate Blasket Islands (where the Irish language was rediscovered by European philologists at the turn of the century). But the other great, unquantifiable charm of the area is the people, and their natural gift for conversation. Locals believe that the art of talking dies out east of the Shannon River. Here in Dingle, all is nod and wink, arpeggio and innuendo. The talk eddies and spins, rises, soars and dives like a verbal equivalent of the aerial acrobatics of the ravens that fly above us. Indeed, you can often find more poetry in a Dingle pub than between the covers of most books. And in recent years, an increasing number of Irish and non-Irish alike come for the Gaelic courses offered on the peninsula.

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