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"...predestined to keep sanity in men who live forgotten in these worlds of mist..."

The Aran Islands is J.M. Synge's account of his trips to the remote Arans, off of the west coast of Ireland, in 1898-1901. I admire the sudden shifts here, in both climate and mood:

A week of sweeping fogs has passed over and given me a strange sense of exile and desolation. I walk round the island nearly every day, yet I can see nothing anywhere but a mass of wet rock, a strip of surf, and then a tumult of waves.

The slaty limestone has grown black with the water that is dripping on it, and wherever I turn there is the same grey obsession twining and wreathing itself among the narrow fields, and the same wail from the wind that shrieks and whistles in the loose rubble of the walls.

At first the people do not give much attention to the wilderness that is round them, but after a few days their voices sink in the kitchen, and their endless talk of pigs and cattle falls to the whisper of men who are telling stories in a haunted house.

The rain continues; but this evening a number of young men were in the kitchen mending nets, and the bottle of poteen was drawn from its hiding-place.

One cannot think of these people drinking wine on the summit of this crumbling precipice, but their grey poteen, which brings a shock of joy to the blood, seems predestined to keep sanity in men who live forgotten in these worlds of mist.

I sat in the kitchen part of the evening to feel the gaiety that was rising, and when I came into my own room after dark, one of the sons came in every time the bottle made its round, to pour me out my share.

It has cleared, and the sun is shining with a luminous warmth that makes the whole island glisten with the splendor of a gem, and fills the sea and sky with a radiance of blue light.

I wasn't familiar with the word poteen, which Webster's defines as "whiskey illicitly distilled in Ireland." That makes sense. I'm sure that, despite its gray color, it was an inviting and essential part of everyday life that got many people through long stretches of chill and damp, until the sunshine returned at last.

June 28, 2015 in Books | Permalink

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