I was browsing in a bookshop in Kenmare quite a few years ago. A title - 'Beat the Goatskin till the Goat Cries' - grabbed my attention, and the prose and poetry of its author, Gabriel Fitzmaurice, have since become regular rereads. There is a subtitle to this work – 'Notes from a Kerry Village' – and each of the four sections of the book, each with a number of chapters, deals with aspects of village life in the west of Ireland.
Perhaps a couple of references from a few of the chapters may give a taste of the delight with which I have read and reread this book over the past ten years.
InA Kerry of the Mind Fitzmaurice says 'It has become a commonplace to say that a given place is a state of mind and Kerry is such a place. We have been fed romantic, Celtic-twilight images of Kerry by the tourist industry with such success that not only do tourists flock to Kerry, but the natives half believe the soft focus tinted images of their lives too'.
In Culpable Innocence he speaks of the threat to rural life both from without and within. From without it is under threat economically. It is under resourced, under funded, under developed. Misunderstood. It is also under threat from within – from poor self image, from hopelessness, from depression, from unemployment. Despite the facts, many of the people of Kerry, indeed of the whole of the west of Ireland, have chosen to make it irrelevant by a process of re-creation. Not recreation as escape, pastime or hobby but as re-creation of themselves in their community, transforming their environment – emotional, cultural and spiritual.
He also refers to Eamon de Valera's much maligned image of young people dancing at the crossroads and while it might not have been what the country needed economically, it represented a vital part in the spiritual well-being of the people.
Fitzmaurice was born in the small village of Moyvane, a few miles from Listowel, grew up there and returned to teach in the local school. In 'Missing' the Masterhe sees teachers today as being liberated in their communities by the lack of authority which along with that of the priests, and perhaps the doctors, made schoolmasters, at one time, the most revered and feared people in their communities. Ideally, he says, a teacher is a spiritual leader who inspires, encourages, cajoles and advises the community to fulfil its promise.
There are wonderful chapters throughout the book – the loneliness of an only child at Christmas, Sunday night at Mairead's Bar, the defeat of Kerry by Down in the 1960 All Ireland Senior Football Final [the 8 year old didn't even know such a place existed], the Listowel Literary Phenomenon, the Wrenboys, and more besides – but for me the gem is the Cornerboys.
'Much has been written', says Gabriel Fitzmaurice, 'about corner boys. They are disparaged as a species, looked down upon and maligned as a group. They are said to be wasters, good-for-nothings, idlers, spongers, even a threat to society. I have been one and I'm proud to admit it.'
This is his piece on the subject.
A Corner Boy
Just lazing at the cross with friends and neighbours
Just gossiping the morning hours away
Returning to the time when we, teenagers,
Learned to stand and wait an idle day.
When dogs curled up and slept at Brosnan’s Corner
When our lives stretched out before us like a haze
When everything seemed happier and warmer
Ah yes! Those were the very best of days.
And here I am again at Brosnan’s Corner
Gossiping the morning hours away.
No! The past is neither happier nor warmer.
Sufficient is its evil to the day.
I stand here with my back against the wall.
Take no thought for a world in its own thrall.
'Beat the Goatskin till the Goat Cries' is one of my favourite books and is also a wonderful introduction to the huge breadth of poetry and prose coming out of North Kerry.