Salvaging Islands

by Fanny Howe

Ireland has a long history of island stories drawn from the moody sea and sky on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Here fishermen and donkeys and hard-worked girls stood for a world that functioned on necessity. From Peig Sayers and Tomás Ó Criomhthain (The Islandman) to Liam O’Flaherty (Skerrett) and Emma Donoghue (Haven), from the Blaskets and Skelligs to Aran and Achill, Ireland’s islands were prototypes of “the little life,” and they all prophesied their own disappearance. Such life was blessed and cursed by a plenty of water and stone, its people limited in strength and endurance.

Philosopher Richard Kearney’s third novel, Salvage, is in the lineage of this Irish literature of islands. Brigid’s Island, also called Rabbit Island, lies in a cluster of other islands off the west coast of Ireland. For a reader in the twenty-first century, the story of Maeve O’Sullivan is a familiar one. Set on an island, one that is barely surviving, the story shows this ancient world in turmoil. Maeve lives in two worlds that can’t be reconciled. We are not reading about a lost civilization and imaginary kingdoms, but about our own time. This time. With aerial bombing and tanks. Maeve stands on the edge of all that. She has always been happy on the island, with its magnificent varieties of plants, fish, birds, weather. The reader shares her happiness from the first page when the island is illuminated by the eye of the writer.

In this novel, we see the natural world, currents like the ocean and the wind, and changes in temper that we can’t comprehend, although we sense how familiar they are. It is nature herself who provides salvation from shipwrecks at sea and healing through ancient cures with plants and pucaí‚ mushrooms that pop up in the night [fás aon oíche] to salve the wounds of sadness and give food for our bodies.

How can blood and bones contain experience, store it away in delight or terror? The air is still, transparent, hollow, and yet it keeps us alive. We inhabit a world that cannot remain stable because it can’t be exactly measured. It must be processed through the mysterious senses of the individual. And memory is like a second-level experience drawn from the actual. We can’t locate what we most remember.

Salvage has the fragility of a breath taken in the hope that all will be recalled, that a fire will blaze again. The breath in the air, the fragility of words whipping from mouth to ear and back. All is contained here: currents, electric storms, the appearance of a friend and their complete disappearance too. Our isolation imperiled by the arrival of others.

Kearney tells this story in the lineage of Irish island stories, so many and so marvelous, with fish and fishermen, animals and phantoms, nets and plants to make living easier. Children love this literature, as it comforts and teaches them. Kearney grew up in the country he is describing, and this has produced in him, and through him, a kind of reverse DNA. He has grown into the body of land and sky and embodies in his own flesh what he knows and is, a biological confluence between the landscape and a growing child.

The story is bursting with intimate contact, with familiarity with plants and sea creatures that seem to grow from the writer’s pen as the origins of life might. Like mushrooms, sources of nourishment and cure. Yet this is a story about belief and its fragility. Like the Irish language these islanders still speak, their ancestral belief is threatened by new generations and their discoveries. The words that island people spoke for generations are not separate from the herbs they grew and the sounds in the air. Language changes naturally over time, passed around, savored and spat out, some of it preserved in books and prayers, all the rest washed away.

The Irish saint Brigid (recently erased from the Catholic lexicon, before being restored as matron of the land) has deep roots in the philosophy that Kearney has been developing for decades: anatheism, anacarnation, God after God, the sacred in the profane, roots growing right along the furrow line where theology and philosophy have come to touch at last. Here that line is revealed in the love story between an island girl and a city boy on the west coast of Ireland, where St. Brigid is still remembered in wells and streams, stones and flowers. She was first a goddess and then fell to the status of saint, and what she was always known for are a few scraps of lore. In this story, Kearney manages to turn the saint into a human girl, not a memory, where words become wood to illuminate and to warm.

Like Brigid, Maeve is a born healer and has the Irish language born in her too, which gives her capacities that are awakened by her voice and hands. This is no more unlikely than DNA traces lasting for eons in a cold cave of ice. Traces of sound and stones and yellow petals, the same as songs in the impressions they leave and newly arouse. This is a gentle story thrown into a rough world, the twentieth century only just past, missiles flying overhead, drones replacing hawks and herons. Healing is the wish behind the tale of Maeve, a mystery that Kearney is driven to solve. The writing itself effects the healing of both writer and reader. Some wounds of lostness and mourning, what the islanders call simply “the Sadness,” can never be healed. Kearney’s optimism is nonetheless resurrectionist: to be made whole again, unblemished, washed. God is not named, and love is only of the ordinary kind, not an imperative.

Brigid was a saint after being a goddess. She was an ordinary Irish woman with enormous and unusual skills. Now she is a name for a place where there is water and a well to contain it. And this gem of a book is another such container: a holding place for hope. Salvage is another great book of intelligent religious feeling to come out of Ireland.

Published on October 20, 2023