'What happened when we stopped paying attention?' Presenter Mary Brophy writes for Culture about this weekend's Lyric Feature, In The Wind - listen to it above.
We were once a culture that paid close attention to the natural world, the landscapes we lived in and the wild life we lived alongside. And we fixed that attention and knowledge into the words we spoke.
In Irish, the meaning or sounds of words wrap themselves around the very essence of a creature or element. Like doilbhcheo, a dark, deceptive mist. Scraith ghlugair, a quagmire, literally means a quivering sod. Cág, a jackdaw.
We need your consent to load this YouTube contentWe use YouTube to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences
Our place name system too, as historian P.W. Joyce described it, "embraced the minutest features of the country in its intricate network." Working fields and fishing grounds, our language evolved into a precise, pragmatic poetry that embedded knowledge of place, and signs of abundance, beauty or danger.
But what happened when we stopped paying attention?
That is the question at the heart of this radio hour as I explore who we were and what we’ve lost; uncover artists’ response to that loss and why or if it is important for us to begin to find a way back; to pay close attention to the natural world once again.
Despite growing evidence of the benefits to both children and adults, we no longer spend the majority of our time outdoors, in nature. Increasingly, lives are lived within insulated, online geographies. And so in Irish or English, we are losing our language for landscape and the natural world. We no longer know or name once common creatures like nightjar or traonach, [corncrake]. We have forgotten the field names, the meaning of place names and the wild world they once referenced. Like Wolfhill or Torc Mountain, the mountain of the wild boar.
We were once a culture that paid close attention to the natural world, the landscapes we lived in and the wild life we lived alongside.
Across four decades, the internationally renowned artist and cartographer Tim Robinson worked, as he described it, to "shore up that meaning" before it was lost, in his expansive study of the Aran Islands, the Burren and Connemara. As a chronicler of landscape, few come close to the beauty and precision of Robinson’s prose or detailed maps. He donated his archive to University College Galway in 2014 and here, amid a vast collection of field research, I discover "a template for how the work can be done" as archivist Kieran Hoare describes.
In recent years this awareness of what we are losing has grown in others. In response, writers, artists and communities have risen up to collect words. In the documentary I meet with artist Carol Anne Connolly, to learn how she created The Water Glossary, a beautiful word finder of Irish terms for water and weather. On the uplands of the Castlecomer plateau, I meet artist Alan Counihan to hear how he gained an intimacy with place as he unearthed old field names in this Kilkenny parish. Daily walks, paying attention, would evolve for Alan into a creative exploration of this rural landscape and sparked what is now a county wide community gathering – The Kilkenny Field Names Recording Project. And in West Kerry, along shoreline and in wild, bog terrain, I travel with journalist and folklorist Seán Mac an tSithigh. Through the prism of language, he shows me how the humblest of places are transformed into beauty, rich in detail, epic story and tradition.
We were once a culture that paid close attention to the natural world, the landscapes we lived in and the wild life we lived alongside. But we were also once a nation of subsistence labourers, enduring poverty in these fields and fishing grounds. We no longer need to spend our time outdoors, so the documentary asks: do we need the language anymore? Or in a time when more and more of our natural world is threatened with extinction, as the fields empty out of wild life, can we find a relevance for these words?
The Lyric Feature: In the Wind, presented by Mary Brophy and produced by Neal Boyle, RTÉ lyric fm, 6pm on Sunday 18th November - listen back after broadcast here.