National Geographic : 1976 Apr
Irish Ways Live On inDingle By BRYAN HODGSON SENIOR EDITORIAL STAFF Photographs by LINDA BARTLETT IN AUTUMN, when the oats are ripe, old men's scythes sweep whisper-sharp along the hills, laying down the heavy stalks for binding. John Hanifin shows me the trick of it--a swift turn of arm and wrist that ties each sheaf with a firm straw knot devised perhaps a thousand years before Druid or Christian set foot in Ireland. Now his bright-cheeked face beams down from the summit of the stack, his soft Kerry voice a benediction on my aching muscles as I pitch up the sheaves to him. "Look at 'oo now! I think 'oo was born to it!" We have worked through a sultry after noon on the flank of Croaghskearda moun tain, stopping only now and then to gauge the storm of rain standing in from Dingle Bay. Autumns are wet here, and farmers speak of saving the harvest, not of reaping. The weath er holds. We start a final stack, laying the sheaves grain-inward on a fresh bed of fern and scarlet-blossomed wild fuchsia so that none will mildew against the earth. John loosely thatches the top with straw, then slides blithely down, his legs resilient as a lad's despite his 64 years. "There, Bryan! The day is down! Come in with me to the house." John and Nellie Hanifin live on the Dingle Peninsula, a 30-mile tongue of cloud-hung mountains and sea-scoured bays that juts into the Atlantic from County Kerry in south west Ireland (map, page 555). Its western end is known officially as Kerry Gaeltacht, one of seven tiny enclaves within the republic where Irish is still the language of the home. Irish speakers call the peninsula Corca Dhuibhne (Cork-a-GWEEN-eh), Seed of the Goddess, in memory of prehistoric tribesmen who so named themselves. Around its bays and headlands lie ancient ruined villages, and shrines that mark the age when Druid priests and Christian monks first met. No shrines commemorate the bloodier meetings of English laws with Irish men, nor the century of exodus born of hope and hun ger. To the later days when Irish men spilled Irish blood, no marker stands save silence and headlines from the north. «H Y GREAT-GREAT-GRANDFATHER Swas John, and his son was Patrick. My L grandfather was John, and my father James. I am John, and my son too, and our name was in the village before all of us, but how long I do not know." John Hanifin sits easefully in the spotless kitchen while Nellie prepares tea. "Just a rough cup, out of your hand," she says, piling up slabs of fresh-baked soda bread and cake, Rugged as the land he tills, John Hanifin stands with scythe and sharpening stone in his oat field on the Dingle Peninsula. Hearths here glow with peat fires and the Irish tongue is still spoken by many of the 9,000 inhabitants. But as modern influences invade the isolated peninsula, the survival of Irish traditions becomes uncertain.