Written close to a century ago and published in 1940 as Mo Bhealach Féin, This Road of Mine is the first English-language edition of Seosamh Mac Grianna’s best-known work. In it Mac Grianna writes with searing honesty on topics that engage or provoke him.
His shifting discourse flows easily, triggered by events and characters met on his travels in Wales, or in the Dublin city he knew in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The sympathetic translation is by Mícheál Ó hAodha, an Irish-language poet known for writing about nature.
The core strength of the book, to me, is Seosamh Mac Grianna’s anecdotes about himself and those he meets on his travels. Fascinating to read, these mini-narratives are often driven by the unconventional solutions Mac Grianna applies to financial problems.
Perhaps the best being the borrowing of a boat in Dún Laoghaire for an attempt to row to Wales with a friend who, though okay at stealing boats, does not know how to row. It’s best to leave the reader to find out how this story goes, but it is ahead of the main trip to Wales in This Road of Mine, precariously financed by a small lump sum from the sale of a piece of writing.
Born in 1900, Seosamh Mac Grianna qualified as a national-school teacher in 1921, but took the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War and was interned as a result. The revolutionary period in Ireland gave way to a more reactionary environment, which Mac Grianna had difficulty fitting into. Even ten years later, in the early 1930s, when the events in Mo Bhealach Féin seem to date from, his unconventional opinions could get him into trouble.
The concept of forging your own path in life was one that gained traction subsequently. So too did the idea of walking as a catalyst for writing, which seems to have been Mac Grianna’s default mode. Growing up as part of a large family in Rann na Feirste in mountainy Donegal, he didn’t need to wander far from his parents farm to reach the beach and think his own thoughts.
It seems he didn’t take well to teaching. He taught at nine schools in nine different counties before a nightmare vision of the world being bound in ropes like the lines of a school register convinced him to leave for Dublin.
Among the occupations he tried his hand at in the city were translation, fortune-telling (by post!), writing, and teaching Irish. When he had trouble paying his rent through the proceeds of his various freelance ventures, Mac Grianna went about the city observing the people, and seeking opportunities.
If the texture of his Dublin was different — everything we know today as plastic was then made of wood or brass, and the poverty he witnessed was more extreme — still the city he describes will resonate with Dubliners today. Mac Grianna spent so much time wandering around Dublin that he knew many street beggars by sight, and some to talk to. In the heavy snow of 1933, walking home after teaching an Irish-language class, his own shoes were so worn out he had to remove them and go home barefoot.
He ruled out thieving as a career move simply because he couldn’t manage it — the only people he could mix with without attracting attention were as poor as himself. Missing the wilderness, Mac Grianna sometimes walked to Howth, Killiney or Bray.
He daydreamed about finding a cave in the Wicklow mountains where he might live for free.
“I saw myself as clear as day stretched out and relaxing on my sheepskin rug and no jealousy or badness from others to bother me. This thought fixated me so much that I went over to the library and checked out some maps of where best to make my hideout and I was between two minds whether Glenmalure or the Sally Gap was best.
“It’d be important to be near water and as close as possible to a food supply, but far away from people’s prying eyes at the same time. Examining the map, I realised just how little wilderness was left in Ireland as a whole at this stage and how little land exists that isn’t surrounded by ditches and fences and someone keeping a close and envious eye on it. Even if you’d had the free-holding for a small sea island itself!”
Mac Grianna also considered a career in politics but ruled that out, too. Had he been more suited to it perhaps Ireland would have developed a green party sooner.
He wrote: ‘If the human race ever ‘volves properly one day they will surround every town and city with great lonely gardens, many miles in size.’ To date Japan has come closer to this ideal than Ireland. Killarney National Park opened in 1932, but Ireland’s other five national parks were not formally set up until the 1980s and 1990s.
It was a long-held fantasy of my own, growing up in Dublin, that when we finally got over religion all the walled-off open spaces in which priests or nuns used to live would be made into parks, but it seems many are being put to other uses.
The second half of This Road of Mine concerns Mac Grianna’s circular hike about the interior of Wales at a time when the only other people travelling on foot were professional “men of the road”. Mac Grianna did his best to emulate their walking style once he realised they were faster than him.
Adversity makes for good copy, but the hardships Mac Grianna endured (some self-imposed) could function as an anti-travel guidebook. Certainly when BBC Northern Ireland made a show based on Seosamh Mac Grianna’s travels, Ar Mo Bhealach Féin, they pragmatically did so from the safety of a nice dry car as opposed to literally re-tracing his footsteps and sleeping in the open as he did.
Notes to self if ever going hiking in Wales: A, don’t camp without a tent, B, don’t go in April. And, C, the coastal path launched some seven or eight decades after Mac Grianna’s púcaíocht of mid-Wales may be worth checking out.