The poetry and magic of Ireland's rural South: a photoessay

by Andrea Breemer Frantz

“It is one thing to adore a painting…but it is quite another thing to learn from a painted narrative what to adore.” – Clifford Geertz, cultural anthropologist, Local Knowledge

For most of my childhood, my mother’s father was primarily two things to me: 1) a magician with uncanny ability to conjure quarters from my ears and candy from nearly anywhere; and 2) a poet whose artful word craftsmanship I did not inherit.

My grandfather was well known in town for meandering across streets to the grocery store, head in the clouds, pipe in his mouth, oblivious to all oncoming traffic. Were it anyone else, the pedestrian might have caught an earful from the startled driver he’d forced to a screeching halt. But somehow my grandfather’s comportment engendered forgiveness, a certain understanding. People just didn’t yell or gesture rudely at the old Irishman; he was simply too dignified.

When he was quiet in his chair, smelling of clove and Lucky Tiger tobacco, eyes elsewhere, the assumption was that he was observing and composing. But when he spoke, it was in narrative and often of magic. Not the sleight of hand he performed for us with the props from his magician’s chest, but the kind of magic in which trees could speak, fairies danced at midnight, and spider’s webs were actually complex puzzles.

It wasn’t until I was an adult and long after his death that I added another word to describe him that I now understand explains, at least in part, the first two: Irish.

Prior to this spring, my only experience with Ireland was two day-long layovers in Dublin on my way to and from Germany. I did the American tourist thing and wandered the cobbled streets in and out of Irish kitsch shops and bars with signs that proclaimed, “Guinness is good for you!” It may have been the lack of sleep I had on the flight across the Pond, but I was nonplussed. Ireland didn’t whisper my name in Dublin.

That all changed when I took a group of journalism and photography students to rural, southwest Ireland in May. In the tiny village of Sneem in the Ring of Kerry I came face to face with my grandfather’s spirit and for the first time understood how his poetry and magic stemmed from his Irish roots.

In our back woods community of approximately 400, we studied at the knee of one of Ireland’s most celebrated seanchaithe (keeper of local lore/storyteller); traversed various legs of the Kerry Way, a 200km walking trail dotted with rocky farmland, pastures, and more sheep than people; and interviewed, among others, farmer Michael Sheehan, who, after a full day of working the land and fishing the sea stands at the cliff’s edge and whistles for the seals to come into the bay—and they come to him.

Here, a well is not just a well, but a place of pilgrimage as locals learned the story of its waters healing a woman’s blindness. Here, a rocky outcropping is not just a natural formation from years of battering winds and salt water, but a cave where a single, homeless mother raised seven children on nettle soup and mussels. Here, a solitary tree at the water’s edge is not just a tree, but the home of the “wee folk,” something to be respected and maybe feared. Here, a clump of grass is not just the rare vegetation that valiantly sprouts between rocks, but the age-old cure for stomach ailments. Here, a pub is not just a local watering hole, but a business that has been owned by the same family for five generations.

Story for the Irish is simultaneously a community experience and a fiercely personal thing. To tell it is to share yourself, but it is also about preserving that which was for the entire community. It is rooted in place, but just as often in other-worldliness. Even for the native, rural Irish, the countryside is as much a place of mystery as it is the real, lived history of so many ancestors, whom they speak of as old friends. And story is as much poetry and song as it is traditional narrative. Whether we heard them in homes, walking a craggy path, or sitting at the pub, we learned what to adore by listening to the language.

A little over two weeks couldn’t transform our small American group into community members, though we were on a first-name basis with “Dr. Don,” Sneem’s lone chemist/pharmacist. But through our interviews and photos we scratched the surface and whet our appetites for more. These photos are a sampling of Ireland’s visual stories—the poetry and magic of its rural south.



Andrea Breemer Frantz teaches journalism at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, PA, though often still ponders what she wants to be when she grows up. She still has hopes NASA will come knocking, looking for middle-aged, female astronauts who don’t fully comprehend the science, but still want to walk in space and discover new frontiers. Until then, writing, photography, challenging students to know and understand the implications of the First Amendment, and pampering her high-maintenance mutt, Jennie, pretty much dominate her life.

7 replies »

  1. After reading and viewing this exceptional work, I have only one comment:

    More! Please! Post more!

    Thx, Andrea.

    • Yeah, no doubt. I’ve been trying to get Andrea to post with S&R since the beginning, so today is an auspicious day.

      What the rest of you don’t know is that there’s another wonderful photoessay on the way – this one about Iowa.