TLS review of Gathering Carrageen
Gathering Carrageen: A Return to Donegal
In 1990, Monica Connell returned to the area of Donegal where she had spent her childhood summers. Gathering Carrageen: A return to Donegal recounts her experience of living among the local people and the harsh and beautiful landscape that circumscribes their way of life. She learns to do as the natives do – cutting her own turf, planting her own vegetables, and gathering seaweed known as “carrageen” on the shores of the Atlantic. She encounters people who become close friends and who help to bring pathos and humour to her evocation of a community struggling to maintain its traditions in the face of modernization.
This remote hinterland makes both mental and physical demands on the author. She details the exhaustion of a day spent cutting turf. She finally relents and says, “I . . .switched off my mind so it no longer synthesised, merely absorbed”. It is a method of survival she returns to throughout her time in Donegal. She undertakes a pilgrimage to the lake island of Lough Derg, where she endures days and nights of prayer and abstemiousness.
The book is never burdened by the earnestness of the author’s endeavours. Chapters that detail and describe native traditions are followed by accounts of the lives of those who rely on them for survival. Her style is gentle and unobtrusive; one can easily imagine why this close-knit community accepted her. She treats each subject with due reverence, and avoids the patronizing tone a less dedicated chronicler could so easily have given in to.
It takes a sensitive and sympathetic eye to describe a net of swarming fish winched from the sea as looking “like a gargantuan pearl earring”. Connell has set herself the difficult task of capturing the spirit of an intractable landscape, and she has used every tool at her disposal to render it in the dignified terms it deserves. When travel writing and nature writing are at their most powerful they act not only as a practical guide, but as a mental map for those who have no intention of ever journeying to the place described. This is a book for the initiated and for those who plan on visiting the northwest of Ireland; as a tribute to that part of the world and its people it is a fine achievement and will act as a valuable companion.
Times Literary Supplement, 3rd of June, 2015