A more progressive pilgrim

Jean Morley talks to award-winning Irish writer Mícheál de Barra

Jean Morley talks to award-winning Irish writer Mícheál de Barra

Buying ‘An Bóthar go Santiago’ felt strange. It was two years since I had read my last Irish book; a dog-eared volume on the morning of my Leaving Cert. paper two Irish exam. Even stranger was the concept of a guidebook. Sure, I could deal with the Irish, scanning a page for familiar-looking words. But relying on the language to guide me up a mountain? Ní dóigh liom é.

Luckily, Mícheál de Barra uses easy vocab and enjoyable subject matter to create the unimaginable – a great summer read in Irish. His mixture of guidebook and diary form has proved a winning formula. Since publication last year, the book has been shortlisted for the Oireachtas Leabhar na Bliana Prize and The Glen Dimplex New Writers Award, winning the Irish language category in the latter. Remaining in bestseller lists for eight months after publication, it gained considerable media attention in the process. But his greatest achievement of all, perhaps, is that de Barra keeps things simple. Out are swan-children and banshees in favour of a personal narrative to which people can relate. An “ordinary Joe Soap” approaching his sixties, Mícheál writes about walking the Camino. The 800km trek stretches across Northern Spain and has long been associated with pilgrimage. But before you mention Paolo Coelho and start muttering incantations, de Barra keeps things real. “I try not to write confessional stuff really. I’m a very private person.” The result is a depersonalised diary which, instead of penetrating one man’s mind, invites the reader to explore his environment. By choosing to write in the present tense, de Barra pushes us into the moment. Individual actions are rigorously described, each small experience recounted.

“Bualim….cloisim…tugaim …” We can experience the Camino, the mountains, the hostels, the baggage, without a sense of judgement on de Barra’s part. What’s most inviting about the book is the writer’s treatment of language – he criticises all things flowery. “It’s fine in Mills and Boon, but, really, I think it’s quite off-putting”. He goes on to laugh at one famous writer, who was fervent that really good Irish shouldn’t be understood. “I don’t like that kind of thing. It’s as if writers throw in every word they know, deliberately making things complicated.” In fact, de Barra suggests, there is too much emphasis on poetry. “If you go into an Irish-language bookshop, most of the books involve poems. There’s a huge need for a cookery book, a guidebook or a simple novel that someone will read from start to finish”.

Inspired by this desire to make Irish functional, de Barra constructed his book as a guide. Broken down into daily stages and displaying a kilometre grid at the start of each day, it’s a handy reference for walkers. It includes a glossary of Spanish terms and a section with practical advice. But for a man so focused on practicality, why write in Irish at all? Surely being a writer is difficult enough, without choosing a minority language? If I’m expecting a typical Gaeilgeoir rant, his reply is disappointingly simple. “Languages are muscles which dry up and die, but I wanted to keep up the language. As I’m not a native speaker, writing Irish forced me to think.” De Barra used a diary dictaphone abroad, collecting snippets in Irish, Spanish and English. It was only the act of writing up the ideas when he got home, in addition to his wife’s advice, which prompted him to consider having it published. “I didn’t set out with purposes of financial gain, so it was a shock to have such success”.

This admiration of knowledge for knowledge’s sake is what drives de Barra to write. The book was an opportunity to delve into history, documenting late-medieval pilgrimage to the present day. But, the confessed ‘lover of facts’ never loses the reader. Injecting piety with humour and finding an Irish connection, his Father-Ted technique makes reading fun. Although creating an interesting oversight of Irish-Spanish relations, including the mass emigration following the Battle of Kinsale, De Barra’s individual stories are priceless.

Even Trinity College has Camino credentials. Not only is it built on the site of a medieval pilgrimage hostel, it was also home to a true Camino eccentric. Walter Starkie was Trinity’s fist Professor of Spanish and was famous for his gypsy lifestyle. He walked the route at least three times between 1920 and 1950, a time when very few people were interested in the walk.

But pilgrimage is not a matter of historical trivia; it’s a universal concept in which people still believe. Although not dominated by visions of hell, thousands walk the route each year. De Barra suggest that it’s an increasing fad and I’m prompted to ask him why. “No matter what year you decide to look at, there’s a sense of metaphor at work. For many, the journey of a pilgrim stands for the journey of life. But still,” de Barra laughs, “I could never go back to the past. No, I wouldn’t even have liked to live in Dickensian times, in spite of the Christmas-card scenes. Cities were dirty, people got sick and the lower classes were less than slaves.”

Mícheál de Barra is a writer for now, then. He’s making Irish useful in contemporary life and, in doing so, leading an Irish literary renaissance. De Barra’s next book, ‘Gaeil i dTír na nGaucho: Scéal na nÉireannach san Airgintín (1522-1983)’ – an insightful look at the Irish influence in Argentina, including that of Mr Chè-Guevara Lynch – is currently undergoing publication.