Mining the imagination

By Louise Tobin

PATHS and pathways have always held a fascination for poet and Beara native, Leanne O’Sullivan. From childhood walks along the Allihies Copper Mine Trail, she discovered the pleasure of exploring her own locale; of soaking up the history of the Beara Peninsula; of ‘mining’ that history.


Leanne O'Sullivan
In the Organico Café, at the West Cork Literary Festival, she recounts an eventful year since we last met. In February she wed her long-time partner, Andrew King, sharing a celebration that was perfect in every way, save for the absence of her beloved ‘Nan’ who had died two months earlier.


She has recently completed her third collection of poetry, The Mining Road, which will be published by Bloodaxe Books early next year. The title poem, she hints, reflects an intricate relationship between her Nan’s quiet industriousness as a knitter, set against the mining life of ancestors and, to this day, Leanne’s own work as a writer. ‘She taught me so much about delving into the past; I want this new collection to do justice to her memory.’

Though still in her twenties, there is an air of nostalgia about Leanne that confirms my suspicion that she has always inhabited a world of elders. As a child, she spent hours in Nan’s home in Cahermore, along the Miners’ Walk. There, Nan would pass on stories that she had heard from her own grandmother, of ancestors who had lived a century earlier when Allihies was a hub of the copper-mining industry.

The generations who had left for Butte, Montana, when the mines closed in Allihies, yielded another imaginative world. Local topography provided an apparatus of mining dotted across the landscape. Though now defunct, the structures remain as reminders of Beara’s industrial and cultural past.

Says Leanne: ‘The engine rooms, the old shafts, and the storehouse with its two pillars, were all part of my visual memory, connecting me to my own tribe, including those who had left.’

In The Mining Road, she takes the storehouse as a central image; a store for memories, rather than ore.  Taking mining as a metaphor for emotional and artistic excavation, she speaks of ‘going down into the mine of memory…no light to guide me… feeling my way…seeing where it takes me.’ 

She speaks of the excitement of eventually reaching ‘that yellow glimmer of copper beneath.’

Struck by the image, I ask if it is taken directly from one of her new poems.  She laughs: no, it has just come to her on the spot. I suddenly notice (cryptic crossword-style) that the word ‘ore’ is contained in ‘store.’

She enjoys this semantic felicity but goes one better:  Did I know that ‘stór’ is the Irish word for ‘treasure,’ as in the term of endearment: ‘A stóir’? It was an expression used affectionately towards her by her Nan.

I admit to loving all these verbal connections. She agrees: connections are her stock-in-trade.

There are other connections too. At Urhan National School, Leanne was taught by Riobard O’ Dwyer, historian, genealogist and, to this day, referred to locally as ‘the Master.’ Were it not for his influence, she is certain, she would not be a poet today.

‘We were exceptionally lucky.’ she recalls. ‘He brought us outdoors. We walked every pathway around Eyeries, getting to know every square inch of the landscape –  the place names, the names of local families, past and present, the nicknames. He told us about the families who’d left for Butte, four thousand miles away. Butte was as close in my mind as Cork City.’

Described elsewhere as a ‘poetic geographer,’ Leanne refers to the activity of mapping right through the interview.  Using memory as a map, she recalls a landscape that was marked, not by physical signposts, but by instinct, and local knowledge, passed on by word of mouth.

She recalls bringing Andrew home to Gorth at an early stage in their courtship.  At first, this Canadian academic and Renaissance scholar couldn’t fathom how effortlessly she would navigate the various townlands, with no aid from conventional signposts.

If there were no signposts or marked borders, how could she know where one townland ended and another began? ‘One moment we were in Gorth, the next Aharbrock, then Urhan. Andrew was disoriented whereas I could “read” the whole topography intuitively. Maybe it’s an Irish thing?’ she muses to herself. (Methinks earlier Nan-like/master-like training may have played its part).

What’s next for Leanne? A busy year ahead with more writing, some workshops and literary engagements that include a reading in New York in November. How about a side trip from there to Butte, I venture to suggest? There is nothing she would love more. A new path to find.  A treasure for Butte to discover.

• This is the winning piece chosen by tutor Lorna Siggins in the competition run by the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry in conjunction with The Southern Star.

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