When, after a long siege, the Greeks breach the defences of Troy, Aeneas must flee. He carries his father Anchises upon his back and leads his son Ascanius by the hand. Thus encumbered – thus empowered – he begins the epic journey whose object is to found the city of Rome.
The image of Aeneas and pater Anchises has been painted often, the story told many times. It is inscribed upon the psyche of Europe because it epitomizes the ancient Roman virtue pietas. Aeneas was ‘Pius Aeneas’.
Pietas means a reverence for tradition, and a reverence for the father at the heart of it. It is a way of looking to the past. It is also a virtue which informs a vision of the future.
The action of Richard Kearney’s novel Salvage is set in West Cork in the late 1930’s. An island lies off the coast, by Glandore and Union Hall to be precise. In the Irish language, and since time immemorial, it has been known as Oileán Bhríde, Brigid’s Island after the sixth century patroness saint (or ‘mother saint’) of Ireland.
It has a sacred stream with healing properties, and is a place of ancient pilgrimage, like Croke Patrick in County Mayo, if not on the same scale. The Ordnance Survey of the 1820’s called it Rabbit Island.
Maeve O’Sullivan, the teenage heroine of the story, is one of the few remaining inhabitants of the island. Her father, a farmer and fisherman, is a practitioner of what nowadays might be dismissed as folk medicine.
But his collection of special plants and herbs are intimately associated with Brigid’s sacred well and stream. He instructs Maeve in the ancient medical/spiritual knowledge of the island. And in the lore of Brigid generally. She is more than a saint. A pagan earth goddess. A spirit.
Maeve’s father dies. Her mother loses her reason. Society on the island collapses. Maeve moves to the mainland. Her friends Helen and Seamus,with whom she is in love,encourage her to integrate into a world dominated not by Brigid but by the Cork bourgeoisie.
Helen and Seamus betray her and break her heart. At no stage in the story does Maeve lose faith in her father and what he taught her.
In the final scene of the book – in a wonderful and affecting action of cleansing and rebirth – Maeve swims from the mainland back to her beloved island. She is her father’s daughter. She is Brigid’s daughter.
Semper et ubique fidelis: always and everywhere faithful.
The author Richard Kearney’s family on his father’s side lived in the nearby Union Hall district for generations. Salvage lovingly recreates, in some detail, that native ground. It is itself an expression of pietas.