Photo: Lee Pellegrini

Preserving a Way of Life 

In his new novel Salvage, the Boston College professor and noted public intellectual Richard Kearney reminds us of our sacred connection to nature.

Richard Kearney is an acclaimed philosopher, author, and public intellectual. He is also, of course, the Charles Seelig Professor of Philosophy here at Boston College. His knack for synthesizing ideas about theology, ecology, conflict, peace, the arts, politics, and his native Ireland have informed everything from his own many writings to the conceptual framework behind the Good Friday Agreement that at last brought an end to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. They are also, in a way, what attracted him to BC, in 1999, in the first place. “I was drawn,” he said, “to the Jesuit Ignatian belief in the humanities, philosophy, and theology as being important because they raised the big ethical questions: justice and injustice, good and evil, war and peace, God and being. It’s wonderful to be at a university that gives such a priority to philosophical questions.”

Kearney elegantly wrestles with these dualities, so long at the center of his work, in his new novel, Salvage. The book, Kearney’s third novel, brings to life Rabbit Island, an unspoiled slice of land off the Irish coast of West Cork. There, in the shadow of World War II, fourteen-year-old Maeve O’Sullivan and her family are among the last inhabitants. Maeve, unlike her two older brothers, has chosen to follow in the footsteps of her father as a Celtic healer, but after a series of developments, she finds herself torn between simple island mores and the modern allure of the mainland.

Book cover

Rabbit Island is a real-world place with a powerful associated legend. It’s said that the island was visited during the fifth century by St. Brigid, a patron saint of Ireland. The water from St. Brigid’s Well, named in her honor, was long believed to possess sacred powers when touched or swallowed, and Maeve, like her father, uses water from the well in her work as a healer. Maeve may have inherited the calling from her father, but water for him becomes both salve and downfall when he drowns during a boating accident, leaving Maeve adrift in every sense. That is, until she meets Seamus, a charismatic medical student bound for Dublin. She suddenly faces a choice: Should she remain on the island, tethered to ritual, or move to the city to study nursing?

The title Salvage has two meanings, Kearney explained. “The obvious meaning, which is the one I intended, is that the islanders live off salvage from sunken ships, since the novel takes place during the Second World War. But it’s also an attempt to ‘salvage’ the old ways of natural healing and a belief that the sacred is in nature, in the sea, in all creatures. It’s an attempt to perhaps salvage that way of life.” He’s currently at work on a film script for the novel.

These themes appear in much of Kearney’s recent philosophical work, including the upcoming book Hosting Earth, which is scheduled for publication in 2024. That work derives from an initiative called the Guestbook Project, of which Kearney is codirector, that promotes storytelling as a method of healing for young people who live in communities that are experiencing conflict. The idea is to build bridges by exchanging narratives, a process Kearney calls “narrative hospitality.” This experiential initiative, founded in 2008, sprung directly from his work at Boston College. “It’s really an invitation for young people in divided communities—very inspired by Northern Ireland—to come together, exchange their stories, and listen to those of their ‘opponents’ on the other side,” he said. In one example, a Catholic and Protestant student in Northern Ireland recently exchanged uniforms and visited one another’s schools as peace ambassadors, recording a video of their experiences. Similar exchanges have taken place around the world, from Mexico to Armenia. “Ideally, once they empathize and sympathize with the story of their adversary, the idea is to come up with a third narrative, which they co-create together,” Kearney explained.

The interrelatedness of even the most different-seeming people and societies is a thread that runs through many of Kearney’s ideas and projects, but the dynamics of still another relationship have animated his recent work—that of humans and the planet on which they live. “How might we host the Earth, as the Earth hosts us?” he said. “This urgent and timely ecological question is about a deep concern for the earth. It’s an ecological, ethical awareness about our environmental health and climate crisis.”

Like Maeve O’Sullivan on Rabbit Island, we all must weigh our place in this relentlessly modernizing world. “The theme of reconnecting with the vital powers of nature and the body is crucial,” Kearney said.  

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