Features, On-Campus Profiles, Profiles

In ‘Salvage,’ Kearney Uncovers the Histories of an Overlooked Island

Have you ever scrolled in on a map so closely that you could see tiny islands off the coast of massive countries? When you zoom in even closer, you discover that there are even smaller islands adjacent to those original islands. You might wonder what is on those islands, who lives there, and what their story is. 

In his new novel Salvage, which was published in May, Boston College professor Richard Kearney centers the story around salvaging the stories and histories of such islands. The novel follows the life of 14-year-old Maeve O’Sullivan and her family members who live on the tiny Rabbit Island. 

“An uninhabited island invites you to fill the gaps because there’s nobody there anymore,” Kearney said. “So you kind of salvage their memory. You salvage their life for the future.” 

Kearney, the Charles B. Seelig Chair of Philosophy at BC, was born and raised in Cork, Ireland, where he became interested in philosophy while studying at Glenstal Abbey, a Benedictine monastery. 

From there, he went on to study English and philosophy at University College Dublin and Paris Nanterre University (formerly Paris-X). He then served as a professor at University College Dublin, University of Paris, Sorbonne, the Australian Catholic University, and the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis before landing at BC.

“When I came here, one of the things that I liked was the continuity of philosophies applied to real living,” Kearney said. “We weren’t just addressing abstract, speculative questions. It was dealing with real issues of suffering and struggle.” 

Kearney’s love of applied philosophy would eventually bleed over, sometimes unpurposefully, into his literary work. He began to look at the connections between nature and humans through stories of islanders, he said. 

Growing up, Kearney lived across from the actual Rabbit Island, previously known as Oileáin Brighide, or St. Brigid’s Island. The island was inhabited until the 1930s, when the line of the last remaining family ended. Kearney often wondered about the stories of these past inhabitants when he returned home each summer.

“I was very much just listening to what was going on in the landscape and sort of being inspired by that landscape—particularly the island itself,” Kearney said. “Everything in the book is kind of overheard in some respects, and then, of course, I fictionally recreate that.” 

Throughout the book, readers can find certain Irish phrases and words that describe the flora and fauna of the natural setting. These words, many of which Kearney said he heard during conversations with locals in Cork, showcase how the Irish language describes the natural environment. 

“There’s a name for the way the currents of the water move along the shore: súitú,” Kearney said. “When you hear the word, you see and hear the thing, but if you don’t have the word, the thing doesn’t exist. So, there’s a sense that we need to recover our relationship with nature.”

Sheila Gallagher, an associate professor of studio art at BC, is a close friend of Kearney’s. Like Kearney, she said she grew up with a deep connection to nature as she lived next to the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Vernon, N.J.

“Like the main character, I spent a lot of time outside in nature surrounded by a lot of animals,” Gallagher said. “My mother let us get any animal we wanted. I was a totally free child.”

It’s important to look back to our roots and examine our past relationship with nature, Gallagher said—especially when considering the current state of the environment due to climate change.

“I think Salvage is about that which is most beautiful and wise about pre-modernity and especially about wisdom of nature and animals,” Gallagher said. “It’s salvaging a kind of healing wisdom and an ability to see human life within a much larger ecosystem.”

Kearney’s main character, Maeve O’Sullivan, is a Celtic healer who uses natural herbs to aid her friends and family. Kearney said he starts each public reading of his novel with a scene where O’Sullivan is scavenging for magical plants in the ancient shipwrecks near the island.

“With our ecological crisis, we need to be able to have a new relationship to nature and the maritime world,” Kearney said. “It’s the conflict between that way of life and the modern way of life and how Maeve tries to bring the two together.”

Hosting Earth, another book of Kearney’s, is coming out next year. This novel also confronts the question of how humans can create a new relationship with nature, he said. Through its story, Kearney said, Hosting Earth argues that the Earth is the ultimate host to all life.

Joseph Nugent, a professor of the practice in the English department and professor of Irish studies, said he regards Kearney’s concern toward nature and people as one of his greatest strengths. 

“I don’t know that you can write a serious novel unless you actually have an understanding of and a concern for people,” Nugent said. “And the setting, which, of course, is based on his own area, suggests his deep involvement in the landscape and local culture.”

Nugent, who was born and raised in Mullingar, Ireland, has connected with Kearney particularly through the Irish studies program at BC, he said. Kearney’s passion for many different fields of knowledge strengthens his approach to the practice of philosophy, Nugent said.

“His areas of interest expanded beyond the purely intellectual into what you might call the more profoundly deeply cultural and social areas,” Nugent said. “Increasingly, I think he’s looking towards heritage and the past and spirituality. That wouldn’t have been his original area of focus.”

Heritage and remembering are key themes in Kearney’s most recent novel. The title itself is a nod to these concepts, Kearney said. 

In the literal sense, salvage is defined as something gathered from shipwrecks. In the metaphorical sense, the word salvage means saving something whether it be, in this instance, Irish placenames, history, or the Irish language. 

Kearney said the title is largely about salvaging the traditional Celtic spirituality. For ecology’s sake, Kearney said humans should stray from the idea that nature is just a reservoir of objects.

“One of the earliest Irish philosophers, Eriugena, talked about God as a current running through all things—animals, plants, the seas, the skies, and humans,” Kearney said. “That view we lost with the loss of Celtic thinking.”

When readers finish his book, Kearney hopes they walk away with a feeling of joy for the natural world and those tiny islands that are often overlooked on maps. 

“I’d like the reader to take away a sense of love for those places,” Kearney said. “You know, a joy in that way of being which is not just in our past, but our future, and if it isn’t our future, we’re finished.”

November 2, 2023