Archive – Into the Blue: Thoughts on Living and Dying

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Going out to the cliffs last evening, I absentmindedly sat down right beside Eamonn Coady’s cross. I was thinking of Gillian Ryan. Gillian was an athlete from Tipperary who died after a fall while running in the Comeragh mountains at the weekend. Her death made international news and seems to have touched a nerve. As I sat there, I realised that it would be Eamonn’s anniversary today, April 22nd. 44 years ago the 14 year old Waterford boy died after a fall from the cliff. The subsequent, difficult retrieval saw the establishment of Tramore Sea Cliff Rescue and since then many other fantastic volunteer organisations such as SEMRA who, after 3 days searching, brought Gillian down from a gully at Coumshingaun on Tuesday in difficult conditions. Our search and rescue teams are the best of us. Here’s a post I wrote about Eamonn in 2013.

On the cliffs there is a cross. Maybe once it was painted black but now it’s the colour of raw umber. It is set into a smooth, rectangular, grey stone which is engraved with the name and age of a boy who died here over 30 years ago at the age of 14. Last week as I was sitting nearby watching for whales, the sea and the sky spreading south at my feet, my thoughts wandered to the boy again.

I imagined him to be like many 14-year-old boys as he crossed the fields on that long ago April day, full of laughter and trouble and fun and confusion and angst and possibility before that moment when he tumbled into the blue. I suppose his family will remember him as the person he was but the rest of us may be inclined to fashion the bare cross and its words into a story that makes us feel safe from the long searching finger of death, a story that is not our story because surely our story will make more sense?

When we hear someone has died young it often arouses pity in our hearts at the tragedy of the loss of years that could ‘reasonably’ have been depended on. But are we not all of us more than our deaths? Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations tells us that when we die, no matter what our span of years has been, we all lose the same thing and one thing only: the present moment. Everything else is illusion, the future, the past, they are only so much dust, mere constructs we have tried to impose on the chaos of life.

All this was in my head when I heard yesterday of the sudden death of the brother of a friend of mine (and the friend of a brother of mine) at the age of 41. I did not know him that well but there are connections between our families and the loss is deeply felt, the sudden manner of his death – slow enough for realisation perhaps but too swift for any chance of preparation- deeply saddening.

So I am feeling, saddened and sickened as I get on my bike and take off around the coast and the countryside. It is a grey day but mild for December. The south wind is raking the sea when I stop at Dunabrattin where large numbers of gulls hang and glide and turn on the currents overhead. I head inland, along country roads. There is no traffic and I feel alone in all the world but not lonely. It is not an unfriendly day. Two horses stand in a field, their dark tails fanning out in the breeze. A rook cocks its head at me from an overhead wire, a dog barks, a marmalade cat with a pale chest appears beside a red and white barn. There is a buzzard standing in the stubble of a field, ragged legs and yellow beak. It is a bird I have never seen before.

There is the human urge in me to see patterns everywhere. 41 years is 14 years backwards I think. The buzzard, the unusual stillness,  the gulls…But I dismiss them before I can even wonder what it all means.

If we start to feel sad for these ‘early’ deaths, pity separates us from them. But how are these boys that have gone different from us really?They were what we are now: people living out the span of their lives, whatever that span may be. Remove time from the equation and we are all just doing our best in the here and now: laughing, struggling, talking, fighting, loving, hating, despairing, panicking, angry, in pain and fear and occasional joy.

In an effort to relieve our sorrow we fit the dead into neat little stories and patterns. They are an anomaly we think. Our departure when it comes will be different, more graceful, more timely. But the truth is we are all of us tossed around on the sea of life navigating through whatever comes. We are all in the same big, bastardy boat. We are all in our ‘present moments’ and that is how we remember each other, those who have just walked out of the room and those who will not return.

I tear through the countryside my lungs heaving in the smokey air, flavoured with the occasional piney tang of fresh-cut logs, past the stone walls that line the undulating pale road. A dolmen, a red pump, skeletal trees scratching the grey sky. A magpie – no two!thank the gods – the cats and the dogs, horse and cows and strange birds weave in and out of my vision. I am in my moment as others have been in theirs, cycling, running, gallivanting on the cliffs or sitting, as Nick sometimes did, cat in lap, in front of a fire talking of everything under the sun. Like those moments, my moment will some day end too. Maybe today I will not make it home.

I do make it home. This time. I take off my helmet and gloves and wheel my bike inside without pausing and set to go about the business of living, intent on doing as little as possible to stir the great lake of sadness inside me this day.

“No one can lose either the past or the future – how could anyone be deprived of what he does not possess? … It is only the present moment of which either stands to be deprived: and if this is all he has, he cannot lose what he does not have.”
~ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

For Nick and Eamonn and Gillian. And all of us….

Archive: The Lads

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The Lads

Here in Ireland we use the phrase ‘the lads’ a lot. ‘The lads’ can refer to groups of males or females or a mixture of both. For many of us ‘the lads’ are our closest friends, the ones we can let our hair down with, have a bit of craic . But ‘the lads’ can be applied to other groups too. ‘The lads’ can be work mates who may or may not be such good friends (though if they are giving you a really hard time you’ll most likely refer to them as ‘the bastards’ rather than ‘the lads’). Your manager may refer to you as ‘lads’ to engender a feeling of camaraderie. Some unfortunate bosses, desperate to keep up with modern trends have been known attempt ‘lads and lassies‘ with unfortunate results.

‘The lads’ can also be people you don’t know well but whom you find yourself spending time with such as people you meet at a conference…

“Well lads, will we have a drink?”..

..creates a feeling of familiarity. And the drink helps too I suppose.

Within families it is used also. My brother refers to his kids as ‘the lads’ and when my parents are going to visit them they always say they are going to see ‘the lads’. My brother and his wife are included in this but it is understood, by me anyway, that the kids are the main ‘lads’. In fact any group, no matter how small, that comes together with a positive spirit can be called ‘the lads’.

Maybe its because of my wonky hearing, which means I don’t get out so much, my understanding of ‘the lads’ has extended itself beyond humans. There are two inseparable doggie friends up the road, a Yorkshire Terrier and his pal, a Basenji, who, when they can escape their owner, hide behind a bush ready to jump out at passing cars. Luckily for them they are very bad at hiding and I always say to myself when I see them from 200 yards off…

‘There are the lads now, up to no good.’

When I run out of bird food to feed my gang of sparrows I remind myself that I must get some seed for ‘the lads’. If I see a gang of rooks I think…

crows

‘Would you look at the lads, they’re having great craic.’

When I think of the swallows at the end of the winter, I say to myself…

‘The lads will be back soon.’

So ‘the lads’ are symbolic of good connections. They are either your own crew or another crew in whom you recognise the friendships you enjoy or have once enjoyed. Even if you think you have no ‘lads’, when you recognise ‘the lads’ anywhere that means you are, always, one of ‘the lads’.

Slightly worryingly, I have found myself thinking of inanimate objects in this way too. My old boss Ans used the direct translation from Dutch when she spoke in English to refer to objects…

‘Ya dis chair, he is broken..’

…she would say and immediately the chair would have my sympathy. I liked the idea that no matter how hostile an environment is, there will always be something that you can project feelings of camaraderie onto. Being bullied at the office? Chairy will have your back. No one talking to you? Desky’s on your side. But mad as I may be starting to sound, so far I have not referred to anything inanimate as ‘the lads’. Until this morning that is…

I was looking out the window at two pairs of socks and a pair of knickers I had left on the line over night due to sheer laziness. There they were, abandoned the previous evening in favour of the ‘big’ clothes, flapping forlornly in the rising wind, alone against the elements, only each other for comfort and the sky darkening from the west.

“I must bring the lads in before they get wet”…I said to myself.

And then I thought…

‘I need to get out more…’

socks

Archive: Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, Tramore 2013

Walking in to Tramore town to collect my car, abandoned at the start of an unplanned night out, I was feeling a little fragile. When I came across the St. Patrick’s Day parade at the top of Gallwey’s hill over looking the beach, I took the opportunity to stop and take a breath. The exuberance, colour and good humour of both the parade and the crowd was immediately captivating as well as surprising. The growing media coverage of glitzier spectacles in the 80s and 90s began to make local parades, with their ragged processions of vans and trucks, the inevitably sodden troops of scouts and Irish dancers, look dull, made it hard to work up much interest.

This parade was a lot bigger than I expected. There were the shiny vans and ambulances of our Coastguard in their smart uniforms along with the Sea Cliff Rescue. Smiling tractor drivers chugged by on their colourful tractors and classic cars, carefully polished, gleamed in the surprising sunshine.

ROCKY DRIVING THE WOMEN NUTS
Rocky Mills..

Local businesses were represented on floats and by gleaming vans. Some extra vehicular oomph was provided by TCRFM and their sexy red convertible and Tramore Tourism’s retro caravan. T-Bay Surf Club, who won best float with their big funky bus and hawaiian shirts. Even the Pope was there in his Popemobile though he was naturally outclassed by the legendary Rocky Mills, local Elvis impersonator. There were many more participants who I missed: the bands, the scouts, the taekwondo club, the dancers, the athletes and all the various groups that make up a community. 

To see these people – the exuberant leprechauns with sacks of free goodies, the crowd with their balloons and wigs and flags, Rocky rocking out, the pirates in their wee boat and my own favourite, the Metal Man – was a burst of positivity that I didn’t know I needed. Life has been tough across the board in recent years and the future is weighs heavy on most. Yet here were crowds of people, people who had dressed up, washed their cars and tractors, who had made an effort to show their achievements with pride, all smiling and laughing in the sun together. Standing there, propped against the old pebbledashed wall in the bright spring air, I had a deeper understanding of the importance of community and I felt stirrings of local pride…

…then again it could have been the hangover….

Archive: The Battle for the Metal Man 2013

The Metal Man and his pillars in 2005 before some Waterford business people sponsored their repainting. Photo:The Author.

This is a synopsis of three posts from 2013 that were moved when the site name was changed. This summary was created as a part of a new archive of The Mermaid’s Purse posts and reposted in order to provide an historical account of some events in the life of The Metal Man, a local amenity in Tramore, Co.Waterford, Ireland. 

Back in 2009, a community group, Tramore Tourism, was encouraged by the then Waterford County Council to seek ownership of the Metal Man and his pillars – including the pillars at Brownstown Head – from the Commissioners of Irish Lights (CIL) who, having no practical reasons for maintaining their upkeep, were prepared to gift them to an appropriate organisation. Waterford County Council had already refused ownership due to lack of money. In summer 2010 CIL determined that Tramore Tourism were the best candidates to do so.

It was necessary for Tramore Tourism to set up a legal entity to receive the pillars and Tramore Heritage Ltd. (THL) was born in October 2011. THL was limited by guarantee and was a public company. A public company in this instance means not-for-profit rather than being connected to the stock market. This appears to be the only way for a group or community to create a legal framework and is used by sports clubs and amenities such as Hook Head Lighthouse. None of the directors of a public company can make profit from it in any way nor sell any assets. If THL had wound up, the pillars would have to be passed onto another community group. The board of THL consisted of various local business people and, initially, a Tramore Town Councillor. THL had also applied for charitable status which, once granted, would have provided extra safeguards for the public.

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THL’s plan for the Metal Man Heritage Trail

THL worked towards getting the transfer of the pillars from CIL locally approved as well as negotiating access with the farmers on whose land the pillars stand. THL met with various interested parties a number of times to discuss their plans in detail. A public meeting was called for and held in January 2012 in the civic offices in Tramore.

Not everyone agreed that THL was the best way forward. In 2010 the Town Councillor had parted ways with THL. In December 2012 the concerned councillor wrote to An Taisce raising concerns around THL’s public company status. The fear was that the pillars were falling into private hands. Incidentally, in September 2012, that same councillor had set up a private company called Tramore Cultural Development (TCDL) to “assist individuals and organisations working to advance the preservation of the towns heritage.”

An Taisce then wrote to the Tramore Town Manager suggesting the deal be postponed until 2014 when Tramore Town Council – who had approval of any transfer of the pillars – would be dissolved, elections would take place and the new Amalgamated Council could take on the ownership of the pillars. It was suggested that the new Amalgamated Council (with some seats still to be contested at this point) could then lease the pillars to a private company interested in preserving local heritage. Any access to the pillars would have to be renegotiated.

Due to this confusion of the definition of public versus private company, in early 2013 things got heated. To cut a long story short, enough doubt and obsfuscation were created around company status – particularly in a social media campaign in March and April of 2013 that included personal attacks on THL’s board – that Tramore Town Council ultimately decided not to approve the transfer of the Metal Man and its pillars from CIL to THL. As An Taisce had suggested, on the back of the concerned councillor’s letter, a move was put forward to get the Council, soon to be The Waterford City & County Council, to take over the pillars. THL was dissolved as it had been set up for the sole purpose of managing the pillars for the community in the first place

Eight years on, it appears nothing came of that motion and without access to the land or any necessary legal framework, it may be very difficult to restart any venture there. Even if the Council do manage to gain access, as was suggested might be on the cards in the local press in 2015, the quality of the management of the amenity in either cash-strapped council hands or left to a private company, may not be popular with locals.

The pillars still remain, undisturbed.

Photo:The Author.

A Note on Sources

Most sources were public and included articles and letters in national and local newspapers incl. The Journal, The Waterford News and Star, The Munster Express, The Tramore Tourism and Friends of the Metal Man Facebook Pages and Solocheck for company information. Other sources included directors of THL interviewed by the author at their invitation while other individuals aired their views extensively on a public Facebook page which set up in March 2013 specifically to “save” the Metal Man from THL. It was deleted soon afterwards, however screenshots were taken.

Appendix

The Commissioners of Irish Lights (CIL) is the General Lighthouse Authority for all of Ireland, its adjacent seas and islands. The Metal Man and his pillars are defunct and CIL no longer want the responsibility of them.

Tramore Tourism is a community group established in 1991 to promote Tramore and has many active members from various business sectors in the community.They were encouraged by the County Council back in 2009 to begin the process of obtaining the Metal Man.

Tramore Heritage Ltd. (THL) was a legal entity set up by Tramore Tourism to receive the Metal Man and his pillars. It is limited by guarantee, it is non-profit and public. It has also been negotiating access, planning a cliff walk to the Metal Man. Its accountant, solicitor and surveyor worked for them pro bono. If THL is ever wound up the pillars and all assets will go to the next appropriate community group.

Tramore Cultural Development (TCDL), established in 2012 it is still operational and has been recently designated a micro company, a category created as part of the Companies Act 2017

Tramore Town Council was dissolved in 2014 when the Waterford City and County Councils were amalgamated. Some Town Councillors already had a seat on the new County Council at the time of these events while some would have to fight for one.

Waterford County Council (now Waterford  City & County Council) will always have an element control over the development of this area due to planning processes. The County Council tried to get access to the Metal Man some decades ago and failed despite the willingness of the land owner at the time.

An Taisce, our version of The National Trust in the UK, which is a far more influential organisation, must be informed of any developments in areas where there are archeological, environmental or architectural concerns. Local authorities are required to consult with them on certain applications.

The Landowners are those who own the working farmland on which the Metal Man stands and naturally enough they control the access.

Archive: Princesses

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Car Park 4:50am

One of my friends, one of my princesses, is having a sad time at the moment and I am reminded of this post about the place we both used to work.

I always used to get annoyed at the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne singing the praises of the blue-collar worker…

‘Try working with some of these people,’…I used to think….‘Then you’d change your tune.’

I worked in a factory for nearly ten years. It was, and remained for a long time, a foreign and confusing place for me. Factories have reputations for being hot beds of bitching, gossip and dissension. Within any factory one area will view the workers in another area as the very citizens of hell. During those years I would sometimes see myself as if from afar and wonder what I had done to be landed in this fluorescent, screeching Hades.

‘Surely I am a Princess?’…I would think, as machinery clattered around me…‘Surely this cannot be happening to me?’

…and I would imagine myself waking up on a heart-shaped bed in a mansion somewhere on a temperate coast, curtains ruffling in the warm breeze from the french windows, my heart rate slightly elevated after an unpleasant, half-remembered nightmare, looking forward to a champagne breakfast served by a nice young man. It became a bit of a joke. Sometimes when my manager would ask me to do something I would say…

“Don’t you know I am a Princess?!”

When a chair appeared with a capital letter ‘P’ scrawled on it, it became my chair.’P’ for Princess. Sometimes I would be called Princess. Though perhaps that could have been sarcastic.

People everywhere can be annoying but in a factory your movements are restricted, your breaks coordinated. Being confined for 12 hours with a rag-tag selection of people, especially overnight, can really turn the screws. Some people can be combative or surly, weird or helpless, hysterical or worse – relentlessly cheerful. Some might smell bad. Others insist on playing thrash metal stations on the radio. But by far the most annoying ones are the ones who will not pull their weight, leaving you exhausted and angry after every single shift.

night shift window cr

6am Break

I once worked on a team with a woman who, had she put the amount of effort into actual work that she put into avoiding work, would now be President of the World. I tied myself in knots to make sure that work got sent her way but only succeeded in increasing my own work load. Yet she always managed to look busy when a manager turned up. An extraordinary number of people combined laziness with delusion. One of my co-workers decided she was our boss. So she stopped doing her work in favour of bustling around with pieces of paper and having loud conversations with managers. What she wanted quickly became reality not because of any actual talent or universal magic but because, as I learned, managers are always on the look out for new people to blame things on. Soon she was authorized to bustle around with pieces of paper. She eventually bustled her way out of the company leaving a large swathe of annoyed and relieved people behind her.

The night shifts, so novel initially, were hell multiplied by ten. On a night shift everything you have ever learned, every adjustment you have ever made to your behaviour, every bit of personal growth is put to the test. And fails. You find yourself back at your worst self; sulky, cranky, angry, impatient and more. Add some other people undergoing the same testing and you get something as close to unbearable as to make you insane. On top of this there was incomprehensible training literature to be read, meetings to attend and re-training exercises to complete to stay abreast of regulations. At 6am when you’re so tired you crave to lie down and die, it smacked of torture. The first time someone told me I was to be tested at this time, I cracked up laughing. I thought it was a joke…

“You want me to do a test?Now?At 6am?”

Then…

“Don’t you know I am a Princess?”

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11pm Break

But it wasn’t all bad and sometimes it was even a tiny bit magical. There was that time I crashed a pallet truck and its load all over the floor at 5am and everyone abandoned their work to get down on their knees, laughing, to  help. Or when the books from the book club were brought in. When I went to the toilet and ended up accidentally taking the door off its hinges and couldn’t get it back on for laughing. When someone came in soaked because they walked into a ‘puddle’ in the car park that turned out to be two foot deep. When cake or a tin of sweets made an appearance. When someone told me to sit down while they dealt with the 100th alarm on my machine because my legs were aching so badly I literally couldn’t stand any more. There were the conversations about philosophy, hair, sociology, war, cake, culture, the nature of inspiration and poo. And entire shifts spent laughing.

I found out the good places to get my hair done, buy clothes, make up and heating oil. One of the technicians designed and machined some brackets for me, told me more than once what was wrong with my car and advised me what to invest in. Another told me how to fix the light in my bathroom and which web host was the best. Cheap DVDs made the rounds along with the Avon catalogue. There were duck eggs for sale, a weekly lottery and take out meals organised on a bank holiday when the canteen was closed. I was once given a tomato plant in the car park.

My colleagues went to a constant cycle of concerts and weekend breaks, holidays, christenings, parties, meals, birthdays and funerals. There were the shift nights out and foreign trips which I never went on and now wonder why. The whip rounds, which so annoyed me with the constant request for money for the relatives of people I had never laid eyes on, I see now, were part of something necessary. I learned of the different burdens people carried – the sicknesses, the losses, the griefs – borne lightly in many cases. And also the achievements; the college degrees, the babies, races run, new businesses, new cars, escaping a war zone. I glimpsed other lives, other ways of being, from having a mortally sick child to growing up around lions. And when I screwed up there was always someone there to help.

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7am Break

Leaving it all behind for college came as a shock. Suddenly I was among people, good people no doubt, but people for whom life was somewhere in the future. Or somewhere else. Getting to know fellow travellers was no longer necessary. Everyone I had worked with had asked how I slept, how my week was, how my life was, over and over and over again. In college no one even asked how the weekend was. Some students didn’t even acknowledge the existence of those outside their own circle. They just didn’t have to.

I look back at the people I worked with now and see them tearing into life, determined not to miss a beat. I miss this urgency, the ‘nowness’ that hummed below the surface. I miss the way someone would always find a way to connect even though they thought you were weird, or cantankerous, or a bitch (and I was). They would find something in you, some thread and they’d pull it, this thread, and somehow, like it or not, know it or not, you found yourself, over the years, woven into the fabric of something much bigger.

Sometimes in my last years, the best years, in the wee hours, hallucinating from weariness, numb and speechless, I would find myself surrounded by a clatter of co-workers snagged at some junction of machinery, gossiping, laughing, teasing, shoulder to shoulder, nylon coats crackling with electricity. Caught in this sea of silkiness topped by the gauzy hair nets that crowned our shining heads, it would occur to me that I wasn’t the only one who had thought they might end up somewhere else. Through eyes blurred with tiredness I might imagine us in a ballroom, lit by the blaze of a thousand chandeliers, about to step out, me and my fellow Princesses, to finally dance.

Sunday Archive: The Whale Watcher by Kathleen Jamie

As there still a lot of whales off the Copper Coast I thought I would re-post this poem this week.

And when at last the road
gives out, I’ll walk –
harsh grass, sea-maws,
lichen-crusted bedrock –

and hole up the cold
summer in some battered
caravan, quartering
the brittle waves

till my eyes evaporate
and I’m willing again
to deal myself in:
having watched them

breach, breathe, and dive
far out in the glare,
like stitches sewn in a rent
almost beyond repair.

Kathleen Jamie
from The Tree House (Picador, 2004)

WHALE WATCHING. BAGINBUN, WEXFORD (oil on board) Clare Scott

Whale Watching at Baginbun, Wexford, oil on board (private collection).

Sunday Archive: A Meditation on Whale-Watching

FIN WHALES FROM DUNABRATTIN PHOTO CREDIT:PADDY DWAN
Fin Whales off the Copper Coast. Photo: Paddy Dwan.

This week I had the best day of land-based whale watching for many years seeing 6 or more whales in 2 groups, mostly fin whales but nearly positive of at least one humpback, a minke, as well as dolphins galore so I thought I would re-edit this post for the occasion.

All my life I had wanted to see a whale but all my life it never occurred to me to make an effort to do so, to stand and watch from a cliff, to learn about the habits of these giants of the deep, to check the internet for sightings. I somehow expected one to pop up in front of me one day. In the event this is exactly what happened one day, ten years ago now, when I was walking down the winding road to my small local beach. Suddenly, not a quarter of a mile from shore, there was a powerful explosion from the deep. A cloud of vapour hung for long moments on the air. Then, a long, shining, black back emerged, rolling, to reveal, finally a curving fin:a fin whale, the second biggest creature on the planet. I was undone with the excitement.

It was a cold February and there was frost and ice all over the road. Seven miles away a friend lay dying and so the days were pervaded with sorrow. It was with gratitude then, that I greeted this monster, its powerful blow an exclamation mark that punctuated the sentence of those chill days. I could not quite see it as a direct message from the universe but it was potent reminder of how powerful and enduring life was.

FIN WHALE OFF GARRARUS 2012
Fin Whale off the Copper Coast 2012.

I scrambled tearfully, gratefully, excitedly up the cliffs and watched for an hour as my leviathan swam back to out sea. I texted my friend in his hospital bed.

“I saw a whale!”

It seemed important to tell him.

Three years on I found myself suffering from fin whale fatigue. I still haven’t paddled a kayak beside one but I have seen plenty from my places of the cliffs, from a boat and it’s all a bit, well, meh. That icy cold day in February is nearly forgotten, left behind out of necessity. I guess we can’t keep our faces pressed up against the pain of the world forever.

I still watch though and I tell myself it is because I have yet to see a humpback whale, the rock star of the whale world, the one whose T-shaped tail adorns a billion motivational posters.  I convince myself it will be much more exciting than the oh-so common Fin, but I am like someone trying to convince themselves that the next iPhone will make their lives complete. It will but for how long?5 minutes? For all my weariness though, underneath runs a current, something that brings me out onto the cliffs over and over again. It is a vaguely conscious understanding that it is the watching for whales rather than watching of whales that is important.

So, I sit out on the cliff in the bouncy grass, surrounded by waving flowers – or the skeletal remains of flowers – while the gulls slide by and the insects buzz. I usually sit at Dunabrattin to do my watching but sometimes I just go down the fields. Sometimes I travel further, to Baginbun in Wexford or to West Cork. I scan the sea, pressing the binoculars to my face, squinting as I start the sweep slowly along the horizon west to east and back again. For a while it is dull. There is nothing out there, my heart sinks. What a waste of time, I say to myself, but my breathing slows and I relax. The sky is blue or grey, cloudy or clear, the sea cobalt, ultramarine or dirty green, smooth or choppy or rippled by the winds soft hands and shot through with colour and shadow.

The horizon isn’t the ruler straight line you see with the naked eye. Even on a calm day it is frayed and soft, an undulating silken fringe breaking down the division between Heaven and Earth. Occasionally it becomes blurred with the sweeping showers of rain that swing out over the sea from the mountains and disappear east. At Baginbun in Wexford, sometimes previously unseen buildings swell up from beyond the horizon like a mystical city of the sea.

Trawlers bob on the waves, smaller and smaller and then shimmering and swelling at the line of the sky. I often see an Irish naval ship, the LE Emer maybe, or the Samuel Beckett, patrolling, and once I saw her sailors stop and board one of the bobbing boats. I imagined the tension on board, and afterwards, when the Navy was gone, the crew having a tea break, hot water poured from a battered metal kettle that sits on the stove, chipped cups, a battered box of Lyons tea, a half packet of digestives passed around. Or more likely they have tapas, or wine and shrug and pooh pooh our Navy in one of the romantic languages. Putáin!

Heron

Then, there are the birds. They flap across my field of vision, sometimes low with their bellies full, sometimes high, in a hurry somewhere (where?) all flying in different directions, alone or in pairs, criss-crossing a sky of invisible highways. A heron flaps by;gannets circle and drop, tearing knots of spray in the fabric of the sea;cormorants, flip and dive, and then, stuttering, take off, black arrows over the surface of the water. Occasionally seals bob up, looking mournful, as if the racket from their dive bombing avian neighbours above has woken them. And the crows of course; choughs, rooks, hooded crows, jackdaws…

All this before a fin has so much sliced the surface. The longer I sit, the more there is a growing sense of the life and community on, and in, the sea, a sense of business being carried out. I look out at the ocean that ten minutes before I thought was empty and I know it’s not. It’s not just the birds and the boats. As I look across space I am looking across time too. If I can see that bird so many miles away from me then surely with a little effort I can see other people further away? I look south and think of Spain and the Azores and wonder what people are doing there. I imagine it’s warm and for some reason I see people in red shirts eating melons and wearing sombreros though my education tells me that is not, mostly likely, correct…

I look west and next stop is America where the people are five hours behind me in their day. Look, there is someone having a coffee and staring blankly out of an apartment window at a rainy day. As barrier after barrier breaks down, I imagine that if it’s possible to see to five hours ago, then if I were high enough, it could be possible to see yesterday, as well as today and tomorrow. It could be possible to see three years ago…

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Breathing slowly now, I am completely relaxed. Just by being still, just by watching the world, the dull film of familiarity has been peeled back and the world has become new again, the barriers between jaded adulthood and wonderous childhood are broken down and my eyes filled with life. When a blow finally appears followed by a lazy black back it is nearly (but not quite) unwelcome. It is at least unnecessary to reach a place of peace.

I stay and watch the puffs of white catching the sun, distant cannons of an invisible army, remembering a little what it is like to have my face pressed right up against life so hard that it hurts. Sitting there, on the bouncy grass among the nodding sea pinks, I am thankful. At least for a while.

Sunday Archive: Ordinary Magic

This one is from five years ago. I have edited out some of it that related to that time but the sentiment is present this time of year in those cool grey evenings when the light fades…

Yesterday afternoon, after a tussle with the Harvard Referencing system, I sat down and looked out at the afternoon sky. It was an ordinary day, neither here nor there. But sometimes, often, it is in the ordinary that the magic resides. Such days do not push themselves upon us. They allow us to drift, free us from the demand for enthusiastic action.

‘It’s so sunny!we must go out!’

‘Its snowing!’we must build a snow man!’

On a dull day, an ‘ordinary’ day, we don’t have to do a damn thing.

As I watched, the clouds grew more ragged and dark against the western sky, bright and tinged with gold as the day faded. I could hear the cold wind from the north combing the roof and feel it in the draughts around the windows and doors. Without having to look, I knew the sea to the east would have become a solid block of cobalt in the dusk. On Brownstown Head, the brake lights of some fisherman’s car might glimmer, ruby-like in the patched green folds that are trimmed with rusty rocks and seem, at this time, to be stitched onto the blue-grey stuff of the bay. As the wind died, as it often does around sunset, the light from the Hook lighthouse in Wexford would begin to flash.

I felt the tiredness in my bones and, without thinking, I was right in the moment. And in every moment of every ordinary day ever and nothing mattered that much and without looking I knew the fisherman had gone from the opposite headland, up the muddy, rutted path to home and I felt, without seeing, the light fading and the wind dying and then the rain came.

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Sunday Archive: Sea Potatomania

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I am thinking of my Connemara friend this week as its her birthday so here’s this post from five years back..

For years now I have yearned to find a sea potato, those fragile, heart-shaped, star-marked members of the sea urchin family. Given the amount of time in my life I have spent walking beaches with a bowed head it has quite aggravated me that these delicate sculptures of nature have eluded, an aggravation that is exacerbated by the fact that no-one else seems to have any problem finding them. One friend has them scattered about his car and claims they are ‘everywhere’. Another friend said he would find one for me, walked a few paces and picked one up and presented me with it. I promptly broke it. Nature, it seemed, had deemed me too clumsy and uncouth to be allowed communion with these fey tubers of the sea. I finally gave up. You can imagine my joy when, on a trip this year to Connemara, as I walked on beautiful Glassilaun, I spied on the grainy white sand a single, perfect sea potato framed artfully by thong weed (that stuff with which mermaids make their knickers) as if waiting for me. I had finally been accepted into the Sea Potato Club.

I often claim not to indulge in magical thinking but it is a claim that is false and I immediately saw in the sea potato a change in my fortunes. The clouds had parted, good things would surely come. I had let go and all that I wanted had come to me. I paced the rest of the beach with an outstretched hand that gently cupped my talisman of good fortune like a coronation herald carrying a crown on a cushion. I could rest easy now, content that I had found what I was looking for. My search was over…

Within five minutes I was wondering if I could find more. The thought of more took hold of me. I would find one more and give it to my friend’s little girl, Feile. Bolstered by my altruism I veered back to the magic spot to see what I could find. I found that my sea potato had been the last of of a long scatter of sea potatoes jumbled on the shore line, some in pristine condition, some cracked or broken, in shades of ochre, grey and white. There were even some hairy ones. I had managed to walk past all of them without seeing them and probably even crushed one or two under my clodding, ignorant feet. I did not deserve such beautiful things and I felt momentarily abashed. Then I greedily began to gather as many as I could.

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One for me, one for Feile, one for my niece Charlie, one in case one got broken…The difficulty of carrying a couple of kilos of fragile objects back to my car soon became obvious and I came to my senses kneeling on the white sand, surrounded by blue and green heaving mountains above the bright shore lapped by azure waters feeling as embarrassed as a Dutch burgher in 1638. I eventually took five sea potatoes. As I walked back up the beach my magical thinking head moved up a gear. Life is like my sea potato search, it thought. You look endlessly for the things you want not realising that they are in front of you all the time, that you are in fact trampling all over them. Try as I might though I couldn’t remember stomping on any nice young men or piles of money. My sour thinking head broke in to suggest that everything is random and the only patterns-besides my flibberty gibbet thinking patterns-are the ones on the tiny, alien skull-like sea potatoes, each evenly, delicately perforated with the outline of an outstretched star, arms open to the heavens. Maybe that’s enough.bMy friend and her daughter did not collapse with joy when I presented them with my treasure. In fact they seemed sort of underwhelmed and though I may have imagined it I thought I heard a mutter…

“Those bloody things. They’re everywhere…”

Sunday Archive: Off the Hook

The whales are back off the Copper Coast for the winter so I thought it a good time to share this from five years ago….

OFF THE HOOK1A few weeks ago, after reporting on the stranded Killer Whale, the IWDG gave me a heads up about a charter boat doing whale-watching trips from Dunmore East. So one chill, sunny, breezy Friday afternoon I hopped onto a boat heading out past the Hook lighthouse.

This area is great for spotting whales and dolphins during January and February. They come inshore during the winter chasing the sprats and the Hook is where they end up before disappearing out to sea again, no-one quite knows where. I often track the fin whales up the coast of Waterford during the cold months but only from the shore. This day, I was hoping to get up close.

There were rumours of a humpback whale in the area and this was the one I wanted to see. Fin whales, though they are twice as big, are more common and they don’t ‘fluke’ or ‘breach’ or do anything exciting. The humpback by contrast, that star of a million motivational posters, can jump around like a frog on a frying pan when the mood takes it.OFF THE HOOK3

With seven or eight others on board we motored out some miles off the Hook and the skipper began to criss-cross the area. It was a beautiful day and I occupied myself watching the birds; gannets – always a good sign of whale activity – razorbills and gulls.OFF THE HOOK2

By the time I heard the shout I had given up on seeing any whales and was just enjoying the trip.  Sure enough there was a blow and a quick flash of a black back and fin. I had hoped it was a humpback but it was a fin whale. Still, it was a blast to see one. Over the next couple of hours we dodged about looking for another sighting and were rewarded a number of times but it seemed the whale (or rather two whales, I am fairly sure) were intent on evading us.OFF THE HOOK4

Having watched groups feeding from land I have noticed they stay in an area and remain visible even when there are boats about so maybe these ones had fed earlier in the day and were just trying to catch an afternoon snoozle (whales sleep by shutting down half their brain).

I felt a bit conflicted that we were in a boat chasing them. As whale-watching becomes more popular in Ireland we may have to evolve some guidelines for charter tours so we don’t chase them away.

I got some nice photos but pictures can’t catch the salty smell, the fresh breeze, the thump and roll of the boat, the jolt of happy surprise at the eruption of a blow, the rainbow of light caught in the spray, the massiveness of the rolling back or the buoyant camaraderie on board as we shared our delight. We searched the seas and pointed when we saw anything, made room for each other so no-one would miss anything. Often space was vacated for me near the cabin as, with my camera, I had little balance on the rolling sea.

The appearance of a fin, a sudden blow, always brings people together. Sometimes the more knowledgeable are questioned and gladly share what they know, but mostly there is delight and wide smiles, free for a time of irony, are exchanged.OFF THE HOOK5

The creatures of the sea seem to evoke this. Maybe it because they live in the mysterious deep and seeing them is like a window into another world. They seem to be freer than we are, us gravity-locked animals of the shore. The birds, like the diving gannets, sew the two worlds together with knotted stitches of spray that tearing delicate silk of the sea.

We put-putted back to Dunmore East past the Hook lighthouse, its white stripes pale ochre now and dwarfed by a container ship gleaming gold in the afternoon.Behind us a ladder of lavender foam dissolved into the fading day. We were cold but happy. For a while.

Brendan Glody’s operation is now called Dunmore east Boat Trips http://dunmoreboatrips.ie/about.html