The Cunnigar

I wrote this last Monday and hoped that the day out would reset things but I seem to be in an ongoing rough spot. Stress levels up to eleven and people triggering me left right and centre. They (all the people) seem to be acting the maggot. Or perhaps it’s me. I can’t be sure. And, unwisely checking my email last night (don’t do this thing!), I know I am looking down the barrel of another stupid week. Hope you enjoy the walk at least.

On Monday I took a trip to the west of the county. I am very familiar with this road from the time of my MA five years ago – five years!I truly cannot believe it. The past accumulates faster and faster now, and the weight of it is the difference between feeling young and feeling old. Back then ( but it was only yesterday!) I split my year between Waterford and Cork to complete an intense MA in Art & Process. As I passed the petrol station where I used to stop for tea and donuts, I thought of my class mate, Breda, who would break her much longer journey to rural Wexford here. Breda, elegant, always soft spoken but precise and clear with it, was a warm and kind woman. An old school feminist with strong beliefs in women’s rights and solidarity, she could be quite fiery when it was demanded. She wanted to be a painter and she worked hard at it and I had no doubt she would follow it to the end. She was hugely supportive and with her help I was able to muddle my hard of hearing way through the discussions that year. It is to my shame I did not keep in contact. She had withdrawn, as had we all initially, shellshocked by the dismantling of our work over that year. Her husband had been ill too, and it had taken a toll on her. I left her in peace, thinking that one day again we would meet and laugh and talk as we had in the tiny, light-filled kitchen over looking the river in Cork. But Breda passed away a couple of months ago and as I drove the familiar route, I felt again the regret over neglecting her and how it was nothing to the hurt of knowing a light had gone out long before it should have.

I turned off outside Dungarvan onto the narrow rural road into An Rinn, a gaeltacht area. A ‘gaeltacht’ is where everyone speaks in gaelic, or Irish. Most of the other gaeltachts are in the west of Ireland. All the road signs are in gaelic too but thankfully here they have english translations. I was in a Donegal gaeltacht last year and trying to navigate to my B&B was a matter of chance as there were no english translations at all. Which is nuts, because if I, with 13 years of gaelic bet into me in school had trouble, how do the tourists manage? Down another even narrower road I eventually came to a car park at the start of The Cunnigar Spit, a spit of land sticking out into Dungarvan Bay.

The Cunnigar comes from the Irish word An Coinigéar, meaning rabbit warren. Rabbits must like the seaside. The dunes at Tramore beach – also a spit of land – are sometimes called The Burrows rabbits that once lived there and of course there is Coney Island in New York, said to be named after the Dutch word for rabbit – “konijn”.

I had never been there before and it has been on my to-do list for some time. Nearly twelve years ago an unfortunate sperm whale beached and died here. Euthanasia was impossible for something so large, as was refloating and it was likely very ill. People came from all over the country to get a look at the dying creature and the crowds became a problem. A man and his children nearly drowned trying to get to see it. Some of the people who did get near, carved their names in its flesh. It died after 24 hours, suffocated under its own weight. Its jawbone was stolen after its death. Incidentally, Moby Dick with Gregory Peck was filmed in Youghal, a mere 15 miles away from here.

The day was bright and cold, the kind of cold you feel in your own jawbones and knuckles but the beach was was empty and the air was calm. This is a great place for bird watching and as I walked and the tide receded I saw oystercatchers, plover, sandpipers, red shank, green shank, whimbrel and close to shore, turnstones, turning stones. There was a huddle of comorants at the head of the three mile spit, leaning together like old umbrellas. A little egret did a fly past. I saw a heron too. Apparently there are usually a lot more of them here.

The whole beach is covered in shells, cockles, some mussels and whelks, and those tiny pink ones like baby’s toenails, as well as bits of crushed crab. The most obvious shells are oyster shells which are strewn everywhere. They are harvested here. They are an odd mixture of pretty and ugly, the folds and frills striped purple remind me of the gypsy skirts that were in fashion when I was a teenager, but they are gnarled and twisted and chipped by circumstance – some even imprinted with the grid of the harvesting frames – those still with their bottom halves intact, gape and leer like toothless old crones, others protrude from the wet sand, like the ghostly, boney hands of shipwrecked sailors.

It was a gift of a day in the middle of a dark winter. A ‘pet day’ some call it here, but I can’t bring myself to use the phrase as I associate the word ‘pet’ with creepy, salacious old farmers trying it on with young girls. I sat for a while with a flask of tea and some lunch. From the beach you can see across to the edges of Dungavan town and beyond, the foothills of the Comeraghs where my granddad once served as a Garda Sergeant. My dad was born up in those mountains too. Funny how it’s taken so long for me to feel I belong here even a little. Further off I could see the snow dusted tops of the Knockmealdown Mountains on the border of Tipperary. We call them mountains but all our mountains are very small compared to mountains everywhere else. They are the best we have though so they’ll have to do.

Unfortunate Barrel Jelly, one of many.

The cloud cover crept in from the west as I walked back to the car. Driving back out of An Rinn, I skirted Dungarvan by the Ring Road which passes over the bay where, visible from this busy road, a surf board is moored. I had heard that a seal would sometimes sit here and sun itself in view of the traffic but during that year of driving up and down (and up and down) to Cork, though I would try and catch a glimpse, I never once saw it. It was just a nice story. But this day, glancing over by pure force of habit, there it was, cool as you like, lounging on the board in the chill bright evening.

I automatically thought of Breda again and laughed. Being Irish means being lumbered with an almighty urge to look for signs everywhere. Would that she were sending me a sign that everything is OK, that she knows she was valued, but that is not how it is. The dead are dead and we are here and soon we won’t be. I drove on, turning onto the coast road, driving the curving narrow road over the bridges over the rivers that bisect the county, trickling and then flowing from the mountains down to the sea. I pulled up to my whale watch point just before sunset to have a look to see if there were any about. There were no whales, alive or dead, but everywhere I looked, there were dolphins. Little groups of them here and there, big ones and small ones, splashing as their dark fins broke the surface, fishing the scarf, that place where the outgoing tide meets the larger sea. Some of them, the young and the bold, could even be seen in the fading light leaping and bounding out of the water for the sheer joy of it all.

For Breda Stacey. Image Ciara Rodgers.

Coast Diary – February 5th

Totally Tropical…

This week I was rushing around the country again, first to a weekend workshop in Clare, which was a great experience, but it was a few miles from the sea and we spent the whole weekend tucked away in the countryside, working. When I left I decided to hit the coast. But once again, I found myself as unimpressed by Clare’s coast as I am by the rest of the county. It quite bemuses me that people rate it as a destination. I suppose there are some good views from the Cliffs of Moher though there’s too much tourist, car park and interpretative centre for me – and if you’re a surfer, Aileens and other places are quite beautiful to surf, at least judging from Mickey Smith’s filmwork. But for land based stuff…meh. So I got as far as Spanish Point – so exotic sounding I actually thought I hadn’t been there before. I imagined standing like a lady pirate, windswept, on a high headland, weeping for my lover, a dashing survivor of the Armada, whom I had to kill as he was drawing attention to my piratey behaviour…but its just another scrubby beach that had slipped my mind. Sorry Clare – the only good thing about you is your name.

I headed north to Connemara then, because really, once you navigate the trauma of the N24 as far as Limerick, its best to get as many visits in as possible. Connemara beaches are my favourite , though the much vaunted Roundstone leaves me cold – alright, I’m picky, sue me – so I travelled through it in order to visit a coral beach I am fond of. The tide was in and the weather grey and blustery so the white sand and turquoise sea was not much in evidence but I went for a brief walk on it anyway and the magic struck again. I don’t know if its the tiny pieces of coral, washed in from far tropical places on the north atlantic current, the shells, or the pink, red and black rock, scored by time’s passing, all vibrant even in dull light but even the little bit of rubbish – two oranges lying in the sea weed some distance apart and further up two cartons of Tropicana orange juice – seemed to tell a story. What story it was I still haven’t imagined. I looked for signs of life or death, but the only other creature I saw was an unfortunate Portuguese man o’ war tangled in the seaweed. These beautifully blue/pink, gas filled, bladder like creatures are siphonophores – often mistakenly identified as jellyfish – travel at the mercy of the sea and wind, trailing their deadly, prussian blue tentacles. They can be lethal even to humans and better not touched even in death.

Later, I travelled on, deeper into Galway, towards other favourite beaches which will remain nameless. At the end of the line my artist friend, not seen for a number of years, had set up a bakery. Heaven is here.