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 She had withdrawn, as had we all initially, shellshocked by the dismantling of our work over that year.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.

Image of the Week: Holdfast

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I am noticing a temptation during this series to ‘one-up’ myself, to do a more ‘interesting’ or weird photo than the previous week. It’s a temptation that  I am going to try and subvert as it is not only a denial of missteps or failure or process but it is a drive that seems to say there is only one way to take a perfect photograph, paint a painting, or write a piece of writing. This is clearly not so. There are different tones and contexts. There are thoughtful works, shocking works, works that comfort us or unsettle us or make us think. Even a bad work- especially a bad work – teaches us something or inspires us to do better. Sometimes, what seems to be a weak work may not in certain contexts be weak at all. A weak work can make a collection of works more interesting, provide a low note to a high note. Perhaps it’s attributes may be harder to uncover yet more interesting for that difficulty.

I have only grappled with these thoughts since I started writing this piece but I recognise it as an important issue for me in my work. In every artwork I do I am trying to get it perfect, include everything in the world in it and while that impulse can lead to wonderfully chaotic results its a huge pressure that denies the importance of development. I only see now, five years after returning to college, the path my work has taken, how each work relates to the others, how everything is joined up, how it makes sense in its context in my developmental arc despite my innate anti-structuralism – or whatever you’d call it, this weird dissociated, disjointed take on the world.

Why do I think this photo is weak?It’s pretty(I think) and it is well enough balanced. It speaks of sun and the beach and nature but there are far better nature/sea/beach photos out there. It is not saying anything new. It’s a bit ‘nice’. I like things a little twisty and a little dark and maybe funny or unsettling.

What I do like about this picture is the subject. The holdfast is the root system of kelp. I always liked that name – holdfast. It speaks of strength, determination and persistence in the face of stormy seas.

***

I was on the beach today in the sun after a rare swim surrounded by nature my mind wandering idly about when it occurred to the saying ‘all we have is each other’ might mean something beyond a do-goody imprecation to be nice. Maybe it means that in the world that is wild and untamed where nothing makes sense, not really, all we have are the stories we tell ourselves and each other about how life is. Our shared beliefs hold us togther, allow us to map out paths, to evolve, develop. These narratives on which we balance are made up, not real, but without them we have nothing…

Another thought floats to the surface. A friend and ex-colleague of mine, Nigel. He equally inspired love and exasperation. He was in a word, indefatigable.

adjective
  1. (of a person or their efforts) persisting tirelessly. Tirelessuntiring, never-tiring, unweariedunwearyingunflagging;

Nigel was always Nigel. He was everyone’s friend, he was the same with everyone. He had advice for all, attended all the work night outs and excursions and trips. He would go to the opening of an envelope it was said. He was always doing something. He was proud of his garden and one day he asked me to let him know when there was kelp on the beaches so he could collect some for compost. I did. And he did.

Nigel died suddenly four years ago this weekend. Today when I saw the kelp on the shores I thought of Nigel and how he enjoyed his life and how we must hold fast in honour of friends who are gone, we must hang in there, we must not give up.