“the long road down to the sea”


I swam to Irish music this morning, hornpipes and reels and one very sweet version of “Carrickfergus”.

I wish I was in CarrickfergusOnly for nights in BallygrandI would swim over the deepest oceanThe deepest ocean for my love to find
As I stroked up and down my favourite lane, sunlight finding the maples outside, a few robins scrapping in their branches, I was in Ireland. Maybe because I’ve been working on revisions of the long essay I recently completed, a piece I’ve titled “Let a body venture at last out of its shelter”, a phrase from a passage of Julia Kristeva’s astonishing essay, “Stabat Mater”, anyway, I’ve been working on revisions and part of the essay takes place in Ireland. It’s a complicated narrative and I won’t go into details here but Ireland takes pride of place in the centre of the essay. When I ran there, in part to escape the attentions of a painter who was obsessed with me (I was 23, he was in his 50s), I took shelter for a short time with a woman who lived in a caravan in a field in County Mayo. (Someone I knew in Victoria connected me with her.)

I slept on a bench below the window, rolling out my sleeping bag each night and rolling it up again in the morning. There was a dog, Johnny, who’d appeared like me at the gate, wanting refuge, and place for his infected leg to heal; and several cats. Hooded crows flew over daily from the round tower where I think they roosted; their ash grey plumage, punctuated by black head, throat, and tail, became familiar in the hedge as they waited for toast scraps. Sheila was a vegan but didn’t mind if I had milk on my oatmeal (she took a jam jar up to the farmer and he filled it with creamy milk from one of the cows who rubbed against the caravan). She made omelettes of millet, flavoured with snippings of wild garlic, and she made strong French roast coffee from Bewley’s in Dublin in a small brown jug, using a tea strainer to pour it into our cups. I hitchhiked into Castlebar and brought back almonds for her nut milk and cheese for myself. I brought us a bottle of French wine, and oranges. Dark chocolate, vegan approved. She picked St. George’s mushrooms and fried them in olive oil. After a couple of days we went looking for a place for me to live. She’d arranged for me to caretake a cottage up some hills above Foxford which we got to by bus, taking Johnny, a cottage owned by a forester she knew, but when we got there, we discovered travellers had camped by it, burning the kitchen and sitting room floorboards for fuel. I didn’t need much but I did need a floor. She asked a few people she knew. There was a man in Louisburgh, who couldn’t offer a house but did have an extra table. Someone else wondered about that house over to Parke where everyone had either died of the rheumatism or become too crippled with it to move because it was built right up against a seeping bank but he didn’t know how to get in touch with the owner, who lived in France. Someone else who occasionally brought her ailing animals to care for and who knew everything about everyone but couldn’t think of anywhere likely. One morning I packed up most of my belongings and headed out to find somewhere, hitchhiking down the west coast, stopping in each small village to ask at the post office if anyone had a rough cottage they’d rent cheaply. A fish dealer in Clifden called one of his suppliers, a fishing family on an island off the coast, and they offered an empty cottage. Which was where I went, after returning to Sheila to pick up the rest of my stuff and to provide a new address for my mail. At her insistence, I went to talk to the farmer about having the donkey’s hooves trimmed. They were so long, they curled up at the ends like Arabian slippers. He smiled, sucked away on his pipe, and went on with what he was doing. Which was fixing a fence with some lengths of salley. 

Swimming, I was in Ireland again, 23, troubled but also at home in the weather, the music, the isolation once I left Sheila’s caravan with its menagerie, inside and out. The cottage I moved to had its own menagerie, including a dog who entered by the front door and promptly claimed anything that smelled of me, including my sleeping bag, by peeing on it, and a donkey who rested his chin on my bedroom window sill.

This morning I was humming “Carrickfergus” as I drove home.

My childhood days bring back sad reflections
Of happy times spent so long ago
My childhood friends and my own relations
Have all passed on now like melting snow

The reflections in the essay are sad sometimes but also thoughtful. What happened, happened. I went on to have a good life, blessed by a loving partner and children and now grandchildren. I wish others hadn’t been hurt by my actions when I was young and I also wish I hadn’t been hurt in turn. Time is an extraordinary current we live in, not knowing quite where it will take us. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d stayed in Ireland. That was a possibility, as was a return. I did return. I went back twice. It still felt familiar, its weather, its music, the lure of isolation, but I wasn’t the same young woman, holding her sadness close, and unable to imagine a future without the difficulty of bad relationships. My essay explores that. I’m glad to have written it, though it was hard at times to revisit the letters and other records of the year I was 23.

But I’ll spend my days in endless roaming
Soft is the grass, my bed is free
Ah, to be back now in Carrickfergus
On that long road down to the sea

I live now on a long highway that begins and ends at the sea. It’s different water but it is deep with possibilities. This morning I will listen to more Irish music and this evening I will drink a toast to Sheila and her caravan, the island where I lived in a cottage surrounded by nettles and wind. Sláinte, I’ll say, holding my glass up to the light, Sláinte mor.


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