Mac Dara and his Island

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Thursday the tide and winds were right for landing on MacDara’s island: low tide would be early afternoon and the winds were forecast to be light from the south. The bay outside Roundstone had been new to me yesterday, but as I noted the landmarks I pass I felt I was getting the hang of the local pilotage. As I approached the island I could just make out a small boat among the rocks in the bay–not other visitors, I hoped, I wanted the island to myself! But it soon turned out to be one of the local open fishing boats, with two men checking their lobster pots. These local open fishing boats are of substantial build, wide of beam with a pronounced sheer that brings the bows high out of the water. They seem to keep the traditional long wooden oars with scarcely any blade to them but most of the time use an outboard engine. Once the men had finished looking at the pots in the little bay off the chapel, they carried along the south coast of the island, pulling up lobster pots as they went.

The tide was quite full in the bay still, although the water was no longer breaking across the reef. I set the anchor carefully some way offshore, so that as the tide dropped Coral would have plenty of water. Anchoring takes quite a lot of running back and forth from the bows to the cockpit: first going forward to drop the anchor, then going aft to put the engine in reverse, forward again to pay out more chain and check the holding, and so on. I wanted to be quite happy the anchor was holding well, since I was planning to leave her for a while, I wanted to be sure she was safe.

Putting camera, notebook and pencil, and a box for collecting wildflowers in my waterproof bag, I took the dinghy ashore. The water was wonderfully clear, so I could look down at a substantial growth of seaweed as I approached on the sandy shore. The sand was strewn with granite pebbles of different colours, browns and greys and reds, and course and fine textures. Where the little waves covered and uncovered them at the waters edge, they gleamed in the sunshine. Massive chunks of grey granite emerged out of the sand, above them on the hillside was planted a small and very weathered Celtic cross and further back the chapel itself, fair weather clouds blowing in from the sea beyond.

It is not possible to write about Connemara without being in the shadow of Tim Robertson, whose trilogy of books explore history, language and landscape in the most extraordinary detail. His account of the chapel in Connemara: A little Gaelic kingdom notes the enormous granite blocks, the high-pitched roof with its elaborate finials, and writes that “it shows no deference to the power of gales beyond the slight concession of locating itself in a shallow dip in the eastern flank of the island, where it is spared the worst of the westerlies.” Robertson dates the chapel to the twelfth century, not, as the pilot book suggests, to the fifth; but he does accept the possibility that there was an older, wooden, building on this site, noting details in its construction that suggest that it is a stone reconstruction following quite faithfully an older wooden original. It was restored in 1976 by the Office of Public Works.

There are many accounts of St Mac Dara being associated with stormy weather: apparently when passing through his Sound sailors were required to “bow down their sails three times, in reverence to the saint,” the punishment for not doing so was to be “tossed by sea and storme.” I, of course, being ignorant of this had failed to follow this custom when I first went through the Sound, so on landing I was careful to apologise to the saint and bow to the chapel in contrition. So who was this St Mac Dara? Robertson’s unrelenting inquiry traces his first name as Sinach, or Sionach, which it is thought is associated with wind and stormy weather. Sionach Mac Dara, then, is the stormy one. Roberston comes to the conclusion that when Christianity first came to Ireland many of the old pagan gods had to go underground or hide among the peasantry as fairies. But some, more daringly, became saints. Since there seems to be no record of a religious foundation of any kind on Mac Dara’s island, Robertson suggests that Sionach Mac Dara is far older than even the original chapel: “he is a regional Celtic god of the winds in Christianized guise.”

This idea greatly appeals to me, for “on the western edge” in its fullest meaning refers to not just the geographical edge of the British Islands but also to the “edge” of European civilisation. I must be careful not to romanticise, but the far west of Ireland has historically held on to ways of understanding our world that have been overwhelmed by other forces on the mainland (preserving Christianity and writing during the Dark Ages being one of them). The story of Sionach Mac Dara shows how different strands of understanding our world can be twined together.

I walked up the slope toward the chapel. While it looks well in its setting and from a distance, close to has been so heavily restored that any sense of antiquity is gone–and indeed if not thoroughly restored the stormy Atlantic would soon have demolished it into a pile of granite, as it has the other buildings hinted at in the surroundings. Most disappointing is that the entrance is barred by a heavy iron gate and padlock, to which has been welded a Christian cross. There is something oddly contradictory in the symbols offered here! The interior is in any case completely plain, with the floor covered in what looks like roadstone.

So, preferring to enjoy the chapel in its context, I wandered around the island, finding my way along sheep’s paths through boggy places where earlier in the year wild iris had bloomed, and clambering over granite outcrops which showed evidence of glacial polishing (the whole island, of course, is a granite dome shaped similarly by ice). The grass below the chapel was studded with a small variety of dandelion, from a distance brought to mind a scattering of jewels shining in the bright sun. Looking closer I found a wide variety of wild flowers, and collected samples intending to identify them back on board Coral (I should note that I was completely unsuccessful in finding out what any of them were, but I carefully put them in my flower press so maybe someone can help me when I get home). Among the flowers, indeed all over the sheltered side of the island, butterflies were flitting about. One was a lovely mid brown, with a spot toward the outer end of each wing; another was white, with colour at the end of its wings, but never seemed to settle long enough for me to get a good look.

After checking that Coral and the dinghy were both safe I started to follow the coast around the south side of the island, walking above the line of the storm beach. Soon I was followed and I suspect mildly harassed by oyster catchers ,who didn’t seem to like me being there. They circled quite low overhead, then flew off in wide sweeps, calling in their high pitched tone all the while. As they passed overhead I could see their black and white feathers, and their long orange beak wide open as they seemed to shriek at me. I took care not to go nearly anything the might look like a nest, and after a while they gave up on me and flew off on more important business. Meanwhile two young gulls, still in speckled juvenile feathers, seemed to lurk on an outcrop higher up the slope, and an enormous black backed gull sternly stood sentinel on the boulder that stands at the highest place on the island.

Eventually, I found an upright stone just above the chapel and looking down on the bay. It might have traces of a Celtic cross on it, maybe not, but it was clearly supported intentionally by a cairn of small boulders. On one side of the cairn was a plastic fishing float with the loop to attach a line to it pointing upwards. Again, it was clearly placed there intentionally, as it was set about by stones that supported it in position. Was this some modern day offering to the ancient storm god in the guise of a Christian saint, a supplication to keep fishermen safe and their lobster pots full? If so, it felt to me entirely understandable and appropriate. If the old gods are still with us maybe they will lead us back to a respect for the land and sea of which we are a part.

I sat under this maybe-cross, remembering my intention to meditate formally on landscape. After taking a while to attend to my breathing and allow my thinking mind to calm down somewhat, I opened my eyes in an attempt to attend to the scene in front of me as a whole. Could I intuit its form, its storm-tossed quality, how the reefs cover and uncover and thus create habitats for different beings. And what of the whole of southern Connemara that lay out in front of me the other side of the bay? Could I intuit the form of its coast rocky, boggy flatness and the ranges of mountains that rise up in the distance?

There was probably far too much thinking going on, but in the end, this (only slight edited) is what I wrote in my notebook:

But still the grass in front of me is blowing in the wind
and still the waves are breaking on the rocks
and still the oyster catchers are flying by making their high pitched call
and still the butterflies are flittering away
and still….

Back at the beach, I selected a pebble to take home, to go with my small collection of granite pebbles from significant islands. Now the tide was low, there was more seaweed floating at the surface and under the clear water a jungle of browns and greens and reds, shiny with wetness /and waving gently in the currents. As I pushed the dinghy into the water and started to paddle offshore, one of the local boats, a gaff-rigged cutter with a black hull, long bowsprit and tan sails full in the breeze approached the bay, tacked around and headed off toward Deer Island. I had wondered if I would visit the island a second time after lunch, but it seemed that Sinach or Sionach or Siothnach had brought me fair winds. It would be a real sin to ignore the gift, so I hauled up the anchor and set off for a pleasant afternoon sail around the islands.

What a place to stop for lunch

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The Inner Passage runs between the off-lying rocks and the little islands that run along the southern coast of Connemara. It is not a particularly difficult passage, but as always when piloting a yacht in new waters that, as the pilot book says, are “strewn with rocks”, I feel particularly alert. On my toes, you might say. There is one transit line running through the passage, and once on it I ticked off the islands as I passed: Birmore, Inishmuskerry, Duck, Mason and St Macdara’s. The wind was from the south, with moderate waves, so Coral was rolling more than I was used to. As I passed the Carrickaview breakers I had a choice: carry on, or take the hint from the pilot book, which says that it was possible with care to divert through Macdara Sound and anchor in a pretty little bay by the sixth century chapel. The sun had come out after the early rain, clearing the air so the views were sparkling. Who could resist?

So here I am, sitting looking north into a little bay. Scarcely a bay really, just a reef between St Macdara’s and its off-lyer, which itself is no more than a pile of big stones with a thatch of grass on top. The shelter will be gone come high tide. Terns are flying around the boat, little delicate creatures that swoop low over the water as they look for fish, then half dive and half flop into the water to make a catch. Even when I can’t see them I can hear their high-pitched tweets.

Granite boulders are piled along the waterline, a tiny white beach, grassy slopes that lead up to the chapel. A small stone building, it stands a little way up the slope, surrounded by a half broken-down wall and ruins of some kind. The whole building is quite plain. Most notable is the roof, which rises sharply to a high apex with a rather extravagant decoration at the top of each gable. The roof tiles are covered in golden yellow lichen.

When I turn to look north, I can see beyond the low coastline the mountains of central Connemara. I don’t know their names, nor do I need to. They seem to march, smoky blue, along the line of the horizon, collecting regular lines of cumulus clouds mingled with low stratus, dark below but rising puffily toward patches of open sky.

I hurry to inflate the dinghy, put on waterproofs and boots, lower the outboard into place, climb in with camera. But the outboard won’t start, a recurrence of an old problem I need to attend to. And the tide is now nearly at the top of the reef, and heavy rainclouds are blowing in from the south. Even as I write the rain is hammering on the spray hood. Landing will have to wait for another day. Or maybe again, just to be here was enough.

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Inishmore

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I arrived here on Thursday after a fourteen-hour passage from the north coast of the Dingle peninsula past the Shannon Estuary–about two thirds of it actually sailing–and seeing lots of puffins, guillemots, razorbills and I think shearwater on the way. The resident dolphin pod at the Shannon paid a brief visit, but I think they were too busy hunting fish to bother with me; maybe I glimpsed of another whale surfacing, but then it might have been a very large dolphin; and I passed a sunfish, flopping around in the water as they do.

Inishmore is the largest of the three Aran Islands, and has a long history of poverty and neglect under different landowners. It is a long island, lying approximately northwest to southeast with great limestone cliffs and pavements on the southwestern side, contrasting to the slightly gentler northeastern side where there are fields that suggest productive agriculture. But the island as a whole gives a hard living, and the ancient fields are no longer worked, but full or wildflowers, the occasional small herd of cows and a few horses.

After my long sail I spent Friday lazily hanging out in Coral, complaining to myself about the hideous extension to the harbour that has recently been built. A huge pier of piled rocks capped with concrete, it doubles the size of the harbour and completely overwhelms the old pier (itself the product of several phases of development and not particularly beautiful). At the head of the new pier is a dock for a roll-on roll-off car ferry, and a huge concrete car park, brilliantly lit through the night (even though there is no activity to light). But do I as a visitor have a right to criticise? I tactfully asked a few people how the new pier was seen; the clearest response came from the couple n their yacht on the next buoy, who said, “Oh, we did some crazy things in the Celtic Tiger days!”

I watched the visitors stream ashore from the ferry boats–later a local suggested that there are maybe 3,000 day trippers on a fine weekend–and decided that if I was to visit any of the famous sights here I would need to be up and about early. So Saturday morning I was at the bike shop as it opened, taking charge of a solid machine with 21 gears which took me halfway round the island.

The “must see” sight is Dun Aonghasa, a Bronze or Iron Age fort perched on the cliff top toward the northern end of the island. I cycled straight there, left my bicycle at the visitor centre and trekked up the already hot path. The fort consists of three huge semicircular walls that enclose a promontory at the cliff top. My first impression was of its massive size, then as I approached closer I was fascinated by the intricacy of the stone work: of course no mortar was used, the stones laid so closely that they look very much like the natural fragmentation of the limestone along its fault lines. I placed my hand on one of the blocks, imagining that this stone had been handled and put in place by someone some 3,500 years ago.

I thought I was the first to arrive at the Dun that morning, but no, there was someone before me, a woman sitting on her own in the shade of the walls. She looked very content and self-contained, so we exchanged nods of greeting and then ignored each other. In the enclosed space within the inner wall there was scarcely a sound, just a hint of the light surf at the bottom of the cliff (nowhere on Inishmore seems to be away from the sound of surf even in calm weather) and the scratching of my pencil in my notebook. When a young man arrived through the stone doorway a little later and immediately blew his nose, the noise was quite startling.

The limestone pavement on which the fort is built reaches out to sea and sky then ends abruptly. There is a sharp, angular edge, and the cliff plunges straight down into the Atlantic. Actually it is not straight down, for the top of the cliff slightly overhangs. I walked cautiously toward the edge and peered down at the sea, feeling my body contort itself in spontaneous anxiety, so that while my head craned forward my bottom stuck out landwards in futile counterbalance. My body would not let me get closer while upright, so I lay full length on the rock and wormed my way forward till my head was over the edge. With a strange ambivalence, feeling both vertigo and exhilaration, I looked down hundreds of feet to the sea. Even then I couldn’t allow my shoulders over the edge. To my left I could see the ledges of pavement around Poll na bPeist, the Worm Hole. The cliffs there are a mere ninety feet; those at Dun Aonghasa three times that height. Tim Robinson, in his classic Stones of Aran, writes “the dramatic change in scale projects one’s gaze into legendary perspectives.” It is indeed difficult to realise that ancient humans, not giants, built this extraordinary structure.

Later that afternoon, at serious risk of sunstroke, I cycled down the side-roads, through countryside where stone walls crisscross the limestone pavement, seeming to divide near-barren land. I met an old gentleman sitting outside his cottage who pointed out the way, “To the Worrrrm Hole,” with such exaggerated rolling of the “r” that one might imagine he was acting (and overacting) the part (Aran is one of the few places where Gaelic remains the vernacular).

I found the Worm Hole itself extraordinary. As Robinson describes in “An exactly rectangular block of stone has somehow been excerpted from the floor of the bay in the cliffs… and the sea fills the void from below… It looks like a grim and sinister swimming pool, the work of some morose civil engineer.” But while the Hole is extraordinary, it did not strike me as spectacular. I was much more taken with the qualities of the limestone pavement that steps down from clifftop to sea level.

On the way out I had made the mistake of following the arrows painted on the rocks, which led me over the piles of huge rocks that constitute the “storm beach”–where the sea in its wilder moods tosses huge boulders onto the cliff tops. Coming back, I stayed further inland, stepping across the vast flat stones and negotiating the fissures between them, some of which run in straight parallel lines for some twenty or thirty yards, creating little micro-climates in the cracks where flowers bloom (I have not been to The Burren in County Clare but believe there are similarities). The limestone is weathered into fantastic shapes, some rounded, some with strangely curved sharp edges. The stones ring out when they are struck. Mostly this was easier walking than across the storm beach, although I did once tread on a grassy spot that was softer than it looked. As my foot sank between two rocks I wondered if I would hear the snap of broken bone, but I was moving cautiously so no harm was done at all.

By now I had been in the sun for most the the day, and I struggled to cycle back to the harbour, taking every opportunity to shelter in the few patches of shade along with way. My bottle of orange squash was tepid and unpleasant (and nearly all gone), so I was delighted to join the other tourists at Joe Watty’s bar for a pint of iced water (essential) and a Corona beer (delightful).

Back on board Coral, at seven in the evening the sun is still shining but the heat has gone out of it. Today has been a lesson in geology: it is one thing to read about how erosion creates limestone pavements, quite another to actually see the evidence. There is also a lesson in history: while this is not my part of the world, I know it has been deeply influenced and impoverished both by its own conflicts and by those imported from England.

Now on my own

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We hugged goodbye, touching each other intentionally and affectionately for the first time that week. I watched as Suzie and Gib walked up the gangway from the pontoon, they turned and we waved a last goodbye, and I was on my own. I turned to do the necessary chores before I could leave the marina: top up with diesel, buy food, re-arrange the cabin for one. Then I untied the mooring lines and backed Coral away from the dock, turning her in the narrow space (with some awkwardness, watched intently by the Frenchmen in the yacht opposite) and motored away from Dingle. On the way out, Fungie the resident dolphin played around Coral is a rather desultory way before swimming off on this own to the middle of the bay.

I hoisted the sail, falling back easily in that self reliance I have cultivated over the years, and set off westward down the bay. As I watched the coast go by, I realised I was on my own for the first time on this whole trip: alone with my own thoughts and my own company; not having to worry about whether the others are happy; not engaged in conversation except what was in my own head.

There was no wind, so I motored past Ventry and Slea Head. The tide through Blasket Sound had turned against me so I took Coral over to White Strand Bay and dropped the anchor off the beach, partly to wait for the tide, and partly to take the opportunity to go ashore. Coral rolled heavily, even though the swell was light, there was no wind to steady her. I struggled to blow up the dinghy and get the outboard in place, but once that was done it took only a few minutes to get to the landing place and find where to tie the painter so it was out of the way of the tourist inflatables that kept roaring in and out. This was the place the villagers landing their curraghs for centuries, a little place of calm on what can be a wild coast; an additional sheltering wall was built in the twentieth century, and a stainless steel chain has been installed to help visitors up the rough steps. But in essence it is the same place.

I wandered round the village for half an hour or so, taking pictures of the ruined houses and of Coral against the background of rocks and the sound. As best I could, I avoided the other visitors. The houses, although tumbling down, seemed to me to be substantial, built into the shelter of the hillsides. As I poked around, going into some houses, walking the paths between them, climbing the rough stone steps, I imagined the children running errands and playing together, thought of the adults visiting each other in their houses, of the close relationships they would have. An enormous amount of work went into creating this community, both in a physical and in a cultural sense. All the work and play and love and struggle. Now it is all gone. I left feeling sad, not really sure if I should have landed or not.

Once the south going stream had slackened, I took Coral north through the Sound. There was quite a swell, and the stream had kicked up some rough water. Coral rolled horribly as we motored toward and round Sybil Point. It was a relief to get into relatively calm waters of Smethwick Harbour next to the massive bulk of Mt Brendan, most of which was lost in clouds.

I anchored Coral in a corner of the bay next to some low cliffs. The bay was practically empty. This is as I had imagined it, I thought, empty, quiet except for the gentle waves against the rocks.

And yet, while I enjoy the quiet of my own company, I miss the conviviality of the last week with Suzy and Gib: the good conversations; the shared interests in ecology; our joint appreciation and excitement at the wildlife and the landscape; good food and enough alcohol to loosen the tongues; and the shared physical intimacy of living together in Coral’s small cabin with the careful respect for personal boundaries.

Conviviality is a good word and an even better way of being. It was a word we used to describe how we were for twenty five years, meeting as five men in the Western Academy, bringing together conversation, food and emotional closeness. Alas, John has died, Peter T has dementia, and Peter H, Malcolm and I know that without them the Western Academy is no more. Thanks to Suzy and Gib for reminding me how important this quality of human being is. It brings out the best in us.

Exploring the Blasket Islands

From Inishvickillain
High pressure continued to dominate the weather, and although not as hot here on the west coast of Ireland as in parts of England, there has been practically no wind for a week, so the sea is uncharacteristically still. In some ways, this is a good time to explore about the Blasket Islands, for strong winds will kick up heavy seas in the tidal streams between the islands making the passages perilous, although this is how the islanders would have experienced it for much of the time. The fine hot weather gives one particular impression.

So we left Dingle in the morning, catching sight of Fungie, the resident dolphin, playing around one of the tourist boats as we left. We reached down the bay toward Great Blasket, enjoying the coast as it passed while also having an animated discussion about the nature of time. Suzy brought out her copy of The Clock of the Long Now, which got us talking about deep ecological time in comparison with the span of human attention. All around us the rocks of Cork and Kerry, which were folded like a concertina at some distant point in geological time, forming the deep bays and high mountains, remind us that the landscape is always in a process of change. So we talked about deep time, tidal time and how, strangely, even though we have been together less than a week, in many ways we have know each other for a long time.

While deeply engrossed in this conversation, I turned a looked at the hillside as we approached Slea Head. And for a tiny moment I was taken in by the landscape in front of me–just as I had been by the stars when crossing the Celtic Sea. How to describe the experience? It wasn’t just the grandeur and beauty of the landscape, not just the evidence of geology and history, not just the contrast between cultivated fields and the rough heights of Mount Eagle. Rather it was the wholeness, the “all-togetherness” of the world that arrested my attention and brought forth a spontaneous “Ah!” and for a moment knocked me out of myself. A few minutes later, as we rounded Slea Head, I was taken in, quite differently, but the sweep of the hillside that enclosed a scattering of farm buildings, the pattern of the walls winding up the hillside with the morning sunlight reflecting on their southern sides, by the contrast between the domesticity of the buildings and the vastness of their setting.

But managing the boat drew my attention, for the wind was veering as we came clear of the headland, and Aries followed it round on an ever more more northerly course. I checked to see that we could clear The Lure, remembering how cautious I had been when I came here on my own two years ago, completely unfamiliar then with the passage. We were nearly able to sail into White Strand Bay, just motoring the last bit so that the ruins of the deserted village came gradually into view as we rounded the headland into White Strand Bay–the islanders left voluntarily in the 1950s when there was too few of them to maintain a viable community

Several ferry boats were in the bay and visitors were being taken ashore. There were people at the landing place, on the shore, around the houses, walking the high paths. And why not, it was a sunny Sunday in July? But it was so different from when I was here two years ago in April, when in the cold east wind. Then the bay was completely deserted and the scene bleak and austere. But every experience has its own authenticity, just because it is different this time doesn’t make my earlier description any less true.

The following day we decided that, given the calm weather, we should take the opportunity to visit Inishvickillaine, the most westerly island in Ireland ever to be inhabited. We motored the length of Great Blasket in oily calm seas, passing a flock of cormorants and seeing more and more puffins. There were lots of young ones, who sit quite comfortably on the water, but when alarmed by Coral’s approach seem unable to take off effectively. They scurry along the water, little wings beating the surface, then give up and dive neatly out of sight.

As we approached the island, getting ready to anchor as the pilot book instructed in ten meters of water, we saw that a large mooring buoy had been installed by the landing place. We were pleased to be able to save the trouble of anchoring while at the same time mildly put out that in this place on the edge of the Atlantic modern conveniences had been installed.

But the island itself is simply magic. On the sheltered eastern side waves of grass roll down the cliff side dotted about the wildflowers; puffins, guillemots and gulls fly in and out continuously, bringing food to their fledglings; and from time to time the air is filled with there is a gentle cooing between adult and chick. We paddled ashore in the dinghy and landed easily on the stony beach. Suzy and Gib scrambled up the cliff path to the top, to look out over the Atlantic, and came back confirming what the pilot book clearly stated–the path is dangerous and should not be attempted. Meanwhile I stayed on the beach and watched the puffins flying in and out of their burrows with small fish in their mouths. I was pleased to have Gib and Suzy safe on the beach. Before leaving we sat quietly on the beach, looking back to the mainland, watching the birds. Two large seals swam into the bay, and stayed with their heads out of the water, seeming to watch us watching them, before swimming away.

These days prompted another response to the question Suzy had asked earlier after our visit to Skellig Michael, what do we do with the experiences like this? Maybe we come to these places with a sense of reverence and to pay homage. Maybe we should not be frightened to use such words. We come to acknowledge the land and the sea, the animals who live here and the history of the peoples–for their own sake, not to make our own sense of it, not to have our own “spiritual” experiences (although when these come we may embrace them). Being here, through our appreciation, and also our tiredness and discomfort, through the effort of coming; that, maybe, is enough.

Photo: Blasket Islands from top of Inishvickillain by Susanne Paulus

Rocks in the fog

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“One of the things we could do today,” I said as we finished our breakfast in Derrynene Harbour, “is to go out to the Skellig Rocks.” It looked like it would be another calm day, and although the Irish Met Office forecast “fog patches”, visibility seemed better today than yesterday.

“I’m totally up for that,” said Suzy, “I’ve been fascinated by what you have told us about the Celtic monks living there.” Gib nodded quietly in agreement, so once we had washed up and stowed everything, we made our away out of the harbour mouth along the leading line and turned west toward Bolus Head and the Skelligs beyond. The pilot book says that Muckiv Rocks, awash to the west of the harbour entrance, nearly always has breakers on it which show its position. Today just tiny waves washed around its edges, not a sign of white foam. But more ominously, ahead of us I could see a yellow-grey cloud of sea fog gathering round Scariff Island and blowing across the bay. Too late to turn back, as the entrance to Derrynane was soon obscured as well, but there was a hint of a horizon in the far distance, so it seemed that this patch of fog might be limited to the coast line.

But it wasn’t. It was patchy, at times gathering right around the boat in a circle of damp greyness; at other times opening up to a hint of blue above us and a vague horizon. We motored, then sailed westward, with plenty of room to clear Bolus Head. But it was disorienting, difficult to steer a steady course and keep a good lookout at the same time. With a neophyte crew I was reluctant to go below and do more careful pilotage.

After about half an hour we heard the sound of little waves washing on rocks and the calling of seabirds close too. A vertical cliffside emerged out of the gloom, closer than was comfortable. We had strayed off course and had closed with the headland. After a momentary alarm, we steered clear–no harm done, but an important warning. I started the engine and set a steady course for the Skelligs. As we left the coast behind us the top of the headland emerged above the fog.

The visibility opened up so we could see a circle of calm water around us, dotted with tiny puffins–I imagined they were this year’s chicks just fledged. They bobbed about in the waves like little bits of fluff, struggled to take off the fly away, but entirely confident about diving. Two gannets seemed at first to be ignoring us, but suddenly took flight as we got close, beating a path along the water with their feet, wings powerfully lifting their bodies clear. They are very big birds when you see them up close. We passed a small fishing boat, two men attending to lobster pots. It came into view about half a mile away and seemed to float in a space between the gently undulating sea and the featureless sky.

Then the hint of a stronger shape began to emerge through the fog, scarcely present at first. A pyramid of rock rising, pinnacled above, streaked with white–Little Skellig, with its colony of gannets. In a moment of excitement, Gib and Suzy go forward with their cameras for a better view. Then it disappeared completely from view as the fog closed back around us. Disoriented again, we continued very slowly, gannets sitting in the water all around us, caught a first whiff of bird shit, then the whole rock face opened some thirty yards in front of us, mist swirling around it, gannets sitting on every available ledge. Further west we caught a glimpse of Great Skellig, a ghostly shape emering in the mist, then swallowed up again.

As Coral rocked gently, still in very deep water just a few yards from the rock, we stood on the deck and silently took it all in. This huge lump of rock, massively solid yet full of fissures and ledges and pinnacles, arising sharply from the sea; the smell and the sound of the birds, the pattern they made sitting on their ledges, the shadows of those flying past thrown by the thin sunshine. Gib said later that she felt we had entered another world, “It’s the gannet’s world,” she said, “Not our world.” Suzy thought it was surreal. I could see what she meant: the fog surrounding the rock took away any sense of a context.

Leaving the gannets to their own business, we made our way further west to where Great Skellig was hidden in the mist. Again we came on it suddenly, seeing first the shapes of the boats that had brought visitors from the mainland clustered around the foot, the upward sweep of rock, mist clinging in the crevices, up to where we could just make out the beehive huts the monks has constructed hundreds of years ago. Slowly we circled round. It is bigger by far than Little Skellig, rising so high out of the water that we had to crane our necks to see the top. Suzie and Gib were silent for a while, seemed awestruck but its grandeur. I was content to make a quiet circumnavigation, feeling a bit like the archetypal ferryman who had brought these visitors to this sacred spot. On the northern side, where we could see the old landing place,and the steps coming down to the water’s edge, presumably cut by monks with simple hand tools. The path leads at a steep angle up from the sea then turns sharply to continue up the higher cliff toward the huts. We got a bit hysterical as Suzy wondered whether she could swim ashore and climb the path in her bikini. Thankfully she wasn’t too serious.

But she was later, when she asked as we sailed back toward the mainland, “What do you take away from an experience like that?” We tried to answer her question after supper that evening, but didn’t get very far. But we all agreed that the things we had seen in the past two days–the dolphins leaping, the whale emerging through the surface of the sea, the puffins bobbing around; the gannets clustering around Little Skellig and the majesty of Great Skellig–were impressed strongly on our minds, images we could recall easily and vividly.

For my part, I found this second encounter with the Skellig Rocks less dramatic than my first, two years ago. Then I was dumbfounded and silenced. This year, maybe more thoughtful. I recalled that many years ago I had been to see the Grand Canyon in January. It was full to the brim of fog, yet still had an extraordinary grandness. Now I had seen the Skelligs similarly appearing then disappearing. Somehow fog turns one’s perceptions upside down or inside out: you have a hint, a glimpse something special, only to have it almost immediately obscured. This seems to be an appropriate way of understanding spiritual experience. Grasp at it, try to hold on, and it is gone.

Not a tedious day

I thought we might be in for a rather tedious time, motoring all day in flat calm and very poor visibility. When we left Crookhaven after breakfast there was no horizon, so as Suzy remarked, it was as if we were motoring into Michael Ende’s Nothingness. We crept along a shoreline completely devoid of any surf, rounded Mizen Head close to and set a course across the openings of Dunmanus and Bantry Bays toward Dursey Sound. But it was all new to Suzy and Gib, who enthusiastically pointed out features of the coastline as we passed. Gib was the first to spot the splash of a couple of dolphins as they travelled past; and Suzy noticed how the hazy sun played strange tricks on the cliffs north of the Mizen, reflecting from the sheer surfaces so that the light seemed to be running down the rock face like a waterfall.

But as we left the Mizen behind the coastline became increasingly obscured in the mist. The sea was flat, occasionally covered in tiny ripples, but most of the time looking like polished stone. Coral thrust her was forward, the tone of the engine never varying, the Autohelm steering a straight course, while the bubbling wake behind was soon absorbed by the flatness of the sea.

We watched gannets circling high above the sea then diving for fish. We passed clusters of guillemots, which scurried away from boat as she approached, their heads jerking anxiously from side to side. Sometimes they dived neatly out of sight one by one; sometimes took flight altogether in a flurry of excited wings. “We won’t see puffins,” I said authoritatively, “They are back out to sea now after the spring breeding season,” so soon Gib pointed one out, then another and another.

Then came the first excitement. Again it was Gib who saw the first splash and the first dorsal fin of dolphins coming our way. They didn’t seem too interested in us at first, seemed to be passing us by. But then they turned and swam directly toward Coral, passing under the hull in water so clear we could see they were big animals and could make out every detail of their bodies. But they were not going to stay with us, and soon were off out to sea in long elegant leaps.

Dolphins and puffins seemed to be as much excitement as one might hope for in a day, and soon Suzy was deep in a philosophy book and I was writing in my notebook, struggling to describe the qualities of the sea.

But then Gib called again, more excitedly this time, something about white fins. We rushed up to where she was sitting in the bows and, looking deep in the water, saw a whale passing under the hull. Apparently effortlessly it moved deep below us and disappeared, shortly to surface alongside us, a long slow arc emerging from the water and blowing through its breathing hole. And a third time it breached, this time coming out head first so we could see its eyes, its long mouth, and sets of groves under its chin. It had a curious expression on its face, not seeming to smile like a dolphin, but rather conveying a sense of immense calm. Then, raising its tail fins clear of the water it dived almost vertically out of sight into the depth below us.

That must be it, we agreed. To expect more that three sightings would be greedy would it not? But the whale clearly didn’t think so, continuing to breach and dive in Coral’s wake for several minutes before finally disappearing. It left us all with big grins on our faces, Suzy holding her stomach as if it hurt. Once the excitement was over we looked in up in our reference book, and identified it as a pike whale or lesser rorqual.

What more could we expect? We carried on through Dursey Sound into the Kenmare River, the visibility just lifting enough for us to see the tops of mountains beyond the coast. Then more splashes as a pod of maybe twenty small dolphins race across our bows with a flock of guillemots hurrying in their wake. Almost exhausted with excitement and stimulus we made our way across the river, picked up the leading lines, and found anchorage in Derrynene Harbour.

Always on some edge

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I am back on Coral in Schull. I arrived here yesterday evening, after a long journey–three buses and a flight to Cork. Schull is much busier than when I was here in May, the main street bustling with tourists, the harbour packed with boats. I lugged my bag down to the waterside, found my dinghy in Simon’s yard, and carried it, along with the outboard and all the other gear I had left with it, down to the slipway.

I couldn’t get the outboard to start, despite persistent pulling on the starter cord, but I was saved the long paddle out to Coral by a kind family in a dinghy who gave me a tow. Everything on board was fine, and I settled myself in quickly. Today I must sort out the outboard and get everything ready for Suzy and Gib who are joining me on Wednesday. I met them when I was running sessions on nature writing for their Masters in Outdoor Education at Edinburgh University. Suzy is from Germany and Gib is from Thailand. Neither have sailed before, so it will be fun to teach them a bit as well as explore the coast on our way north toward Galway.

But I need to back up a bit. As I wrote in the first paragraph, I flew here. I caught an Aer Lingus flight from Bristol to Cork, going against my longstanding intention not to fly any more. I could just let the fact pass, but I need to notice it partly as a confession to myself. I hate the way so many people casually mention flying to holiday places, apparently with no awareness of the environmental consequence: carbon released into the higher atmosphere is said to be some seven time more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon release at ground level. Of course, it is one of many, many things I do that are ecologically unjustifiable, but it has been a little political act on my part to be able to say, I hope without too much smugness, “I don’t fly any more,” and start a conversation about climate change.

I flew because it was more convenient. Far more convenient, for it would have taken the best part of two days to get here by other public transport. And we do many things that harm our natural living space because they are convenient or habitual. The airport was heaving with people and the plane completely full. Being one among so many, I thought to myself, “It is utterly irrelevant whether I fly or not.” Is this a rationalisation? Probably.

I am reading The Loch of the Green Corrie by Andrew Greig, an account of a trip to fish in a remote loch in the northwest Highlands. Shortly before he died, the poet Norman MacCaig had asked Greig, a longstanding admirer, to find the loch and fish in it for him. He didn’t give the loch its correct name, nor say exactly where it is, so he offered a challenge and a journey of discovery. On the plane I came to the section where the schoolboy Greig first met the older MacCaig, having sent some poems as an act of homage.

“I have read your poems,” says MacCaig. “I quite like some of them… But then I would, because some of them are quite like my mine.” Greig is momentarily overjoyed and then dismayed, while recognising the truth of the comment. But the important bit is what MacCaig says next, “Perhaps you should write some like your own.” As Greig says, his comment is funny and cutting and true.

So as I sat on the plane with all these other people, wondering if I should be there, I realised it may or may not be relevant whether I am one among many who continues to fly. But it is not irrelevant whether or not I write and write well, whether I am able to show the links between day to day experience of our world and the great ecological patterns of which we are a part. As my friend Peter Hawkins points out in his discussions on leadership, you have to find what you are uniquely placed and able to offer the world, then get on and do it as thoroughly as you can.

I have come back to Coral to explore “on the western edge,” that liminal space where the wild Atlantic meets our homely islands and to write from here as truthfully and as evocatively as I can.

Once I was on board, and after washing the sweat off my face and stowing my gear, I made a dish of pasta and pesto from the ship`s stores. The sun gradually lost its heat and dropped below the hills behind the town. A light mist rose, casting a thin blue haze over the slopes of Mt Gabriel, and covering the surface of the sea so the islands in the bay seemed to be floating above the water. All was quiet and still, but not so far away the planes still fly and the traffic still roars.

I am beginning to learn that I am always on some kind of an edge.

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