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
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.