‘Don’t let Stephanie touch that dish/plate/teapot, she’ll break it!’ was one of my Dad’s refrains.
Recently my sister reminded me of this when telling me of someone she knew who was dyspraxic. She said she often wondered if I had suffered from a mild form that went undetected.
I assured her that I was just a clumsy child and the fact that I had no problem riding a bicycle proved I hadn’t a dyspraxic bone in my body.
If only he heard about kintsukuroi he might have been a bit more chilled about my breakages, plus he never learned that hovering nervously over me reminding me not to break something was a sure way of making me break it.
Then again with the pressure off I might not have broken any for him to practice on in the first place.
Now my observation is a sort of antithesis.
My Dad was a pedant and therefore on one side the perfectionist in him would have struggled when faced with the shattered pieces of something as beautiful as a delicate china plate.
But he was also an artist, a purist one to be exact (no wild abstract splashing’s for him, his water colours followed the strict old fashioned wash method) so the creative side of this Japanese art would have interested him.
And being a purist, his Kintsukuroi would have been meticulous.
Unfortunately he missed the era of google, but I am sure he would have gone in search of books on the subject, just as he had with the art of tying Artificial flies for his fishing.
One of my childhood memories is of him sitting, head bent, brow furrowed in concentration, at his specially equipped table in my parents bedroom, tying these minute flies. (Really he should have been working at his architectural drawings and earning a crust for his family)
This table, on which stood a miniature vice grips and a well leafed book detailing the art of fly tying, had a small drawer underneath containing boxes with hooks of various sizes, scrapes of wool, gold and silver threads and hackle feathers collected from cockerels around the country.
It was actually my mothers dressing table, but since she never wore a scrape of make up or perfume, he commandeered it.
So you can understand why I could also picture him, at the same table, in the same manner, painstakingly fitting together the pieces of my latest breakage and painting in the cracks with gold or silver lacquer.
And just as when he was tying flies, we watched in admiration (the hook steady in the vice grips and using a forceps with surgical precision, attaching first the wool, winding the silver or gold thread around to hold it in place, then the feathers) as before our very eyes a Wickhams fancy, bloody butcher, sooty olive, or duckfly, appeared, we could have also gazed admiringly at his latest piece of kintsukuroi.
And I would have been the proud source of yet another family story surrounding the occasion of the breakage of that particular piece (rather than the shameful clumsy daughter who’s breakages ended in the bin).
A note on fly fishing (and how it ruled our family)
Firstly, the subject of hackle feathers!
As a child it did not appear to us in anyway unusual that, when driving along a country road we would screech to a sudden halt, as my dad, having spied some colourful feathered fowl in a farm yard, would leap from the car, open the gate and scattering the hens, approach the door to talk to the woman of the house.
From our vantage point, we would watch as she, or one of her children raced around the yard in pursuit of the fine cockerel whose feathers my Dad had put his eye on.
Once caught the catcher would hold the bird steady while my Dad plucked a few of the hackle feathers and thanking the farmers wife profusely, tuck them into the small metal box he kept in his jacket pocket.
Secondly. We had to know the names of the flies he tied. After all if we were his oarsman for the day, he could, without letting his eyes leave the water, reel in his line and announce that a change of fly was needed. And our job then was to quietly place the oars in the rowlocks (sounds might frighten the fish) and hand him whichever of the above he requested.
So you better know your flies!.
But where is this story going?
Breakages, flaws, imperfections and changes and re-pairings.
Kintsukuroi also has a philosophical expression i.e embracing the flaws and imperfections of the object. Seeing its life story through its breakages rather than trying to disguise them.
April, eight years ago, I received the news of a biopsy.
The primary, my right calf.
A small freckle I had surgically removed a few years before (supposedly benign) had metastasised to the lymph nodes in my groin.
Had all those years of cycling in the summer sun caused the primary?
Who knows? but one thing was sure. I was not the perfectly healthy individual I presumed I was, but a flawed one, an imperfect being, a broken piece of the human kind.
Look Dad! Now how insignificant those plates, those cups, that teapot.
‘But how can it be?’ I wailed at anyone interested in listening to me’ I feel so well’
I wrote in my diary.
‘After all my years of nursing, of hand holding and reassuring of others I am now on the same side of the fence. I never thought it would be me.’
I had my surgery that May.
At first I was scared of everything, the sun, my life, even my leg.
Especially my leg.
I took each step gingerly, barely daring to walk on it.
I was so fearful of putting weight on it that I began to cycle more than I ever (if that was possible) just to avoid putting it to the ground.
My bicycle became my crutch.
At first I cycled with two surgical drains still in place, hidden by pinning them to the underside of my long skirt.
Then through an exhausting year of Interferon.
I couldn’t stop cycling!
In the west of Ireland I struggled against the Atlantic storms, forcing my legs round and round.
And when my treatment finished, I cycled at a gentler pace across France where, on I reaching the Mediterranean, I finally excepted the philosophy of Kintsukuroi and embraced my imperfection.
In doing so, I realised I no longer needed to rely so much on my bicycle to cart me around and that sometimes I preferred walking.
And now, although there is no silver or gold mending it, like a piece of (unfinished) Kintsukuroi, the thin scar making its way crookedly along, from mid thigh to mid abdomen, continues to tell my story.
To be continued…
(Where with some anxiety but after much deliberation I decided to explore The Alentejo region in Portugal without the yellow bicycle.
As I cycle I Learn to see life stories in the flaws of old things rather than focus on their imperfections.
If I were to choose my favorite month for cycling it would be May because May is the month when the hawthorn is in bloom.
I try not to take life for granted but too often I don’t appreciate things until they have passed.
Mono no Aware is the Japanese term which describes the gentle wistfulness, or the melancholic appreciation of the transiency of things.
Hanami is the Japanese term for cherry blossom viewing. These two go hand in hand as viewing the cherry blossom, which blooms so briefly in spring, is appreciated so much more because of its transience in a way that would be missing if it was always there.
But we have a native tree that would give the cherry blossom a run for its money.
It is the humble Hawthorn.
It was in the month of May when Penny and I finally found a day when both of us were free and we head off to cycle the Achill to Westport Greenway (Co Mayo) in search of Hawthorn blossoms and to practice Hanami .
After doing the ‘two car thingy’ (A technique I wrote about in a previous post) we arrived in my car at the starting point.
‘WILL YOU BE WEARING A HELMET?’ Penny shouts to make herself heard above the rattle (She has opened the boot and is trying to disentangle her bike from mine).
‘I WILL NOT!’ I shout back, pausing from my task of taking the panniers out from behind the front seat. ‘I’VE NEVER WORN ONE IN MY ENTIRE LIFE, AS YOU WELL KNOW, AND HAVE NO INTENTION OF WEARING ONE TODAY!’
I shout so that she is also able to hear ME over the clattering of handlebars and metal mudguards but more because I am appalled that she would even suggest that I owned such a thing.
‘OK OK! she laughs ‘Keep your hair on’
At this stage She has extricated her bike from the clutches of mine and leaning it against the wall turns to me.
‘I wont wear one either so’
She watches me, daring me to look surprised.
I am surprised, shocked even.
The last time we cycled together on the Greenway, not only did she insist on wearing a helmet but a ‘High viz’ jacket as well. I remember thinking that if she fell off her bike there wasn’t much to hit her head off except some sheep wire. And that maybe she needed to wear high viz so that the sheep could see her coming.
‘Great’ I try to look as though its not important one way or the other but secretly I’m delighted ‘Now you will be able to feel the gentle spring breeze in your hair.
(Nagokaze = the Japanese term for experiencing the gentle spring breeze)
Suddenly I am struck by a wistful longing for those days long ago when cycling were simpler.
Before helmets. Before fear.
Back then (could it be almost forty years ago) I cycled the wild Atlantic way (before it became famous) from Donegal to cape clear island without once worrying about falling.
My bike was a single speed black raleigh, complete with a small wooden bicycle cart (I had bought the cart in Holland the previous year whilst on a cycling trip in Europe).
This cart was of an ingenious design.
When not carrying my accoutrements (tent, spare clothing, pots and pans, Kelly kettle) the base could be taken out and used as a table.
And the sides, having a hinge at each corner, meant the remainder could then be folded flat for easy storage.
Looking back it was a much weightier affair than today’s versions, but I knew no better as, with the breeze tossing my (unhelmeted) hair, I cruised down those Connemara hills, my feet off the pedals, the cart rattling gaily along behind.
Once when heading across the bog road to Scriob, (a road which undulated in such a measured fashion that the momentum of sailing down hill would almost carry you up the next hill without pedalling) the safety bolt loosened from the hitch on a down hill stretch and the cart disengaged.
Passing me out, it landed in a ditch upside down.
Luckily the only damage was a dint in a saucepan but I took more care after that by adding a loop of bailing twine around the hitch.
That was the only accident I can recall.
Suddenly I understand Mono no aware.
‘Come on’ A voice wakes me from my daydream.
Penny has my bicycle out too and wheels it over.
I buckle on my panniers and fix my picnic laden basket on the handle bars.
The traffic is heavy as we cycle up the main road and we are happy to take a left turn away from it and along a small gravel lane. We continue to climb slowly until finally it turns again before flattening out.
Then for a while it runs, not only fairly level, but straight as well, giving us the opportunity to look around.
To the left the boggy fields bank easily down to the sea, where the ruins of abandoned cottages lie.
‘Aw look! Aren’t the colours gorgeous?’ Penny points to the swathes of purple and pink rhododendrons dotted here and there.
The colours ARE gorgeous and I wonder is there a Japanese term for admiring things guiltily.
These invasive plants that thrive in our gentle soft rain were brought in by the Victorians and planted as exotics in the grounds of many estate houses and have now run a muck, causing huge ecological problems by threatening our native species which cannot compete for space against them.
But Penny loves them.
Brought up on the bare boggy mountains of mayo she see’s the purple and pinks as uplifting and striking.
We have the track to ourselves and we cycle along easily, stopping here and there to admire the small orchids growing along the road side and in a damp field, the pink of the ragged robin.
The ditches are full of primroses.
‘We’re Hamani-ing already’. I say
‘Save it for the hawthorn’ Penny says standing on her pedals and sniffing ‘I can smell them’.
Sure enough as we round the corner, there they are, in full bloom. Bent into shape by the prevailing northwest winds, they are spread over a field of ancient potato ridges which run down to the shore.
We catch a glimpse of water between their gnarled trunks.
Penny spreads our picnic on a nearby seat.
‘This is how they do it in Japan! They have picnics and wine while viewing the blossom’.
‘Did you know that the leaves of the hawthorn are edible’ I say. ‘In fact they are very good for you and are a known tonic for the heart’? One up for our sturdy hawthorn blossom’!
‘Except’ she replies ‘The leaves AND flowers of the cherry blossom are edible also and more famously too. There is a wide variety of treats using sakura (cherry) leaves and blossoms. From being incorporated in Wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) to Sakurayu (cherry blossom tea)’.
‘We better chew on a few hawthorn leaves so’ I sigh resignedly ‘Mustn’t let the side down’.
We pick some of the young green leaves and insert them between the two halves of our baguettes french which already contain spinach and smoked salmon.
They taste good in the sandwich, a tougher texture than the spinach but with a pleasant nutty flavour.
Penny draws a line at making hawthorn blossom tea but I pop a few in my cup and pour some boiling water over them.
The tea has a lovely scent.
‘Here’s to Hawthorn blossoms’ Penny raises her glass.
To Hawthorn blossoms’ I echo her.
We sit for a while without talking and sip our wine, admiring the view, the blossoms, the gnarled trunks of the trees, the way the light defines one side of each potato ridge.
The air is so clear.
The fragrance of the Hawthorn envelopes us.
It’s beautiful and serene and all those things that I cannot find the words to describe.
There is another Japanese term.
Yuugen translates as An awareness of something in nature that triggers feelings too deep and mysterious for words.
“Happiness is the biggest window a house can ever have” Mehmet Murat Ilden
Part One: I arrive on The Island.
The first thing that struck me as I stood in the rain waiting for the small ferry that plied backwards and forwards between Roscoff and the island, was the happiness of the people around me.
It may have been bucketing down from the heavens but they piled on that boat, laughing and chatting as though it was the sunniest day the summer could offer them.
Old ladies with pulley baskets, elderly men with shopping bags, glamorous people with beautiful dogs, walkers with the correct gear and a crowd of teenagers hauling tents and their belongings.
And not a scowl between them.
The handsome young man who lifted my heavily laden Yellow bicycle as though it was as light as a feather and of no inconvenience to his strength, smiled and placed it carefully along with the other two on the front deck.
It stood forlornly, water dripping off it’s panniers (and into them too as I discovered later) while the other two bicycles, if bicycles could, were smiling along with everyone else.
Some people leaned forward, regarding me with interest as I took my seat and greeted me with a merry ‘Bonjour’.
I would guess this was not because they recognised me as someone not from the island, (I’m sure there were others like me coming for the first time) but because I was the only one NOT smiling.
Rain belonged in Ireland for heaven’s sake and you see I hadn’t accounted for it here in France.
I also didn’t expect everything to be so straightforward and had giving myself too much time when arranging meeting the woman of the house to collect the keys of what would be my home for the next week.
I could expect to be out in this rain for another three hours.
But I found I couldn’t help smiling back at them as I replied to their greeting.
The second thing that struck me, fifteen minutes later, as I pushed the yellow bicycle with its sodden belongings up the hill from the harbour and past an old church, was the Agapanthus.
It grew so profusely that in places it blocked my views of the sea.
But it got away with being a nuisance by the sheer beauty of its flowers
Blue stars reaching to the heavens.
I was beginning to smile again.
Then there was the perfect rows of cauliflowers, fennel bulbs, kohlrabi, potatoes, growing in small fields fertilized by sea weed which I spied through the misty rain and between the gaps of the clusters of houses (the fields that is not the seaweed)
Add to that the wild sea which I could now get a glimpse of (I had reached the brow of the hill) and surely that was a white beach in the distance reached by small sandy roadways scattered without plan.
The rain was beginning to ease now.
The last thing that struck me (but should have been the first that I mentioned) were the gorgeous colorful shutters surrounding small lace curtained windows that I whizzed past as I freewheeled down the other side of the hill.
And for the length of my stay those windows stopped me in my tracks time and time again and me smile.
“Happiness is the biggest window a house can have” wrote the poet, Mehmet Murat Ilden.
Well that must be so, as it did not seem to matter that the windows of the houses here were small because the people continued to exude happiness the whole time I was on the island.
The Island of Ile de Batz lies a 15 minute boat ride off the town of Roscoff which is on coast of brittany.
It is the only small island (and I have been on a good few of them) where even cycling is going too fast.
I had been planning a larger cycle along some of the greenways of Brittany when I spied this tiny island on google maps. The more I read about it, the more I was drawn to it and soon booked a small house in its village for the week.
My plan was to cycle, walk, swim, write, draw, paint and take photographs.
Oh and eat good food and drink fine wine.
And I am inviting you to join me.
To be continued……….
Crossing the beach at low tide is the only way to Omey Island. I am in search of Saint Féichíns well (Ordnance map no:37). The only need for my shoe is to stop the stand on my bicycle sinking into the wet sand. Below is st Feichíns well in which disappointedly there was no feckin water.
I can stay in the grandest of hotels with the best of them but give me wild camping anyday and I will really feel at home.
The yellow bicycle proving her worth as a means of sheet drying.
Wild camping is very much in vogue these days but for me it is more an addiction than a fashion. I have wild camped year in year out since I was a child. In fact I have been reared on it and every year around the same time my head turns westwards and I sniff the air and pack my tent.
I can’t help myself.
When we were young my dad who had a great ‘grá’ for the west would do the same. One day he would be happily rowing around our local lakes (Actually we would be rowing he would be fishing) the next, he would give the command and the process of packing for a month or two of wild camping would begin (Again it was my mother and us who did the packing, my dad just organized his fishing gear) and we would head westward in search of the perfect place that would allow him fish and do his watercolors, my eight siblings, swim and explore and my mother keep tabs on us all.
Now, my parents didn’t wild camp because they chose specifically to do so , It was something they just did.
They didn’t need to give it a name.
Even if there had been campsites back then my father would have shunned them.
He could not see the point of lumping a crowd of people together in an enclosed area full of tents. (We are enough of a crowd on our own he would say, as he escaped across the bog towards some small lake, creel over his shoulder, Hardy rods in hand and proverbial tweed jacket which he only removed on the warmest of days about his body, its pockets filled with his small water color box and brushes, to fish peacefully on some small brown trout filled lake away from his feral children).
We camped wherever there was water. By rivers and lakes and sea. On the sides of mountains where streams splashed over rocks and once in the grounds of the ruins of an old abbey (with a lake nearly at its doorstep) where my mother heard the long departed monks sing at night.
But mostly we camped by the sea. On strips of unfenced land running down to white shell encrusted beaches and turquoise oceans. And we would abandon our shoes and run barefoot for the summer.
A week ago I found myself once again in such a place re pegging down my tent as gale force winds did their best to deny me the certainty of a bed for the night.
But I was not concerned for it was not new to me. (‘Tent battling’ is considered by many of us wild campers as a sport and we relish it in the same way two people in a proper camp site with shelter and electricity might relish a game of cards as a way of passing the evening).
The night after the storm when the wind calmed to a gentle breeze I took out my notebook (Wild camping =no electricity=no laptop) and jotted down a list of my tips on the art of wild camping.
These tips will soon alert you to the fact that I do not wild camp in the south of spain nor on the greek islands but rather in the wilds of the west of Ireland.
- DON’T check the weather forecast before you go (or you will never go)
- Umbrellas do NOT count as part of rain gear. (They will be turned inside out, spines broken and carted out to sea in less than a minute of unfurling them)
- Abandon shoes and other conventional footwear. This is your chance to kill two birds with the one stone (Wild camping and barefoot living go hand in hand…Pardon the pun)
- You may wear clothing (Ireland is too cold not to)
- Prepare to spend a lot of time standing on a hill holding up a wetted finger (the old way of telling which way the wind is coming from)
- Dry bedding is a priority (As opposed to a tidy looking tent interior) and gets priority of place even if it means giving up your new camping chair for it.
- Bring lots of bread, butter and jam (They are a comfort food and you will need lots of comfort food)
- Bring lots of drink (I mean wine and whiskey not water)
- In fact bring more drink than food.
- Forget about your five a day (There is nothing worse than dreeping peaches in a small tent, squished lettuce underfoot, sticky oranges when water is only for drinking (don’t use wine to wash your hands unless you love ants)
- If you ARE obsessed about your five a day, remember wine is made from grapes so drink five glasses of wine)
- Expect to come back from your rainy walk and find a group of random people sheltering in your tent
- Understand that it is normal not to know these people personally.
- Remind yourself that that it is ok to allow them stay (you may find yourself with the same need sometime)
- Remind yourself also that random walkers (no matter how irritating) are likely to carry chocolate in their pockets and maybe willing to admit to this and share it with you in return for a half hours shelter.
- Remind yourself that it is ok to search their pockets if they refuse to admit carrying a chocolate stash(due to the tightness of the tent they maybe unable to stop you doing this)
- Give them a generous nip of your whiskey (drunk people on the whole are more compliant)
- Don’t Try to detain them when they wish to leave. No matter how lonely you are after a week or so without the company of another human being (Drunk random walkers carry swiss knives and may not hesitate in attempting to cut themselves out of your tent if you refuse to unzip it by conventional means)
- It is allowed to take whiskey in your Irish breakfast tea. (Whiskey is made of wheat and so is toast but a toaster has no place in the list of wild camping equipment)
- Don’t forget your Kelly Kettle (Thank you Kelly brothers from Co Mayo.)https://www.kellykettle.com/kelly-kettle-history.
- If you eat tomatoes prepare to find (the following year) a crop of such plants where you dug your toilet hole.
- Dig your toilet hole between showers (there is nothing quite as unfulfilling..Again, Pardon the pun, as getting drenched whilst carrying out such a boring chore. No one has ever to my knowledge being rewarded by finding treasure despite digging a super deep hole).
- Bring your ordnance survey maps.(see reason below)
- Search for a spring well, of which there are are over 3,000 in Ireland (marked in red on Ordnance survey maps). The water from such a facility is so sweet and well worth the search.
- But don’t always expect to find water in the well. (I spent a half a day searching for Saint Féchins well on Omey Island only to find there was no feckin water in it)
- Remind yourself that it is permissible (even advisable) to lick your plate after each meal.
- Increase your wine intake as the day progresses and the wind strengthens.
- Bring earplugs (To cut out the noise of the flapping tent)
- Actually don’t bring earplugs (you will need to be able to hear if you need to abandon the tent)
- Familiarize yourself with the tent noise EWS (early warning score) This system is an internationally recognised scoring system devised to alert nurses on the stability of their patients with a view for the need to send them to the High Dependency Unit. Being a nurse I use it on a daily basis and have tweaked it for my own wild camping use.(See below)
Score of one: The odd mild flap (to be expected on the calmest of summer nights)
score of two: Flapping of front section only (nothing to get excited about just watch your cooking table doesn’t get upended)
Score of three: Continuous flapping of whole tent (check out a more sheltered spot but no need to take action yet)
Score of four: Annoyingly loud flapping with parts of tent blowing inwards (check guy ropes and tighten if necessary)
Score of five: flapping loud enough to prevent you having a normal conversation. Yes talking aloud to oneself is considered normal whilst wild camping. (Strongly consider move to that sheltered spot)
Score of six: Loud flapping preventing sleep and finding your nose constantly tickled by the now flattening inwardness of your tent. (In the field of nursing this score would warrant ALERTING the patient to HDU staff and taking necessary actions for imminent transfer) So begin your move to the more sheltered place as follows:
Remember it will be pitch black and probably raining
I suggest going naked because their is no point in wasting precious dry clothing.
Prepared to get drenched.
Leave your bedding intact in tent.
Pull up all pegs and free all guy ropes. Allow the wind to catch it. The wind will blow the tent in the direction you want. You just need to hold on and guide it.
When you reach your sheltered place (around a hill or even a hummock) Pull the tent around into it and re peg .
Reward yourself with a nip of whiskey, dry your body briskly with towel and snuggle back into bed. Sleep soundly.
Score of seven: Ripping sounds from tent and snapping of poles (Evacuate! you obviously didn’t read the above, have left it too late and don’t deserve to be considered a wild camper)
As I lift my head from my notebook I note the wind has swung to the north west, Time to light the Kelly Kettle and make a cup of tea.
Now where did I put that bottle of whiskey.
The kelly kettle is the one in the background left. In this photo I am boiling some potatoes in my conventional kettle. A kind farmer gave me a gift of a bag of turf. Yes they ARE firelighters in the basket. It’s perfectly ok to cheat now and again.
I spot the giveaway signs of an ancient well (the heap of rock, the lone hawthorn tree) and go to investigate.
In ancient times water, springing up through sand or rock or grass, was seen by its very action, as mysterious.
It was believed that by flowing up from the ‘underworld’ this water was not only pure and uncontaminated, (The restorative powers of drinking clean water to maintain a healthy life may be taken for granted by us nowadays but not back then), but also supernatural, containing powers that promised healing to those who drank it, splashed it on afflicted areas of the body or paid homage at it.
Sometimes these springs ‘puddled’ and formed wells and when a trout, eel, or best of all, a salmon appeared in them, the phenomena was further enhanced.
Such fish were viewed as the keepers of the well. Holding wisdom and knowledge, they could be consulted in times of trouble.
Wells with a keeper were held in the highest esteem and bad luck to anyone who interfered with their inhabitants. (even if it was just a lowly frog)
Every so often a bird swooped down for a drink and dropped the hawberry it was carrying.
The next year when a tiny hawthorn sapling appeared, and (despite the hungry hares) survived and grew to maturity, the people were further convinced of the powers of the well . This tree would then come in handy for hanging pieces of cloth from the clothing of an ill person (After first dipping the material in the water in the hopes that it would bring good health) These tree’s became known as raggedy bushes and again bad luck to anyone who tampered with them.
When christianity came to Ireland in the 5th century the monks were clever enough not to alienate themselves from the local beliefs and seeing how they [the locals] revered such places, gave the wells the names of saints.
These saints in turn, promised to continue the cures and here the division between paganism and christianity became blurred until finally these wells became known as ‘holy wells’.
To this day pagan and christian rites at such wells remain entwined. (When praying at a well it is also advised to walk clockwise with the sun)*
There are said to be over 3,000 holy wells in ireland and if I were to cycle to every one of them in order to obtain the cures they offer I would probably end up healthier than the trout that sometimes dwell in them.
Now though I don’t doubt my good health would be due more to the action of cycling than to splashing water on my various bodily parts, I still like to believe there is an element of truth in these cures.
Plus I do like a good destination and what better one to aim for than a well with a promise of something more than just a refreshing drink.
It has also occurred to me, as I pedal along boreens that rise and fall, twist and turn, taking me passed curious horses in fields and clusters of small cottages, that maybe these cures are subliminal.
For example in searching for a well with the cure for sight (There are many of these) I am forced along such pleasant routes that I cannot fail to have my eyes opened by the beauty of the scenery around me.
And if I come upon a well with the cure for hearing or sense of smell, I could leave it feeling its waters had benefited me when really it was because I was on my bicycle and therefore alert to the sigh of the breeze, the sound of the sea, the scent of the honeysuckle in the hedgerows (As opposed to being confined in a stuffy car where I couldn’t hear or smell anything).
Now a good bicycle is a cure in itself and I have never lived without one or even two of these simple instruments of healthy travel. (Though unlike Marieke below I have also never been able to cycle more than one at a time.)
Its not as though I’m a very sporty person! Quite the opposite!
In fact I would label myself as being a Lazy ambitionist (or should that be an Ambitious laze?).
Although I spend days pouring over OS maps, I will eventually get up and go places but I like to do so slowly and without too much effort.
The fact that when I decided to cycle across france, I chose to do it as flatly as possible is proof of this.
Landing with my bicycle at Bordeaux, I cycled to Arcachon, then dipping the wheel of the yellow bicycle in the atlantic, I headed back to Bordeaux and I followed the Garonne river as far as toulouse, where I picked up the canal du midi and cycled along it (with the odd diversion into the Montagne Noir) as far as Sete on the mediterranean, knowing well that neither river or canal flows upwards.
But before I give you a picture of being slothlike, I will remind you that I cycled the wild atlantic way two years running on a single speed old black bicycle with a little wooden trailer carrying my camping gear and other accoutrements attached .
(Though because I had a picture of the map of Ireland on the classroom wall in my head, I chose to cycle from north to south feeling there must surely be more downhills than uphills when going in that direction).
But back to holy wells of which Ireland is as riddled with as the shiney new colander hanging in my kitchen (which I haven’t quite got around to using yet).
A recent visit to Saint Deirbhiles holy well in Co Mayo has re wetted my appetite for such places.
So recently and armed with an O.S map of the area I headed to Co wexford and found three holy wells.
Two of which were not in use.
The first was down a small road leading to the sea in the townland of Glascarrig.
To get at it, I ignored the sign stating that the water was not suitable for drinking and pushed open the rusty gate. Trampling aside the hog weed that was smothering the well I dipped in my cup for a sip. (Noting later that not only did I NOT suffer any ill effects from the drinking its water but sustained NO blistering from this toxic weed. (Has this well the cure of the skin?)
The next well was harder to find but I met an elderly farmer who directed me in its general direction.
When I asked him if he knew what it had the cure of, he replied with a straight face ‘ I do! It has the cure of the piseóg’
Despite his directions I had difficulty in finding it as the steps up to the embankment where it was supposedly situated were overgrown with ferns.
When I eventually did, I saw that it was covered with broken branches. Under the branches lay a piece of tarpaulin held in place by cement kerbing.
The children’s song ‘ Farmer in the well’ came to mind and I hastily replaced the branches and slithered down the embankment.
I would check later in the paper for any missing bodies in the area. Meanwhile I headed across the field to a site marked on the OS map as a moated site.
The third well was easier to find (though I would say I far prefer to search for the less obvious)
The gate was newly painted and following the line of trees along a worn path through a field, I skirted an ancient walled graveyard.
A further gate led me through a small wood and there ahead and recently whitewashed lay Saint Machains well.
What ‘cure’ this well holds I cannot tell you, but I drank some of its water anyway.
And suddenly I have an urge to get the boat to Brittany with my yellow bicycle and go cycling over there in search of some french Holy wells.
Maybe St Machain, who himself appears to have travelled from here from Scotland had the cure for that laziness of travel I mentioned earlier.
I just hope Brittany isn’t too hilly.
*P.S I am not an archeologist or a folklorist or any other ‘ist’ that may through the study of Holywells have a more researched knowledge of them. These are my thoughts, some gained from reading the history and geography of Ireland, some through reading Irish Mythology but mostly from going out in search of and finding them.
Deirbhile, (pronounced Der-vil-a) the daughter of Conor Mac Daíthí, was of noble lineage. Having decided to devote her life to God and wishing to escape an army chief who intended to marry her, she headed westward.
So here comes Deirbhile astride her donkey (bicycles had yet to be invented) on the run from would be suitors.
She rides side saddle, enjoying the passing scenery but thinking mostly about the men she has left behind and not feeling one bit guilty about her thoughts.
She is not a saint yet.
A handsome woman with beautiful eyes, her trim figure causes no hindrance to the donkey who trots briskly westward.
Her astronomer maps their journey and at night points out to her the various constellations he is using to guide them.
But though she smiles and nods politely as if in agreeance, (for she is gentle and kind and wouldn’t like to hurt his feelings) she knows it is really God who is directing them.
As for the Astronomer? well he is wise, and knowing that she takes his science with a grain of salt, does not remark upon it, for, being a bit in love with her himself, he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings either.
He also knows that Deirbhile has given up on men and is giving herself to God instead so he is aware that his feelings for her are in vain. And being a man of rational accepts this and keeps his feelings to himself.
Yes, there she goes! trotting ahead of the posse (She has a large posse for she is a noble woman and her material needs of clothing, good hygiene, soft bedding, food and drink, must be met) and reaching the band of land which prevents Belmullet being an island she kicks her sturdy beast forward.
Not far to go now.
Her entourage traipse along behind her mostly on foot. Pulling along by the bridle, the other donkeys who in turn pull wooden wheeled carts piled high with the accoutrements for such a trip, they camp out most nights, only sometimes choosing the hospitality of the new monasteries which have begun popping up here and there enroute.
The year is 508 AD.
It is late spring. The peninsula of belmullet is probably a very different shape than it is today.
Infact it is probably more of a headland than a peninsula. Thickly forested with Birch, Oak, Alder, Willow, Ash and Scots pines, it is sparsely populated. Small wisps of smoke indicate the odd dwelling and these wisps are few and far between.
This is a wilder place than she has ever known.
The forest comes to an abrupt end and before her lies the sea.
Banks of short grass grow now instead of trees, which in turn give way to gentle undulating dunes beyond which lies a fair sized beach.
She notes that the sand is scattered with good sized stones, ideal for building.
She lifts her head to smell the salt air and as her donkey breaks into a trot down the hillside (she, giving unlady like yelps of glee) the sun breaks through and across the sea she spots the mauve outline of an island which appeared to hover over the water in a heavenly manner.
Oileán Acla (Achill Island)
Reaching the edge of the sand she slides off her donkey and lets the beast of burden free to crop the short grass but instead the donkey kneels and then lies down, rolling onto her back, legs kicking wildly in order to get rid of the feel of the saddle.
It has been many many days of travelling.
‘This the place my lady’
‘It is, God willing’ she smiles at her Astronomer and with that her entourage follow suite and soon the area is littered with tents and contentedly grazing beasts (Two cows, a young bull, a small herd of goats, a flock of chickens).
A young boy is given the job of herding the animals up the hill a bit and out of the way and keeping an eye on them.
He does so sulkingly, for he would rather be helping to hammer tent pegs into the ground. Sitting on the sandy grass, he roots around looking between the shells and stones and flowers for something of amusement.
At one particular place he noticed the ground is moist and spongy.
As he scratches at the soil, a pool of water appeared and he leans down to taste it. Excitedly he pulls the wooden beaker free from his belt and dips it in the watery hollow which was now filling rapidly.
He is not mistaken, it is fresh water with a sweetness of which he has never before tasted .
‘I have found good water’ he calls out proudly.
Deirbhile comes running across the grass and he reverently wipes the lip of the cup clean with his sleeve before passing it to her to taste.
‘Arah don’t worry about that child’ She chides taking the half wiped cup ‘We are all in the same boat here’ and she drinks thirstily.
‘Well done lad’ she ruffles his hair and calls for some implements and a helping hand.
Her women, down dipping their tired feet in the sea, whilst also picking shell fish for the tea, come running back up across the sand and between the lot of them they dig back the scraw and reveal the spring.
The children are given the job of finding smooth stones and they carefully line the hollow turning it into a deep clean well.
That night they sit around the fire eating a supper of fish and shell fish with various seaweeds and praise the wonders of God (The astronomer praising the wonders of nature though naturally under his breath) while the boy who doesn’t care one way or the other, has place of honor and is the center of attention.
His small belly is filled to bursting as they fuss and feed him as though he were a prince.
Over the days that follow, Deirbhile leads them in the hard work of marking out an area for the church, two fields away at a place called Fál Mór.
They set to with stones and sand and when thirsty fill their cups with the sweet well water.
Late spring moves into summer and they are happy in their work.
Then one day the boy who had been attending his expanding flock (The cows have calved successfully,some eggs have been saved and they have hatched and the goats have kidded) comes running over the hill.
‘Look over there! A man on a horse!
Deirbhile who has thrown off her veil and tied up her long tresses (making it easier to place each stone eveningly) straightens up from her work and shading her eyes looks in the direction the boy is pointing to.
Finbar, an army chief has been her most persistent suitor.
Not one to give up easily and certainly not a fellow to like being denied what he wants, he has at last tracked down his would be bride.
He slips off his high horse and lands with ease on the soft ground of the dunes.
Sweeping off his hat he bows low to Deirbhile who, despite streaks of mud across her pink cheeks and hair that was cascading untidily down her back looked as beautiful as he remembers.
‘I have already said no, and no means no’ Deirbhile stamps her foot.
‘It has always been presumed that when women say ‘no’ they really mean ‘yes’! She places her two hands defiantly on her hips’Well I say that is a load of tripe’
She glares at him and continues
‘We are busy here and everyone knows if they are offered mead and they say no the first time, they won’t be asked a second time. We have done away with that silly irish tradition of saying no to things first time round for fear of appearing greedy’.
‘When I say no! I mean no’
‘NO NO NO!’
She pauses to catch her breath whilst he thinks she looks even more beautiful when she is angry.
‘What is it you find so beautiful about me anyway’ she enquires waspishly
His gazes at her countenance with admiration.
‘It is your eyes’ he sighs at last ‘They are as blue as the sky and as clear as the sea in front of us’.
‘Oh really?’ She retorts ‘Well here! have them so’
And with that she gouges out her eyes and throws them in front of him.
Being a very squeamish man, with a leaning more towards poetry than war he is horrified and leaping on his horse, he gallops away, the hooves of his horse spraying those nearest with sand, so fast does he leave his intended.
And he is never to be seen again.
As the pain begins to set in, and Deirbhile starts to regret her hasty action, the boy, tears streaming from his own eyes, runs with a cup of water from the well to cleanse her bloody cheeks.
And as soon as the water touches her eye sockets, and before the eyes of her weeping followers, her sight is returned.
I like to think that this is the sequence of events though the story says that where her eyes hit the ground water sprang up through the ground to form the well and her sight was then returned, but I think that’s a bit far fetched.
And just because I love a happy ending (and because I have already taken an artists licence with my telling of the story) I like to think she marries her astronomer (though she also continues to be devoted to God) and they adopt the boy and all live their happily ever after in a large commune beside the sea.
1,508 years later, I sail down the very hill she trotted down (except I am on the yellow bicycle instead of a donkey) and as I gaze across the same sea at the same cliffs on Achill island I can imagine how she felt.
It’s a most beautiful vista. The sun sparkles on the water. The Minaun cliffs, mauve against the blue sky, sweep down dramatically before dipping into the atlantic.
I stand for a while breathing in the salty air.
Then crossing the patch of short sheep cropped grass, I lean into her well and splash some of the sweet spring water on my eyes.
Cycling back to the church at Fál Mór, I pass a heap of stones and read (without glasses) that this is known locally as ‘Glúin an Asail’ the place where the donkey knelt upon her arrival all those centuries ago and rested after her long journey.
Three weeks later and I STILL don’t need reading glasses.
Imagine if someone told you they were from the village of Abundance In Fish.
Wouldn’t you want to go to see such a place?.
Even if you didn’t like fish wouldn’t you be curious? for surely such a name conjures up the magical imagery of the rivers, lakes and seas that Ireland is famous for? Especially the west of Ireland.
The Irish word for Easkey is Iascaigh, meaning just that! an abundance in fish and it’s a small village situated on both river and sea in Co sligo. A village renowned not only for its salmon but for its good surfing too.
Campers and vans park along its scenic drive, sporting surfboards and wetsuits and if you cycle along no matter what the weather or the season you will see people standing gripping cups of coffee and staring at the sea as if, by doing so, they will be able to summons up the ideal wave.
You will also see a rocky shore line whose flat slabs bear fossils of siphonophyllia coral and others dating back millions of years.
Looking to your left (if you are heading west)the hazy mauve silhouette of sliabh Gamh (the Ox mountains) will stand low and undulation, And though Ox is a misnomer (GAMH is the irish word for storm, DAMH is the irish word for Ox) it is near enough in sound but far from its true meaning, as are many irish place names that have got lost in translation over the centuries .
Across the bay is Knocknarea (Cnoc na Ré …hill of the moon), On top of which a large cairn, supposedly the place of Queen Maeve’s burial, can be seen. They say she was buried, standing upright, in full battle dress, facing north.
(Again this is a much disputed translation, some saying the name is Cnoc na Riabh? or Cnoc na riogha or even Cnoc na riaghadh? which would have totally different meanings).
But I’ll hurry along as that is not what this post is about.
PART 1 THE WAY
These days it’s all about ‘THE WAY’.
Every country seems to boast of them. The Camino, St Francis’s way, St Paul’s Way and that’s only a tip of the iceberg.
Here in Ireland, The wild atlantic way and The green way trip easily off our tongues.
So this morning I am going to offer a pictorial account of a cycle along a way that, though short, I think includes everything ‘a way’ should.
I might even find a story on my journey .
Now I could call it ‘Small boreens with descriptive irish names and their meanings way’ but that’s a bit too long.
So instead I’ve decided to name it ‘The meandering way’ or maybe ‘Bhealach na Iascaigh (The way of abundance in fish)’
The Old Workhouse in dromore west. (Droim mór meaning big hill). Built during the famine, burnt down during the troubles, it is now the home of my sister and her husband, both artists, and despite its sad history, a warmer more creative and colorful place I couldn’t wish to stay in and it is thanks to their hospitality that I can make my start from there.
I head out the door.
down the avenue and through the gates of the workhouse on a dull morning.
After passing three or four houses, gables to the road, I am out into open country.
In front of me, across a bog dotted with yellow gorse and swathes of bog cotton, is the sea, behind the mauve of the ox mountains (Sliabh gamh)
The road, a boreen really, has grass growing down its center and its low hedges are filled with goat willow, ox eyed daisies, purple vetch and orchids.
It weaves along in a meandering fashion, not in any hurry to reach its destination and carries me with it. The song of the skylarks and swallows accompanying.
I love these virtually car free roads. They allow for slowness and mulling of thoughts and the letting go of any sorrow or worry. I cannot feel anger or depression or loneliness on such roads, only peace and contentment.
I feel the stress of my recent days at work flow off my shoulders as I watch the breeze pick up the tresses of the bog cotton heads and blow them about, like one hundred bog nymphs dancing and tossing their hair in delight.
All too quickly (despite my slow bicycling) we reach the junction where this small boreen meets the coast road and we turn left in the direction of Easkey.
Its easy going for the yellow bicycle now with perhaps the hint of a downhill.
Being sunday morning and too early for the church goers the road is empty.
The sun comes out as I coast along picking up speed and I am so enjoying its warmth on my back and the wind in my hair that I almost miss the split rock at Killeenduff (Cillín dubh meaning Small black church or even Small dark wood)
I had promised My brother in law I would take a photo of it and the yellow bicycle
The legend goes that Fionn mac Cumail and other members of the Fianna were traipsing around the ox mountains hunting when they spotted two giant boulders. One of group challenged Fionn to a rock throwing competition to see who could throw the stone as far as the sea. Normally it would be no problem to Fionn but his heart wasn’t in it as Grainne whom he loved was about to marry Diarmuid. When his boulder did not reach the sea he flew into a rage and struck it in anger with his sword and split the rock in two.
I turn right at the next crossroads and speed down the hill to the scenic drive.
Ahead of me the commonage is alight with yellow bird’s foot trefoil . A brilliant contrast to the blue of the sea and the even bluer of the sky. The road levels out and I pedal along more slowly
The road winds along the coast and I stop now and again to take in deep breaths of fresh salty air and gaze out to sea knowing there is nothing between here and America.
As I reach the end of the scenic drive I hear a car coming up behind me and move over to let it past. But it stops and my sister, a fair weather cyclist, hops out and takes her bike off the rack on the back.
We are going to have a coffee stop at Pudding Row in the village of An abundance in fish.
At the end of the scenic drive looking out to sea, stands O Dowds castle (Caislean Ó Dubhda) but my eye is distracted by the new rusty (can there be such a thing) sign.
As myself and my sister discuss the merits and demerits of this sign (Apparently the plan is to place one at every beach along the wild atlantic way) a woman passes by.
‘Isn’t this wild atlantic way thing just wonderful.’ she enthuses, as though it had just recently been invented.
‘It is, but then it HAS always been there’ my sister replies dryly
The woman appears puzzled but we have turned our attention back to the rusty sign.
‘It looks as though something flew into the end of it and crumpled it’ I remark.
‘It looks like a medieval means for hanging the raiders of the castle’ my sister says cheerfully.
‘It looks like a flag pole’ I say loudly, in case anyone overhears her
(Or an instrument to ensure the castle isn’t tilting? this input comes from my niece later)
Just then a small bird alights on the crumpled end of the sign and looks as though it is letting us know what is missing.
‘What a pity they didn’t put a metal cutout of a seagull or better still a jumping salmon. A sort of windvane effect at the end of each sign. They could use whatever animal/bird /fish is common to the area.’ I am thinking out loud.
But my sister has had enough talk about the sign. After all she has to live with it.
We cycle on along the path by the river to the village.
And over the bridge under which flows the Easkey river (An Abhainn Iascaigh).
And I always find if I cycle for long enough I will come upon a story.
PART 2 THE STORY
We are coming out of Pudding Row following what started off as a coffee but ended up as a hearty breakfast. (If ever you visit pudding row, which I strongly recommend you do, prepare to abandon any ideas of just coffee) and are about to mount our bicycles when a man sails in between us on his.
He throws himself off his bike and onto the seat behind the two sculptures that my brother in law Cillian Rogers made all those years ago and yanks off his bicycle helmet impatiently.
His hair is stuck to his head. His face is a serious shade of red and being of ‘that age’ I am hoping he won’t suddenly put his hand to his chest.
He doesn’t! Instead he asks us the question that is on the mind of every middle aged cycling man.
‘ladies, how far have you come’?
‘Not far’ is my sister’s reply.
‘and how far are you going?
‘Not far’ my sister repeats.
She isn’t giving much away.
It doesn’t seem to perturb him for without even acknowledging her answer he launches into his own travels.
He tells us where he has come from (Ballina), Beal an atha…mouth of the ford . Where he is going to (Trabhui)Trá Bhui …the yellow strand. How many kilometers it will be. How long it has taken him so far.
He continues by informing us how cycling is the best way to get rid of rich food.
(He doesn’t seem to hear my sister’s suggestion that it might be easier just to give up rich food) He alerts us to the danger of sugars. How it causes cancer and did we know that weed killer causes cancer of the liver.
At this point my sister throws her eyes up to heaven and makes her get away but I am left standing, nodding and clutching the handlebars of the yellow bike, not wishing to appear rude by leaving too. (The story of my life when it comes to men)
He pauses for a breath.
‘Are you a nurse?’ He enquires.
I am taken aback at his accuracy.
‘How did you know?’
‘Oh it’s the way you speak’ he nods sagely managing to look smug as well.
I don’t like to remind him that I hadn’t, up to that moment, spoken a single word. (again not confronting men is another of my life’s stories).
So with my story finished and my sister gone back to her car and home to make dinner, the last part of my cycle is up the ballinahown road (Baile na habhann… the mouth of the river)
Another few kms along and more bog with far off stands of trees sheltering small cottages.
From here it’s back onto the main ballina road where the sight of the workhouse is welcome…
I haven’t a clue how many kilometres I’ve covered, nor how many hours the Bhealach na Iascaigh has taken me. But I do know that I have a hunger on me that could only be satisfied with a large amount of rich food.
“The end of life for a caterpillar is a butterfly for the master.”
This quote came to mind recently and though it might not seem the most applicable one for the post I am about to write, in a vague way has something to do with it.
For I have passed the caterpillar phase. Even passed the butterfly phase.
Now the third phase of my life (signified by the selling of my small green camper)is about to start.
I have sold the van!
‘Please don’t call it that’ my younger daughter sighs throwing her eyes up to heaven. ‘It’s a camper not a van!’ (Which makes me wonder if the word ‘van’ has connotations that I am unaware of?)
But she is right! It’s more than just a Toyota hiace van its a CAMPER!
And it is efficiently fitted out with double bed, cooker, sink, fridge, storage cupboards, a passenger seat that swivels (to make a comfy armchair.) and a table to dine off.
It is turquoise green to match the color of the sea on a stormy day and, to make it look as though I have just driven through a cherry orchard, I have painted pink blossoms along its sides.
It did have a an awning but sadly all that is left of that is the holes where the bolts held it in place. (Gentle awnings built for shading one from the mediterranean sun are not capable of withstanding connemara storms as I discovered one night)
The bike rack on the back is invaluable for carrying my yellow bike and even my pink and my purple bike and when I’m heading west and am stopped at traffic lights, children in the back of the cars pulling up beside me point and smile and wave.
Once when I pulled into a petrol station, a very large and shiney audi jeep pulled up on the opposite side of the pump. As we filled our vehicles, our eyes lifted from our task and met across the metal tank.
‘I’m admiring your jeep’ I smiled at the well groomed blond woman.
She smiled back ‘My children and I think your camper is wonderful and want to do a swap. What a happy way it must be to travel’.
‘But yours looks so comfortable and new and shiney’ .
‘Things are not always as they seem’ she grimaced.
I wanted to enquire further but something in her eyes told me not to delve any deeper.
So I held my whist and instead waved at her children who are madly craning their heads for a better look
Yes it was such a happy way to travel and I am parting with it in sadness.
The lane down to my favorite camping place is narrow and potholed
I drive carefully, my two hands gripping the steering wheel. I already have a large dent in the sliding door where I hit a rock that had disguised itself as a fuschia bush.
To my right, as the lane straightens out and over the stone wall, Jo’s garden is doing well with its rows of carrots and onions and spuds standing in neat lines.
I am drawn to a halt by a gate tied shut with a length of rope. I pull the brake, jump down and untying the rope, lift the gate open
Not being on hinges it is heavy and unwieldy but I don’t mind
The struggle is worth it. I follow one of the sand roads across the commons and it’s not by luck but from years of camping here that it leads me to my favorite spot.
I tuck the camper in behind ‘whale rock’.
Now though the west of Ireland is the favoured haunt of the green
van camper, It is happy to explore further afield.
Driving from calais we too have been swept along with the flow of caravans, Cars pulling trailer tents and other campervans.
With registration numbers from Finland, Denmark, Sweden, we too flew like migrating geese in formation, heading south in search of warmth, sometimes passing and repassing each other at a speed my
van camper has never known in ireland.
And she is able to keep up with the best of them except for once.
A tiny 2cv driven by two ancient white haired women shoots past us. Two worn leather suitcases tied to the back jiggle madly and look in danger of flying off as the small car bounces along like an out of control pram.
They disappear from sight in a swirl of dust. I fear for their safety but needn’t have worried.
When I pull into one of the ‘Aires’ to stretch my legs I see them again.
The tiny car is parked skew ways and is taking up two spaces.
Its two occupants are already settled nearby on a tartan rug in the shade of some pines.
An open picnic basket lies beside them and the slimmer and taller of the two is in the process of pouring coffee from a flask . Seeing me examining their car (It had a right hand drive and the reg which I had presumed was french but couldn’t quite see in the blur of their speedy passing was actually scottish) They wave me over.
‘Your from Eire, we passed you earlier! sit here, have a coffee with us’
They tell me their story.
Two sisters in their late eighties from Edinburgh who love all things french are heading to their house in St Tropez which they had bought 10 years previously.
‘We didn’t always live together but when our husbands died within a year of each other we decided it might be a good idea’
It worked well they told me. They couldn’t get on each other’s nerves because the younger one was a night owl and the older one an early bird so they didn’t have a chance to get in each other’s way. They shared the housework and then the younger did the cooking and shopping whilst the older ‘did the Bins’.
I didn’t think ‘doing the bins’ equalled the cooking and shopping and said so
‘Oh yes it does. Bins entail a lot of hard work’ The ‘bin ‘ sister explained. ‘You have to sort the rubbish, wash all the tins and jars, not mix the paper and the plastic, fold the newspapers, breakup and flatten any boxes, remember which day which bin goes out out on AND be up early enough to have it out on time.
She pauses to catch her breath
‘I would hate having to do all that’ the younger one frowns
‘And I would be bored cooking and shopping’ her sister replies.
They both smile at me, their ancient eyes still bright blue and their white hair in soft curls, seated elegantly on their tartan rug with their cardigans draped across their shoulders and tweed skirts pulled modestly over their knees, the pines shading their pale skin from the mediterranean sun.
‘So you see’ They say in unison ‘It works very well indeed’.
So goodbye dear van with your stories and memories of which there are too many to mention in a single posting.
I am sad to see you go.
But I still have my yellow bicycle and now am off once more to cycle the small roads of the west of Ireland in search of what the third stage of my life will bring.
I am sifting through old photos, trying to put some order on them when one catches my eye causing an unexpected memory to come cropping up.
A memory that causes me some consternation not just because of my loss of the place but also because of an incident that occurred there and which I couldn’t decide was true or if I had dreamt it!
I ring my younger daughter to find out.
‘Of course it was true!’ she exclaims somewhat impatiently (she is expecting a call from the garage to say her car is ready and she does have other things on her mind like being on time to pick up her three boys from school).
Really?’ I asked again ‘And you quite sure I didn’t dream it?’
‘Sure I’m sure’ she sighed ‘A small boy with blond hair, his arm in a cast down in the ravine! Mom you must remember! I was about eight at the time And I can remember it as clearly as though it was yesterday now PLEASE get off the phone , the garage is probably trying to contact me …….’
There is a waterfall in Glencar.
Not the famous Yeats’s waterfall but another and to my mind more splendid one.
Poised high on a cliff on the south side of Benbulben on the sligo Leitrim border, it is set in a magical enchanted place.
A place, so filled with hazel groves and windswept hawthorn trees and rocks that have tumbled down the steep mountain sides and settled long enough to become covered with thick blankets of soft moss that would put the gardens of Kyoto to shame, it’s no wonder Yeats wrote about it.
Even the way the waterfall flows is in the hands of the gods, for when the rain has been plentiful and the wind is from the south the water is blown backwards up over its top.
The Irish name for it is ‘Sruth ar áit an airde’. (The stream against the height.)
The locals call it ‘The mare’s tail’.
When the wind is blowing from any other direction, the water falls straight down into a large pool-like basin and from there, down a further series of pools until it forms a river and flows out into glencar lake.
But when there has been no rain for a while, it loses its might and becomes a trickle. And the ravine, gouged out over thousands of years, is calm and the moss dries on the rocks so you can climb them without slipping and sit among the ferns and dip your toes in the pools.
I know all this because I had the pleasure of living beside it for many years.
On the day of my story I was out working in the vegetable garden.
That’s where I first heard the singing .
A high ethereal sound as though of a child blending its song with the wind and the sound of water. I stopped digging to to listen more attentively.
‘Can you hear it?’ I asked my youngest daughter who was busy popping the peas she was supposed to be picking for the dinner into her mouth
She stopped mid chew and nodded.
Yes she had heard it too. I wasn’t mistaking it.
‘It’s coming from the river’ She looked at me half in delight, half in fear.
We crept out through the small gate and peered over the edge of the ravine.
Sure enough down below us among the pools and rocks we saw a small boy climbing confidently, blond hair dappled in the undergrowth, singing to himself.
He turned for an instant and I glimpsed an elfin face through the ferns, then he was gone again, his song mingling with the trickle of water.
I glanced at my daughter. Her eye’s were wide with delight and without a second thought began slithering down the steep bank, using the large bunches of ferns as footholds.
I followed close behind.
‘Shhh, Don’t frighten him’ I whispered as we reached the bottom and moved quietly, following the sound of the singing and avoiding the deep pools that lay scattered along the dry river bed
There he was, just ahead of us, hunkered on a rock, peering into one of the pools.
He couldn’t have been more than five or six, a sturdy boy. His lower right arm encased in a mud splattered plaster cast. He had stopped singing and was concentrating on the spread of water in front of him.
‘What’s them beetle’s called?’ He asked looking up, not one bit surprised or alarmed by our arrival.
’Water-skater’s’ my daughter replied perching on the rock next to his.
‘How d’you know ?’ He looked at her dubiously.
‘I saw them in my book, It’s all about beetles and nature and things’.
‘Cool’ He breathed.
Together they squatted in silence their knees touching their chins as only children can do and watched the small beetles skimming across the surface.
‘How did you get here?’ She demanded after a moment ,
‘I flew’ He grinned cheekily at her, demonstrating a flying motion with his arms, the plaster cast making the movement awkward for him.
‘I fell out of the tree house’ he explained proudly, noticing her staring at his arm. ‘And I broked me arm. In TWO PLACES! It was sore but I didn’t cry’
‘Where are your parents?’ my daughter persevered. She was eight and very practical.
‘Back at the picnic place’ he straightened up, balancing easily on his rock and pointed east.
My mouth dropped open.
The picnic place was two kms away at the other waterfall , a tough trek through the swiss valley which was the only way he could have come.
‘With the baby’ He frowned, trusting one hip forward and putting his good hand on his hip. ’Oh Annabelle you’re sooooo cute’ He mimicked adult voices
I tried not to smile.
‘I’m hungry have you any chocolate biscuits?’ He looked at me hopefully.
‘lots’ I laughed ‘come on’
He grinned confidently, taking my hand in his small one.
I could see the Headline ‘Child lured from family picnic with promise of chocolate biscuits’
Back at the house, he wolfed down three and a glass of milk. I saw him slip a forth into his pocket.
Then we drove to the other waterfall following the curve of the lake.
The mountain, reflected in the still water, looked dark and brooding.
Distracted by two fishermen in a boat, I nearly hit a car hurtling in the opposite direction.
The driver swerved and stopped just in time as I pulled into the ditch.
‘It’s me Da’ the boy shouted eagerly.
A large red faced man leaped from the car.
‘James!’ He shouted angrily, but there was relief in his voice too.
’Where the hell were ya? Yer Ma’s been worried sick and I’ve tramped all over the bloody mountain searching for ya! look at me good shoes! they’re ruined! now get in the car!’
He tried to give his son a smack but the boy ducked and jumped into the back of the car.
I could see a teary faced woman through the windscreen.
A blond curly haired baby was waving it’s fists in the back.
Before I had a chance to explain the man muttered a brief thanks and they were gone, my little fey boy grinning mischievously out the back window.
He waved goodbye with his good arm, then as the car disappeared around the corner I saw him pull Annabelle’s curls and hold the chocolate biscuit teasingly above her head.
This is the end of a true story.
The old photo of my daughter in the vegetable garden with her friend picking peas. To the right in front of the cart is the way down to the ravine. The top photo is of us with some friends looking down into the swiss valley.