Across the water the mainland was bathed in the afternoon sun. Shadow and light defined valleys and west-facing hills that looked more welcoming than the rhythmic thundering of swell behind me. Beyond the shelter of the island, the seas were lifting as the larger swells straightened from the curve of Clare Island and rolled away in the sunlight. They would be at my back. Five, six miles. It would take an hour, maybe a bit more, depending on how steep they were and what the winds were doing once l got out of the lee of the island. It was a gamble.
Considerations clicked through my mind, familiar ones that had been on every trip l had done. The thoughts weren't linear but more a matter of options weighed against risks. The decisions to push on, retreat, or find an escape route all depended on elements l could not see, the unknown quantity of wind and the blindness of sitting two feet above the waves and trying to guess what the seas three miles out might be like. Somehow, all the options and risks were balanced and the first pull of the paddle started the crossing. l slipped across the line of shadow and sunlight and pointed the bow at a ravine that l thought might be Achill Sound. That shaded ravine and a compass bearing would tell me if I was being set one way or the other with the falling tide.
The first two miles went as l expected, big swells similar to the ones on the Caher crossing with wind-generated waves breaking between and on top of them. I watched the compass, kept the stem perpendicular with the waves, and surfed every swell I could, glad to have the fifty-yard bursts of speed that chewed away at the crossing.
Somewhere in the middle, the waves suddenly felt different. Whether it was the increasing wind or that l was finally out of the protection of Clare Island, l didn't know. Whatever the cause, the six- to eight-footers that had been the norm were now building, steamrollers with a power and speed that kindled a fear in my gut. They were steeper, bigger in volume, and seemed to be growing by the minute. Behind me were walls of water that looked like the side of a mountain bearing down and tossing aside four-foot waves like they were a nuisance. Clare Island was a black silhouette of shadow that disappeared from view as the swells towered over the troughs l sat in. l was certain the tops would crumble and sweep down, burying me like an avalanche. Instead, each time l felt a compressive lifting.
The boat shot upward and forward on the shoulder of the wave, then balanced precariously on the thin crest. One second the weight of my body shoved skyward seemed to force the air from my lungs, and the next instant complete weightlessness as the boat hung in midair before the backward slide into trough. In the belly of the swell, three- and four-footers harassed the boat, seemingly panicked by the larger swells that towered above. l backpaddled, braced, and turned on the top of a small wave, trying to keep the stem into the next swell. Again the massive uplifting, the sudden weight and weightlessness, the winds at the top that tore past my ears and tried to twist the paddles from my fingers. The surreal view of the wave in front racing away and dropping me backwards. Broken water washed over the cockpit and the horizon line changed with each toss of the boat. There was so much noise: the wind, the breaking waves, and the boat getting slapped sideways as the bow rose out of an unintentional surf and was hit by a broadside wave. There was so much confusion, and yet the boat and my reflexes were working as they should. There was the instinctive reach and pull of the paddles, the midstroke change of thrust from pulling to bracing, and letting the power of a broken wave sweep under the boat. "Break away, my friend, behind, to the side, or in front, but not on me. Spend your energy elsewhere. . . . Yikes, watch that one, it's a rollerl'' The wave slams me to one side, then lets me go. In my mind l talked to myself, told myself which wave to watch, and to settle down when the coiled fear began to unwind into panic. l listened to my breath, forced it out, slowed it down, and closed the circle around me, mentally pulling in to fifteen yards and locking on to that perimeter defense. l was amazed at how quickly my body responded to the twisting boat, how my spine pivoted and bent at the waist and somehow kept the boat under me. Visually, there was only chaos, and yet in the water-sky-water turmoil there was a balance and a pattern that my eye and inner ear found and that directed the forward motion of the boat. The miracle was that the boat crawled forward at all. In a world that raced past in blurring sensory overload, the paddle still spun and the hull crept toward the land. The land: blessed refuge or cursed executioner? It stood firm against the explosive power of waves that climbed high and blackened its face with streams of sea pouring off. Waves filled with power and energy, born a thousand miles out to sea, gathered speed and met the rock with thunderous finality. Vertical walls threw the waves back in sheets of white as defiant as the waves themselves, echoing concussions that measured distance and resonated in my chest. Clouds of mist, ionized vapor that was once ocean swell, hung in midair and gave birth to rainbows. I aimed for a point at the base of the cliff, the tip of Achillbeg Island, where the tidal flow emptied Achill Sound. Too far to the right and the ebbing tide would stall the boat, freeze it where the waves stood side by side spilling their white tops and not moving more than a few feet over the shifting sands of the bottom. Too close to the cliff base, the world of hidden rocks and boomers that folded with a sickening roar, and the waves would not be the only life broken by the rocks. Between the two forces was a line that neither laid claim to, a channel that felt both the pull of the tide on its edge and the confusion of fragmented swells. It was hallowed ground, a safe refuge that I read partly with my eyes and that of the resistance of the blades pulling the boat toward safety. Progress was measured by watching the cliff face slowly pass to my left.
Minute by minute, the waves receded, took with them the noise of broken water, and l was left with the distant rumble of the sea meeting the cliff behind me. Another quarter mile and I let the boat glide, the paddle resting across the cockpit, my muscles draining from the post-adrenaline rush.
l paddled around the last rock that led into the narrows of Achill Sound. The shadow of its bulk absorbed the last whisper of wind and the fading rumble of swell. I slipped into a world that was suddenly tame, quiet in a way that washed through me with assurance. In front of me were cultivated fields gently sloping to the shimmer of sand beaches and the smooth- flowing ribbon of water separating Achill Island from the mainland. I stayed in the shadow of Achillbeg Island and followed the rocks that gradually gave way to pockets of sand and finally a long, sweeping beach. On the hills above were sheep trails and peeling whitewashed cottages staring empty and forlorn at the mainland a half mile away. With each pull of the paddle, the bottom became clearer as it gently sloped up toward the surface. The last few strokes stirred the sand into swirls. I lay the paddle alongside the cockpit, holding it against the boat with open palm and bent elbow, leaned back in a deep stretch and closed my eyes. The gentle lift and nudge of keel against sand finished the crossing.
Hours later, the sun cast the shadow of the tent off the knoll l was camped on, and stretched it across sheep track and shorn grass. Below, the boat was pulled to the edge of the beach where the grazed hill broke off and the roots of the grass showed through layers of sand and dirt and shell. I was cleaning up after dinner; rinsing pots, dismantling the stove, and looking forward to sitting and writing. Across a little valley that in ancient times must have been a marsh or an inlet of the sea that nearly cut the island in two, l saw a boy walking along the sands. He left the edge of the beach where the sands were firm and headed toward my camp, leaving a crooked line of deep tracks.
He waved just beyond calling distance and stepped up on the slope of the hill. Copper-haired and lanky, he looked to be fifteen, maybe sixteen, a lad out for a stroll on the land. He disappeared behind a hillock, then topped the shelf of land below the tent, called out hello, and walked higher until his head was even with where l sat.
"I saw your tent from our house and was wondering who you were.'' He couldn't have been any more up front than that. Whoever this kid was, l liked him. What struck me was how sure of himself he was. Not in an aggressive way but certainly not like any adolescent l had known. He introduced himself as Ruairi (Rory) Bourke and immediately asked where I had come from and if the boat - "lt's called a kayak, isn't it?''- on the beach was mine. I told him about my trip, where I had started and where I was heading. l explained that I had to wait for the tide, there was no way to beat against the strength of the current running between mainland and island, and that it would be noon tomorrow before l would be away. He knew when high water was and that halfway through the narrows the tide split, flooding and ebbing from the far end. It was a complication that I had known of but for a teenager l was surprised he knew the rhythm of the sea. It was one of many ways of the island Ruairi was to tell me of.
He asked why l was taking this trip. A pointblank question that caught me off guard. There weren't the usual questions about the boat, what the seas were like, or how far I had come that day. He just wanted to know why. l sensed he asked a lot of questions like that. Reaching for answers as any boy will at sixteen, not the hazy esoteric answers of a man almost forty but more direct ones. Answers that he could grapple with, toss around, and either accept or reject. In hindsight, maybe l was doing the same things. I told him I was interested in people, the history of Ireland, and that I had traveled a lot on the sea and loved the birds, the cliffs, and the feeling of wildness on the ocean. It wasn't a complete answer but it came close and l let it go at that. I was twice his age plus a few years, but there was enough boy in me to appreciate his abrupt challenges and questions.
"I can show you the island. There's a ring fort above the cliffs and a holy well.'' It was more a statement than anything else.
"Okay, let's go.'' The journal could wait and I was humble enough to know that this lad could probably shed some light on the island. It turned out to be more light than I could have imagined.
As we walked, he told me of the cottages on the hills, one of which his family had fixed up and used as a holiday home. They had been abandoned in the sixties, the same problems of a dwindling population and easier times on the mainland that l had heard before. But this island had a twist of tragedy. Walking past the schoolhouse with its slate roof folded in and grass growing on the chimneytop brought the tragedy out of the past. It was Christmas Eve, I965. "The father of eight children-most of the kids in the school-was out on the sea. He fell overboard and drowned. The mother wouldn't stay on the island. She took the children and left. There were only a few families living here and not many children. The government couldn't afford to pay a teacher to live on the island and they shut the school down.''
It was the final chapter not only for the school but also for the village. Too many vacant houses already boarded up, then one more tragedy that brought the village to an end. Where the father was going or coming from on that Christmas Eve, Ruairi didn't say; maybe he didn't know. The point of the story was that it was the end of an era.
There was more to see. We left the houses and school behind, their doors nailed shut while the roofs decayed and collapsed.
He told me how in the winter, the gales would blow the seas over the rocks guarding the far end of the lowland. Where we walked would be flooded with seawater. We crossed a bog, Ruairi jumping from clumps of grass and me walking through the brown waters and feeling the land through the stained skin of my feet. We walked not so much across the boggy low valley but along it, first on one side, then the other, depending where the driest footings were. Up on the shoulder of the far hill we followed a sheep trail. Droppings - some fresh, some old - lay scattered amid splayed footprints in the soft mud and trampled grass. They led to a band of thick grass running across the track as true as the trickle of clear water dribbling from a circle of stones dug into and draining of the hillside. This was the holy well.
Balanced on the flat of a stone was a cup. Ruairi leaned over, peered in, and said, "We used to take the money that the women would leave. They'd take some water and leave a few coins.''
"What would they do with the water?'' I asked.
He shrugged and said, ''They thought it could cure sickness. But l don't know what they did with it.''
l looked at the little spring, the stones overgrown with grass but still holding a pool of clear water pouring gently off the lip. Fresh water on an island. The basic element of survival woven with the color of superstitions. Who first saw the dampness and dug a shallow pit, watched it fill, and decided it was worthy of more work? No one could assign an age to something so simple, so quiet in its gurgled secrets. l caught up with Ruairi and climbed steadily for another quarter mile until the land abruptly leveled off with the noise of the seas hammering the cliffs below.
In front of us was a sod-covered ring that enclosed much of the level ground atop the cliffs. The wall was four or five feet thick, and so settled into the earth that in places it was barely distinguishable. In other places it was three or four feet high, curving around in a circle that abruptly ended where a portion of the cliff had fallen into the sea. The setting sun picked out the ring in soft shadows and painted the land in rich colors of the Atlantic evening. Within the circle were depressions and mounds whose shadows hinted at other dwellings. The cry of a gull, the return flight of a cormorant winging in from the sea and the boom of swells meeting cliff floated over the ancient site. I stood in the center of the ring and slowly turned, letting the green circle of history soak into my bones.
Through my thoughts l heard a red-haired lad tell me that the shadows of raised earth were an early Iron Age fortification.
Early Iron Age: a thousand years before Christ, pre-Celtic and of a time for which surviving manuscripts tell exaggerated tales of great warriors and impossible feats, stones buried in sod and grass that were ancient at the beginning of the first millennium. Places that were revered because of their mystery. Rock walls and mounds that held the secrets of the past and were the birthplace of Irish folk lore, of heroes, kingdoms and kings. In the light of evening, it was a noble place, sacred in age and powerful in its breadth of enclosure. A place of beginnings and, as Ruairi told me, of endings and sadness.
"The unbaptized Catholic babies were buried here.'' He said it with little emotion, just a fact of history, another piece of the land and humanity. The words cut through the ages, tearing through centuries too numerous to count, to a time where religion ripped out the spiritual connection that is as natural as breathing the sea air and replaced it with guilt and fear. As real as my wonder at the earth works was, so too was the bone-sorrow and pity for the mothers and fathers who buried their infants in the pagan ring fort. Not because of the pagan aspect but because of the shame and guilt of the families who were not allowed to bury their unbaptized child in earth that the church had deemed consecrated. What ground could be more consecrated than that which held the spirits of three thousand years of humanity, ground that knew the pain, suffering, and small triumphs of other human beings? If there was any act of holiness in a child being buried on a clifftop amid mounds and rock that were considered unholy, then it was the sacredness of that child being left in the care of a God who could see beyond the limitations of a threatened religion. The unbaptized children would not have had names. Any one of a number of stones that lay in the middle of the ring could have marked the graves of those infants. We left the circle through the two stones we had entered and continued our walk.
Around every comer was a reminder of how beautiful Ireland is and also how tortured its past has been. Ruairi showed me a stone wall with a break in it and a single heavy slab of rock spanning the opening at waist level. "In the days of the land clearings, this would keep the landlords' cows in but let the tenants' sheep wander out and fall over the cliffs,'' he explained. The tenants could not afford the taxes of the absentee owners, and this was one of the many cruel ways of ridding the land of the poor. Some of the other ways were not so subtle: the tripod of timbers set up outside the cottage door and a heavy beam swung on a chain to smash it down. The cottages were then burned to the ground. In a land of rain and ocean mist, it took an Irish boy and a long walk on a island of ruins to pull the carpet of green back and reveal both mystery and tragedy.
We eventually walked the perimeter of the entire island. So many piles of stone and crumbled walls settling into the earth. The past and the present, separated by the passing of centuries yet connected by the rocks that refused to go away, refused to be silent. Even as they crumbled and were covered in weeds and green, the stones still told the stories or at least kept them alive for a stranger to hear. All of it was Ireland, a land of stones and history layered one upon the other like the stones of a wall, held together with the mortar of stories.
We ended our walk on the hillside above the family cottage, the valley and beach in shadow and the waters of the sound churning around a buoy in the middle. Flood tide. Ruairi's father greeted us as we came off the hill, and after an introduction, l was invited in for the evening. A fire of drift-wood was set and chairs were pulled close. Geofrey; his wife, Mary; Ruairi; and his sister, Bronwyn, and l sat until almost one in the morning talking and watching the fire. My stories of the sea mixed with Geofrey's life as a vet, and a weekend of solitude that Mary had just finished at a Catholic retreat. There were more stories of the island: how a boatload of children bound for the Scottish potato fiends in I894 had run aground and capsized. All the children drowned. Geofrey told of the conditions in which other migrant children lived, the seasonal shipping of the young to England and Scotland, the poverty they escaped, and the neglect and abuse they labored under. It was child labor at its worst. The stories were told with sorrow and compassion, as if the events had happened just days before. Long after the family cat had curled into a ball on my lap and fallen asleep, I looked around at the circle of faces staring into the fire, warm, welcoming people who had shared their evening and their stories with me. Late night had turned to early morning and the fire was crackling in a low burn, surrounded by glowing embers. It was time to say good-bye - an awkward time when the sharing had to end and we all knew the hours of soft conversation would be like a dream. I had been warmed by their fire, warmed also by their interest in the journey and in who I was as a traveler, as another human being. It was a warmth that I wanted to respond to with a gift of myself, something l could leave them. l wanted them to know how their stories and their kindness fed me with the human contact that l needed to balance out the intensity of the solitude. I had nothing to give but fragments of stories that were not connected by any sense of distance or time, glimpses into my life as a paddler that had held their interest. As at many other times of parting, l thought of the journal wrapped in its cloudy double plastic protection, the words printed so small, packed into the pages that I was afraid would not hold all the days of the journey. It wasn't the first time that I thought of the journal as a gift. Of taking those cryptic sentences and telling the stories that each one hinted at. Of sharing not only my story but those of the people that l met along the way. I thought how fitting it would be someday to have this family read of the depth of their gift. To read of this visit and understand the importance of it to an Ocean traveler.
In the early hours of morning, l said good-bye to the Bourkes beneath a sky that had once again clouded over. The light of the open door spilled into the night, then seemed to draw back into the warmth of the cottage. I knew that feeling of not wanting to cross the threshold of light and darkness, of saying good-bye. I walked back toward the tent, tuning several times to look at the yellow glow in their window as I followed the path down to the beach.
I walked past the boat, then up the hill to the tent site. In the pitch black l could see its pyramid shape against the wall of rock that sheltered it from the west winds. Inside, there would be the welcome warmth of the bag, the sleep that I needed. But for just a few more moments I wanted to stand on that shadowed island, become part of the darkness, and recall the day. l wanted to etch it into my mind, savor the images, the feelings in my chest that made it real. Caher, Clare, and Achillbeg: islands stitched together with the pull of the paddle and a tapestry of thousands of years of history. Standing stones, a pirate queen, seas that l danced with, and others that terrified me with their power. A long evening walk, the swirling emotional eddies that pulled me in and let me tum slowly in circles, touch- ing mysteries, feeling fragile beside sod-covered ruins, connecting with the tide of humanity. In the darkness, l was clinging to that day. l knew that l was just a visitor, that l would leave, and all of the reality of that evening and of those minutes standing in the dark on an Irish island would someday be a memory, a story that I would tell in the hope that friends and family would know the ache in my heart of not wanting the day to end. How would l hold on to that day, keep it from slipping and melting into tomorrow?
And what of the dawn that was only hours away? Of the miles yet to paddle? The seasons moving on, the passage of time? Once again, l felt small, my mind feebly trying to grasp ideas of time and meaning that were beyond me.
In that feeling of smallness, the night with its folds of dark drawn close around me like a blanket, I found comfort. It was a comfort born of the ages l had drifted through, the mystery, the timelessness. l realized it was okay to feel small; and maybe more than just okay. Maybe it was essential to know how fragile the passing of time was and to honor it with awareness and reverence, each moment a gift.Reproduced with permission from Chris Duff