Me at Elly Bay, Belmullet, Ireland circa 1980’s.
Elly Bay, Belmullet Ireland
Eight years old
my father and the old fisherman stop the car
I run out across the sand, wade into the sun, the blue sky
the teal waves fringed with white
that splash gently beyond the edge of my shorts
Even at a young age, I knew this unexpected expansiveness, this feeling of being connected to everything was special and I did not want to let it go. I felt the shortness of our visit as a physical pain. Before we had to get back in the car, I collected some of the white rocks and shells along the sand as a remembrance. A profound sadness overtook me at having to leave. I was too young to process this completely, but it was the birth of longing. An early glimpse into the lesson of impermanence. That we can’t stay. That arriving and leaving are the defining poles of our lives.
My father’s poetic, obsessive love of his ancestral lands brought me to North Mayo several times as a child and adolescent. Those lonely and ruggedly beautiful places we visited offered many expansive moments like the one at Elly Bay that would remain with me. Staying at Michael Naughton’s (the old fisherman in the poem) house in Belderig I could roam around the bogs and fields that led right to edge of the wild Atlantic. The dark blue water. The black cliffs the white spray leaping from rocks and that green land which always appeared like it was running with abandon to join this sea dance.
I sat in country pubs with my father eating crips listening to stories and music. I explored ruined monasteries and abandoned thatched cottages. I listened to Michael’s tales of ghosts and fairies. I breathed in the earthy smoke scent of peat. I ate wild gooseberries pale and round like Chinese lanterns and tiny, tart red currants right off the bush. I talked to the sheep, horses and cows that greeted me as I wandered the boreens (tiny roads in Gaelic). I wandered over the heather blanketed bogs at all hours and plucked creamy pink bell shaped fox glove and the purple-red ballerina-esque Fushcia from roadside hedges.
On other trips when I was older, as inevitably happens, I became more interested in and distracted by the town boys and trying to fit in with the local kids, but this sense of wonder of the landscape never left me. To me it was always magical and mystical. Always alive and calling to me with its deeper truths. It was beautiful but harsh in that way that nature can be. My ancestors had to leave this land because they could not sustain themselves, yet they carried it with them, for it had shaped and nurtured that ineffable human part we might label the spirit. My father made his first trip to this land in the 1960’s because of the stories and images and longing he heard from his grandparents growing up and since then has returned over and over. I have been lucky to join him as an adult as well to this place that is a spiritual home and stand wrapped in its beauty grateful to be alive.
Time to think among the heather in North Mayo, Ireland.
But it is the childhood images of Mayo that always return at moments where my life feels narrow, cramped and disconnected, especially that day at Elly Bay in particular, perhaps because it was so brief. That small glimpse of something bigger that I wanted to hold on to. These are reminders to me that nature and wonder and the freedom of childhood are always there. Waiting to guide us, to bring us to peace and wholeness where are self-imposed boundaries and doubts disappear into the sea, the heather, the sky.