I’m not superstitious. I have no morning prayer with which to steel myself against the day’s exertions. No affirmations, no clichéd mantra to repeat over and over until I believe it. What I have instead is a ritual.
I reach up, take the razor down from the cabinet, as if arming myself. I lather on cream, run the tap, avoid eye contact with the mirror. I prefer a wet shave over the annoying buzz of an electric razor; the steam rising from the sink, the water’s hot calm, the blade’s triple sheen. I’ve been shaving since I was fifteen. As with any ritual, it’s taken me a while to get right. But the motion of lather, stroke and rinse has now become so routine, so automatic, I barely even notice it. Muscle memory does all the work.
Outside, Annie makes coffee. I hear the familiar sound of our usual mugs – hers plastic and reusable, mine the heavy drink-in variety.
I rake the blade along my jaw and chin, under my nose, along flesh that has never known cold or bruises. I stop only to dunk the blade in water, slosh it around and raise it once more to look for loose stubble. Bristles float in the basin, the dregs of myself. I shear it all off. But I cannot shear off the look of shame molding my face.
Annie knocks on the door, asks me when I’ll be finished. I tell her I’ll be out in a second; I’m hoping she’ll walk in and cut my thoughts loose. But I don’t want her to see the blood.
The razor is a household object; it has its purpose, and, unlike most of the things I fill my life with, always will. Adverts for it make promises of upgrade, greatness, betterment, worming and whispering their way into my head. Shave with our razor and you’ll be a better man, they urge.
The razor can be cleaned and replaced, sharpened and repaired. It is formidable in its simplicity. When it’s no longer suitable for the job, it will be discarded.
I’ve read somewhere that young Roman men would shave before an audience, as part of a rite of passage into maturity. But I do this alone, without any audience or witness. I still manage to cut myself here and there, and have to start again. A scarlet bead oozes down my neck, plops onto the tiles before I can catch it. I curse to myself. I should have stopped making that mistake by now. But my mistakes always bear repeating.
I am finished. I drop the blade in the water, hear it clatter off the porcelain. The mirror is misted over, so I give it a quick wipe. Unavoidable now, I don’t recognize the man staring back at me. I look raw and pink, as if sunburnt. I pull the plug in the sink, listen to the low gurgle of the water escaping, rinse off any stray hairs still clinging to the basin.
I’m still standing there when Annie walks sleepily in, and wraps her arms around my chest. We hold each other for a while, exchange a few cozy kisses, and then she goes to shower. Soon she’ll dry herself down, get dressed, and go through a ritual of her own before work.
When she eventually leaves, belted and buttoned in a black coat, evoking a tip-off seeking spy, she’ll walk briskly and with intent, closing the door with a promise that I’ll see her later that night. She vanishes at the corner, her absence guessed by an interval of hours.
I sit down at the laptop.
Note: This piece was commissioned by the Irish Writers Centre for the annual Culture Night celebrations of 2017, which took place on the 22nd of September of that year.
Review for Michael J. Whelan's Peacekeeper
Peacekeeper, by Michael J. Whelan, Doire Press, 80p, €12.00, ISBN: 978-1-907682-46-9
Review by Daniel Wade originally for Writing.ie
In a 1732 letter addressed to Charles Wogan, Jonathan Swift wrote admiringly of the legions of displaced Irishmen who served in various European continental armies following the 1691 Treaty of Limerick (and whose mass departure from their homeland is known to history as the ‘Flight of the Wild Geese’), praising in particular the bravery of their decision to enlist: “I cannot but highly esteem those gentlemen of Ireland, who, with all the disadvantages of being exiles and strangers, have been able to distinguish themselves by their valour and conduct in so many parts of Europe, I think above all other nations.”
It is true that the Irish have a long history of fighting other nation’s wars. From the galloglaigh or ‘gallowglass’ corps of elite mercenaries deployed to assorted conflicts across mainland Europe in the 1500s, to the 40,000 documented Irish ex-pats who fought for the Union and the 20,000 who fought for the Confederacy during the American Civil War, the Republican and Blueshirt volunteers who signed up to fight one another in the Spanish Civil War, as well as the thousands who swelled the British Army’s ranks in WWI (and indeed, the countless more who wore a British Army uniform down the centuries), not to mention the 5,000 members of the Defence Forces who enlisted to fight in WWII, following Ireland’s officially neutral position in that particular conflict, and who were later branded deserters by the Irish government of the day upon their return. This isn’t even including the pioneering work undertaken by Irish-born war correspondents such as Peter Finnerty and Sir William Howard Russell, who covered the Napoleonic wars and the Crimean war respectively, as well as Samuel Beckett, who volunteered with the French Resistance in WWII and was awarded a Medaille de la Resistance for his efforts.
The nuance and increasingly complex gradations of Irish identity that resulted in this mass involvement with the military affairs of other nations is perhaps best summed up by Christopher St. Lawrence, the 10th Baron Howth and a captain in the Earl of Essex’s army during the Nine Years War, who, frustrated by the ridicule he received as both an Irish-born peer and a loyal follower of the Crown, declared: “I am sorry that when I am in England, I shall be esteemed an Irishman, and in Ireland, an Englishman. I have spent my blood, engaged and endangered my life, often to do her Majesty’s service, and do beseech to have it so regarded.”
To this end, it is no surprise that Irish poetry has rarely shied away from addressing bloodshed and the full effects of warfare. The Tain Bo Cuailnge arguably counts as the definitive Celtic war saga, while Piaras Feiritear, who fought in the Confederate Ireland wars, ranks as an invaluably early example of a soldier-poet writing in the Irish language. In the contest of the Easter Rising, Padraic Pearse, Joseph Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh were each published poets, and the outpouring of poetic tribute to them subsequent to their executions, from authors as disparate as James Stephens, Katherine Tynan, AE and Francis Ledwidge, proved once more that poetry is instrumental in making sense of bloodshed’s aftermath throughout the nation’s most historic events.
Meanwhile, in the trenches of WW1, Tom Kettle and the aforementioned Ledwidge (both avowed nationalists) would become known for their poignant verses, if not for their direct depiction of the war itself, and would come to symbolise the loss of the Irish involvement of in the trenches. W.B. Yeats repeatedly addressed the thorny and troubling effects of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War upon Irish life during both their duration and aftermath in poems such as ‘Easter 1916’, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, ‘The Second Coming’ and the long poetic sequence ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ (and also infamously refused to write about WW1 in ‘On being asked for a War Poem’).
Later on, the growing sectarian tensions that would eventually culminate in the Northern Irish Troubles and the growing crisis of same is tackled by a plethora of poets such as Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Michael Longley (the latter in particular noting time and again the lingering after-effects of battle on his father, who had seen service in WW1). Yet for all this, and in spite of exquisitely exhaustive anthologies such as the 2009 Gerald Dawe-edited Earth Voices Whispering: An Anthology of Irish War Poetry 1914-1945, there is no longstanding equivalent tradition of Irish war poets to equal the pantheon of that encompassed Owen, Sassoon, Brooke, Gurney and Thomas.
Despite all this, and despite the long-standing stereotype of the ‘Fighting Irish’ embodied by the G.K. Chesterson line concerning the alleged inborn Gaelic readiness for battle:
For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad:
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad...
it is actually Ireland’s long association since the founding of the State with overseas peacekeeping operations that has proven to be its most prominent and exemplary martial endeavour on record. Following Ireland’s 1955 entry into the UN, the Irish Defence Forces has found itself involved in various peace support and crisis management missions, chiefly in the Middle East. Irish peacekeeping missions, under the various auspices of UNFICYP (the Congo), UNDOF (Syria-Israel Border) and UNIFIL (Lebanon), to name but a few are examples of this tradition. Indeed, the recent return of Irish troops from the 50th Infantry Group, on April 7th, to Dublin Airport after a six-month deployment to the Golan Heights on behalf of UNDOF, indicates the currency of this aspect of Ireland’s international relations. Since the beginning of these operations, there have been 85 recorded deaths among Irish military personnel.
Hence, the debut collection of Tallaght-based poet Michael J. Whelan, entitled Peacekeeper, is the first such volume of poetry to address this fascinating if often-overlooked aspect of Irish history and current affairs. Whelan himself is a member of the Irish Defence Forces and has seen service in South Lebanon and Kosovo as an Irish United Nations support operative. Because his poetry has the added credential of being authored by a former member of the Irish Defence Forces, it draws immediate comparisons with the poignant and often harrowing poetic accounts of modern warfare by contemporary American war poets Brian Turner (Here, Bullet) and Kevin Powers (Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting), both veterans of the Iraq War. As such, it is a slim and unassuming volume, but certainly not a trivial one.
Whelan is no propagandist, but nor is he condemnatory. He certainly details the horrors and attendant upset a war-zone will induce, and does so with an admirably unflinching eye. His poetic voice is that a survivor and an eye-witness, not of a triumphalist. The complex nature of being a soldier fighting to preserve the peace in a combat zone is an ever-present source of tension within the book. The work is brutal and thankless, yet necessary. There is no glory to be expected. Indeed, early on in the collection he writes,
I come in peace not victorious or triumphant
no palms will be thrown under my feet
when I enter the City of David.
His poetry serves as a valuable and even historically-significant document of the Irish soldier’s experience in peacekeeping work. Arguably, Whelan proves that those most qualified to talk of war and war’s alarms are those who see it from the coalface, as in ‘Portal’, when he writes: “The rest is just history/shovelled down the neck of a hungry war feeding/on souls, a monster that’s never satisfied.”
Whelan makes it clear that he and his fellow soldiers are in as much as danger as those they either sent in to protect or fight. The human cost is never far away. The danger is ever-present, and is devoid of any glamour or adrenalin-inducing thrills that might be expected in a warzone. Whelan makes it clear that, for the peacekeeper, every footstep taken is risk for the peacekeeper “whose only armour/was the feeble weave of a blue flag”. Their status does not shield them from being shot or bombed (“Our presence does not halt their conflict”), and in fact gives them a clear indication of both sides being equally lacking in compromise:
“...we who keep the middle ground will feel
the vibrations of their vengeance.”
In ‘Moral of the Story’ which details the shooting on an IDF checkpoint by a runaway squad of Hezbollah fighters fleeing the Israeli army, he states:
Peacekeepers in Lebanon may not always
hold the centre ground but they are always
caught in the middle.
Combined with these moments of heightened chaos, the boredom of down-time is mixed with the ever-present anxiety of sudden, random outbursts of carnage, as in the poem ‘Funeral’, where the speaker’s enjoyment of a televised World Cup match is interrupted by the sudden attack of Resistance fighters: “all commentary lost in emotions,/I reach for my helmet and gun,/in a moment the shells will start falling.”
But perhaps most poignantly is the aftermath of such encounters, as exemplified in ‘Prishtina’, wherein the speaker finds himself having to confront a seriously injured comrade after a detonation, and, in a space of a few short seconds, getting a glimpse of his and everybody’s mortality:
It was only a moment
but he looked into me.
Could see me as clearly
as I see him after all this time,
his eyes piercing my soul,
This poem easily ranks among the collection’s best. It most clearly demonstrates Whelan’s ability to bring alive the most harrowing of scenes with the most economized of language. The helplessness of the situation described above is lessened only the mutual, unspoken understanding the two men come to have, an understanding which perhaps could not have been reached in less traumatic circumstances. The poem’s conclusion is terse and superficially matter-of-fact, but the reader is left with no doubt as the effect such an encounter will leave on the speaker: “I couldn’t help him/but I know he sees me,/like I can see dead people.”
As already stated, there is no prettification or avoidance of the sanguine realities of warfare in Peacekeeper. The imagery Whelan makes use of is visceral, uncompromising, cinematic and yet, the reader instinctively feels, somehow true to life, reaching a stark vividness on a par with the horrific nightmare-verses of Wilfred Owen. A boy buried in rubble is found by his grandmother: “his shrapnel body lashed to the ruins/and mixed with false promises,” fresh rain falls “to wash away the footprints of killers/and the hopes of the hurting,” a fatal wound is “the ball of his knee hanging,/attached by loose skin and gristle/and wrapped in a bloody white shirt.
But to counterbalance the carnage are the evocative landscapes in which Whelan the soldier finds himself deployed to. Binaries are in the very nature of peacekeeping, insofar as soldiers fighting to keep the peace is in itself a contradiction in terms. The sheer physical beauty of the Lebanese countryside acts as a fragile counterbalance to the carnage threatening to engulf it.
It is contrast that informs the collection’s longest poem and easily its thematic mission statement, Paradox of the Peacekeeper in the Holy Land, a prolonged and moving meditation on the long, diverse and complex nature of the land he has been sent to. Myth, history and current affairs are each brought to bear: Lebanon is “where Gilgamesh cleaved the cedars for his ships” as well as a place where “so much metal has been fired in this cauldron/from arrowheads and spears to icons and the corrupted jagged shards of bombs,/shrapnelled landmines and bullets.” In stanzas such as these, we see the landscape serve as a witness and a theatre to the chaos that has tainted and moulded its history, a history which Whelan knows is ongoing, where chariots are replaced by tanks, yet with the effect of these war-machines being much the same:
This is the land of the Canaanites,
the Phoenecians who traded from these beaches and ports
and I know it can never be as it was.
Alexander’s siege of Beirut can still be heard,
in the tracks of a tankthat replaced the chariot,
the bullet that replaced the arrow,
the rise and fall of empires.
Overall, Peacekeeper is a challenging, robust debut collection and a clear result of years of contemplating and traversing such disturbing terrain where violent death is an everyday occurrence. With these poems, Michael J. Whelan has achieved something very singular that deserves to be read by soldier and civilian alike.
Divertimento: The Muse is a Dominatrix, by Peter O' Neill, mgv2>publishing, €12.00, ISBN: 978-1-326-62734-B
The title poem of Peter O Neill’s twelfth poetry collection Divertimento: The Muse is a Dominatrix begins with the following lines: “After every beautiful encounter/Someone is bound to end up getting hurt.” In that opening salvo, the cadence of O’ Neill’s aesthetic is made clear to the reader: visceral, sexually-charged, well attuned to the realities of life, and almost determinedly resting beyond the pale of the Irish house-style poetic. Taking their stylistic cues from the hallucinatory revelry of Baudelaire and the early Modernists than from the more customary guidance of Yeats, Heaney et al, the poems to be found here are visceral and sexually-charged, each one acting as a surreal report for O’ Neill’s awareness that sex and death, two key drivers in human experience and endeavour, are inextricably tied:
O love is a limousine built for two
Driving down the open road,
And where all of the signs seem to be leading me to you.
And death is a motorcycle cop
Who flags you down for driving too fast.
O’ Neill keeps his personal life at arm’s length in the book, but does not leave it entirely at a remove. Poem by poem, the reader is held in a state of uncertainty, feeling they are being teased as to whether a personal account of wretchedness or an equivocated fever dream is being read. O’ Neill is a poet, and the final litmus test of poets is to know and confront the failure of language itself in broaching the thorny intricacies of life, when the reliable store of eloquence finally runs out. All that can then be expressed is one’s inability to express. This ambiguity runs through even the moments of seemingly-naked vulnerability:
But the other [words]
that somehow escape my aim,
pulling the whole mortal weight of my time with them
with those few
I can only lower my gun and marvel
at their brief moment of eternity,
before they slip behind the sun.
O’ Neill’s finely-tuned sense of the macabre does not stem from a puerile desire to shock, but an unflinching affinity to the abject, of the uglier side of passion. In ‘History’ there is a disturbing sense that the speaker may be addressing their beloved, or someone recently departed, after a particularly draining bout of sex:
You float like the dead,
ferried across the Styx
in my veins
It is ghastly.
And our mutual silence
is the silence of the dead…
O Neill’s binding of the sexual and the macabre recalls the stately darkness of Les Fleurs du Mal, but curiously, also lends the poems the same nightmarish atmosphere of a psychological thriller. In ‘This Side of You’, he finds that there is still much to be discovered about his muse. He concludes that “Love is hate in reverse, the world upside down,” whilst also accusing the addressee: “Go on, you would never even dream of showing this side of you to another.”
Poems such as these illustrate T.S. Eliot’s principle of the psychological fissure existing between “the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” O’ Neill has turned his hand to poems which reveal an inner life acutely in the grip of an existential and spiritual turmoil, yet also one that is supremely aware of this condition and quite determined to weather it. The seemingly conventionally-romantic sentiment of poems such as The Mona Lisa are warped into something decidedly more sinister with lines such as:
Through the smooth corridors of urbane
Domesticity I go to sometimes view you,
Secretly applauding how magnificently you’ve been framed
To this writer at least, the poem calls to mind the malevolent hand-wringing of Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess. O’ Neill’s classic affinity with the poet as outsider, a theme arguably as timeless as war, death or love, is expressed throughout the collection like an obsessive motif. There is also Beckettian sense of nihilism permeating poems such as ‘Rumours Break Upon the Air’, where O Neill asserts that:
The truth is, we were born to suffer,
At every chance destroy.
Cruelty, by implication, is by design.
O’ Neill’s skill for the redolent image, the evocative vision, are on full display. A crowd of rush-hour Londoners is described as ‘battle-hardened Amazons/In their mid-thirties march through the labyrinth/of streets and corridors in pairs’; a page-three girl becomes ‘a paper Venus, Madonna of the celibates/who kneel before you to offer up their prayers’; ‘blood and death coagulate in the mercy cup’ in ‘Burlesque’; a speedboat observed from a distance in Dunmore East is ‘an amphibious car.’ The synthetic ostentation of contemporary pop culture and advertising is aligned (and implied to possess the same sense of time-defying durability) with the lofty masterworks of the Renaissance era, and past, present and future are in constant friction with one another. Under an Armani billboard in Rome depicting David Beckham “like a colossus/evoking Michelangelo”, the immediacy of the present moment and the timeless are conjoined like yin and yang forces, perennially at odds yet inextricably defined by their very contrast.
In the book’s final section, entitled ‘Divertimento’, a great sense of cosmopolitanism in O’ Neill’s work is presented; his affinity for Baudelaire and the luminaries of modernist poetry have led directly to poems set in London, Italy and France. Yet cosmopolitan does not necessarily equal refined, nor does it lend a superficial veneer of worldliness to the proceedings. Ugliness and danger have their place even in the most seemingly quaint of locations. ‘Avenue Arthur Rimbaud’ describes:
Blocks of flats, urban
Tissue box, tower above us.
And above them, as a backdrop,
The sky lit up, a safari.
O’ Neill writes occasionally as a flaneur and always as an outsider, but his understanding of the reality of far-off destinations as real, lived-in places and not airbrushed receptacles of exotic sojourning is what keeps these poems rooted in their humanistic nucleus. In ‘Siliqua’ the atmospherics of a small Italian town square are cemented by the elucidations of a local tour guide: “The authenticity of the guide/Is always revealed in the quality of the information received -/Mine did not to me just about buildings/And if she did it was only in relation to the living.” And in ‘Needles’, a poem mercifully void of the mawkish introspection or smug self-referentialism that characterise so many poems concerned with sightseeing foreign travel, O’ Neill addresses his own displacement and the anxiety that arises thereof:
So that I appear to be lost in a nameless country,
Without a map, whose country is northless.
Meanwhile, patron saints of the grim and grotesque, such as John Milton, Bram Stoker and Francis Bacon, are also given clear, if offbeat, homage. At times a frustrated relationship exists between the avidly contemporary O’ Neill and the great men of letters of the past whose influence he yearns to escape and yet knows that he can never fully evade. In ‘Milton’, he imagines the necessary but often devastating isolation the author must undergo in order to master their craft:
On first contact, it was as if we were both thrown
From a cliff, and holding onto one another,
As unforgiving angels, we wrestled together
Seemingly oblivious to our fall, so concerned
Were we in our own actions.
There is indeed a darkness to O’ Neill’s work and yet it is necessary darkness, one that any poet worth their salt must try to look unflinchingly in the eye. And yet the love poems, which form the bulk of the collection, are not entirely marked by despair or depravity. ‘A Game of Chess’ brings the failures of macho posturing to bear when the speaker has ‘…talked myself silent,/Like some ritualistic male unburdening, my embarrassment is then so acute -/For all this while you have been constantly giving.” It is lines such as these that form the tempo of O’ Neill’s profane lyricism. In addition, the recurring theme of empathy and tenderness in the face of near-catastrophic breakdown adds a greater dimension to the collection. To the idea that love can be simultaneously a source of great elation and crushing despondency, O’ Neill claims that: “Love is the currency, a regal tender,/And each is to their throne, in the valley of Kings and Queens./Yet all about you now lies desert.”
Divertimento is ultimately a book of dualities and nuance. O’ Neill emerges as poet operating with a plethora of influences looking over his shoulder, yet also resolved to exert his own style and poetic identity. His work stands as a singular and under-looked, at a remove of the Irish canon, but not completely disengaged from it. This ability to stand alone and to also be able to shoulder that aloneness are what makes this collection an absorbing and challenging read.
Beyond the Pale: Dalkey Island
‘Islands are the wellheads of the world’s salvation,’ the poet John Hewitt once wrote. It’s only now, as I stand squinty-eyed in the sun’s cold glint, watching sea-breezes ripple the high tides of Dalkey Sound, that I find I no longer agree with him.
I scan the bay for a boat with a white-painted hull and an outboard motor attached to its stern. The man steering the boat apparently named it the Lilly Rose after his grand-daughter who died shortly after being born. I read this on the website which advertised his ferry services to the island; I still don’t know whether to find it moving or macabre. Over the years, people have drowned in the same silver stretch of water that now laps quietly against the rocks below me. I wonder how many of them planned to.
Already the daybreak chill is subsiding, fluid and slow. It’s a cool, bright September morning in 2015, and I’ve come out here prepared. I’ve recently started attending a series of workshops called ‘The Pale Project’ in the new Lexicon library in Dun Laoghaire, organised and overseen by the then writer-in-residence Selina Guinness. The aim of the workshops is to draw up a psychogeography of a particular area in order to make sense of how it shapes our hopes, dreams and daily lives. They are called the ‘Pale Project’ due to what the ‘pale’ was once defined as – the centre of what is lawful, acceptable and normalized. Anything beyond the pale, that exists outside the borders and limits of official, allegedly civilised society, is frightening, unknown, deviant. I therefore have chosen Dalkey Island as my pale, as islands, by their very nature of being surrounded by water, operate beyond the pale, the central regulation of things, due to their natural condition of not being directly part of the mainland, and the alluring hold they have on the imagination.
I’ve arranged to meet up with Ken, the ferry operator, on what’s turned out to be the last of his daily tours before the winter season. For a fee, Ken conveys passengers out to the island in his motor-powered skiff, and leaves them there for a few hours until they stand in a particular spot and either phone or signal to him that they wish to leave. My particular passage is booked for ten that morning; I plan to stay on the island until I know what it is I want from it.
I’ve packed my gym bag with a notebook, some packed sandwiches and a four-pack of Grolsch, and have cycled all the way down the hilly coast road from Sorrento Point, from towards Coliemore Harbour. I’ve chained my bike up near the small side-wall just above the white stone shed that houses the local rowing club’s gear, beside the slipway. The morning itself is blue-grey, the sun’s light occasionally muted by a rush of smoky clouds. From the quayside, in the limpid gleam of dawn, I see Dalkey Island more clearly, becalmed like a green leviathan across the water, a dark-green chunk of dense bracken and granite, situated just off the coast and a stone’s throw away from Dun Laoghaire.
Not for the first time, I think what a curious irony it is that the island is so close to a capital city, and yet possesses all the wildness of an Atlantic atoll. Despite lying not even a mile offshore, I know the island is too open and wild to be in any way habitable. And while I am not a sailor, I know it is one thing to trace it on a map; quite another to approach it in a boat and see its granite foreshore and murky hillocks loom towards you on the swell. Death and beauty haunt the island, coalescing together in the one location.
Despite the island’s proximity, I’ve only set foot on it twice in my twenty-four years: the first time when I was ten years old, on a family day trip; the last time being only now, when I began to undertake this project. It’s always featured prominently on my life’s landscape, a striking yet everyday piece of the background. Yet the opportunity to sail out to it and take in its surroundings has always been scarce to me. As a child, I only had to look at Dalkey Island for my imagination to churn into a frenzy, wondering what dark secrets nestled in its waters and under the Martello Tower’s grim, Napoleonic profile. Being enthralled by stories of pirates and marauders who lived beyond the law, eschewing the enshrined precepts of society, of smugglers, bloodbaths and mutinies, buried treasure and men lured to their deaths on the rocks, remote isles, gun battles and the baleful magnificence of the sea itself, the island seemed, to my mind, a facet torn out of mythology and left to ride at permanent anchor in Dublin Bay’s outer reaches. Thus, I’ve always imagined it to be a site of utmost intrigue, where shady adventures were embarked upon and illicit deeds committed.
And I’m not alone in thinking this. ‘A local historic place of beauty and interest’ and ‘beautifully unspoiled by facilities’ are the kind of things you read about it on TripAdvisor. The various ruins dotting its terrain are clear indicators of Dalkey Island’s having once being inhabited, that human beings viewed it as a viable place to live. The same ruins led me to wonder why people eventually decided to leave it alone, stationary and abandoned, on the coast. It is an old cliché that there is always more than meets the eye with unclaimed places; but all clichés, I believe, carry some morsel of truth. Perhaps the island was never abandoned; rather, its inhabitants decided to simply leave it be.
As it turns out, Ken is out of the country and won’t be operating the boat today. He’s explained to me over the phone that his brother John will be assuming ferrying services for the day. I knew which vessel to look out for: a white-hulled motor boat with a red waterline, its name painted in black on the stern.
The sail of a pleasure yacht glides past on the blue springtide. Far out to sea, a white passenger ship out of Dublin Port, the Ulysses if I remember correctly, is coasting round the Baily Lighthouse. I count my blessings that I’ve chosen a good day to view the island. It’s better when the place is still, void of regatta or storm. The tide is relatively low, though already starting to roil with incoming surges. Coliemore is a fishing hotspot after all, one of five along this serrated stretch of coast. As such, early as it is, the quays are lined with men and their fishing gear, who have risen early in order to get started on the day’s trawl. Rods are fastened in holders or leaning against the wall, lines already cast. There are probably several dozen of them this morning, an angling mafiosi scattered along the coastline, from here to Scotsman’s Bay.
I think back to Hemingway and The Old Man and the Sea, how the opening passages describe the sleepy Cuban fishing village in which Santiago, the eponymous aged angler of the title, resides. Of course, Coliemore is nowhere as big or industrious as the port in the book. There is more solidarity than competition among the fishermen here, whereas in Hemingway: “They spoke of her [the sea] as a contestant or a place or even an enemy.” Fishing is a pastime in Coliemore; nothing more.
Nor is the water as crystalline that of Cuba. The first thing I notice, despite the quayside gathering, is how quiet it all is. A few of the boats, skiffs and rowing craft mainly, are either overturned on the slipway or else moored together in the harbour. John, as far as I can see, is nowhere to be seen. I keep an eye on the sound for any distant boats, especially any with a motor. I don’t mind the delay, though. It gives me more time to drink in Dalkey Island.
It loiters there, like the far, macabre strand of the river Styx, where the Underworld begins, waiting for me as if waiting for Aeneas, or for Dante and his Roman mentor. However, the current is not dark and bubbling, but clear and strong in the morning’s dim glare. The quayside I stand on doesn’t swarm with damned souls awaiting punishment. But it’s funny how the banality of such a scene can summon the most macabre of thoughts. That does not mean, of course, that the island itself is free of dark overtones. I know its waters bristle with the cadavers of sunken ships that ran aground on its reefs throughout the centuries. On the Irish coast, this is hardly unusual.
Finally, I see the boat I’m looking for rounds the reef from the direction of Killiney Bay, leaning heavily back in its wake. It trundles into the harbour-mouth, and the heavy-set, lifejacketed man gripping the engine tiller slows it down, almost to a halt, the engine growling mutedly. He climbs out and has a quick chat with one of the men fishing on the quayside. I see that he is clearly a man of position in the locality, moving and talking at ease amid the anglers, all of whom seem to know him by name. As soon as he’s finished his smoke, he climbs back in and stands aft.
I call to him: “How’s it going? You Ken’s brother?”
He looks up and eyes me. “I am, yeah. Who’s askin’?”
I tell him my name and that I’ve booked passage for that morning. He nods, lights a cigarette. “Hop in, so. While the tide’s still with us.”
I inch down the seaweed-clogged slipway and step awkwardly onto the thwart. It rocks slightly under my movements. I see a pair of lifebuoys tied near the bow, and a thin pond of bilge-water rolls around at my feet. I glance around the dock for any other passengers who might share in the journey, and see there are none. I am alone in my crossing.
John tosses me a lifejacket. “Here, you’ll want that.” I put it hurriedly on.
“You right so?”
I tell him I am. He nods and revs the motor, fixing his eyes dead ahead to the island, turning the steel tiller in a precise, circular motion.
If only because they share similar professions, John reminds me of Charon, the demonic boatman whose duty it is to ferry damned souls across the Stygian waters to hell. But, despite the gruff jocularity with which he greets me, he doesn’t cut nearly as ominous a figure as Charon, nor are his eyes ringed with flame. Nor is he as lowly or defeated as Santiago, of Hemingway’s book; he isn’t weighed down by coils of rope and a gaff rig thrown over his shoulder. He seems more of a custodian, a gatekeeper and a guide. Were this fiction, his role would be benign. I don’t need to offer him a golden bough as payment to cross the water, or even an obol placed over both my eyelids; just the usual charge of seven euro, which I can give him when he comes to pick me up. And I won’t be stuck out on Dalkey Island for eternity; just five hours at most.
“Here, is it possible to only sail out to the island in a boat like this one?” I ask, nodding at the Sound.
He grins. “Trust me, pal, I could row yeh over there if I felt like it.”
The engine growl and the boat chugs steadily out of the harbour, shoving surf aside. I don’t say much during the crossing; just sit back and let John do his work. I want to enjoy the journey, short as it is. Being out in a boat, encircled by water, your nostrils stung by spray and salt, your lifejacket buckled and tightened against the wash, can still even the liveliest conversation. And if you’re a born lubber like me, then even a short voyage across a narrow 300-meter seaway can be a stirring novelty. I think of taking my phone out and snapping a few many photos. In the end, I think better of it.
Islands festoon Ireland’s coast, be they sandbank or safe haven, connected to the mainland by ferry or bridge, or else left in a most unsplendid isolation when storm conditions rise to fever pitch. On the west coast in particular, entire archipelagos, long since abandoned, lurk like rocky fragments ripped from the mainland. The Blaskets, Skelligs and Inishbofin, to name but a few, count among these. But, as I’ve said, they are all to be found on the west coast, where storms are normal. Dalkey Island is on the east, and is as solitary as the best of them.
Ireland’s eastern seaboard is decidedly more level than its western counterpart, unscarred by the Atlantic’s bitter hammerings; but all the same, the Irish Sea operates by its own design, keeping the treacherous reefs and silted mudflats hidden from the eyes of both landsman and voyager. Its storms are textured with a different ferocity to those of the Atlantic; because they are crammed into a narrower, shallower and more enclosed waterway, the high winds and running waves are still keenly felt.
Dalkey Island is no exception. It stands through dawn and dusk, indifferent to the seasons. Its beauty and menace lie hand-in-hand. When viewed from a level vantage-point, from the beach for instance, it is a pastoral landmass, ringed on all sides by craggy rock formations. But if viewed from above, say from the altitudes of Killiney Hill, it starts to resemble something more vicious, such as a blade or a hawk’s talon (indeed, the name ‘Dalkey’ translates as ‘thorny island’, derived from the Irish word ‘Deilg-inis’).
Crouched off its northern shore is the uninviting rock-chain known as the Muglins, which was historically used as a hanging point from which the bodies of condemned criminals (frequently those found guilty of piracy, mutiny or smuggling) were hung as a dissuasion to future or potential lawbreakers. The Muglins themselves posed such an acute hazard to shipping prior to the construction of the lighthouse, which now stands like bloodied candle on its base, that Captain William Hutchinson, a former harbourmaster of Dun Laoghaire, referred to them as “these siren rocks.”1 Lighthouses are both symbols and machines of hope; but even hope must not forget what it shines against: the Muglins lighthouse is painted red for a reason.
The Dalkey Sound is notorious for its heavy undercurrents. Lying eastward of the main island are a vicious cluster of reefs with benign-sounding names like Maiden Rock, Carrig Rock, Clare Island, and Lamb Island. We see them only at low tide. According to irishwrecksonline.net, a grand total of nine vessels, a coal ship and anti-U-boat steam drifter among them, have foundered in the island’s waters over the years.2
Despite this abundance of wrecks, the Sound was deemed by many to be a workable harbour: “At these periods of time, it is supposed, the harbour of Dublin was not navigable for ships of burden, who might lie in the Sound of Dalkey, land either men or merchandises on the common, and send them to the castles (which, perhaps, were then made use of as store-houses) where they could remain in security from the depredations of the mountaineers, until they were conveyed to Dublin; on the road to which, are other castles, built at proper distances, to ensure their safety in the passage.”
As with all untamed places, stories cling to it like barnacles on a keel. St. Begnet, alleged patron saint of the Dalkey parish, had a stone church built in her name, presumably by missionaries who wished to spread the faith. During the Viking Age, Norse raiders used it as a type of ‘harbour of convenience’ from which to conduct their sorties on the mainland. Indeed, an entry for the year 938 in the Annals of the Four Masters states that:
“Coibhdeanach, Abbot of Cill-achaidh, was drowned in the sea of Delginis-
cualann while fleeing from the foreigners.”
The same volume records that, several years later, in the year 942:
“The destruction of Ath-cliath by the Irish … The destruction brought upon it
was this, i.e. its houses, divisions, ships, and all other structures, were burned; its
women, boys, and plebeians, were carried into bondage. It was totally destroyed,
from four to one man, by killing and drowning, burning and capturing, excepting
a small number who fled in a few ships, and reached Deilginis.”
Several centuries later, in 1302, Edward I’s military campaign of Scotland saw Dalkey Island utilized as a citadel from where supplies and weaponry were loaded for shipment to the English army. Two hundred years after, following an outbreak of bubonic plague ‘not only in the City and County of Dublin but all over the English Pale’3, the island found itself playing host to a legion of refugees fleeing the epidemic. This episode was described by James J. Gaskin hence:
“When the city was visited and wasted by a most remarkable plague in 1575, the
terrified inhabitants, with one accord, rushed to Dalkey as a sanctuary, a sure refuge
against the awful visitation. An immense camp was formed on the hills, on the shore,
on the common, and also on Dalkey Island. On this occasion the grass grew in the
streets of the deserted city.”4
1766 saw The Gentleman’s Magazine report on the execution of a band of mutineers, the bodies of whom were later brought to the island:
“On Monday last (3rd) George Gidley, Richard St. Quinton, Peter McKinlie, and
a Dutchman Andres Lukerman, late mariners aboard the brig Earl of Sandwich,
belonging to London whereof John Cochrane was master, were executed near St.
Stephen’s Green pursuant to their sentence for having murdered their captain,
Captain Glass, his wife and daughter, also Charles and James Pinchert. Their bodies
were brought from the place of execution to Kilmainham Jail and they were afterwards
hung in chains in the most conspicuous places at Poolbeg and the Muglins.”
The same magazine, several years later, published an article, authored by a Peter Wilson, entitled A curious Description of Dalkey and its Seven Castles. In it, Wilson writes somewhat incredulously of the island’s growth from a place of solitary spiritual development to a community of ardent, even fanatical, believers:
One supposes that the island was formerly united with the neighbouring coast,
by an isthmus or neck of land, long since destroyed; a second that it was the residence
of some hermit, who caused the church to be built for the exercise of his private
devotion; a third, that it was erected for the accommodation of the principal inhabitants
of Dublin, who retired hither, when the city was visited by an extraordinary plague
or pestilence; and a fourth, that the clergy, by building this and other churches,
in places remote and difficult of access, thereby meant to inflame the devotion
of their followers, and possibly to impose a penance, when they obliged them
to frequent such obscure places of public worship.”
Some years after, in 1796, the island found itself under the governance of its own ersatz king, namely: ‘His factious Majesty, King of Dalkey (island), Emperor of the Muglins, Defender of his own Faith and respecter of all others and Sovereign of the Illustrious Order of the Lobster and Periwinkle.’ This ruler was allegedly sanctified with whisky upon being crowned, and appointed his officers. The Dalkey Gazette reported on the proceedings of his coronation: “On Sunday morning, at the dawn of day, his Majesty King Stephen came in a private coach to the Palace, attended by his graces… His Majesty’s arrival [at Dalkey] was announced by firing of rockets, discharges of artillery and the most unbounded shouts of applause from the surrounding multitude…”4.
In 1801, Captain William Bligh, of Mutiny On The Bounty fame, was commissioned by the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin (or the Ballast Board, as it was better known) to conduct a deep-water engineering survey of Dublin Bay. The purpose of this report was to record the myriad dangers the bay posed to shipping, as well as recommend what measures might be undertaken to improve them. Bligh estimated that Dalkey Sound was too exposed to work as a harbour, though he did not rule out the construction of a breakwater extending to the island for the benefit of fishing vessels.
Shortly afterwards, in 1805, the Martello tower and its associated gun battery were built, following an Act of Parliament decreeing that coastal defences be set up all along Ireland’s shores in preparation for an expected French invasion. As overseen by Lieutenant-Colonel Benjamin Fisher of the Royal Engineers, a two-gun Martello Tower was built on Dalkey Island’s southern precipice as a lookout (and later immortalised by James Joyce in the ‘Telemachus’ episode of Ulysses). In any event, the expected incursion never took place.
An 1840 account of the island, originally published in the Irish Penny Dreadful, clarified the meaning of Maiden Rock’s name: “an appellation derived from a tradition said to be of twelve hundred years’ antiquity, that twelve young maidens from Bullock and Dalkey, having gone over to this rock to gather duilisk, … were overtaken by a sudden storm so violent as to prohibit assistance from the larger island, and all miserably perished…”
Up until then, the island had been under the ownership by the archbishop of Dublin - now it was granted to the Board of Ordnance, and was run as a military outpost until 1913, when the Dalkey Urban District Council acquired it and designated it as a nature reserve. This is in keeping with the ever-changing role of ownership that has marked the island’s history, yet, it also designates it specifically as a public space, open to the entire community, and not as privately-owed land, which, to my mind, is a small but crucial advantage. It has quite wisely been left alone as a sanctuary for the rabbits, goats and birds that now inhabit it.
I believe this is wise because islands, uninhabited islands especially, are stark reminders of the finiteness of society, of the limits to its laws and customs and systems of security. Encroached on all sides by an untameable element, they force our respect. This is why humanity always seeks to colonise them, claim them for our own, imprint them with chosen names and allegiances before sucking them dry of their resources. They can function as military outposts as much as holiday destinations.
We live in constant fear of a chaos that we know, deep down, cannot be tamed by civilisation and its assumed measures of law and order. The flows of trade, science, exploration and art are all driven by this very fear. Even after we believe such archaic practises to be thrown logically aside, islands remind us still of our own inborn ferocity, against which we draft up ever-more desperate laws, statutes and decrees. We may seek asylum on islands, use them as shelters or hideaways, but we may never claim them as our own. In effect, they do not just lie beyond the pale, but are pales unto themselves.
And if I had to guess, I’d say this fear also stems from the unspoken understanding most people have that they do not belong on the island, and have no real right or claim to it, either as shelter or chattel. Even in writing about Dalkey Island, I demonstrate how little I truly understand it. Every attempt to describe it and list its particulars amounts to just one more wretched attempt to control it and subdue its ferocity.
Yet, hand in hand with that fear walks the exoticism and implicit romance of an island life - perhaps from the stories heard and absorbed in childhood. To live as a castaway, an exile, a hermit or an outlaw, cut entirely off from the mainland and presiding over your own minuscule realm carries a distinctive appeal. To get even an inkling of Odysseus’ struggle of being washed up on Calypso’s shore, or the grand privacy of Crusoe’s solitude, one must retreat to an island. The reality, of course, is no doubt nothing like this. Yet even the empowering nature of solitude (a chosen, almost vocational state, as opposed to loneliness) often leads a person to want to live entirely on their own terms, and in remote places.
We motor through the lumpy swell. I grip the thwart on which I sit for balance. The current is strong and sure, sliding in a lateral drift. The wake churns, bubbling behind us like ragged lace. We aren’t crossing an especially deep or perilous stretch of water, but John’s clearly a seasoned boatman, who knows he can’t afford to leave even a minute-long passage to chance. Even the most seasoned mariners know the sea will always be bigger, and untamed, and must therefore be respected.
To someone like John, I imagine, the sea is many things, but never dull. To him, there is always something more to learn about it. It’s very easy to get complacent on land, sealed off from the brine; once you know you’re surrounded by ocean, under a wakening sky, the boat weighed down by nothing but the portable motor clamped to her stern and the lifejacketed body she carries, the vigilance of survival returns to you. Weather is something we either take shelter from or avail of on land; but at sea, it’s a crucial language to learn, the tide’s grammar, the erratic dialects of wind, how abruptly the conversation can change. No two waves break in the same way, and currents show loyalty to no-one. Its very presence can either lull you into serenity or drive you mad with fear. You learn to work with the sea’s many moods, or else you drown.
John steers like a man born into that way of life, setting the boat to an even motorized glide. It seems that the business of navigation and lifejackets and boat maintenance and tide-watching are about as normal as life gets for him. Clearly, he’d works this passage a thousand times before, and is on the ball every time.
Dalkey Island seems to wait for us, looming nearer and nearer, a whale-like mass silhouetted against the sky, its hills dotted with bone-white boulders, widespread and plain like carbuncles on flesh, neither beckoning me nor coercing me to leave. A new breeze whips up, heavy and sure. The feel of it swiping my face refreshes me. For a moment, I feel something like wonder.
I see the roofless stone chapel on the lowland ridge that dwindles into the sea. Further up, on the northward hill, the Martello loitered in stark greyness, like a seat of forbidden power, steadfast as a lighthouse but not in the least bit heartening. Behind them both, though I can’t see it from the water, squats the rusty outer wall of the derelict gun battery, no doubt bristling with weeds and toothed scraps of flint. To think, in all its years of service, it never once fired a shot, whether in anger or warning. Just ahead of us, jutting out into the water, is the concrete slipway for boats to make berth. Along with the Martello, chapel and gun battery, it’s the only evidence left of humanity’s attempt to exert control over the land.
John lowers the engine with familiar precision and I unbuckle my lifejacket. I hand it to him and disembark.
“How long d’yeh reckon you’ll be?” he asked. “Four hours? Five?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Five hours at most. Should be grand.”
“No bother, so. See y’when I see yeh.”
He turns the boat around and back out towards the bay, picking up speed as he goes. I watch him leave before turning to walk up the jetty. Leathery heaps of kelp and crushed shells speckle the small strand beside me. A dirt track, trampled into existence by a millennia of footsteps, lead upward towards the chapel, fringed with a yellowed morass of bracken and marram.
I am now alone with the sun, sea, sky, and the island’s grassy pale. Only then do I realise, all too late, that I have no business being on it.
A minor saint. Viking marauders. Drowned monks. Civilians massacred by fire or plague. Men hung by the neck until dead for crimes of mutiny and rapine. Fanatics, smugglers, mock rulers who sent up the office and title of kingship, yet still benefited from the position. A former Royal Navy officer, disgraced for his association with history’s most notorious mutiny, now brought in for his cartographical skills in order to chart the island’s tempestuous waters. A bevy of shipwrecks. Ghostly kelp gatherers, lending the name to the place of their death. Men of God and carnage, each using the island for their own singular purpose. Such is the cast of characters that has trod the wind-lashed boards of Dalkey Island; all, in some lasting way, were estranged from the mainland.
And that’s the paradox: Dalkey Island is a place of safety as much as peril. War, pestilence, drowning, shelter, shipwreck, mutiny and all manner of gruesome occurrences have coloured its history. The sanctuary for one person may well have been a nightmare of captivity for another. It is both the showground and plaything of authorities, an arena whereupon games of power were mercilessly played out, where debauchery and self-denial have competed with one another.
Facts such as these give Dalkey Island a far richer and more interesting quality beyond its physical properties, at least in my mind. They also serve to reinforce the idea that history informs and fleshes out the local and supposedly banal everyday world, as much as it does the bigger world beyond.
When I look out to sea, I stare eternity right in the eye.
Took me twenty-four years and one boat journey to realise that little cliché. But this is it, I know: the last stretch of land before the open sea. I stare out at the endless blue realm, awash with light, rapt by the way it unfolds into eternity. The last of the fog has burned away. The cold is gone, dispelled by the hammering sun. Tongues of heat-haze lick the air. I feel a calm that only comes from viewing seismic things; a reminder that the sea isn’t and never was mine to claim or tame. I feel blessed, as I often do, to have grown up in a coastal region, so near to the sea and escape. Had I not, the ocean’s sheer size alone would have had me shaking in my boots.
Whatever life I had before coming ashore, whatever life I will return to, whatever worries I have, may now rest, temporarily, on the backburner.
Don’t think like a poet out here, I remind myself. Thinking like a poet is fatal. You must never think like a poet when faced with danger or even the possibility of danger. Even and especially in the chaos of the water, or of water-ringed places, one must think instead like an engineer: functional, clear-eyed, precise. Think like a poet and you’re good and set for damnation. There’ll be plenty of time yet to admire the beauty that closes in on all sides; right now you need to stay alert for rogue waves and running currents. The sound might be small, but it has no favourites.
My name, my age, my sins, my triumphs, my shames, my loves, my rivalries, my work, my pride, my angst, my strengths, my failings - all are now flotsam, left to lie at half-ebb.
I’ve been on the island for a good half-hour. Standing on it feels abnormal and a little perilous. Its black rocks and green terrain called attention to one another, a salient dance of divergent colour. The tower and battery soar behind me, far above sea level. On the main precipice, facing southward, I realise how cunning Dalkey Island is in its form, how easily deceived the passing traveller could be by it. It is no longer my choice to stop and take in my surroundings. My attention is commanded by them. The incessant, 21st-century impulse to document everything in sight, to whip out the iPhone and start snapping away, has no business here. I see as far as Greystones to the south, and Lambay Island to the north. A mere stretch of thirty miles; it is enough to rob my breath.
The tide climbs from its black element; the sky is a changeable ceiling.
Waves are short-lived by nature; they are doomed to a short roll of existence. That’s the tragedy of them; were it not for the land curbing their rampage, they could roll on forever, an endless phalanx of salt, momentum, and surf, grinding, churning, hissing on all sides. At least in their breaking there is a glory, a primal hypnosis. But even a dead calm does not necessarily mean the island is washed clean of history’s burden. Until now, the waves burned. And were the island further out to sea, I would know better than to think the waves harmless.
I need the island the way saints and outlaws need a desert.
The distance to the mainland is short, but the contrast is clear; terraced, post-modern houses with their undoubtedly fine views, shored up by a wall of stone, cluster together by the harbour, while the barren island and throbbing sea eddy opposite and beneath them. Killiney Hill looms over me, the obelisk tiny and barbed from its peak, and Bray Head crouches far behind, like a leviathan. The mountains beyond are be clearly seen, as can the golden-brown stretch of Killiney Beach. Looking at the opposite shore, there’s the Victorian row of houses in Sorrento Terrace and then the tall oaken trees of Dillon’s Park, their branches leaning forward as if to brush the water, and tiny figures of men casting lines on the boat slip beneath. I see the apartment blocks towering over Coliemore, and the Vico Road snaking on into Dalkey village. Further north, there is the Gothic silhouette of Loreto Abbey and then Dun Laoghaire pier, and onwards, the crystalline bay itself, Howth and the Poolbeg Towers visible in the sun-haze.
Wait for it: the sound of the sleeping giant rubbing sand from his eye.
The island is peppered with rabbit holes and bulging knolls of grass. I watch the goats. A group of them laze on the big rock protruding just over by the far shore, grazing amid the bracken, their horns stark in the sun. Were this a more benighted time, perhaps I’d have mistaken them for demons, lying in wait to snag the souls of unsuspecting visitors. But then, birds and beasts seem like the island’s true protectors and inhabitants. They know when to leave the place alone and when to avail of it. They know and respect territory better than humanity ever has - the goat has its domain on the crag, rabbits delve into the undergrowth, droves of gannets and terns assemble on Maiden’s Rock. It is off those rocks that I imagine the kidnapped abbot had drowned.
Is the island truly deserted? Or does some shadowy force await me here?
I should have come to the island in harsher weather, or even after dark. I should have checked the forecast for a stormier night, and made my way out. Pitched up a tent, lit a fire, and let the sea’s jarring voice lull me. There’d be no escape and no way to drown out the waves’ snarling. The chapel - roofless, windowless, decrepit - would not shield me from the weather. It was in the Chapel that the men who built the Martello slept, with only the lone fireplace to warm them, shivering in the torchlight’s amber glow. What did they listen for, I wondered? The reeling hollers of seagulls, ghostly voices singing in some strange language on the wind? Dragon-headed longships coming about, cannon fire, or just the echoing hiss of breakers on the rocks below?
It is wrong of me to do this, to write about lives of which I know nothing.
Having grown up with the illusive safety streetlights and torches, walking after dark through a place where no sodium light glares, can be a daunting experience, capable of leaching the mind of reason, until all that’s left is terror and teeth and detonated nerves. It is hard to comprehend what lies across the water when you are too used to solid earth ceding to your boot-heel. There is a world sleeping on the island, sleeping the way volcanoes sleep, yet also wide awake and carefully eyeing the baffling new world of pleasure craft, outboard motors and containerships that exceed the island itself in size. If I believed in ghosts and goblins, then perhaps going to the island at night would have led me to half-expect the spectres of all the people I have named, adrift in eternity, summoned forth by my sudden intrusion of their island. I’d lie there in the cold, watched by their flickering eyes, their forms luminous under a riot of stars, indifferent to the rampaging wind.
Pilgrims once came here, and refugees also; I have a choice that they did not.
I guess I’m on a pilgrimage as well, though I don’t think the term is really merited here; I’ll only be gone for a few hours, at most; I won’t linger on the island until I feel I’ve made whatever peace I set out to and I’ve been spiritually expunged. The mainland, and therefore human society, is dead within my sights; after dark, the sickly red-gold orbs of streetlights will simmer on the coast, their haze shrouding the stars to invisibility. It remains so very easy to imagine one’s capacity for survival in the wilderness, stripped of the creature comforts of civilian life, such as food, heating, a social life and plentiful entertainment. Only when you are in it does the hard, lasting reality hit you.
When you put out to sea, every law you followed on land no longer applies.
Now that I stood on the island, it was the sea I was unable to take my eyes off. The water can never be truly understood. Poets attach bombastic metaphors to it. Oceanographers jot down estimates of wind and tide, swirling fog patterns, the height and force of swell, waypoint and position, the variations of tidal velocity. Swimmers watch diminishing waves according to a set timetable. As for me, no matter how many books and instruction manuals I read, YouTube clips I watch, people I speak to, or even how many voyages I may embark on in the future (be they for business or pleasure), I know I’ll never quite understand the water, as I’ll never understand the island. It’s an old obsession. And old obsessions have a curious habit of following me, even as far out as here.
I carry no treasure, no illicit imports to consign to the dusky fathoms.
I am both outlaw and coloniser, recluse and sightseer. I am not the island’s honoured guest, but a prowler vandalising its privacy. Some plans you know you cannot explain nor give reasoning for, not even to yourself - you just know something that must be done, some committed action must be taken. Coming out to Dalkey Island was such a plan - I had to do it, and would not feel at ease otherwise. Yet, if you were to ask me why I felt I had to go out to it, I’d be lost for words. I know can turn around any moment and know the mainland is still there, that John will come motoring by any minute and pick me up. There is relief to be had as well; in a certain light, when the sun has boiled has the last of the fog away, and the sea turns a certain lazy shade of green, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were on a resort.
I am a pilgrim; I have no blessing to give or receive.
It’s high tide by the time I leave. The water is still calm, but the waves surging in from the wakes of ships and ferries that crawl to and from the port, churn the current. John asks me if I enjoyed myself. I tell him that I did.