I am too pessimistic to find joy in communal hot tubs

I used to think young people went to festivals just to get drunk or do drugs. At Body and Soul I realised I was wrong

Body and Soul at Ballinlough Castle, Co Westmeath. Photograph: Allen Kiely

Body and Soul at Ballinlough Castle, Co Westmeath. Photograph: Allen Kiely


Donegal is unreal. That’s what young people say. Although they don’t mean that it’s not there. The mountains and rocks are definitely there. They were heaped up in slow-motion over millions of years, and as I touch the limestone, basalt, or quartzite, strewn about the coastline like debris from an enormous continental crash, the rocks feel alive, like turtle shell or elephant skin to the touch, as if the rocky coast itself was an 800 million-year-old animal.

When I looked down from the top of Slieve League recently, I was speechless.

“This is unreal,” a young woman whispered, by which she just meant it was beautiful. Nowadays people describe all beautiful things as “unreal”.

I remember two people who left Leitrim, having danced together once as teenagers in the Mayflower ballroom. They went to Australia separately, one as a nurse and the other to drive a digger. They met years later, accidentally, at a Patrick’s Day festival in Sydney, and danced together for a second time. In the dance their bodies remembered each other, and so they fell in love. When I told this story to the young woman on the top of Slieve League she said, “Wow, that’s unreal.”

She meant extraordinary. She recognised that there is always a mysterious pattern beneath the surface of human affection, behind the veil of the visible world. There is always an elsewhere around us, and inside us, a kind of harmony and elegance in the way the cosmic cookie crumbles.

Cosmic cookie

Donegal was born when the cosmic cookie crumbled along the tectonic plates of an ancient ocean, and there are just no words to adequately describe its beauty, apart from that Facebook cliche: it’s unreal. But I suppose the trouble is that young people use the same word for everything.

“Did you try the hot tub?” a girl asked me at the Body and Soul Festival a couple of weeks ago.

“No,” I replied.

“Well, let me tell you,” she said, “It. Is. Unreal.”

I was sitting on a bench overlooking the main stage as the hill vibrated with the sound of drums. Flags flapped in the breeze on high poles. There were so many girls with bare legs, and bejewelled bellies, decorated with face paint, peacock feathers, beaded bracelets, rainbow sunglasses and skirts the size of large handkerchiefs, that when a young man sat down beside me and said, “This too is unreal,” I didn’t know if he was talking about the music, the good weather or the body of a woman standing right in front of us eating a burrito.

Hello, pilgrim

He was a lovely young man. He said he worked as a stone carver in Cork, and being there on the hill beside him, listening to the music, sharing the “unreality” with him, felt like being on pilgrimage. We could have been strangers resting on a bench along the Camino in the north of Spain. We could have been two boys up the slopes of Cuilcagh mountain on Bilberry Sunday long ago.

We were certainly in a sacred space, and what he meant by “unreal” was that beneath the surface of the hill, beyond the vibration of the drums on stage, was some deeper hum that held us together. In that sense he was discovering transcendence, but he could only describe it as young people do. I used to think that young people went to festivals just to get drunk or do drugs. But now I realise they go in search of authentic experiences, and to have a picnic away from mundane reality and to find their bliss.

Bliss in solitude

I’m too old for festivals. My bliss buzz comes in solitude, and I make my picnics in Donegal. The need to belong doesn’t draw me to large groups, and I have never suffered from the unconscious surge of nationhood that seems to possess real men when they watch football matches.

I agree with García Márquez, who said that it’s only in the remembrance of things that we awaken. We live our lives a second time with increased pleasure and relish when we tell the tale of it, or cherish the memory of it. And besides, I am much too pessimistic to expect joy in communal hot tubs.

Instead I lie on the beach with a straw hat covering my eyes, listening to the waves and hearing in them the festivals of my youth, as all the falling waves descend in the astonishing unreality of just being there.

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