The generous sun makes us look vulnerable
There’s something forensic about the light, something too revealing
Sunny days in Dublin. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
I walked the beach over the weekend, picked my way over castles and trenches and the occasional 10-year-old buried inside a seaweed sarcophagus. It was beautiful and balmy, and the sand sparkled.
The shore was dotted with edible-looking, fat-kneed toddlers, digging for lugworms and issuing perplexing instructions to palely translucent fathers who used to be sun-kissed little boys themselves, before everything got grown-up and complicated. By the dunes, their mothers, aglow with factor-50, slept in the sun, splayed like starfish, breathing in the dusty heat of the picnic rug.
Farther along the beach were meandering parties of friends gathered around disposable barbecues, cooking bacon, speaking languages I didn’t recognise. Latvian maybe? Romanian? There was flesh, and laughter, and sliced pan, and a woman bent forward with a tongs to turn the meat. Underneath the waistband of her swimsuit a tattooed bluebird stretched over her silvery hips, looking like it wanted to free itself from its inky outline.
I wanted to ask this group, as they turned over their rashers in tinfoil trays, how they found living in this city; if, when they came here, from a country with proper seasons, a country with baking summers and treacherous winters, they could ever have imagined the constant threat of rain; if they could have known how a couple of days of consecutive sunshine transforms this landscape.
The water was far out, the tide pulled back to narrow strips of water, and it was jaw-lock cold. In the distance, teenage boys surfaced out of the deep channels like pale-blue ghosts, then ran back to the beach, to abandoned hoodies and lukewarm cans in plastic bags, a fur of goose pimples covering their thin shoulders.
Meanwhile, a tall, irritated woman, who looked as if she was used to being listened to, was involved in a one-handed struggle to free herself of her underwear underneath the tent of the big red towel that she clutched with her other hand. I walked the length of the beach and back again, and she was still at it, like a listing totem pole, her day in the sun a hard, unwinnable fight for modesty and discretion.
It’s rare enough in this damp old town that you can break out the jelly shoes and blow sand off the sausages. Rare enough to pass around the MiWadi in paper cups, crack open the rusting beach chairs, knot Uncle Freddie’s handkerchief over his blistering bald patch. There is nothing quite like feeling the sun on your back. “God,” we say to each other, as if we’ve never uttered the words before, “do you feel that heat?”
There is something about the sunshine, however, that, despite its generosity, makes us look vulnerable; something forensic about the light, something too revealing.
The light changes constantly
In the evening I was invited in to one of the imposing houses that back on to the beach, a tall house with magnificent wide windows that open out on to a long view over Ireland’s Eye and Lambay Island. I climbed a stairway and took in the scene, framed by a huge window like a massive painting. “The light changes constantly,” said my host, a painter, holding her small, disgruntled dog in her arms. “I think about painting it, but . . .”
The dog was out of sorts, peeved, struggling to retain control of its domain as guests arranged themselves against the formidable architecture, ate bite-sized delicacies, drank wine from paper cups. The house was being packed up, its contents shipped to another destination; the party was to say goodbye.
My host was moving cities, her work was going into storage, her dog was going into a crate to fly to another continent and bark at more strangers. She was resigned, pragmatic. “I used to think about painting the view,” she said, “but how can you? How can you capture that?”
I went back to the beach a few days later. It was warm, and the islands were misted over. The long strand was washed clean of cherubic handprints and fussy paw prints, it was empty of pale, pugnacious boys and languorous, happy, tattooed strangers cooking bacon in the sun.
A woman appeared with three cranky spaniels, each wearing a decorative neckerchief. One of them defecated on the sand and then ran away to yap at its companions while the woman stooped to scoop up its offering into a sandwich bag.
From generation to generation, Dubliners have enjoyed days like these on this aloof, democratic, beautiful beach, where nothing really changes except the light, and where nothing can truly be possessed, no matter how we attempt to frame the view.