Another Life: Playing the wandering fool beside the whispering Mayo surf

For the beach lover the boundary of land and ocean is more a state of mind than any line drawn in the sand


The long calms and offshore breezes of this summer have let the sea put back even more of its offshore store of sand than it sucked away last winter – an exceptional annual bonus in its rolling budget of sediment.

This new hem of the strand is fluffy and smooth and so soft that my boots sink into it. The splay-footed, duck-shaped trail they leave still embarrasses me. Other men leave proper, manly, parallel prints: why do my feet go like that? “Why can’t you walk straight and not keep swerving into me?” (This from my older brother, long ago, but I remember where it was, in the lane beside the gasworks.)

Never mind. Sometimes, in winter, with no one around to bump into, I have walked the strand for ages with my eyes shut, relying on hearing to guide me. My advance is always into the sun, poised low above Connemara across the bay, so that the vermilion light in my eyelids offers one compass and the whisper of surf beside me another. My course does swerve, indeed, but I have never actually walked into the sea. Everyone, at some time, should have the space and freedom to play the wandering fool.

A photograph I took of the strand now saves the screens (whatever from?) of the family’s computers, so that our daughter, away in the city, starts the day with a spacious, salty breath of the west from her laptop and the same bright gleam of foam. The picture is of the last few black spars of the wreck, glossy with sun and seaweed, left sticking up from the sand at low tide, the bow’s shadow tilting like the gnomon of a sundial.

No one has the story of the boat’s age or voyaging, but once, in a stormy winter, its thick duvet of sand was quite swept away, leaving the broad, oaken ribcage bare to the keel. There were lumps of limestone for ballast and shards of a black-glazed pottery, but nothing to say where it was going or when it was driven ashore. Lost somewhere in the garden is the bit of rib I salvaged, with the hole and oak dowel that let me think of the lineage on my father’s side – carpenter after cabinetmaker, back to Moses Viney in Devon in 1695. None of them, so far as I know, ever built a boat.

Beachcombing mornings
Finding interesting stuff means walking the strand every day, summer and winter, as I used to when younger and everything was new. It was then I accumulated most of the biological bric-a-brac that lines our window sills – skulls, shells, fossils and the rest – and the gaudy plastic trawler balls now strung into pillars of colour at the woodshed. Either the trawlers have stopped losing them, or using them, or my beachcombing mornings are now too few, but I have more than enough to brighten a winter garden.

The length of Ireland’s coastline must now, I suppose, be nearing some kind of exactitude, as Earth is scanned obsessively by robots in the sky. But everything depends on where you pace it, and at what moment. Tide lifts and falls; foam reaches up to lick one’s boots or curl around a rock. For the beach lover the boundary of land and ocean is more a state of mind than any line drawn in the sand.

Where geography meets philosophy
Few people can have given more intense thought to that than Dr Anna Ryan, who lectures in architecture at the University of Limerick and has written Where Land Meets Sea: Coastal Explorations of Landscape, Representation and Spatial Experience (Ashgate, €35). Describing her as “beachcombing in the tidal zone where geography meets philosophy”, Tim Robinson was welcoming her to his own refined contemplation of “the phenomenology of open spaces as experienced by the mobile, memorious, emotional, spatial creatures that we are”.

The book’s wellspring was Ryan’s childhood holidays in Co Clare. She invited 62 people to talk about, draw and photograph the coastal places they knew and felt mattered to them. One was the South Wall in Dublin, the other the Maharees peninsula in Co Kerry. The excerpts from the tapes are often vivid in their feeling and used to mark the central philosophical point that self and place are deeply conjoined: a guiding awareness for architects.

She also includes a description of my own, of going to the strand to swim alone in early morning: “To stand at the water’s edge, a tiny figure, and strip off there, was to become part Roman gladiator, part dreamer in one’s undervest . . .”

“The scale of the body,” writes Ryan, “is a measure of the scale of the physical surroundings. The body makes the discovery itself, through direct contact, direct experience.” And the sea that May morning was still bloody cold, I can tell you.

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