From a beach to the Raglan Road
An Irishman’s Diary: What would Patrick Kavanagh make of this suspended moment in a measured time?
‘Each incoming wave a new beginning, each retreating wave another present joy turned to irretrievable past. The same but always changing . . . fresh grains swooshing in and old ones swishing out all the time. Do we pass on eventually and leave behind the weathered grain of our existence, one more sliver on the beach of time?’ Photograph: Getty Images
It started as a walk on the North Beach in Rush, Co Dublin, but it became a walk on a beach. Somewhere, anywhere, everywhere. The soft give of the wet sand underfoot, the freshening wind caressing cheekbones and ruffling hair, the rising sw-o-o-o-o-o-sh and softly cascading wh-e-e-e-s-sh of the sea itself . . . one drawn out note in the distance, but closer in, a nuanced, undulating chorus of infinite variation and tone. Wind. Sand, Sea. See . . . strand, sky, sea, horizon. Hear . . . scrunch of foot on fragmented shells . . . plaintive circling shriek of seagull . . . distant bark of unleashed dog. Smell . . . moistening brine, pungent whiff of shifting breeze. Thinking. Feeling. Being.
Starting out, self-conscious mental notes to try and capture a familiar vista . . . scanning outwards . . . to the left the Martello tower out on its headland vigil, the cosied up harbour to the right, ahead, Rockabill lighthouse . . . inwards now, the neat piles of black-dreadlocked seaweed, laid out like jerseys before a big game . . . the crushed-shell patches and the wonderful snap, crackle and pop as they disintegrate beneath my feet. The sound echoes back up the gravel path to our front door when I was younger, lying in bed and identifying the different postmen by their pace and weight of step, the snap of the letterbox being pushed in, the crackle of the postman’s boots pivoting away, the pop of the letterbox shutting, the letter hitting the hall floor, or the heave of the tummy if there were exam results on the way . . . out again to the ridged sand and the winding rivulet that marks the halfway point of the walk, a miniature Nile.
Mere geographical description and classification soon give way to just walking.
My pace, independent and definite at first, programmed for a straight walk on a familiar straight route, over a set time, soon surrenders itself to the rhythm of the sea itself . . . mesmerised . . . my thoughts sometimes innocuous clods of sand detaching themselves from the memory banks of my earthly brain and sliding down into my stream of consciousness . . . at other moments, sudden flights of fanciful reverie swooping off into the sky like the seagulls overhead, gliding now, letting the winds carry them. I am no longer on the beach, separate . . . no longer tall, short, heavy, light, old, young . . . I am somehow in the beach.
I drift to the edge of the sea itself. The wind now both a sound and a shielding, screening presence, I find myself singing. Loudly, badly, but bracingly. Raglan Road, for some reason. For no reason. “I gave her gifts of the mind I gave her the secret sign that’s known/ To the artists who have known the true gods of sound and stone . . .”
Thinking of Patrick Kavanagh. What would he make of this suspended moment in a measured time? The permanence of the sand, sea, rock and outcrop, yet the impermanence of it all . . . each grain of sand a miniscule sliver off a once mighty rock, or each pebble an independent realm?
Each incoming wave a new beginning, each retreating wave another present joy turned to irretrievable past. The same but always changing . . . fresh grains swooshing in and old ones swishing out all the time. Do we pass on eventually and leave behind the weathered grain of our existence, one more sliver on the beach of time? A glittering pebble if we have done something to be remembered by . . . a poem, a song, or a child well loved?
Kavanagh. The conventional wisdom is the lumbering country man, adrift in the city, occasionally transported on a canal bank walk, but more often tormented and consumed by incongruously delicate thoughts and a rhythmed ear, eventually finding only drink-sodden frustration and rejection in his Dublin exile of 1950s drear and dread . . . those repressive 1950s, dead as doornails . . . but this is the man who found transcendence where others found only muck and stone and hedgerow . . . “I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way. . .”.
And now part of the earth he once celebrated in verse, a fragment of that verse now carved into the stone atop his Inniskeen grave, or remembered now in an off-tune blast of Raglan Road on a beachy field of May. His legacy gleaming pebbles of verse and song strewn delightfully across the ever-changing, ever-constant sands of our windswept island. Somewhere, anywhere, everywhere.
It is time to go . . . no longer free to estimate the hour by the position of the sun, or the changing shadow formations, or the tidal ebb and flow . . . I look at my watch and head back from the enchanted way to the path . . . “When the angel woos the clay he’d lose his wings at the dawn of day”.