Inishowen: capturing the spirit of this end of the Earth

Penny Baps author Kevin Doherty set out to write about the stories of his native Donegal

Malin Head on the Inishowen peninsula. Photograph: Getty images

Malin Head on the Inishowen peninsula. Photograph: Getty images

 

I live on an almost island. A once-upon-a-time island. Not an island, really. We are only partially surrounded, with water on three sides but not all four. Our link to the mainland is slight, a narrow strip reclaimed. We were cut off once before, when ice-caps melted, and it must be a thing you don’t get over because we’re a bit suspicious yet. Maybe we’re waiting on meltwaters to rise again. Inishowen is a cut-off kingdom on the edge of other places. Inside and outside of the world. A crossroads.

In my first novel, Penny Baps, I was trying to write down the home that I know. Some of the stories and songs. It was an attempt to understand the ways in which I am made by this place, made out of it. That it’s our inheritance, this funny scrap of land, these lives on a gorgeous border. I have written about people like me, who stayed or came back, busy working at some productive patch or square. Who commit themselves to the upkeep of a small corner, order life according to what they own or only love. If you want to keep something going, that’s what it takes; life after life given over. It’s an act of devotion, a dark joke. Inishowen suits the faithful and I am all the time trying to believe.

Kevin Doherty: Maybe the world isn’t somewhere else. Here is something living, something perfect. A fragment that’s not ruined, used up, wasted or burnt

Lots of days I have it nearly to myself. Even if it’s a good day and even now there’s a bigger car park at Malin Head because it’s still hard to get the tour buses up the winding track. I don’t go to the signal tower or look-out huts, the coffee cart or new toilet block. There are informational signs about bird life and rare plants, whales and U-boats, but that’s not what I need to know. I can’t dither spying on the Europeans, fastidious in wet-gear and appropriate shoes, or the two old Northeners, licking pokes, out for a drive in the Free State. I’m supposed to be making a pilgrimage.

It’s the tip-top northern point, the end of the road, the furthest stretch. Banba’s Crown and Hell’s Hole and the Devil’s Bridge. And I’m nearly at the last perch, at Scheildren Mór, and the wind is beating in my ears, whipping my clothes, and the noise of the waves is deafening to everything else. If I can sit in the wind and wait, I know I’ll get a break in the sky and in just a certain spot I’ll be in light that’s just blinding enough and I’ll see the Earth in outline, inhuman, its essential nature and no trace of us, no walls or roads or fires burning, and I’ll think that our purchase on the Earth is unsure, a small mess that can be tidied away. It would be a minor cure to believe that I’m innocent, stood out here on a ledge at the sea, alone and apart from everything. But I am not cut off from knowing.

The peninsula is scattered with holy sites. I’m never far from a rock carving or tomb, a pagan circle or stone cross. The remains of dead worshippers and all their moral certainties. I can take my pick from a long history of hopeless prayers and ruined monuments. Back home in Carndonagh, above an irregular and subdivided plain, there is an old oak wood, undisturbed on a little hill. Rare, at risk. I grew up looking at it from the upstairs windows of my mum and dad’s house. It’s part of a fragile network of sites that are the new religion’s law and miracle. Wildness. Marginal places overlooked, under-exploited, saved by remoteness or cruel weather or contested titles and rights. It is a pure good but not so far apart, not as safe, too close to the cars and lorries and cyclists on the wet road, to the runners and walkers on the footpath, to the voices in back gardens. The familiar rhythms and thick sing-song, the borrowed words and sounds collecting and running out quick.

In the woods, at a clearing under the Mass rock, I can see the steeple and dome and hear the bell of the church on another hill. The ding-dong-dong is like a challenge, a call to prayer, and I have to choose where to look, at what purpose. Maybe the world isn’t somewhere else. Here is something living, something perfect. A fragment that’s not ruined, used up, wasted or burnt. Scrambling under the old trees, in the leaf litter and the electric green moss, over crushed Carlsberg cans and a faded packet of Mighty Munch, I have another go at certainty, at relief. I am one more new believer.

Penny Baps is published by John Murray Originals. Read our review.

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