Moving to the island is not really a case of fitting in. You are what shape you are

A different island experience but maybe I haven’t done enough research

Cape Clear harbour: ‘We dangled our feet over the pier, sharing pints with people we didn’t know.’  Photograph: iStock

Cape Clear harbour: ‘We dangled our feet over the pier, sharing pints with people we didn’t know.’ Photograph: iStock

 

This month’s column is not about an interaction with a bird, you might be relieved to learn.

You see, I was back in Inis Chléire recently (Cape Clear), where I spent two months last year on an artist’s residency. Over the weekend, I met up with Steve again. That is the nominatively determined Steve Wing of Cape Clear’s Bird Observatory. We met on my last morning before I embarked upon the compact orange ferry back to the mainland to remove my hiking boots and keep time once more.

I told Steve that my most recent column was about a bird and he laughed: “The birders hate when journalists write about birds. You never do your research.

“I’m sure your writing, however, is properly researched and factually accurate,” he smirked.

“Two months ago, I referred to a baby swan as a fluffy singlet,” I told him.

Thankfully, Steve didn’t kick me out of the observatory at this admission. He laughed and we continued to talk about the island and its inhabitants, the blow-ins and the ones with wings, as I hugged my “calming” tea and Steve nursed his coffee. We had both had late nights the night before.

Steve has published a book on the Natural History of Cape Clear. The book is extensively researched and covers 60 years of data on the island’s birdlife. I bought a copy for my uncle but had no cash left to buy one for myself (I know, roll your eyes). When I return to the island to buy my own copy, you will notice a marked decrease in errors in my avian columns.

It was nice being back on the island. And very different from my last experience. We could sit outside pubs and accept lifts from friendly locals along Cape’s hilly roads. We could dangle our feet over the pier, sharing pints with people we didn’t know, debating the night’s sky. Seán Rua’s picnic tables swelled with wind-burnt day-trippers, yet the mornings maintained the simple magic of waking to a soft fog and the quiet lament of cows lowing.

Nach deas an saol é.

During my previous stay last October, the country was moving from a level three to a level five lockdown. As the restrictions tightened, the sky darkened, the wind grew, and distended clouds shed heavy tears. For eight weeks, we had damp clothes and goats for friends.

In my early days on the island last autumn, I found myself convinced that I had made a soul connection with a seal. She had been abandoned by her mum when there wasn’t enough food to sustain them both in the sea. The pup lay beached in her puffy blonde coat barking hoarsely and occasionally attempting to galumph her bloated body. I visited her each day and one day she looked directly into my eyes with a face awash with pain. She barked. The seal was asking for my help.

I ran around the beach collecting crustaceans, tearing stubborn limpets from rocks, prising the shells apart and pulling out the muculent creatures living inside. I delivered the seal her lunch. “It’s okay,” I intoned, “You’ll be okay.” As I got closer, the seal snarled, clearly threatened by the approach of a human. It was at this moment, I was brought back to reality and thought, perhaps I ought to talk to some humans for a bit.

And still, the island felt special to me.

Sense of belonging

When you are a blow-in in Cape Clear, like I was last year, my abiding impression is that moving to the island is not really a case of fitting in. Instead, you are what shape you are. It is, rather, a case of belonging. The island has a strong sense of community. Of living alongside one another and, when called upon, helping each other out. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its own issues, politics, twitching curtains or complexities. But it was nice to sit at a table in a pub where people passing shouted “Can I join you?” and before the end of the night the table was packed with a collection of native and non-native islanders, visitors, old and young (or at least less old, though there was a baby at one point) from many different walks of life drinking pints, peppermint tea and Blue Lagoon cocktails.

To live on Inis Chléire with chronic migraine doesn’t feel to mark you as unusual. Instead, people might matter-of-factly say “Nach í sin an cailín a bhíonn na migraines uirthi?” (‘Isn’t she the one with the migraines?”) and there would be no more about it. You’d go about your writing and your walking and your petting of goats and you’d be no more different from anyone else on the island.

But perhaps I am projecting. Maybe this isn’t true at all. Maybe Steve would say “Us islanders hate when journalists write about our island, they never do any research…”

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