Between a rock and a hard place


WHEN I’M in Eileen McDonagh’s presence, I never doubt the existence of the soul. She’s a sculptor who is in love with stones. She wanders all over Ireland to various quarries seeking out interesting rocks, and when she finds some new lump of marble or limestone she spends months chipping at it, listening to it, and trying to expose its real presence.

Her chisel draws out of the stone what is already there. The quarry is her cathedral and the stone her sacrament with the divine. Each rock to her is personal, sometimes male, and sometimes female.

“Look at him,” she said, in Carlow’s magnificent gallery last week where a major exhibition of her work was being officially opened.

“Who?” I wondered.

“Him,” she said again, pointing at a slender column of stone. “I found him in a quarry. I couldn’t believe it. He’s beautiful. But he needed a sister. So then I found her,” she added, pointing at another slender column.

There was lots of smalltalk later in the bar, about fracking in Leitrim and civil war in Mayo, and the posh standards of smoking rooms in Carlow, but it was Eileen McDonagh’s colossal silence that filled the space, and filled my head for the rest of the evening, even when I got as far as Mullingar and called in on the General.

The Medical Wallah was there before me, his ponytail well shampooed, his limp wrist dangling over the arm of the chair as he displayed all his silver-ringed fingers in a manner that the General finds effeminate. “It’s not just his liberal views that irritate me,” the General said, “it’s the way he talks.”

Sometimes, the Medical Wallah gets confused and you realise that all his backpacking and all the spliffs have taken their toll. When no one listens to him, he becomes paranoid and waspish and he starts adding, “Do you know what I mean?” to everything he says.

“Consciousness is its own miracle,” he declared. “Do you know what I mean? Behind us and ahead of us is emptiness. Do you know what I’m saying?”

While he was in full flow, the General turned to me and said, “I’m reading Tolstoy again; what a wonderful storyteller!”

But the Wallah said, “Of course, there are no more stories. That’s the point. History ended with the Holocaust. You see, if history were a bus, we would need to get out and ask the driver where we’re going, and if there is no driver, then we need a discussion. Perhaps we need to redesign the bus. Do you know what I mean?”

I slipped out to the kitchen to chop a lemon, and the General followed me.

“In the name of Jesus,” he said, “will you get him out of here. If we don’t stop him now, he’s liable to start about fracking again.”

“I can’t get rid of him,” I said, “It’s your house.”

I didn’t get back to my own house in Leitrim until the following morning. I lit the stove. The cat tried to stop me typing. Outside, fog enveloped the trees and reduced them to black stencils in a ghostly realm. Nothing stirred, though I heard a bird somewhere far off.

And that’s when I started singing; singing is one of my new strategies to cope with sadness. It may be that I have made an important discovery – I might even write a book about it called Singing Your Way out of Depression.

Over the past few months, I have realised that my breath is linked to my emotional state. My pattern of breathing varies depending on when I feel sad or happy. There’s a knot in the soul which manifests as a tightness in my chest, and only singing loosens the knot.

So I closed the door of the study and sat there rendering Hard Times, It Ain’t Me Babe, Matt Hylandand The Four Marys, to a frightened cat.

But it didn’t work on this occasion. I sang and the bird in the fog sang, but the sound of my own voice like a strangled curlew depressed me even further, because, like the General’s bellowing and the Wallah’s whining, it seemed that I too was just an empty drum.

So I stopped. And I sat there wondering will the knot in my soul ever loosen. Or is it man’s destiny to make meaningless noise. While all about us there are women who can find tenderness in a quarry and cause the stones to sing.