A stormy Christmas journey to an island – and another world

An Irishwoman’s Diary about a dark crossing to Clare Island

 ‘Were we single? Had we dowries? Had we ever footed turf or saved hay? Did we know a cow’s udder from her tail? It was like landing in a parallel universe for us two city girls’. Photograph: Getty Images

‘Were we single? Had we dowries? Had we ever footed turf or saved hay? Did we know a cow’s udder from her tail? It was like landing in a parallel universe for us two city girls’. Photograph: Getty Images

 

You could call my first Christmas on Clare Island, a baptism of fire even if my anointment was from the font of an anarchic ocean. With the retrospective wisdom of almost 40 years, there’s nothing like the crazy cacophonies of the Atlantic to put a narcissistic philosophy graduate into her place; stop all that existential introspection offered by Jean Paul Sartre and Simone.

Little did I know then though that on December 27th, 1979, as I knelt praying on the salt-soaked floor of a boat, that the course of my future was about to change forever. It was my maiden voyage to the island and I might as well have been heading to Mars. Instead of a space ship though, there I was in a tiny craft manned by two oil-skinned islanders who had more smoke coming out of their pipes than the noisy exhaust.

It is a moot point whether the ballast of hot whiskeys me and my mate Mary had consumed earlier in Durkan’s pub in Louisburgh made the four-mile crossing in the dark any less terrifying. Add in the fact that the boat seemed little bigger than a currach and was steered by a tiller at the stern as it rocked and rolled, heaved and hoved, through a battalion of hostile waves. Their long march over the horizon left them in disarray as they were blown across Clew Bay to their inevitable end on beaches from Achill Head to Bertra, Carrowniskey to Mulranny.

Accompanying us in the cabin were such essential supplies as cartons of Woodbine and Sweet Afton, boxes of Paddy and Jameson, fresh loaves of bread, a tractor battery, a huge bag of post filled with festive cards that hadn’t made that chance boat on Christmas Eve and a flank of some poor bovine that once roamed the boggy boreens of Co Mayo.

Both being students at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Mary and I, naturally, were heading out to the island to stay with “the priesht” – our friend, Pat. Indeed, he happened to be on the boat with us along with his new puppy called Buddha. She was also on her maiden voyage to the island and from all appearances was equally as traumatised as this diarist.

What a relief to finally land at the slipway, under McCabes pub. These were days before the island had been connected to mains electricity so while the darkness was disconcerting and the noise of Granuaile House’s generator confusing, its flickering lights were most welcome as we entered its bar.

It is not surprising that the chorus of laughter stopped dead when Mary and I walked in the door. We were like two selkies who had risen out of the depths of the ocean after thousands of years and had gone on a shopping spree in Grafton Street. Our attire was entirely inappropriate for taking to the sea on a winter’s day off the wild west coast.

Whiskeys abounded, the laughter reignited, as “the priesht” was interrogated with much mirth about these strange looking women. Were we single? Had we dowries? Had we ever footed turf or saved hay? Did we know a cow’s udder from her tail? It was like landing in a parallel universe for us two city girls as we sat watching the hoots of belly laughter. And, moreover, the cosmic adventure was just beginning: our trip to the presbytery was on Oliver’s tractor, me swaying back and forth on the bucket, while Mary luxuriated in first-class in the cabin.

We lurched and listed back the road past candlelit cottage windows in the villages of Glen and Gurteen, steaming suddenly up the steep incline in the village of Kille towards the church and the abbey where 16th-century pirate queen Grace O’Malley lies.

Pat, with Buddha in a box on the carrier, had already zipped back the road on his Honda 50 and was giving extreme unction to his geriatric generator on our arrival.

As Mary and I stood on the steps of the presbytery, inhaling the elixir of the air, the wind suddenly stilled, the ocean calmed and the sky cleared to the west, out over Inishturk, then over holy island Caher. One by one, newborn stars illuminated the sky and joined the constellation of Cassiopeia in a festive dance and somewhere on the edge of our imaginations Three Wise Men began their journey to Bethlehem laden down with gifts.

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