So I went back to what used to always be home, Devon, for unturned stones and unburnt bridges, and turned over and burnt a few of each, and found refuge, and found that the remaining untrodden paths had dead ends or were overgrown, and then had to go again, and here I sit by a Connemara fireside ready for a new year as the old Celtic year draws to a close.
I make ready for a five day voyage, departing Devon with some lovely fruit and veg from my folks’ orchard garden. The old van, hardly driven for a while, starts on the button and roars up the motorway to super-posh Gloucester Services where I meet a dear childhood friend, natter and eat, and swap a few weavings for a hefty, light, sweet, Hohner Contessa II accordion (whose livery even matches that of my van). I’ve been looking forward to having it for months, formulating ideas for how songs might be accompanied if one could actually play it. Having got the feel of how a free reed instrument breathes thanks to the melodica, and then having been given a little accordion not long ago, I’ve finally understood what stirs these beasts – so now to develop some technique.
It is particularly right and lovely to see said friend, Welsh, before heading into Wales by a route I don’t know. Ross > Abergavenny > Brecon, beautiful, and good to be back on the road.
However I make a stupid mistake in a queue of traffic: lulled by empty roads and feeling quite vacant, I simply don’t make sense of what the cars are doing in front of me and embarrass myself illegally passing an angry policeman and getting flustered and in everyone’s way and manoeuvring badly and feeling completely thrown, wondering what on earth has happened to my faculties – a feral creature brushing accidentally with civilisation for a bewildering moment.
As dark falls I’m nearly at our destination and, too tired to keep pulling over to let faster vehicles pass, someone comes and sits right on our tail. Hassled on unfamiliar roads, I keep missing opportunities to pull in. A barn owl flies into my path. Braking gently at first and enjoying the gift sighting, I think she’ll make it across the road before we reach her, but she changes direction at the last second, turning her back to me and flying forwards on the same course as us, but more slowly than us. I can’t brake hard for the tail-hogger, and my over-cab bedroom tips her into a tumble down onto the other carriageway. A few cars pass and I hope she’ll launch back into the air. I turn and go back and find her heartbeatless on her back, in seemingly perfect shape, wings neatly folded in. I pick her up and lay her on the wide verge, troubled by such a potent and perhaps portentious happening. My animal medicine cards say that owl upside down represents deception, and I wonder sadly.
We camp comfortably in an unfenced moonlit field surrounded by bracken and mature trees, our back to a river. Next day we get to Pembroke Dock – charming in a bleak, militaristic, grey, overgrown sort of way – with sunny hours to spare. I notice a couple of backpackers boarding and, spying a ukelele, put my melodica in my cabin bag, just in case.
If the ferry goes down, our pets in cars go down with it. I have to check this every time, just in case some kindly staff happen to be on the car deck, or letting me onto it, to break vehicle windows to give Murphy and others a chance in an emergency. The answer is always the same: in an emergency they don’t think about the animals. So I go up the stairs pushing the images away.
I spend twenty minutes walking the maze of stairs and decks seeking outside seats in the sun (and noting the locations of the lifeboats, since yesterday’s mishaps have left me feeling nervous all round). There are no seats in the sun, but I settle where said backpackers are in the shade on the smokers’ deck, and one of them strikes up conversation. They’re from Oregon, and we do the usual traveller thing of comparing notes on adventures and homelands. We talk about landscape, politics and gun culture. Then I wonder aloud where one of the other young passengers is going, hoping that my new American friend will ask, bloke to bloke, so it doesn’t look like I’m picking him up, and he does. He’s Romanian, and though not confident in English, with some Spanish between us we learn a bit about the wealth of resources in Romania and how he feels that the EU has robbed them, and how as a driver he can earn only €200/month back home – where he’d rather be – but many times that if he drives through Europe. Homesick and proud, he declares that if there were a dictator to vote for in his country, he would. His eyes are intense, his skin yellowy-grey, his clothes cheap and chilly, his manner both cheeky and gracious, and his sense of humour dry. Underprivileged but generous, he buys us a drink. We play a tune in his cabin and then some more on a glass-covered deck, and I find that I have met great people and made music before even touching Irish shores. We say a warm goodbye and the Americans and I agree that we may meet in Galway.
And once on Irish shores, the insect bites that have been driving me unusually mad for a week suddenly cease their itching entirely. However I worry myself again taking endless wrong roads as I leave Rosslare and keep having to give up and turn around. Such defeats are uncharacteristic and dent my confidence further, but at least I like the look of the roads even in the dark, and a dedicated camping spot on a promontory beside an estuary eventually yields a warm Irish welcome and a curlewcall lullaby that sends me to sleep.
The next morning I photograph dawn over the mudflats with rook clack, and we have a lovely walk along the shore before heading to the Burren.
I continue to drive badly, distracted by castles that appear around bends, dual-track roads made for Lilliputians, broken yellow lines that I don’t understand, and the general wonder of homing in Ireland. Ill-prepared again I don’t have directions for the campsite I’m heading to. I make for Kinvara and gasp as golden light slanting beneath heavy gunmetal clouds illuminates a ruined castle on an island-strewn sea lough and a strew of painted houses on a small harbourside. I fail to photograph what I call the ‘Irish light’ but later gladly take the ‘Fairy Queen’.
Kinvara is touristy and alternative, with a lovely market in a gardenlike corner, and trad sessions in several pubs if you get the right day (though there was both a wedding and a funeral the day I was there, which replaced the music). Four proper good Irish rustics propping up a bar give me directions and I find the colourful gipsy wagons of our campsite where the folk are rough as nails with hearts of gold.
The Isle of Lewis reminds me of Ireland, and the Burren – curious, bleak, transfixing moonscape-come-hobbitland – reminds me of Lewis. On the bleak, dreach, high ground a ruined abbey suddenly appears in the mist.
Kilfenora is miserable. I park in the wrong place, and get told off, and feel my alienness.
Ennistymon, also colourful and with waterfalls, offers a riverside walk, traditional shopfronts, musical pubs and a friendly library where I print a document even though it’s evening. They are holding a fundraising event for the coastguard: a children’s and adults’ choir have joined together in a memorial for a recently drowned 40-something coastguard, mother of two.
Doolin may be the best bet in most or all of Ireland for a trad session, I’m told, but I press on past the Cliffs of Moher, wishing I were seeing all of these roads in the daylight, and gladly turn in early, a little overwrought.
The Burren, though busy, feels like a place I could settle, and as I leave it the next day for the more ordinary landscape around Galway City I wonder if I’ve made the right choice as I head north to a remoter corner. Turning off the Sligo road the landscape pretties again – it’s much like Devon – and the mountains come into view. When I’m almost there, then I am sure again why I am.
Dreams of Scotland that I’ve not yet found in Scotland appear in the loughs, mountains, streams, rivers, mature oaks, yellowing ashes and red-laden rowans. Winding up to my winter cottage every berry affirms: this is the place.
A small herd of cattle, big, clean and contented Charolais, Friesian and Holstein cows, greet us with quiet eyes from their sunny dozing spot in the little walled field by the buildings.
Slate floors, granite shelves, handmade stairs, stunning views, a woodburner and a mezzanine bedroom – finding this place online in the spring, though unready to set my plans in stone, I was unable to pass up this winter hideaway; I felt its inevitability.
After a walk up the mountain behind the house, sunlit till six o’clock with views of three loughs, I am picking holly when the owner appears up the lane and is just the sensitive host I’d thought he’d be. An all-Irish, travelling, vegetarian, tiny-scale cattle farmer and builder. He and Murphy warm instantly too.
Murph is glad for a bed by a fire. Making myself at home in the cottage I sing and dance and toast the luck I can hardly believe. Now all I need to do is bend my head to the loom day after day to ensure I can stay the winter. A grey-brown scarf a little like my very favourite one, and a huge blanket poncho more tightly woven than this one, are the custom requests awaiting. Inspired by all of these isles, they’ll be made in Ireland.