Midwinter flight

The fieldfares have finished all the berries but I’ve a host of colourful photos and a lifetime of inspiration from this very berried Connemara autumn. I have two sightings of a black hare on the hill, both at dusk, and both after hearing tales of darkness. (I know it is real because the second time Murph sees and smells her too and gives chase.) What I would usually consider a beautiful gift sends a little shudder and a homeward turn. I also learn later that this hill was the site of Ireland’s last wolf, and I wonder who shot her.

And then of a sudden I have to go. Not for the murders in the glen or their mammalian reincarnations; not for the dark winter nights and rain; not for the isolation, but for the politics of the place. Dread has been accumulating and I’ve been denying it – I don’t run, I stand my ground – but now in a panic I pack up and take refuge in a nearby glen.

Parked outside the empty house of some sympathetic folk on a different mountainside, the weaving soothes my nerves, and I re-inhabit the van full time, relieved to be back in my own little home, and mobile. Anxiety and insomnia still do not subside, but overnight I write a song about a near miss, and that is probably a better antidote than some find in lithium. It’s an innocuous-looking little ditty masquerading as a lovesong but actually concerning possession, and it’s called ‘A Wolf in Love’s Clothing’. The accordion accompaniment has a tricksy, driving rhythm delineating the dark edges: ONE two three ONE two three four five.

For only the second time in my travels I feel scared of being alone. For all the unconditional generosity, I feel like a trespasser in my kind new hosts’ realm, and feel their absence too. I drive into town but others’ Christmas efforts make it worse as I wonder where on earth to go for the festivities – to enjoy them or avoid them. Hopping on a ferry is a hugely tempting prospect. I consider far flung and far fetched refuge options such as familiar Brittany or the Hebrides. At least I have options – although on an average of two hours’ sleep a night I’d hardly be safe to get us there, and my money certainly wouldn’t stretch to getting us back here again. There are friends and family I can call on in Devon, if my pride and patience will allow – though I conclude that they won’t.

I’ve barely felt lost since being on the road, but I guess this is an inevitable part of it at times. ‘This is what I do’, I think to myself. This not knowing where I’m going, ‘this is how it is’. This is part of the joy of it. Ha. Not at Christmas, nor when the nights are this long.

Hardly able to think straight, not wanting to leave Ireland lest I cannot afford or face a January return, I eventually send an email to County Cork. I have forgotten, but this woman is essentially family; her Irish hillfarm, sheep-rearing, carding, spinning, weaving and self-sufficiency shaped my dreams some thirty years ago, and now she extends a warm and open-ended welcome.

I drive all day, for Ireland is not so little, especially in a big old yoke like mine. Even exhausted in the dark I recognise the buildings from my childhood. In the daylight, I find megaliths in every field, which each has views of mountains, islands or sea, or all three.

We go to the beach, and my host points out the oil works where an explosion killed several hundred crew. Everywhere in Ireland there is tragedy: lazybed reminders of the famine; Satanic references or historic multiple murders on every hill I occupy!

However this is also the birthplace of the author of the Irish Bible (folkies will know that I exaggerate hardly at all):

Despite the upheavals and emotional rollercoasters, through the adventures I have to keep the business going of course.

I’m relieved to receive a glowing email from the initiator and recipient of the Glencoe shawl who, despite misgivings on seeing photos, is overjoyed at the wove ‘in the flesh’ and at how it makes her feel and look. This like a trickle of warm water down my spine.

I’m approached by a journalist to write about why tiny house/small-scale living/working is increasing in popularity among creative folk. At this dark midwinter I have to push away the word ‘desperation’ and opt to say ‘making do’. Creatives have to learn to make do: even in good times, living by our art is extremely difficult, but living by any other means, or not living our art, is destructive and even impossible – and especially in bad times. But more positively, Leonard Cohen’s recent song ‘Traveling Light’ comes to mind: the flow and dynamism of mobility. Creatives think out of the box – that’s what makes us creatives – and so we find out of the box solutions for living our creativity. Because we are born free, standing in line or living in rows is not acceptable. Because we think conceptually and are among the biggest challengers of mainstream ills, greedy unsustainable living is not likely to be an option. Besides, greedy, big properties guzzle up all the time and energy that our creativity demands for itself – and it does demand. Woe betide you if you don’t heed its call!

In between completing my tax return we go to a session and a dance. I tentatively join in the first and more vigorously the latter. There are some hundred local dancers young and old, and enough who know the steps, slides, swings, chains, houses and baskets to whirl us novices around at speed. An Irish céilí has more verve than an English one, and as the second half begins after food at 2230, the feet and fiddles are rocking this remote community hall and the dancers are set in for several more hours after our frail 2330 departure. There are more céilís coming up, and more musical events, and my host and I compare looms and weavings and bodges and I know that here too, again, there is a lot for me, and so I plan to stay awhile.

Gusts in the glen

I finally find my working rhythm and weave and weave (though never enough), and November sees a steady trickle of sales. The ‘Snowdonia in Summer’ shawl commission (which is actually meant to represent a very similar photo of Glencoe, the wearer’s birthplace) is complete, which is a relief, as it’s been a challenge.

From the same warp I also cunningly craft ‘Dartmoor in Summer’, ‘Connemara Autumn’ and ‘Mountain Skies’ snugs, soft with alpaca.





I also make a huge, heavy, waxy, rugged blanket commissioned by a friend as a swap for some beautiful yurt doors we made a few years back of reclaimed timber, old stained glass and cast iron hinges. The blanket, to be worn as a mantle, is of brown, rabbit and cream sheepy undyed Rodolpi Mountain wool which is so thick that weaving it batters my back, shoulders and loom, which I lift clear off the table with every beat. The process is slow, inefficient, painful and risky, and tries my patience sorely, but the final result is the kind of wholesome stuff of the 70’s craft revival that I envisioned making right from the start. (If only we didn’t all get so seduced by soft luxury and colour…)


I am shocked, if not surprised, by Trump’s election – what a crazy world in which the monsters of neoliberalism and fascism now wrestle and procreate and threaten to take us all down with them – and then very saddened by Cohen’s death. Clicking straight through to hear his newest and last album, the opening track tolls like a requiem for a pained prophet relieved to depart.

Another of my heroes is in town, and I make my solitary way to Galway to see world fiddle maestro Martin Hayes. I’ve not seen him in his core duo with Dennis Cahill before, and although their sensitive souls are shaken by recent events – and I am close enough to see their hands shaking too – they are superb. They are shamen, crafting slowbuilding tornadoes that soothe and stir and drive the heart, mind, pulse and spirit of every person in the room. The mostly-young audience *roars* at the finish of the first storm.

I’ve been advised to introduce myself to a famous craftsman who lives in our glen, and so I’ve dropped him a line. Though I’ve heard nothing back, of all the people in the world I should sit next to at the feet of Hayes and Cahill is the craftsman’s son, who’s picked up my message and who is also overjoyed at the coincidence. He is pissed as a fart, raving like a lunatic and ranting like a Toretsian. He wants to give me a lot of hugs and hi-fives but his humour is Trumpist, so although he sweetly shares his line of pints with me, I am wary of the shadow. Still, it is a great evening, and I listen to Irish language radio there and back with the largest lunar standstill and a heart full of hope.

The next day I exhaust Murphy even more than myself taking my bike along the lough in the next glen, and every nook is even more beautiful than the last, though none moreso than the one I’m currently calling home.

My only other outing, apart from walking to the Post Office – which doesn’t really count because it’s all within the family – is for food shopping. However even this can be a special occasion: confusion at a cash machine leaves me mentioning to a woman that I’m looking for a shop that can print a document, and she kindly takes me back to her house to print it. Craic at the counter has another old guy and I exchanging verses of song. The butcher, a rare farmer of free range pigs, now knows me and we exchange pleasantries. Then on our way back we wander around a ruined abbey, a ruined castle and another ruined abbey in the dimpsy.

Then there’s a week in which I don’t sell anything, just weave, though even in this remote place I don’t see no-one, but get to watch some good shepherding and pass the time of day with one of the farming neighbours. Another knocks on my door – I have been warned that he might and he has been warned not to. A rough old hillfarmer reported to be aggressive at times, he is nonetheless touchingly, shyly polite around me. He is impressed because I knocked on his door once to report a sheep in trouble, and touched because more recently I knocked to see how he’d recovered from a general anaesthetic. He comes sweetly and courteously to report his fury at having had to strip off his rags in the hospital and be cold and starved for hours, and says ‘fooking’ this and ‘fooking’ that and we laugh and he considerately takes his leave after only a short rant.

There’s another elderly death in the glen, and at the same time a wedding scarred by a recent young mother’s death by cancer, sister of the groom. People were dreading the wedding but I’m told that, as I’d hoped, it was deeply moving and beautiful, and involved full 48 hours’ drunken craic.

Seven days without even a trip to the Post Office leaves me cabin feverish and, after a few hours’ brooding about past ills and future threats, I take myself in hand: what will make today a great day? A trip to the beach. I haven’t yet been all the way west to the open ocean – so no wonder I’m feeling claustrophobic (actually I’m feeling like I’m in a pressure cooker!). I need to see into the distance and make some friends.

I stop at a garage and a kindly elderly man who looks like a priest peers closely at me as if he knows me or wants to, but doesn’t communicate what his interest in me actually is, so I’m slightly nervous. Even before this I fail to work the pump – that feral creature venturing into civilisation incompetently again. When to the garage attendants, quite normal people (phew), I describe the sand and open water I’m seeking, they make a recommendation and give me a map. I pass another ruined castle (‘oh, and another one’) and an unruined one, and stop in a shop, where the nice girl (also refreshingly normal) behind the counter says that for sure that’s the beach to seek and you go down there and then up there and turn down there and then you’re there.

Then I see a sign on someone’s house for something I need, and my phone fails me, so I knock on their door. A man in his sixties invites me in and wants to tell me all about which saint lives on which island and which poet in which house and his grandfather’s t’hatched cottage in a famous painting and that I should read Seamus Heaney and why homosexuality was the downfall of Oscar Wilde and whether Britain is facing an uprising. He gives me a book he’s authored that spins all the same yarns in exactly the way he would speak them on his doorstep, and later I try to hear the wonderful accent in his disorganised prose.

And then, disregarding alluring glimpses of nearby white strands, I head at last as the light fades for the furthest shore, and like the bolt that comes off Heaney’s Flaggy Shore, or the bolt that hit me at Husinish on Harris, it does not disappoint.


And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Seamus Heaney

It is all shades of muted pearl blue grey with the highest peak on one side, mountains around two other sides and a bay full of tiny islands, and I notice how each bayful of water leaves its own distinct patterns on the sand. The stunning white, wide crescent looks deserted, but then I see a sturdy figure wading at the other end of the beach by the nearest island where the tide is rising. A tough-looking girl with five fat dogs, one of whom she’s just had to carry after getting caught by the tide on the island, confides in me her love for the place. I recall another tough-looking girl on a beach with five dogs, a job in an abattoir, a kind heart and Tibetan prayer flags on her cabin in the Hebrides.

Clambering over beautiful stones to another little inlet I wonder whether having children is an antidote to loneliness. Not a fair one though, I conclude.

Having a dog isn’t bad, obviously. We walk back into the wind, passing a man who’s just heading out in the dimpsy. A semi-urban progressive in farmer’s wellies, ashen and withdrawn inside glasses and flatcap, he offers a hesitant hello as we pass. Maybe he too feels the awkwardness of interaction when you’ve been hidden away in the hills. Then Murph stops him, turns him around, leans on him and a lovely voice remarks upon my lovely dog. He looks like he wants to engage then but the wind is loud and the moment for conversation is passed as I’m heading into my van for a twilit lunch. He walks the length of the beach, hands in pockets, hunched into the wind both purposeful and unmoored at once: a husband bleeding for a marriage on the rocks. I put the kettle on as he comes back and we natter. On retreat from Britain, he says that Trump and May and the Labour Party injustices don’t matter out here, though I’m sure he minds as much as I do.

After sideways buffet after sideways buffet after sideways buffet – some soft, some markedly not – an anchorpoint now finally begins to clarify again after a year of seismic shifts. It’s to do with stillness in the heart and how the material upheavals don’t matter if there’s clarity there from which the mind can draw. That new, nomadic understanding of home again, as a state of being, not a place.

Back on our hill Murph and I hike to a children’s graveyard, where those littlies who died unbaptised were laid apart in earlier centuries. My host cannot bear the thought of one’s children not being allowed to be buried where you will be buried. Worse, for me, is the thought that perhaps even the parents feared to be laid beside their own unbaptised infants. My host does not drive past here at night. In similar excruciating shame, the locals avoid any mention of the three generations of family who were murdered one night in their cottage behind the hill and the wrong men hanged for it. A 19th century British miscarriage of justice in Ireland, I wonder at how we Britons continue wreaking injustice now in the Middle East, in our well-meaning but arrogant drive to ‘civilise’, ‘liberate’ or ‘pacify’, and our darker drive to commandeer.

Weave the threads, keep weaving the threads. Unable to get enough of the Connemara autumn around me, I’ve just wound a warp with the reds and silvers of birchwood with scatterings of clinging yellow leaves against a background of retiring green, ochre sedge and red bracken winter hill. With some purplish blue for the mountains in the haze and a grey-purple sky, it should fit the bill for my next shawl commission, and provide warp for a few additional woves besides.