I gradually emerge from midwinter’s emotional shroud and begin to enjoy getting out there a little.
Having fled down here in a state, with no heart and no plan, for a few months I’ve been feeling very lost and stuck. So then when I actually get the van stuck in the mud and have to wait twelve hours (at a very awkward angle) for a tractor, the stuckness slaps me in the face and prompts a meltdown.
I change locations and the change of scene helps. Although I’m feeling uncomfortable about being on others’ land no matter how kind they are, I enjoy the company of a different lively family and new lanes to walk. A thespian tells me about a singaround in a pub on the south coast and it is nice to be recognised by the host as I walk in, and waltzed by her at the end when an accordion plays a dance tune.
I meet a French WOOFA randomly in a pub – both of us females alone – and we are surprised to find that we both have family connections in the same remote part of Brittany. We go out together a couple of times.
After a while I go back to the family farm I initially fled to and am, again, warmly welcomed ‘home’. There is a new lovely WOOFA, American, and we have great debates walking the lanes and going out to pubs.
The sow farrows a huge litter of piglets while I’m there. She is an enterprise that the youngest son, now a full time farmer, took on in his early teens, and the family’s source of pork.
(I never understood why the world goes crazy for pigs – I’ve never seen Babe – until one sunny autumnal day a few years ago when eight huge grown piglets joined me lying down in their field: they literally stretched their bodies along the length of mine to share warmth, and I laid my head on another. That was the first time we’d met. Amazing creatures.)
In a wholefood shop in town I natter with a self-taught perfumer from Carlow, Jo Browne, whose kitchen-table business has taken off like wildfire, here and abroad. I put my foot in it but she is tactful, forgiving, warm and inspiring and I am glad to have met her.
There’s a flurry of activity on the These Isles publicity front: first I’m invited to contribute some words to an article on tiny house living (‘Small Wonders’, by Carol Anne Strange, in the fifth issue of Breathe, a magazine by the Guild of Master Craftsmen). Then I’m asked out of the blue whether in a hurry I can get a spring green blanket to a photoshoot in a Welsh castle for the New York Times style magazine. Good people help me get into gear to make things happen in both cases (thank you Carol, Alice, Niall), and we’ll see what comes of it.
Then I go to the Killarney trad music Gathering. None of the campsites are open, so I will have to bite the bullet and do my first wildcamp in Ireland. I didn’t plan to do this in winter with her short days and early dark, and this winter’s twists and turns have left my confidence at an all-time low, but the line-up is so good that I go anyway – after all, what am I really in Ireland for?!
The first night, after delightful performances from musicians I’ve been wanting awhile to see (Bríd Harper, fiddle; Dermot Byrne, accordion; Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, singer), I make the cowardly choice to stay in the huge hotel car park. I am reassured by the presence of other festival-going motorhomers, but WiFried by the electromagnetic radiation of too many routers. During the next two days I enjoy superstars Dervish and younger genii I’d not come across: Goitse, Full Set, and husband and wife duo Caitlín Nic Gabhann (concertina, dance) and Ciarán Ó Maonaigh (fiddle). Mustering my nerves, I stay in the woods by the lough, where Murph and I have beautiful walks. Storm Doris brings snow here. When the festival is done I go into Killarney National Park proper, and after a weekend of blowaway music, I am blown away by the mountains too.
Back down in West Cork I negotiate a Donegal jumper or two to be made for my mother with our neighbour the woolshop owner, and buy some rich-coloured Donegal wool with which I plan to make a snug or three sometime.
With Alpaca and Shetland wool I weave a run of springlike woves, and for once am ahead of the seasons. This makes photographing them in the right settings difficult as the greens in the landscape are not yet acidic enough. That might not sound like a problem, but it is! A problem of lifestyle, also, I realise: I have often moved on from the source of inspiration whilst still working on the weavings it inspired. And I am frequently one whole season behind in my colourways. (Hmm. Constantly dwelling in the previous season rather than the present? Or just getting good at slow? Ahem.) Being a whole year behind would work ok. The fashion industry probably mostly works one year ahead.
In fact, though it’s still wintry, I fail to photograph even the few wintrier woves in the right landscape: they are sea-inspired but the sea, weather, light and opportunities to go out with a camera don’t all line up. I take a day trying to find the right seascape, but the weather changes and the beaches I find here are just wrong for it, and I spend the whole day driving. (Oh well, at least I like driving – and have a good soundtrack, after buying great CDs from the amazing young Killarney performers. I put Caitlín Nic Gabhann’s haunting ‘Last Port of Call’ on repeat, and later learn it on the melodica.)
This winter I’ve expended an unhelpful amount of energy worrying about how to make life work. Being on the road proper in winter doesn’t feel feasible – it’s lonely and less safe. Being on others’ territory is often uncomfortable, no matter how good the arrangement. To my disappointment, though there are parking up places, land is less accessible here than in Scotland, and although actual gypsies have just been granted official recognition in Ireland, beach car parks and the like tend to have height restriction barriers and ‘no camping’ signs. Landowners are more forgiving of walkers than they are in England, but less so of dogs, and there are far fewer actual footpaths/public rights of way. I get excited about the possibility of buying my own small plot of land, perhaps a derelict house, and even view an interesting place in a good location, but don’t feel ready to set up house alone.
For a month I’ve barely made music myself either, despite making more and more friends in the sweet West Cork folk scene, which offers lots of non-scary opportunities. I’ve had something hurting my throat and crouching on my chest for ages – damp and unvoiced worries. I have a little bout of bravery on the melodica (and getting that out in public *is* brave): a new friend hosts a fireside session in a tiny pub at the end of a long peninsula, and we share tunes. When there’s a song, all ten people in the pub listen and/or join in, and suddenly we are one family in the same conversation. The next time I return there through the fog, the locals recognise me and ask if I ‘have the music tonight’. Though I don’t that night, in an instant I glimpse a life exactly as it should be.
In another pub nearby, the landlady requests a reel and a jig of the accordionist, and dances some traditional steps; the young barman gets out guitar and harmonica and sings soulfully. Though I only visit the once, and am songless and subdued, sad that I’m about to leave the area, I am touched by the staff waving me off as my van pulls away.
Says Shetlander Malachy Tallack on his journey through Siberia in search of home: ‘the longing for home and the longing for love are so alike as to be almost inseparable. The desire to be held by a person, or by a place, and to be needed; the urge to belong to something, and for one’s need to be reciprocated’…
Welcomed by family I didn’t know were family; by neighbours, townspeople, new friends and friends of friends, I start to feel a sense of belonging in West Cork, and that, though not everything is here, still there are things that I would love to be a part of.