When I’d lived in Dublin, I’d take the train from Connelly Station and head north. The raised tracks ran through neighborhoods I had never seen before. Row after row of attached houses with rectangular, walled gardens hung with laundry and littered with abandoned toys became wastelands on the outskirts of the city, then fields and pastures, then sandy beaches. After half an hour, the train would arrive at its final stop, Howth Railway Station, where, I’d disembark and walk out along the Harbour Road.
Sometimes, if I was hungry, I’d stop by The Waterside & The Wheelhouse pub for a plate of fish and chips and a half pint of lager. Like a local I’d sprinkle the chips with salt and vinegar and eat them while staring out the window at a small island that lay like a voluptuous woman reclining in the sea. Once I’d asked the plump waitress who brought my lunch what it was called.
“Ireland’s Eye,” she said, holding my plate of hot food aloft while answering. Then, with the quiet pride of a good student, she repeated it in Irish, “Inis Mac Neasáin.”
“Anyone live there?”
“Ah no. Birds and seals is all. Though there’s a ferry goes out soes you can picnic and walk about.”
She leaned in to set my plate down and I could see that her wavy auburn hair was streaked with gray.
“Then, of course, there’s the murder cave.”
“The murder cave?”
She lowered her voice. “Sure didn’t a man kill his wife out there in 1852? And didn’t they find that poor woman’s body lying stone cold in a sea cave? Swore he hadn’t done it. Said she’d accidentally drowned and been washed ashore. But no one believed him.” She stood up then and, putting her hands on her ample hips, looked around to see if there was anyone else needing her attention. There wasn’t. “Sure I could get you the ferry schedule if you’d like,” she suggested, smiling down at me.
I declined the offer and when I’d eaten my fill, I paid and said goodbye. Then went outside and followed the green arrows pointing towards the cliff walk.
The climb from the harbor road was slow but not steep. On one side, the green cliffs of Howth’s Head fell gradually away into the sea. On the other, a sloping wild heath bloomed bright with yellow gorse bushes. A well-worn path trimmed the cliffs closely. At times too closely so that it slipped off the edge and I could see where others had plotted a new path, a little bit higher up, on the grassy verge.
Cliffs fringe the whole of Ireland. In the northeast there’s the Giant’s Causeway where forty thousand smooth, hexagon shaped rocks jut up out of the seabed. A place of pilgrimage for school children: in Irish mythology The Causeway is the remnants of a land bridge built to Scotland by the gentle giant Finn MacCool. In modern science, it’s a unique volcanic geological formation formed sixty million years ago. Like the school children, I preferred the first explanation. Either way, it is a UNESCO protected World Heritage site, meaning that its significance transcends all national boundaries and belongs not just to the people of Ireland, but to the people of the world.
So too do The Skellig Rocks. Sharp black cliffs off the southeast coast of County Kerry that for centuries have been a site of pilgrimage for Catholic penitents who clamor aboard tiny boats, bobbing up and down on the cold and unforgiving Atlantic Ocean, to reach the Blue Cove. From there, they pick their way up steep stone-cut steps leading to where St. Fionan’s beehive monastery sits alone and abandoned atop the jagged cliffs.
So harsh and barren and isolated a place is Skellig that when Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw visited, he wrote to a friend that it was, “an incredible, impossible, mad place…I tell you, the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: it is part of our dream world.” And that was the problem exactly, I thought, the thing about Ireland that both enchanted and confounded me—it did seem to be part of a dream world; myth and reality mingled so often that sometimes it was difficult to tell the difference between the two.
Not a soul did I meet on the cliffs and when I crested the hill just beyond the summit I stopped and down in the grass where it was quiet, but for the cries of gulls and the wind whistling in my ears. A breeze blowing up the hill came in salty gusts, tickling my nose and tugging at my hair. I stretched my legs out in front of me and my toes appeared to touch the green, green Irish Sea that was glittering all the way to the horizon.
From my hillside perch I could see the haunted Baily Lighthouse standing tall and sure on a high craggy tip of land reaching out into Howth Harbour. Looking southward I saw the whole of Dublin Bay, with its fleet of fat white ferryboats sailing to and from the UK and France, and beyond that too, all the way to the hazy purple Wicklow Mountains. What I could not see were the dark open-mouthed caves in the cliffs far below me, nor the bones of the smugglers who had died there, nor the lichen-covered, storm-tossed ships that lay silky green and sunken at the bottom of the Irish Sea.
I’d walked many cliff paths in Ireland, some were easy to get to, some were not. To reach one that fascinated me the most, I had to take a train from Dublin into the west and hitchhike from the station. My final lift would deposit me on an empty country road, at the foot of sloping fields. For the love o’Jesus mind yerself! And I’d put on my backpack and climb up and up through those tall, green pastures—keeping an eye out for roaming bulls—until I reached the top, where the land dropped away, and I stepped out onto the grassy path that edged the Cliffs of Moher for almost five miles. All the way along the western edge of County Clare, from Nags Head to O’Brien’s Tower where the magnificent sheer gray cliffs rose up to their full dramatic height, 700 feet, above the Atlantic’s white and black blown waves. So spectacular and shocking are they that Hollywood director Rob Reiner came here, to the far west of Ireland, to film “The Cliffs of Insanity” for his cult classic film, The Princess Bride.
The precipitous drops at the boundaries of Ireland are magnetic; they pull some and repel others. On the Cliffs of Moher there was no gentle slope to sit on. The cold Atlantic did not glitter and the shrieking call of thousands of seabirds was as sharp and loud as the wind. Still I was drawn to them. From the highest point I’d find myself searching the horizon for a glimpse of the New England beach where years before I’d sat, digging my feet deep into the cool soft sand, and staring longingly across the sea towards Europe. But America was too far away and I could not see it.
On days when the wind blew too strong to walk along the cliffs, I would climb up as far as I could. Then, standing in a farmer’s field, I’d close my eyes, lift my chin, and lean into the wind. I would lean into it the way, in a few years’ time, I would lean into love—with my arms out stretched like wings and only the tips of my toes still touching the land. And I would stay like that, hovering, until the wind shifted and dropped me to the ground.
Sometimes, if I was feeling brave, I’d lie flat on the ground, below the wind, and inch forward on my belly until I could see over the cliff’s grassy lip to where Kittiwakes and Razorbills nested in the vertical rock face and nimble goats climbed out along slender shale and sandstone ledges. The birds were beautiful, the way they took to the air, but watching the goats walk along the precipice frightened me. People jumped from cliffs like these. I’d heard about women mostly, some with children in their arms, some with babies in their bellies.
There were myths that swirled about these cliffs. My favorite was about a beautiful mermaid, The Mermaid of Moher, who was tricked into marriage with a local fisherman when he stole her magic cloak so she could not escape. He married her and she stayed land bound, with her husband and children, until one day she found the cloak where he’d kept it hidden. Without a word, she put it on and slipped forever back into the sea.
Years later, the entry to the path near the sleek new visitor center had become blocked with warning signs, memorial plaques, and bouquets of wilting flowers. Folks began to agree that only crazy people climbed past the barrier to walk the ancient way—crazy people and intrepid tourists. But I wandered the cliff edge as I always had. And, in the throes of motherhood myself, I’d imagine the mermaid riding seaward on the waves and wonder, could her children could hear her singing?
BIO: K.M. Churchill is a writer, traveler and an award-winning restaurateur. She edits and writes about art, food, women and travel. She is also co-founder of the literary online community The Seacoast Writers’ Hub. Visit her at: www.kmchurchill.com
Photos by Sarah Leamy
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