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A Visit to Park House…

I’ve walked by Park House a number of times since I’ve been down in Essex County this year. It’s simple and small, and you wonder what stories it has seen happen both inside and outside of its walls. Built in the 1790s at the mouth of the Rouge River in Michigan, it’s a house that moved across the Detroit River and shifted countries after the American Revolution. Its Loyalist owners moved to Upper Canada when Detroit was handed over to the Americans by the British in 1796. (I like this story because I like stories about houses that have been floated across bodies of water. The houses in Newfoundland, and those beautiful old black and white photos that have been preserved there, from re-settlement of the outports, have figured in my writerly imagination for over fifteen years. There’s a sense of tenacity and survival about houses that move across water…said the romantic, imaginative poet woman.)

First images of the house can be seen in an 1813 painting, “A View of Amherstburg,” by Margaret Reynolds. Alexander Mackintosh bought the property in 1817, and the Park brothers ( Thomas and Theodore) bought it in 1823. It stayed in the Park family until 1941. Fast forward to the early 1970s and the Rotary Club of Amherstburg bought the house, moved it to where it stands now, and preserved it to prevent it from being demolished. Smart thinking, I’d say. It was officially opened in 1973. In 1978, the Park House Tinsmiths (a volunteer association) was created to make reproduction tinware to help finance the museum. Now, it captures the way it would have felt to have lived in the mid-1800s. Park House was named a National Historic Site on October 4, 2018.

I first encountered Park House in April 2017, when I came down to Amherstburg to stay with my friend, Lena, for the Easter weekend. (I never do well with the big holidays that involve family now that they’ve all gone, so her invitation in 2017 to visit her, in an area I love, was quickly accepted.) We never went into Park House then. We had a fish and chips supper on Good Friday at the Legion in Amherstburg, and then we all walked down the street. There were daffodils. (For a girl from Sudbury, where there is still snow in April, daffodils made me giddy inside!)

That’s when I first saw Park House. It’s beautiful. All white and simple, and a bit rough looking on the outside. I love historic sites, though, so it, along with Fort Malden, captured my imagination. Lena took me to see Fort Malden this summer, and it was amazing to spend time walking through the grounds and into the house, which is now a museum. The best part was visiting the kitchen, though. I find myself transfixed by kitchens when I visit historic places. I think that’s because I love to cook and bake, and also maybe because I think sharing food and conversation is sacred in terms of making connections with people. It was hundreds of years ago, in simpler times, and it still is now. In the Irish tradition, there’s a lot of cooking and baking, and gathering in kitchens around hearths as the centre of a home. A stove, I guess, has taken the place of a stone hearth and fire, but it’s still what happens when I cook up a supper for friends at a dinner party. It’s the best way to take care of people you love.

Here’s what Park House looks like:

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The beauty of the place is enhanced now that it’s entered the Christmas season. Everything is decorated in a Victorian style and you feel as if you’re slipping back into a novel. The day I visited, on Thursday afternoon, the curator, Stephanie Pouget-Papak, was decorating for a Dickensian storytelling session that was set to happen the next night. She apologized for things being pushed up against the walls, but they had set up tables so that people could be seated. I told her that I thought it was a fabulous idea, to be so creative in bringing people into the house who normally might not visit it. The scent of cedar branches, wreathing the windows and doors inside, also made the place smell lovely. (Scent, for me, is a big thing…in making something evocative.)

Stephanie took me for a tour around the main floor, and I was especially amazed by the main fireplace and the kitchen. I loved the old hardwood floors and the beautiful rounded doorways. (I always touch wooden doorways and windowsills. I don’t know why I’m so tactile when it comes to old houses, but it is a problem. Put me in an Irish or Scottish castle, and I’m a basket case: I touch everything, and am even more tempted to touch things if there are signs that say not to touch things. People should really watch me, and maybe even follow me through historic places…)

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She was busy setting up tables, but told me to go upstairs on my own. The stairs were beautiful, and I told her later that it reminded me of being on an old ship. The upstairs rooms are dark, but the windows make you think you can step back in time. Standing there, looking out over the back roof towards the Detroit River, I kept thinking I could imagine a woman standing next to me, in a long green dress, watching and waiting for someone to arrive. With no one else there, it was easy to imagine people living their lives, and history creating itself slowly, spinning itself out in a woven tapestry.

Everything is so beautifully presented and well-curated. I’ve been in many historic places and some are not very well done. This one, though, is one of the best and most authentic that I’ve ever seen. IMG_1752.jpg

I had a little wooden rocking chair like this when I was a girl. My paternal grandfather had inherited it from somewhere in southwestern Ontario, likely Exeter or Park Hill. This one made me think of him, and of how he built so many beautiful pieces of furniture. I’m lucky to have a few things he made, in my house in Northern Ontario. The quilt reminded me of my paternal grandmother, who used to quilt when she was a girl. Such craftsmanship just doesn’t seem to be valued as much anymore, so when you see it embodied in recreations of historic places and buildings, I’m always impressed by the authenticity of artifacts that make you feel as if the people who lived there once have just stepped out the back door for a walk…IMG_1751.jpgI love the weight of this stove, but also the Scottish tartan that is artfully draped over it. (Yup. I touched it.)

IMG_1750.jpgThis was my favourite window in the entire house. I’m not a big fan of Christmas or December because I lost both of my parents in this month, so I normally cringe when I see things all ablaze with tinsel. Seeing this window, though, made me smile. It harkens back to a simpler, more classic and elegant sort of time. Etiquette and courtesy was expected then, and today it just seems that it is so much lacking in our society when I’m out around people. It’s all so rushed and about buying things, when really — especially if you’ve lost people — it’s not about that at all. Simplicity, for me, is to be honoured. This window does that for me.

IMG_1748.jpgIt was at this window, also looking over the back yard towards the Detroit River, though, that I imagined a woman standing just to the side of me. How difficult it must have been, to have lived then, to have been a woman, maybe a servant, and to have not felt as free as women do today. I thought a lot about that as I walked through the house. It’s beautiful now, all preserved and brought back to life, but then it would have been a much harder life. The moss on the roof, though, well, that, for me as a poet, is something beautiful. The images here spoke to me in clear ways.

When I went back downstairs, I looked through the Park House Tinsmiths’s works of art. They’ve made amazing items with tin, all of them accurate reproductions of things that people of the 1850s would have used. There are lovely little candle holders that sit on window sills, and there are ornate punched tin lanterns that would have offered them sources of light. (My friend, Lena, gave me one as a gift two years ago and it’s my favourite thing back home, to light it with an electric votive candle, and to watch the light flicker through the punched out patterns in the tin.) There are even tin Christmas ornaments for sale there right now. If you’re looking for reasonably priced gifts, but ones that are unique and historically-minded, then a visit to Park House before Christmas is a good idea. You can buy things that range from $8 and up.

The one thing that Stephanie told me that made the writerly nerd in me very excited was that artifacts from Park House have been borrowed to be used in the film versions of Alias Grace (a brilliant film of Margaret Atwood’s equally amazing novel of the same name) and in Outlander (yes, that one with Claire and Jamie…). You can buy copies of candlestick holders that were used in both productions. Imagine!

If you live in Essex County, you can still get tickets to next Friday, December 7th’s event “Dickens by Candlelight: An Evening Tea and Reading.” Those tickets are only $10 a person and I imagine it would be quite an experience, to slip back into time during such a busy, hectic time of year. You can also, though, become a member of the Park House Museum. A family membership is $40, a single is $35, and a student membership is just $30. It’s the time of year when you can make your annual donations to charities you might love and care about. Just a thought to consider would be to offer a gift that would offer support to a place that is very special—all history and stories and a curator who loves her work. It shows in the care she takes with her displays, and the knowledge which she shares so openly and warmly with visitors who stop in…

peace,

k.

 

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You’ll have seen Benjamin Chee Chee’s iconic images on coffee mugs and calendars, but maybe not even have recognized his name in conjunction with the art itself, which makes me feel incredibly sad. This makes it even more important that Sudbury folks, and people from across the Northeast, try and get into the Art Gallery of Sudbury before next Sunday, November 18th, to see this exhibition. It covers both Gallery 1 and 2 walls, and you need to take your time to let it sink in. Don’t pass by the crucial soundscape that plays in the tiny conservatory at the foot of the stairs. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear Chee Chee’s voice, and feel his presence, then, as you walk amidst his works of art. That is the very least he is owed, given what beauty he left us.

When I arrived, I spoke to the gallery attendant. I knew I couldn’t take photos of the art, but I took photos of the text, so that I could think about what I wanted to write here. Then, a man who was looking at some prints that were for sale nearby, turned and asked me, “Do you want to know more about Ben?” Of course, this intrigued me. Turns out, this man had been friends with him. He asked me, “Do you know how he died?” I shook my head, “No, not really.” He went on. “He died in a jail cell. They say it was suicide, but many of us think differently. I was one of the pall bearers at his funeral.” It’s hard to know what to say when someone says something so bluntly to you, especially when you’ve only just introduced yourselves and shaken hands. “He was a real artist, not a businessman. He struggled through his whole life. His whole life was a journey, a deep quest for something. He started with abstract paintings, but later moved into depicting the animals. You know, he was lost.” I kept thinking, as he was telling me his story, how we are all lost, really, if we’re honest with one another. (We are rarely honest, though, and so to hear someone speak so openly about the journeys we make in life, struggling as we go, moved me a great deal.)

Chee Chee went to residential school as a child, and struggled with alcohol addiction as an adult. He tells us, in the soundscape, that the first time he tried alcohol he was eleven years old. He himself says that he lacked direction at home, that he stole things in his early teens and so was sent to what he refers to as “the training school.” Whether you call it a ‘training school,’ or a ‘reformatory school,’ what it actually was was a residential school. The damages done there are only alluded to by Chee Chee in his own voice, in the soundscape, but it is clear that he was negatively affected by abuse and racism.

His father died when he was just a baby, and his mother was largely absent when he was a child. Some say part of his drive to become a well-known painter was less about ego and a quest for artistic fame in Canada, and much more about the notion that he might somehow find her, hoping that she would hear his name and know that he was her son. (He reunited with her later in life, and they were together at the time of his death.) He died much too young, just shy of his thirty-third birthday, in an Ottawa jail cell. There has been much speculation about how he died. Some people say he committed suicide, while others imply that he encountered a violent end in a system that did not (and still does not) treat First Nations people fairly. He was Ojibway, from the Temagami Reserve at Bear River, Ontario. He was a member of the second generation of the Woodland School of painters. The soundscape speaks of how there were several artists who tried to copy the stunning work of Norval Morrisseau, but it also speaks to how Chee Chee’s work is quite distinctive. He had his own ‘voice,’ didn’t want to fashion it after anyone else’s, and it is still a style that is obviously his alone.

In the soundscape, you learn that he considered himself to be “a loner,” and that he enjoyed swimming in northern lakes. He only ever wanted to be “a modern painter.” He didn’t set out to be what he called “an Indian painter.” He said he “wanted to be an artist first.” He was drawn mostly to his abstract work. One will never be sure (because he died in 1977) whether he pushed against his culture because of how badly he was hurt at residential school, and by his troubled time as a young person. Based on what he says in the soundscape, you do get a sense that he was lost, searching for some centre that always seemed to be just beyond his reach. His frustration is clear.

In Gallery 1, you get a sense of Chee Chee as an abstract painter. There are bold colours and suggestions of forms, but nothing that you can pin meaning on in a concrete way. I could see allusions to puzzle pieces, a quasi-humanoid shape, a paisley teardrop, and maybe even the essence of an ear. (Just a note here: I’m not an artist, as I always say in these blog entries that I write about art, and I mostly let myself ‘feel’ the art in a sensual and emotional way, in a way that lets the art come into my body and sit there. It’s an embodied and poetic way of viewing art, I suppose you could say, and I’ll never say that I know very much about art beyond what I’ve researched out of my own interests.)

I’m not terribly fond of abstract art, to be honest, but I can see how Chee Chee was searching for a style and form, as all artists and writers do throughout their lives, As you move from Gallery 1 to Gallery 2, you can see how he moved from abstract forms, to more concrete ones, including some city scapes of Ottawa streets; these were the paintings he knew would sell to Ottawa folks, so he could make a bit of money there. As he said, “The kind of drawings I’m doing right now, I’m doing that because people like it and it pays my rent.” They were practical pieces, and you can sense that when you see them. He was so talented, to be able to shift between these various styles, but I am — as always — so drawn to his pieces that speak to his Northern upbringing.

As I walked through the exhibit, I thought of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, and the notion of finding your ‘personal legend.’ People who journey, on spirit quests, or who retreat from the world in various ways, I think, are searching out personal truths. I think Chee Chee was doing that in his art, and I can understand that as someone who has been journeying this year with my own writing and life. They are difficult paths to walk, but perhaps necessary for artistic souls.

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The pieces that most spoke to me, as someone who hikes and spends a lot of time outdoors and in the bush, are the paintings of the animals. In 1974, he painted pieces that were later referred to as “The Animal Series.” The ones that are most well known, though, are the beautiful bird paintings that are so iconic here in Canada. In 1976, he returned to Bear Island for a bit of time, painting pieces that are now considered to be part of the “Bear Island Works” portfolio. Be sure, when you go to the Art Gallery of Sudbury this week to see the show, to take note of the ‘untitled’ piece on the staircase landing. The shadowed line of bison is stunning. Don’t rush by it! Take the time to let it sink in. It’s worth every bit of time you spend on that landing.

My favourites, and I will admit that this is because I have been taken with the beauty of birds for a long time in my life, are the bird paintings. The geese are so beautifully captured. You’ll likely recognize the iconic elegance of “Friends” (1974).

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And then there are the others, including: “Taking Flight” (1976), “In Flight” (1977), “Family in Flight” (1977), and “Together” (1977). His two paired pieces, “Father and Son” and “Mother and Son” (1977) are all the more poignant given the lack of familial connectivity with his parents. The use of gold, yellow, green, and black as his main colours are effective, especially with his elegant and simple lines. He captures, in so very few strokes, the essence of a northern landscape. Perhaps that is what has always called me to his work, as a woman who grew up as a girl, clambering over black rocks, following rabbit tracks in snow, and touching birch trees in winter. I am made up of northern landscape. It is my language, my heart, my soul. Chee Chee’s paintings feel like home to me.

Here are his beautiful birds….

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“Flying Geese,” 1974.

Whetung-CheeChee-Wait-For-Me_1024x1024.jpg“Wait for Me.”

These three give you a sense of Chee Chee’s work. Already, I can hear you going “Ohhhh, okay. I know this guy’s work.” If you’re Canadian, you know his work. And now, if you live in Sudbury, or in the Northeastern part of the province, you have a chance to see it at the Art Gallery of Sudbury.

What I most want to say, and it has been sitting inside me for two and a half days now, is that what happened to Benjamin Chee Chee, at the end of his life, is uncertain. It shouldn’t define his artistic work, by any means, but it is a concern. As I walked through the art gallery the other day, I kept thinking of another brilliant artist, Annie Pootoogook. She, too, died in a way that is unsettling. Both were too young when they died. Both were Indigenous. There is something that is wrong in this country. It didn’t start in 1977, and it hasn’t been healed yet. Pootoogook died in Ottawa in 2016, her body found in the Rideau River. Too many First Nations, Metis, and Inuit women are ending up in Canadian rivers. Endings like these, deaths that aren’t clear, only further point out how much work still needs to be done. You can’t have “reconciliation” if you don’t listen to the truth. And, it seems, ‘truth’ is so often not what we think it should be anymore. You can’t sweep these premature deaths under a proverbial carpet. You shouldn’t. But, what we can do to honour both Chee Chee and Pootoogook is to see their work, to appreciate it, and to thank them for it. Their legacies are strong ones. For all Canadians.

Benjamin Chee Chee: A Life & Legacy is on at the Art Gallery of Sudbury, on John Street, in the beautiful old Bell Mansion, until Sunday, November 18th. It’s open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-5pm and Sunday from 12-5pm.

While you’re there, please consider buying a membership to the Gallery. It’s only $20 for a student membership, $35 for an individual, and $60 for a family. For me, it has only ever brought me great joy, contemplation, and the gift of creativity. In the North, we need to support our non-profit arts groups more and more enthusiastically as the provincial government makes cuts. For me, and I’m sure for a lot of you reading this blog, the arts are a vibrant part of the place and community within which you live and work.

peace, friends.

k.

 

 

Being away from my eldest dog, Sable, for two weeks, was hard. She hasn’t been in the best of health. I was in Ireland, and I was so grateful for the time I had to walk and write, and to stand by the sea and remember how small and insignificant we are.

Sable’s fourteen. Almost fifteen. Shih tzus live long lives, but the last few years of any dog’s life can be challenging. They have beautiful big eyes which, later in their lives, sometimes become problematic. You learn about how you can look into these gorgeous brown eyes, watch them blink at you, and then feel a tiny nose nuzzle your neck, and you can feel that you have been blessed to walk alongside such a little creature for so many years.

There comes a time when all you want to do is spend time with that little ‘furry person,’ knowing that time isn’t promised to anyone, or any dog. This is what I’m learning this fall from this tiny furball:

~You can worry a great deal about a tiny heart, giving it daily doses of medicine and wondering what time will be granted to you because you’ve invested in a very expensive bottle full of capsules that are striped yellow and white. You think you will never be as thankful for a bottle of yellow and white striped capsules. You will think they are pure magic. You know, though, that they aren’t, and that you need to spend the (extra) time being thankful for the gift of the creature with the big, beautiful brown eyes.

~You can find a vet, in a different city, who says that glaucoma in shih tzus means you should remove an eye, but you know that fourteen is a good age, and fourteen is a long life, and fourteen means she saved you when you needed her most…when the darkness of depression nearly erased you nearly a decade ago. (Sometimes, removal of an eye isn’t the answer to the question. Sometimes, you need to realize that an eye may be the end of a creature you love…and this…this is painful.)

~You can find your vet, back in your home town, in early September, who lets herself slowly slide down a wall, sits down on the floor so she can gather your eldest dog in her arms, and smiles sadly up at you from the dull scuff of the linoleum squares. You can ask that vet about ‘end of life’ care, and plans, and endless questions about ‘how’ and ‘when’ and ‘what is best.’ You can be grateful for the time that vet has given you, almost a whole year, and know that you’ve had extra time.

~You know that you shouldn’t spend extensive periods of time with dogs on your own, avoiding other humans, as a single person, but you also feel it’s sacred time, time that isn’t promised, but always honoured.  It’s time that you will be grateful for later, when you can’t remember how she ‘speaks’ to you in grumbles or snuffles.

~ You learn to cherish the time when the eldest dog, who is mostly blind and mostly deaf, wants to snuggle. This isn’t normal, historically. She is affectionately referred to, by your friend, by her breeder/groomer, and by yourself, as “The Queen Mum,” so any sort of snuggling is cherished and appreciated.  Affection isn’t always promised, so you soak it up like a sponge when it’s offered.

~The lessons are many and vast…but some of the key ones, from what I’ve seen in just this week at home, in Ontario, in Kingsville, are:

a) Patience is a virtue. Sometimes your dog needs you to be calmer, because they are slower, more methodical and almost narrower in terms of what they take comfort in. They slow you down, even when you don’t think you really need slowing down.

b) Food, for dogs, is a comfort. The right kibble, even if it costs a bit more than it naturally should, can make an elderly dog feel right at home. Breakfast and supper can serve as a time of bonding, in ways that you never imagined they would before. Kibble, and treats, I would say, is key. It gives the elderly dog great comfort and serves as an anchor.

c) Water bottles are better than dog bowls. You wouldn’t have imagined this, but older dogs who are slightly geriatric really quite enjoy drinking from hanging guinea pig bottles rather than bowls. It amuses, but confounds, you.

d) You learn that life is short. Love is to be cherished, even if it comes dressed in the likeness of a tiny dog in a furry suit. That bond is to be honoured.

e) Your greatest gift, in this life, might come from an animal rather than a human. I know. Hard to understand, but it could be mostly true for quite a lot of people. Animals love unconditionally. Animals offer their hearts, without expectations, and without (intentionally) painful results.

f) Life. It’s precious. It’s short. You should love whomever you want, whenever you want. The bullshit we surround ourselves with, when it comes to love, is unnecessary. It’s the essence of everything on the planet, whether you know it or not. It’s the building block, the foundation, the premise behind everything. If you have it, be thankful. If you have it, honour it, cherish it, cultivate it, and, mostly, yeah, you should fight for it. And you should also know when to let it go…because letting go is always key.  Acceptance.

This dog, this little furball named Sable, teaches me patience, and compassion, and gratitude, and resilience in the face of great adversity. This is what caring for an elderly dog has taught me this year…and, for that lesson, well, I am most thankful.

peace,

k.

 

 

I have had a long term relationship with Bunratty Castle. Over twenty odd years. I first visited it when I was in my early twenties. I visited with my uncle, Michael Ennis, my aunt, Joanne, and my cousins, Sheryl and Lisa. Mike died this past March, so being there again today, I could remember how excited he was to take the tour of the castle and how we drank Bunratty mead together. He was the reason I first traveled here, inviting me to come along on a trip of Ireland and England with his family, probably knowing my parents would never be able to visit such far away places. It’s because of him, I often think, that I have a deep love for travel and new places. I know it’s one of the reasons why I love Ireland so much.

Bunratty (or Bun Raite, in Irish Gaelic) was built in the 1270s, but the castle you can visit today was built somewhere around 1425. Still very old. Very. Old. The little brochure will tell you that during the 16th and 17th centuries, “Bunratty was a stronghold of the O’Briens, the kings (and later earls) of Thomond or North Munster. The furnishings are all original, not reproductions, and mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries. The main block of the castle has three floors, with each one having a single great hall. The four towers have six storeys each.” It’s big. It’s grey. And it’s damp and cold. But it’s also really, really quite beautiful.

I have fond memories of visiting it. The loveliest thing, and the thing I go to ‘visit’ each and every time, is something that is referred to as the “Sheela na gig” or the “Sile na gig.” It’s the figure of a pagan goddess and often symbolizes fertility. Some people say that, if you touch the figure, you’ll have better luck conceiving a child. Well, I touched that thing in my 20s and haven’t had children, although I’ve taught quite a few, so maybe that counts somehow. I have, though, had great luck with my writing and I figure that’s just as creative an enterprise.  In any case, I do love going back to see it. I’ve touched it three times in my life now and, while some people say it’s a crass thing, I like to think of her as a sort of creative guide. As someone with Celtic blood, I’m drawn to these old images and symbols. It was good to see her today, to feel the stone that surrounds her image, and to remember the first time I saw her years ago. She’s all about the earth, and of conceiving and birthing things, and of sensuality and creativity. She’s feisty. I like that.

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The “Sile na Gig” at Bunratty Castle, County Clare, Ireland.

Once I’d seen her, I moved through the rest of the castle quickly. It sort of made me feel a bit sad. If you aren’t there for the big medieval banquet, with the costumes and the music, and the storytelling, which costs an amazingly expensive 70 Euros, then you’re shuffling through it with people off big tourist buses. I arrived at the same time as a class of German high school students who were huddled, in one little alcove, hunched over their cell phones. That’s a hard thing to see when you love history. I like to be in places like this when there’s no one around but, these days, it’s hard to find that quiet. I did, though, have about four minutes of absolute solitude in the South Solar section, where the guest apartments are located. It was, for a few minutes, as if I’d slipped back in time. I could imagine the sounds and smells, hear the voices and laughter. When more tourists arrived, I left. The veil had fallen again, and I had lost the image that lives just under the surface of what’s there now.

The folk park itself is lovely. It’s well done, with a variety of different cottages, all representing various regions across Ireland. You’ve got the Loop Head House, the Cashen Fisherman’s House, a Shannon Farmhouse, a Bothan Scoir, and even a church. Here are some photos of lovely things I found while walking around that park. The things that pull at me are the colours, the images of Mary (my grandmother and great-aunts loved her, and I always say that she’s my “home girl”), the Sacred Heart, the crosses above doors and windows, and Brigid’s Cross. Each and every image, each symbol, has great meaning to me.

IMG_1042.jpgIMG_1047.jpgThis lovely place, Ardcroney Church, was moved stone by stone from Ardcroney in County Tipperary to the folk park. When you walk in, it’s like moving back in time.

IMG_1057.jpgI have an affinity for doors and windows, mostly (I think) because of the metaphors you can create if you’re a poet!

IMG_1054.jpgThis recreation of a village street, with shops and traditional crafts, was lovely and quite well done. I just loved the colours here, and the way the textures work together.

IMG_1033.jpgI’ve always loved Mary, mostly because it’s nice to have grown up with a woman to pray to. My favourite prayer has always been the ‘Hail Mary’ and I always find myself saying it in my head if I need to calm myself down in an emergency, or if I need to send some light to a friend. (Also, to be totally honest, I love that her statues always show her in lovely blue dresses. The big draw for me, though, growing up, was that she always seemed to hover, magically, in a cloud that was laced with stars. She was, to be sure, as the old Catholic hymns say, “Queen of Heaven.”)

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This was a Mary that was just too big for a bedroom, to be honest. She had a place of honour in the corner. It was, I thought, a wee bit creepy. Small statues of Mary around the house, yes, okay, but big, eavesdropping-watching-too-closely-over-your-romantic-moments-Mary statues take it too far, if you ask me.

IMG_1053.jpgThe faery garden at Bunratty made me smile. Some parts seemed a bit stereotypical, but I loved the ribbons that were tied in the trees. When you visit the Hill of Tara, you can go to a faery tree there and see the offerings that are tied to the branches by local people asking for the faeries’ favours. I love it that, here, faeries are just part of the fabric of the universe. For me, anyway, it makes absolute and perfect sense. IMG_1029.jpgNext to my beloved triskele, this image, that of the St. Brigid’s cross, is one that always speaks to me. I love the way it’s woven from rushes, and the way it speaks to the Celtic sensibility of the cross, and the notion of the importance of the four directions and four elements. I have one in the vestibule of my house, over my door. It’s meant to keep evil, fire, and hunger away from your home.

I wandered over to the print shop, which I recalled having been there from my last visit in 2012. Now, I’ve fallen in love with the who process of letter press work and printing, courtesy of Jodi Green at Levigator Press in Windsor. Getting to speak with a printer today for a half hour was just one of the loveliest ways to end my trip, and I peppered him with questions about ink, wood blocks, and lino cuts.

The thing that I love most about Bunratty is the story that my great-aunt, Norah Kelly, told me when I was in my twenties. She was so smart, Norah was, and she was an excellent storyteller until she fell ill in her later years. But, when I spent time with her, she told me stories about the history of our family, and how they came to Canada after the Famine. There were snippets, and the one that still sticks with me is the story she told me of how one of our ancestors,  a gardener at Bunratty, eloped with a governess of some sort. I haven’t verified the story, and I’ll have to do a lot more research before I get there, but I know Norah. She would’ve heard that story from her parents and grandparents, and so I trust her completely.

Standing in that castle today, I put my hand up against the thick stone walls, took a deep breath, imagined a world where people worked very hard, in times that weren’t romantic or poetic. (A castle can look beautiful, but when you’re inside, you realize fairly quickly that it’s really all about defences, ownership of property, and living in difficult and uncertain times.) I imagined how many thousands of people might have lived in or around that place, and how many stories there would have been to tell. And then I thought of how much my uncle, Mike, loved that place, and I thought of him then, too. I miss him…

So…I’ll leave you with this image of my Bunratty, all shadowed in twilight and edged with trees. There was rain tonight, a brisk wind, and a flutter–again, as always–of blackbirds.

peace,

k. IMG_1063.jpg

 

Someone I know (slightly) back home in Ontario said to me, in a grocery store, in August, near the yogurt section, “You really love writing, don’t you?” He tilted his head a bit, as if trying to figure it out. “Yes,” I said, “I really do. Most often, I like it more than people. Writing can’t hurt you.” This year, I’ve given myself fully to it. When I put myself into a writing retreat sort of situation, nothing else matters. I usually go away from home, in Sudbury, where I can get too complacent, or too apathetic, or I can procrastinate by cleaning and organizing cupboards to no end. I can meet interesting people, especially at writing retreats, but my best times are those on my own. The only exception to this rule was my time at the Banff Centre for Creativity and the Arts in April 2016. That stay changed my life and I made life-long friends who stay in touch fairly regularly. (Some people say that social media is negative but, for me, without a big family network anymore, it’s a necessary lifeline to connection and friendship. People who are blessed with partners and families might not get that, and that’s fine, but it’s all very true if you’re on your own most of the time.)

Banff changed my life. That sounds overdramatic, but if you’ve ever been there, and you’ve had to apply to get into a program with your own work, and then wait for an acceptance, and then meet other writers who love writing and reading as much as you do, well, it’s a magic place. It’s the only place, really, where I’ve been able to leave my life behind, to not pay attention to people I know, to escape my own life, and to devote myself solely to my craft. And doing that, giving time to myself alone, changed the way I viewed myself as a writer. It was an immersion that served me well, in terms of my development as a person and as a writer.

Since then, I’m very aware of how I am in groups of writers. I don’t do as well. I can’t be as productive. I’m distracted. I’m terribly curious and usually very shy at first. Then, I like to talk to people and I find them interesting. Plus, when you’re on your own, you usually talk to dogs a lot, so being around other writers is always interesting. I get a read of people quite quickly, which is helpful, but if I’m at a retreat, I usually have a purpose. I also really despise drama of any sort, and people always have drama. What I need most, then, as a writer, when I’m focused on a project or two, is to be on my own, and to be able to walk and hike on long roads in the middle of beautiful landscapes. That’s why I love Point Pelee and Essex County’s various conservations areas, and why I love the trails back home in Sudbury and on Manitoulin, and why I have so loved my time here in County Clare in the last two weeks.

So. This is a love letter to County Clare. Turn your head and avert your eyes if it’s all too much for you. I’ll understand.

I need to thank my friend, Frances, whom I’ve known forever and a day, for letting me stay in her family cottage in Spanish Point. It’s a magical little cottage, with a turf and coal fire that I’m quite adept at setting now. (My experiences in setting fires in Bobcaygeon were less adept, as some of my friends will remember!) There’s something absolutely lovely about being able to provide heat for yourself, and to sit in front of a fire and write into the night. It’s a bit primal, I know, but oh-so-poetic and romantic in a literary sense. I think a lot about Yeats and Heaney, and of Synge’s plays, so many of which were set in places in the West of Ireland. Now, well, they’ve come alive in my head and heart. I’ll re-read them when I’m home in Ontario…and know them all again in a new way. My favourite memories of my trip here will be of hiking the White Strand with Fran, standing on the edge of the Atlantic, and thinking of my favourite poem by Seamus Heaney, “Postscript.” I started to cry. She didn’t care. I’m glad of that. Sometimes, when I’m faced with something beautiful, something poetic, something immensely moving, I can’t help but get weepy. It makes me a poet, I suppose. Then, the next day, we spent time driving up to Loop Head, which is the most beautiful coastline I’ve seen in my entire life. Since then, I’ve mostly stayed here, in O’Neill Cottage, in Spanish Point, walking for hours every day, and writing for just as many, letting ideas slide through me, and trusting that something good will come of them at some point.

I visited Kilfenora, the City of Crosses as they call it here, because of its seven Celtic crosses, and the Cathedral of St. Fachnan (which dates from 1058). If you know me, and a few of you do, you’ll know that I touched a lot of stone that day. For me, stones are so powerful. They radiate energy and ancient wisdom. Step into a cathedral, a ruin, and touch a bit of an ancient Celtic cross (I know…I shouldn’t have, but I did!) and you’ll feel you’ve been transported back in time and place. There, too, I got to walk down to see St. Fachnan’s holy well and, in a moment alone, dipped my hand into the water, thinking of how many thousands of people would have done the same thing over hundreds of years. Faith, for me, anyway, is rooted in landscape, so being able to see one of County Clare’s famous ancient wells was a highlight I won’t soon forget.

The visit to Caherconnell, though, was one I won’t soon forget. It’s a Neolithic stone fort. Always circles and stones for me. This love of circles, the one that the Celts have, is something that I am drawn to, as well, in studying First Nations, Metis and Inuit cultures and traditions. So much of these ancient cultures makes more sense to me than any of the materialistic things we see in the world about us today. There, walking into a five thousand year old stone circle fort, seeing the remains of a fire pit, and a couple of little graves, split my heart open. The stone walls, in particular, are so beautiful. You can see waves of movement in the way the stones were placed, all those thousands of years ago, by people who lived, loved, and died inside those walls.  Most would have died by the time they hit the age of 40, which is unfathomable when you think of how healthy we all are now in our late 30s and 40s and 50s. (We’re likely much healthier at these ages now than our parents were at the same point in their own lives.) Life back then, even at Caherconnell in the 1500s, would have been hellish at times, especially in terms of health issues, but there is still such a sophistication of culture and spirituality in these ancient places and lives. The land at Caherconnell vibrates with energy. It’s the Burren, all limestone, and skies, and windy roads, and ghosts that walk across the landscape in my mind. The next time I come, I’m going to go out on a full day hike with a guide. I want to really walk it out and let it sink in. Hiking does that for me. That’s on my ‘next steps’ for County Clare, I know.

What else do I love about this place? Here we go: walking down to the beach as the tide begins to come in, searching for stones and shells, and watching the sun set over the black rocks; the yogurt at the Super Valu that is made with real Irish cream; the scones that you can buy fresh from the oven; the barman at Johnny Burke’s who says “Hello, love,” and who remembers that I’d like a pint of Hop House beer, even if I haven’t been in for a few days; the taxi cab driver who says something wise and, when I ask him who said it, looks over at me, laughs heartily, says, “Oh, my dear! I just made it up! Write it down! Sure! Write it down, darling!” Then, well, there’s the Clare crab claws and the fresh cod and asparagus; Sean’s bookshop in Miltown Malbay and the way he says, when you ask him if he has a specific book or author, will say, gesturing to a shelf absentmindedly, “Have a right good browse…take your time…and, if it’s there, it’s there.” I also love the cows that live along this Old Bog Road, and how they come over to speak to me when I start talking to them from the edge of the road, turning their heads and giving me lovely photos. Then there’s the weather, and how it changes on a dime. You can start a long walk along the roads, edging green fields divided by old stone walls, on a fairly fine morning, and within twenty minutes, the sun has gone behind the clouds, the rain is pushed up in a fine steady mist from the sea, and the hood on your jacket won’t stay up. I love it. By the end of yesterday’s walk, I was a bedraggled, smiling mess. The afternoon was a fire and lots of reading and writing. Heaven. And I’m glad I brought my hiking boots, not letting muck or wet fields deter me from getting closer to that gorgeous ocean.

What else? Listening to “The West Wind” on Clare FM every night from 7 until 9 in a darkened room, lit with candles and heat from the fire, loving the beauty of the traditional Irish music as it spins, dancing, through the room. I’m already set to get out to weekly Irish ceili dances back in Ontario this month, so this’ll just cement that love of music for me. And, today, cleaning up to leave, singing “The Parting Glass” out loud, letting the song rise up to the rafters and echo in the little house. It was, for me, a perfect song. And I love how they announce local deaths on Clare FM around 10 pm on a Wednesday night, giving names and funeral information for the people who’ve gone on, ending it all with “May they rest in peace.” (My grandmother would’ve fit right in here…)

Finally, and in the most lovely of ways, I’ll miss the birds here. They sing with a mad joy that I’ve never heard before, hiding in thick bushes that line the roadways, and then darting up into the sky with abandon. The magpies, too, have pulled at my heartstrings these last two weeks. (The cover of my new book of poems features a lovely magpie, and I sort of wasn’t sure of whether it would speak to me, as a poet and person, but seeing them everywhere here lets me know that that magpie of mine was meant to be. Magic. Serendipity. And gratitude. Such gratitude.)

I’ll miss County Clare a great deal, but I know I’ll be back. It’s a fine place to be, if you’re up for being on your own and writing. If you’re a real writer, you’ll know the pull of it all. It’s stronger than anything I know, this deep need to put words on paper, or screen, or to just say them out loud. Not a lot of people will get this, but some will, and might even nod a bit in reading this.

I feel blessed I’ve been able to give myself the space and time this year to cultivate my writing, to let it take a front row seat in my life, to let it lead me forward in ways I can’t even envision yet. There’s magic in it all, even when I’m frustrated by slowed progress, or by rejections, or by the way in which a head cold, or a sad heart, can slow me down. But this, even this, too, is all part of what I’ll put into my writing as I move forward, not knowing where I’m going all the time, but trusting I’ll get where I need to be going. All in good time. All in good time.

Ah, and there’s a side note or two here: 1) My hair, here, has found its place. It’s always bothered me, but I can’t count the number of women I’ve seen who have my hair and super pale skin, and it’s sort of divine. My hair’s been getting longer and wilder every day this year, and now I can celebrate it, knowing I can always pop back here when I feel uncertain about its mad curl. And, well, here you go. 2) The men of Dublin (or at least the ones I encountered last weekend) are fine men. They are well dressed, smell lovely, and are clean shaven with handsome faces. Above all, though, they know how to flirt in clear and sophisticated ways, so it’s lovely to feel yourself blushing when a compliment is so handsomely and artistically offered. It’s lovely to feel so flattered when you aren’t used to that sort of clarity and sophistication with Canadian men. These ones, though, they’re quick on their feet, and with their words and manners. These Dublin men. I’ll raise a glass to them any day. (I may just put my name over to Willie Daly’s matchmaking book at Lisdoonvarna…if he can find me a Dublin man. We’ll see. That’s next year. 🙂

peace,

k.

Here are some of the photos I’ve taken while I’ve been here…

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Blackbirds on an afternoon walk in Spanish Point, County Clare.

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Water main cover, Ennistimon, County Clare, featuring my favourite symbol, the triskele, at the centre of all things in life.

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The painted buildings of Ennistimon, County Clare.

 

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The loveliest tree I’ve seen in a very long time, at Ennistimon, The Cascades, County Clare. thumbnail-2.jpg

The Cascades and that lovely bridge, Ennistimon, County Clare.

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O’Neill Cottage back window view. Birds.

thumbnail-4.jpgMe, watching the sunset on the beach at Spanish Point, County Clare. thumbnail-5.jpgCaherconnell, The Burren, County Clare.

 

thumbnail-6.jpgKilfenora, The Burren.

thumbnail-7.jpgMy corvids…on the sign leading to the holy well down the lane at Kilfenora, County Clare.

 

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Kilfenora on a rainy day. (And always my doorways and windows…)

thumbnail-8.jpgAnd one from Dublin…a new favourite bookstore found: The Winding Stair. In the window reflection, the image of the famous Ha’Penny Bridge over the Liffey.

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Lost tin whistle, September 30, in Miltown Malbay.

IMG_0887.jpgThe Witch’s Cauldron, Spanish Point, County Clare.

IMG_0593.jpgA night walk, at Spanish Point, County Clare.

IMG_0422.jpgObligatory sunset photo by the sea, courtesy of Fran, Spanish Point, County Clare.

The only reason I came into Dublin from the West yesterday was to see the Seamus Heaney exhibition. Beyond that, nothing else really mattered. Still, I had the day, so I chose my path wisely.

I woke up, went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and lit a candle for my Mum and Dad. I’ve been to this cathedral about three times in my life, and every time I pop in to light a candle. Old habits die hard. I got there just in advance of the tour buses, so it was lovely, quiet, cool, and very atmospheric. It’s a beautiful church and it’s been around, in one form or another, since 1191. Yup. Since 1191. The current building, though, dates from 1230 and it’s had a few renovations since then. It’s dedicated to St. Patrick and, if you walk outside, you can see the place, a little holy well now marked with a slab, where he was said to baptize converts. You can also see the grave of Johnathan Swift and his muse, “Stella,” Esther Johnson. (They’ve actually tried to reconstruct how they would have looked, which is interesting, but a wee bit creepy…) I don’t spend time looking at the monuments, though. I usually just go right to the Lady Chapel, which is my favourite place, light a candle, say a prayer, and just sit in the space. Then I go. It’s intense, to sit quietly in that church. The tourists from the tour buses, when they arrive, clutter it up and I feel pushed out somehow, mostly because I so love its peace, I think. As soon as that’s disturbed, I can’t bear to stay.

Then I dropped into Marsh’s Library, which is just down a little close behind the cathedral. It’s tucked away and really very beautiful. You can’t take photos of the books. You can’t touch the books. (As soon as someone tells me not to touch something, I pretty much feel so compelled to touch it, it’s ridiculous. I’m like a ten year old inside an adult body.) It’s such a beautiful library, all old hard wood and thousands of brilliant antiquarian books. Some are bound in white and I wondered why. The guide told me it’s because those books would have been French books, bound in France. It was cheaper, he said, to bind them in white than to put them into coloured leather bindings. So, a bookshelf full of white binding means the books are all written in French. Then, you turn a corner into a north-facing library. The temperature drops and the story goes that this is where the ghost might live. A more logical explanation is that it’s north-facing, so it gets less sun and is therefore not as warm. (I’m sticking with the ghost story!)

In this second gallery, there are gates on each little room, with benches and ledges where people must have sat and read their opened books. It’s stunning, but seems very inaccessible. I pictured men sitting there, and not women. It made me sad. All I could think is that there have always been women who have wanted to read, and not all of them could read, whether due to lack of social status, or lack of education, or lack of possibility. I thought of how privileged I am to be able to read, to write, and to have been born in a time when women could access education. Walking through there, I thought that it would be funny to see what those old dead white guys would’ve thought of a curly haired poet walking through the stacks. They likely wouldn’t have been pleased.

Finally, I set off to see the Heaney exhibit. I assumed it would be at the National Library of Ireland. Nope. Of course not. The Yeats exhibit is there, but I saw it six years ago, when I was last here. The Heaney exhibit was further away, in the Bank of Ireland building. So, I set off again, walking through the streets of Dublin, and finally coming to the exhibit. Right away, I knew I was in trouble. As you enter the exhibit, there are pillars with pieces of Seamus Heaney’s poetry written on them. They are, to be honest, quite moving. For me, this exhibit was a bit like going to a church. If you’ve read my blog before, you know I love his work. He was the person I studied at my master’s level years ago, and I wrote my thesis on his bog poetry from North, weaving my work into the notions presented in Ben Shan’s brilliant book, The Shape of Content. I have always loved how Heaney plays with language, taking such time to craft each poem so that they all have their own voices, so that they all sing clearly. I love how he uses kennings. And I love how he roots everything in landscape and place. For me, when he talks about how the elements work inside his poetry, of how earth, air, water, and fire work creatively, well, that strikes a chord with my own poetry. In the supposedly ‘ordinary’ rhythms of life, Heaney always found ways to point out the extraordinary beauty and wonder that is so openly offered by land, culture, history, legend, and language. To me, his work is divine.

I wept at least four times during my time in those rooms. At first, I thought I was alone in being so moved, but it quickly came to me that this was not the case. The first poem, and you see it printed on the wall, is “Digging.” Heaney’s voice, so melodic, reads it out for you as you stand there. Right away, I teared up. The woman next to me was silent, reverent too. She was kindred. She listened to it twice, too, and I turned to go, seeing that she had closed her eyes, letting his voice sweep over her. That set me to getting weepy all over again. This is the power of his work, I think, and always will be.

The exhibit is divided into four main categories: Excavations, Creativity, Conscience, and Marvels. I loved all four. The part that moved me most, though, was the collection of Christmas cards. Each year, he would pen a Christmas poem, and then have cards made. There were beautiful linocuts and lovely handwritten, letterpress set and printed, and then cursive notes to friends, often with the phrase “With love” written in Irish at the end. Seeing that collection made me think of how quickly we live our lives, without even knowing what is speeding by. The last section of the exhibit struck me because, it was clear, there was a sense that he knew, in his life, and in his later work, that things were slowing down. These later volumes, though, hold some of my favourite poems. I don’t know how to explain that, except to think that maybe I could feel how he valued his own life so deeply in his later years. He must have known, after his illness and weakening, that he was on a decline of sorts. There is a sense of the numinous in these poems, a sense of something lifted up, of spirit. I love the sense of openness and possibility in these poems, the ones that hint at something greater than the physical life. They are a lot of what I believe about the world, and about the human spirit, and about what Heaney would call ‘the human chain.’ He knew, I think, that life should be valued and honoured, and that people, and the relationships we carefully craft and forge with them (for the best relationships take time and craft if they are to work and last) are precious things. I love that about his work.

When I think of endings, I think about my parents. They weren’t good at living mindfully, at valuing the beauty in life, and I think that is what always breaks my heart about how they went: they really missed out on so much of this life’s wonder and beauty. They complained a lot and, near their ends especially, were filled with regret and sorrow. It hurts to think that they might’ve had happier lives if they’d been more aware of the closer, more intimate connections they could have made with friends and family members. They feared making close connections with people, even taught me to fear these things, so it’s odd sometimes to think of how I run towards it now. It’s funny, how losing people will make you shift, evolve, emerge. What I once feared in my life–adventure, creativity, and love–I now crave.

It makes me think of Seamus Heaney’s last text to his wife, Marie, when he wrote “Noli timere.” It’s Latin for “Don’t be afraid.” For me, as someone who was raised within an Irish Catholic sensibility, I always recall the church hymn, “Be Not Afraid.” I still love to sing it when I’m on my own because it has a lovely tune, but it also has simple and elegant words: “Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.” It’s the kind of thing that a compassionate person would say: “Here, don’t worry. I’m with you. Fear is an illusion. Trust. Have faith. All will be well.”

Hearing his voice today moved me a great deal. Sitting on a bench, near the end of the exhibit, you can listen to his wife read one of his poems. That will break your heart open, even if you’re not one for emoting very freely. Liam Neeson also reads a poem, and again, the words will sink into you, but only if you let them. The final images of the video are of a packed Croke Stadium in Dublin, at a GAA game, with thousands of Irish people, standing to pay tribute to Heaney after the news of his death in 2013. There again, I was lost. One literary critic said that his death was “a breach in the language itself,” while another person said that the nation of Ireland was “one man down” with Heaney’s going. I thought to myself, “No…more than the nation of Ireland. The world. The world is one great man down with his loss.” And then, I sat there, listening to “The Rain Stick” and thinking that, although he’s gone, he’s still here.

That he died at just 74 is, to me, a tragedy. So many more poems might have been written. He was born the same year as my mum was, too, so that always got to me on some deep level of serendipity. And, when he died, I remember watching the funeral on the Internet, at home, having just written a poem about him, and weeping as if I’d lost my own dad a second time. Some people, it just seems to me, have an effect on you that you cannot explain, even if you tried. He was one of those, for me, in my life. And he still is…

Sitting there today, on that bench, listening to his words and voice, I saw an elderly Irish man in a flat cap take off his glasses, try to wipe his eyes in a quiet, secretive way, and I thought, “Oh, he was dear to so many…” He likely didn’t know it. I hope he did. I wish I could tell him. He was, to me, and still is, so dear…so so dear.

peace,

k.

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My friend, Frances, has been asking me for a few years to come and write here at her family cottage, but it took me until now, while I’m on leave from teaching, to make the time to visit when the place wouldn’t be awash with tourists.

I’ve been to Beara, and I thought it had my heart after I wrote there, just outside the village of Eyeries, in the summer of 2012, but now I’ve seen this place and I’ve spent a few days walking and writing here, and, well, I’ve found a new creative space to work in. I’m grateful.

Fran picked me up at Shannon on Saturday, offering me a cup of tea, and we whirled through the day. We visited Dromoland Castle, saw artfully made faeries in its beautiful walled gardens, and then drove back here to have an evening hike at the White Strand, where the sea smashes up against the rocks with great fury. From there, if you look to your right, you can see the cut out Cliffs of Moher. If you look out, too, you can see the Aran Islands. They get misty and almost erase themselves when the sea is fierce, but you know they’re out there.

Sunday, we went up to Lahinch. I wandered on my own for a couple of hours, finding a café in which to stare out over the sea, and also wrote a poem for this place, O’Neill Cottage. I’ve written a poem for a house only once before, so I don’t do it often. I love old houses, mostly, so the place has to strike me on a visceral level of sorts. It has to sing a bit, raise its voice, tell me its story. Then I am compelled to write a poem, to thank the place for letting me stay in its energy for a bit of time, and to let its people (living and dead) know that I love it. After Lahinch, we drove up to Loop Head, down by Kilkee. I’ve seen the Cliffs of Moher and, while they’re stunning, I don’t think they even compare to the views from Loop Head. There’s something raw and primal about that road and landscape. On one side, there’s the Atlantic, and then the other has the remnants of fields, left over from times before the Famine. The only thing that tells you what once rooted itself there–the houses and outbuildings–are the long stone walls that are falling into themselves, or held together only by blackberries and ivy. There were clearances here, too, just like those in the Scottish Highlands, and the land seems to ache. There’s an absence that is made present by the way in which the people left imprints on the land, and on the soul of the place.

Monday brought Fran’s departure and my settling in to O’Neill Cottage. I discovered that my grandmother’s family was rooted in Tipperary, which I already had some inkling of, but also that they would have lived closed to the Clare border. This is likely why my great-aunt, Clare, was given that unique spelling of her name. She always loved it, proudly telling anyone who would listen that her parents had named her after the county in Ireland. There was, she often said emphatically when spelling out her name, “no i” in her name.

She didn’t come here to visit Ireland until she was in her 70s, alongside her twin sister, Maureen, but what I recall of that trip was the delight with which they planned it, and the way in which they told their stories afterwards. The highlight, for them, was a visit to the shrine of the Blessed Mother at Knock. Clare especially, I remember clearly, was very keen on perhaps encountering Mary in a new way. They didn’t see her, though, but they did come back with rosaries made of Connemara marble, and stories of nights singing songs that they’d grown up with as children.

So far, it’s been a warm and welcoming place, with greetings given to me in Irish by the bookseller in Miltown Malbay. Then there’s the local hiking guide who takes people for tours of the Burren, Donnan, whom I’ve only met once in person in Ennis, and who says, over the phone line,  “Listen, I don’t want you to worry about this, but we need to pick a fine day early next week. There’s no use going when the weather’s dark. It’s stunning on a fine day.”

I’ve revised my poetry collection one more time, taking two days to read it over and over, out loud and then in silence, looking for spelling mistakes and shifting punctuation around like a mad woman. I’ve written four new poems, all set here, and I’m ready to head off to Dublin tomorrow to see the Seamus Heaney exhibition at the National Library in Dublin on Friday. I know I’ll likely cry, or at least try not to while looking reasonably well put together in a public place, in a library that I love dearly. Every time I come to Ireland, I always go to the National Library of Ireland. It’s beautiful, elegant, and unbelievably ancestral for me as a writer, and as a lover of Irish literature. (It’s how I got my nickname in grad school years ago. I was studying Heaney’s poetry, and a friend in the postcolonial lit course kept saying, “I know what I’ll call you: Modern Irish. You know a lot about Modern Irish lit, so it makes sense.”) I miss her, and often wonder where she got to. Funny, how time separates you from a person, fades them out in watercolour as it all moves on.

This place, Spanish Point, fascinates me. It was named after the happenings of September 1588. The Spanish Armada was blown off course, and a number of ships ended up swept around the west coast of Ireland. Two sank off this shore, but the one that sank off Spanish Point was the San Marcos. Local archaeologists have found what looks to be a mass grave up on a hillside, near to where the lighthouse used to be. Local people remember that they were told, as children, not to walk on a certain piece of land. There, it was implied, were the graves of the Spanish sailors from the San Marcos. They had either drowned and been washed ashore, or they had been ‘rescued’ and then executed, hanged by English troops, or by local people who were siding with the English.

The Spaniards thought that Ireland would be a safe place to land, given that it was a mostly Catholic country at the time, but they likely didn’t take into account the complexity of the politics that existed here even then. Some places were still ruled by Irish chieftains, and they might, in certain villages, have stolen the Spanish gold and then killed the sailors and captains. Some places, though, harboured Spanish soldiers. A law was put in place that said that anyone harbouring a Spanish sailor could be severely punished, but it still happened that some were taken in to Irish homes and families. Then, naturally, some of the Irish women here fancied the tall, dark and handsome Spanish sailors, and new families were created. (Here, if you look at Irish history, is where the notion of the ‘Black Irish’ comes from. Some say it’s about the selkies, but the Spanish blood line is also a plausible explanation if you aren’t fond of the selkie one…)

I go down to the sea each day. I think it pulls at me, as all large bodies of water do. I’ve fallen in love with Lake Erie this year, but this place calls to me on a much deeper level all over again. Oceans and great lakes seduce me, it seems. In any case, I go down to that beach, and walk down the shore, especially when the tide is out, picking up pebbles tossed up from the water, watching the oyster catchers dancing away from the waves as they search for their dinner, and listening to the pounding of the surf, through my ears, my feet, my heart.

Today, standing there on the beach, on what was a rainy and wet day, I kept thinking what it would have been like to have seen so many Spanish sailors, either trying to swim to shore, not knowing what fate would await them there, or seeing their bodies carried by the waves. If you stand there, on the road above the beach, you can imagine that there wouldn’t have been buildings where there are buildings now. You can imagine that the weather would have been fierce in those storms. You can imagine that it would have been a hellish scene. Now, there’s the lovely Armada Hotel. There’s a car park. There are the surfers who boldly strip down without care of anyone watching at the end of the day. There’s a school down the road, and a circle of cottages for rent in summer. I kept thinking, though, of how this place is woven into its history, into its stories, and how lovely it is that people here know them still. I wish we were better at that back home, in Canada.

This place is beautiful. There’s the full moon, hanging over these green fields, with mist rolling across them, and the shadows of cows silhouetted against stone walls. All of it is not to be forgotten.

peace,

k.

 

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