I just read this memoir/travel piece in the June 2017 Ireland Newsletter and want to share it. Irish storytelling is lauded world over and there’s a reason for that. The descriptions, the details, the enthusiasm, just captured me. Also, I’ve been to Clew Bay and Louisburgh, and climbed Croagh Patrick. It’s a slice of west coast heaven. Many thanks to author Michael Collins for writing and to Michael Green for sharing.
by Michael Collins
We’d missed the boat to Clare. I didn’t think we would, because we were within the time limits stated. What we’d failed to realise, Pat and myself, was the clocks had stopped at the last small town we had passed through. We had even had time to pause on the way, at the top of the last rise before the land fell away to the shore, to admire the panorama. ‘See Naples and die’ they say. Pat had turned to me as we gazed: ‘See Clew Bay and die’ was his comment.
It was spread out before us, a semi-circular stretch of the Atlantic, girdled by mountains and dotted with islets – ‘One for every day of the year,’ Pat had remarked – with the large hump of our destination plugging the gap to the open sea like a huge whale floating patiently on the surface: Clare Island, five miles out to sea, five miles long by two miles wide, rising from sea level at its eastern end to nine hundred feet at its western extremity, where high cliffs took the buffeting of the restless ocean. And in among all those islands and islets was a small sand bar that the Beatles had bought. It had been taken over by hippies who were attempting to raise cabbages there.
But we’d missed the boat. Not our fault. You couldn’t book your passage so there was no passenger list. But we had been assured that there would be a boat at 3.30 in the afternoon. Now, at 3 o’clock, we could see our boat as a speck on the water, drawing away from us towards our intended destination. There was nothing for it but to return the five miles to Louisburgh and phone from there. A frantic phone call – from a phone booth where first you had to pick up the receiver and wind a handle to get the operator and only then insert your two pennies – provided us with the information that no further ‘official’ boat was expected to sail that day but it was thought that a fishing boat would be making the crossing to Roonagh Quay and back at around 7.30. The only thing we could do was to go and get a pub meal and a pint or two and wait. I made sure we were back at the landing stage by 6.30.
When the boat, with its two-man crew, arrived to deposit a passenger and return to the island before nightfall, the tide was at its lowest ebb. We had to scramble thirty feet down an iron ladder, maneuvering our rucksacks, into the well of a boat that looked frighteningly small and smelt like a fishmonger’s shop on a bad day. I had thought I was accustomed to boats, having crossed the English Channel and the Irish Sea up to fifty times. This was different. The large steamers I was used to ploughed through the waves: the tiny craft we were now sailing in sat on top of them like a cork. The waves rolled in from the stern, higher than the mast, and the boat was eased up the hills of water, to slide down the far side into the trough like a roller coaster. I did not feel confident, but the crew seemed to regard it all with the dispassionate attitude of experts.
Then Clare loomed up out of drizzly mist, all grey and green, dotted with the white squares of cottages. It was dead calm in the lee of the island, enabling me to lean over the side. The sight was astonishing. The water was a crystal-clear, pale bluish-green and the bright sandy bottom was clearly visible, with small flatfish cruising around like aeroplanes.
The boat docked at 8 o’clock and once again we set about heaving and hauling to get our baggage on shore. We walked along the top of the harbour wall, in the curve of which nestled a ridiculously tiny castle, proceeded another fifty yards and entered the pub. I say ‘pub’: it was everything – post office, grocery store, pub and private dwelling all rolled into one. Pints were pulled. Around 11.30 supper was called, a vast fry-up of sausages, eggs, bacon, black pudding. And more pints. It was like a hefty breakfast and a night out on the town all rolled into one.
At around 1 a.m. I wandered down to the tiny beach to clear my head and got strangely excited about finding a small dead dogfish stranded on the sand.
Our three-week holiday started the next day. Our time was spent working on the ‘roads’ – a euphemism for tracks made of compacted gravel and clay. Spare time was spent in the pub, wandering over the island, fishing for mackerel from a boat and for cod from the shore. The weather changed the first day: we could have been somewhere on the Mediterranean. A heat wave in the West of Ireland!
The watch on my wrist soon became redundant. I was used to a life regulated down to the nearest minute. The islanders lived much more according to the rhythms of daylight, darkness and weather. Not even the pub had real opening times: generally the first customers would trickle in around 9 p.m., the bar staying open until the last drinker left in the wee small hours or as the sun was coming up.
The result was that I was rewarded by sights that are not usually granted to the clock-watcher. One morning, after a particularly fine night of story-telling and singing, two of us emerged into the fresh air just as rosy-fingered dawn was painting the sky. Rather than going home to bed we decided to climb to a point high above the track to watch the sun come up. We sat in the shelter of a tumbledown dry-stone wall and watched the sun rise above Croagh Patrick, the sacred mountain of Ireland’s patron saint that stands on the far mainland shore looking, from our vantage point, rather like a resting volcano. The sunlight shone on a grassy plateau some thirty feet beneath us, a plateau dotted with wild flowers. And as the cold air warmed we smelt the wild thyme and saw the hares emerging from their nighttime hiding places to jump and gambol like children just released from school.
Another early-morning exploit found me with two islanders in a curragh, a traditional rowing boat made of tarred sacking stretched over thin laths, dropping a handline weighted with a stone and bearing six hooks baited with bits of silver paper. I could feel the mackerel thudding into the hooks as the line became steadily heavier. We hauled the fish aboard six at a time. Ninety mackerel in half an hour. Fishing from the shoreline was different. The bait was limpet, knocked from the rocks, the prey small codlings or wrasse. Not sport: they were strictly for the pot.
Then there was the day that we decided to take the long walk to the west of the island, a steady five-mile slog as the land slowly rose from sea level to cliff height. We lay on our bellies on grass cropped by that most efficient of lawn mowers, the sheep, and watched the gulls wheel and scream along the cliff walls, hearing the dull boom of the ocean as it gently pummeled the rocks below. A curragh came into view, rounding a headland to our left, and bobbed about like a toy boat as its occupants hauled in lobster pots. We knew the men, but there was no point in greeting them: a wave of the hand would have gone unnoticed and any shouting would have been drowned by the ocean’s deep bass voice.
I fear that this was an experience I can never repeat. Tourism and commercial interests have changed the nature of Clare. The pub has closed. There is mains electricity and a helicopter pad. But the visitor to Clare Island will still be able to savor something of what I felt when I first landed there. In June 1971.
© 2013 Michael J. Collins