I move on from the Dun Laoghaire book festival to a week of caravan camping in the Burren, Co. Clare. The distinctive landscape of the Burren can be identified as soon as I come into the correct vantage point driving down from Galway. When I first see the hills, covered in lilac grey, I think that I’m looking at flora. Only when I draw closer do I notice that the color is limestone, packed all along the slope of the hills, piled in tiers and winding to a summit. The word “burren” comes from the Irish “boireann”, meaning “stony place”.
The owners of the camper are Julia and Chris Hemingway, who run a farm and post the camper as an AirBnb property: https://www.airbnb.ie/rooms/1321592. Even before I arrive in the Burren, Julia and Chris are incredibly thorough and communicative, and keep in touch with me regularly to be sure I’ll have everything I need when I arrive.
Julia and her two boys meet me in Galway after a missed bus fiasco. We drive through the town of Kinvara, which sits along the coastline, and I can see both Galway Bay and Connemara across the water.
I love my camper from the moment I see it. Situated mid-field, alongside the family’s farming shed, the exterior is green and cream. It’s parked alongside a pitched tent, a fire pit, a hung lantern, and an outdoor table. The interior attests to the fact that this is a loved and cared for space: warm wood tones and curtains, everything clean, a fresh basket of organic farm vegetables waiting on the table, a table that converts to a bed, a closet, a cooker, basic food items, coffee and tea, and most of all, solitude.
For me, solitude and companionship have always had an equal draw. I can’t be too removed from people because I’m a very emotionally attached person. However, it takes a lot of solitude to make me feel lonely; I’m more likely to feel lonely in a room of strangers, or on my own in the middle of a social environment, than out in a place like this. When I’m camping out in the middle of nowhere, I feel at home on my own. In this camper, I won’t have to conscious of my violin playing, my hiking time, my writing time. I can structure these activities however I want without because conscious of anyone else’s schedule.
As I have my first evening alone in the camper, I find myself thinking of the literary history of this kind of seclusion, everything from Walden (Thoreau) to Desert Solitaire (Edward Abbey). A particular kind of account is written about wilderness seclusion. Writers are particularly aware of how sense of self and place change in retreat. Simultaneously, I think of a quote I saw on the internet the other day, arguing that in literature and film, men are the ones who go off into the wilderness or on road trips cross-country to “find themselves”. The narrative tradition of the internal discovery journey is distinctly masculine (think Into the Wild, The Motorcycle Diaries).
If a woman undertakes such a journey, she is not looking to find herself. She is looking to find a man. She is part of a romance, or defined by her external relationships. I think of my fellow writers at BU, the majority of whom are women, each on their own journeys of literary and personal discovery. It seems all the more important that we as women write and share our accounts. Our voices are still underrepresented in the literature of travel, the literature of solitude, discovery, and retreat.
My first hike into the hills of the Burren begins between bouts of rain. The sky is still dark with a sheet of storm cloud, and patches of descending light break over the summits. I’ve been warned about the karst limestone: moss near the base of the separate stones (clints) could mean a hole underneath, and the gaps between the stones (grykes) are prime places for getting stuck. I do a bit of climbing over ivy-laden pavement, avoiding the thorns of wild blackberry vines.
The Burren is known for its unusual combination of flora. The flowers found here range from those native to alpine climates (i.e., the Spring Gentian, native to the slopes of the Alps) to those native to mediterranean climates (ie., the Maidenhair Fern). Even plants that are rare elsewhere in Ireland are found growing in abundant stations in the Burren. The formation of the Burren as an underwater and then glacial landscape results in these rarities growing together, even growing deep in the striated darkness of the grykes.
I trek upwards through more grass, careful with my steps. I soon come across my first flat sheet of karst pavement. The clints are flat and smooth along the top, fitted together like a fissured puzzle. Water pools in surface depressions. The dark lines of the grykes are, upon closer inspection, filled with shadowed green growth, and I can make out the layering of rock thousands of years in the making. This land was once a warm tropical ocean, and water cut and carved the stone into shape like a coral reef.
Like the landscape that defined Inis Oírr, the hills of the Burren are cut through with winding lines of stone walls. The walls are made of expertly piled rocks, slanted to support each other. If I press my weight onto the bottom stones, they hardly shift, but the top stones will fall away easily if I’m not careful climbing over. Each assembly must have taken so many years, so much care, and all just to make a division between herds and homesteads.
The combination of after-rain mist and sunset make for an amazing play of light along the top of the hills. I’ve found an area at the base of a cliff to do my first sketches, and am looking at a single ridge. To the left, clouds are beginning to separate, and the sky behind them is still the blue of day. The clouds themselves are dense and dark. To the right, the sky has been fully revealed and the sunset makes its spectacular orange appearance. The range of the sky encompasses all the artist’s warm palette, all of the cool, and even dips into the neutrals of white and grey.
I keep expecting to not be alone. I think I hear footsteps in everything. I look sharply to my left when I think I hear someone coming, only to find that the footsteps are actually wingbeats descending from the ledge above me. Two unnamed birds chase one another down to the flattened floor of the valley. Frantic wasps and gnats move around me in contrast to the slow, laborious clouds. I think about what I’ll do when I go home to the camper tonight; I can write by candlelight.
A woman can be the one with a story.
Today I’ve chosen a poem by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, one of my favorite poets even though I can only really know her work in translation. This poem manages to cover so much distance, to traverse land and sea and the course of a relationship within a few stanzas. The opening of the poem is haunting as the speaker invites me, the reader, to bear witness to her story. Such an opening captures the simultaneous confidence and vulnerability that can accompany any story that comes from a “place of battle”.
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill
Le tusa, pé thú féin,
a thabharfadh cluais le héisteacht,
b’fhéidir, do bhean inste scéil
a thug na cosa léi, ar éigean,
ó láthair an chatha.
Níor thugamair féin an samhradh linn
ná an geimhreadh.
Níor thriallamair ar bord loinge
go Meiriceá ná ag lorg ár bhfortúin
le chéile i slí ar bith
ins na tíortha teo thar lear.
Níor ghaibheamair de bharr na gcnoc
ar chapall láidir álainn dubh.
Níor luíomair faoi chrann caorthainn
is an oíche ag cur cuisne.
Ní lú ná mar a bhí tinte cnámh
is an adharc á séideadh ar thaobh na gréine.
Eadrainn bhí an fharraige mhór
atá brónach. Eadrainn
bhí na cnoic is na sléibhte
ná casann ar a chéile.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
Whoever you are, you are
The real thing, the witness
Who might lend an ear
To a woman with a story
Barely escaped with her life
From the place of battle.
Spring, the sweet spring, was not sweet for us
Nor winter neither.
We never stepped aboard a ship together
Bound for America to seek
Our fortune, we never
Shared those hot foreign lands.
We did not fly over the high hills
Riding the fine black stallion,
Or lie under the hazel branches
As the night froze about us,
No more than we lit bonfires of celebration
Or blew the horn on the mountainside.
Between us welled the ocean
Waves of grief. Between us
The mountains were forbidding
And the roads long, with no turning.