The West's Awake by Cormac MacConnell
A Childhood Memory Relived
Posted on Wednesday, June 09, 2010 at 02:43 PM
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Alchemy, I bring ye now, pure alchemy, if ye come along the road with me through the stonelands of the far west and then out across the ocean to the Island of the White Cow.
Alchemy? I am going to tell all the many among you readers who were born in the Irish countryside how to shed all the decades between where you are now and when you were nine years old or even younger, all the hurts and pains and learnings that lay ahead when you were that age.
There is something special on the Island of the White Cow that allows you to do that. I s that alchemy or is it not?
We have to go through Galway City and Connemara all the way to Clifden, and sure that is no trouble to anybody who loves beauty. And when we get to Clifden we will not stop at all, but we will swing right out the Westport road, twisting its way around the bony toes of the Twelve Pins, and we will stay on it until we see the sign for Cleggan.
Then we turn left, and inside a few miles we are in that pierside village. Here we will buy tickets for the ferry to the Island of the White Cow, more commonly known as Innishbofin.
We are there in less than a half hour. We travel under the benign brow of Croagh Patrick in the distance, and the mighty Twelve Pins pointing the way.
Since you are traveling with me, then Pat Coyne will be waiting beside his red van on the pier. He wears the rascally face of a pirate under a fisherman's wool cap, and he has the gift of the
He is also the proprietor of one of the island's three hotels (which is a high quota for a small island), and Pat's hotel is the Dolphin, about a half-mile from the pier.
The man drives the old van with all the swash and buckle of a privateer in his prime. The Dolphin is incredibly Hilton-esque in the quality of its rooms and food and drink, and the welcome is as special as the rates are reasonable.
But that is not the alchemy at all. We will come to that at the end of the long day ahead.
Innishbofin is different to all the other west coast islands. It is more cosmopolitan, hence the three hotels, less tangled in the history of its hard yesterdays, more looking forward to the craic of tonight and tomorrow.
An airport is being developed at the other side of the island. It is English-speaking, has a huge arts festival every summer, its ferryboats are always full in season, it is gently beautiful. There are no resident policemen but a strong sense of peace and order and serenity.
There are no echoes of its savage enough past apart from the ruins of the great Cromwellian fort as we steam by. I don't know about you, but I am far more interested in living people and their stories than I am in cold dead stones.
But I do know that Innishbofin was once noted for its savage pirates and its wreckers. And there was a priest that was a pirate!
And the old fort once served as a holding center for captured clergy in Oliver Cromwell's grim reign, and they were held here before being transported to the far colonies of Empire or even worse fates. And the fertile land and seas supported 2,000 souls up until the Great Famine.
There are about 200 residents now, and 10 times that every day of the summer season. But that is not the alchemy either.
We spend the day as we wish. We will certainly visit Murray's hotel about two miles away from Pat's Place, for there is a good lively bar and good food there.
Maybe we want to watch some big sporting event or listen to the live music. We will certainly walk to one of the long and lovely beaches, and we will certainly share some drinks and conversation as we feel our clocks running more slowly.
In the evening we might leisurely repair to Day's fabled hotel for more food, drink and fun. And we will almost certainly finish up in Day's bar nearby where the craic and music gets livelier as the night melds into the small serene hours.
But that is not the alchemy either.
We will walk home under starry skies. We may feel our years on one of the stiff hills, but it is only a short walk to the Dolphin and we are happy.
We go to bed at some hour, the window open, and we are healthily tired and we fall asleep.
And it is some time in the early dawn, in its season, that the alchemy happens and we become eight or nine years old again while still in that limboland between sleeping and waking.
It is the call of the Corncrake! Most of us have not heard that uniquely harsh call since we were children.
The Corncrake has disappeared almost entirely from the mainland because of changed farming practices, the early saving of silage rather than haymaking. But there it survives on the Island of the White Cow.
"Krek-Krek!" is the sound of two dry rough sticks being rubbed together. "Krek-Krek!" is a rusty old machine expiring for lack of oil. "Krek-Krek!" is uniquely harsh, pagan, insistent, annoying.
You are eight or nine and it is summer. You are sent to bed while the evening is still golden, pressing against the curtains closing the room windows. You don't want to be in bed in daylight, and you cannot sleep because of "Krek-Krek!"
Yes, you remember it well. Your short tweed trousers are on the chair beside the bed. Your legs are tanned to above the knee.
You are wearing only a cotton shirt, and the scab on your knee from falling on the road is so itchy you want to scratch it.
Your daddy told you that the Corncrake is a ventriloquist and can throw his voice to far corners of the meadow so that you will be led away from the nest in the long grass.
Out of the drowsiest memories of your childhood as you lie there in the Dolphin, and yes, alchemy of the richest, because you are a child again, comfortably cobwebbed in a timewarp, the soles of your feet tingling with comfort.
And sometime later you will fall asleep still feeling like the child you were so long ago.
Pat will drive us down to the ferry boat in the afternoon. As always he will get there just in time.
It will be with real regret that we leave after only one night on the Island of the White Cow. But we will come back again.
And we will never forget the dawntime hour when we were children again.