I’ve been a bit obsessed by islands recently. It’s not a new obsession; after all, for many years I lived on the remote, storm-bound Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. It’s hard not to think about islands when you’re stalking the wild edges of one every day. But these days, I’m obsessing about islands as Otherworlds, because this has been a strong focus of the first part of my Master’s degree in Celtic Studies. Although little of this is material I haven’t read or worked with before, I’m loving the opportunity to delve deeper into the meanings, make new connections, then weave these threads into my ongoing work. From the magical, Otherworldly stories in the gloriously rich Welsh Mabinogion to the great Otherworldly voyages, the immrama and echtraí of early Ireland, I am overwhelmed, as I always am, by the depth and richness of our native mythology.
There will for sure be more stories of the Otherworld here to come in the months ahead. But for now, I’d like to share another island with you: Achill Island, in the west of the beautiful county of Mayo – a county which once was a second home to me when I lived in north Connemara, a good couple of decades ago now. Achill is connected to the mainland by a bridge, so it’s not too remote. And yet it feels as if it is, here on the gale-ridden far west coast where I am hunkered down in a cosy cottage by a long beach, taking a week-long ‘retreat’ to incubate some ideas.
Part of Achill lies in the Mayo Gaeltacht; there is a small Irish-speaking area where you’ll hear a dialect which seems to be formed of a curious mix of Connaught and Ulster Irish. There are old island threads here which explain that mix, creating a cultural tapestry into which I have become deeply woven during my long years haunting these western seaboards of Scotland and Ireland. The ancient cultural and linguistic ties between the Gaelic-speaking islands and west coast of Scotland and Donegal (which account for the similarities between Scottish Gaelic and Ulster Irish) are reflected again further south on Achill, where the Ulster influence on its dialect arose because many Ulster families took refuge here during the Cromwellian clearances. And so the threads of many years of my life stretch in a sea-soaked, Gaelic-infused line from Lewis to Donegal, and now have snaked their way down to Achill, and come to rest for all too short a time in a place which feels like home.
I chose a tiny cottage from a website almost at random, wanting nothing more than to be able to see and walk to the beach – not a difficult thing on this small island, where all of the houses cling tight to its edges like lovers who cannot bear to be separated from the sea. I expected to find the sea; what I didn’t expect was to find so many enchantments on my doorstep. So walk with me for a while on this west coast of Achill, where the beautiful cathedral cliffs of Minaun dominate the landscape to the south, and the steep slopes of Slievemore dominate it to the north. To the west, there is only the sea. The sea, and the misty islands of the Otherworld; those seas where Bran once sailed, lured by the promise of a Silver Branch and the strange, unearthly music of a beautiful woman.
Step out of the house, and soon you’ll find yourself on the beach. Turn towards the cliffs, and start walking. There’s a strong salt spray; two days ago the storm winds would have knocked you off your feet, but today the sky is clear and the air is calm. Towards the end of the beach, as you approach the great cliffs, you’ll find a cillín, straddling the threshold between land and sea.
Cillín: ‘little cell’, ‘little churchyard’ or ‘little burial ground’; an unconsecrated burial place for children unbaptised at the time of death. Suicides, shipwrecked sailors, strangers, urepentant murderers and their victims were also sometimes buried in cillíni; some of them are more than a thousand years old. I do not know who, if anyone, is buried here, but their view beats anything that might be found in a churchyard.
Just inland from the cillín, set in the shelter of the cliffs, is a miracle. A labyrinth! – right there on the beach, looking out west, a seven-stage classical labyrinth, its pathways lined with beach-stones. Walk into the centre of the land, which is the centre of yourself; what is it that you’ll find there? What will you bring back out?
Just when you think there couldn’t possibly be any more treasures to find, you’ll happen upon the holy well.
Sit at its base for a while; listen to the voice of the well. The old story tells that the Voices of the Wells were silenced long ago, when King Amagons and his men raped the well-maidens, and the land became a Wasteland. But they are not lost, the Voices of the Wells; the Voices of the Wells are women. Sit for a while, and listen to the waters. The gushing flow of the well in one ear; the crashing of the waves in the other. Perhaps, if you are lucky, as I was; perhaps, if you sit so still and so quiet that you merge into the stony landscape, a tiny wren will hop onto a rock right next to you, and sing a long and complex song as it drinks from the hollows of the rock around the well. This is the music of the Otherworld. This is how you find the Otherworld, here in the threshold places. The Otherworld is always with us, if you know how to draw aside the veil and see.
Later, if the weather is kind, climb up the steep green slopes and make your way along the top of the cliffs. It is a journey you will not forget. Old Bone Mother has been here; these are the places she loves best.
If you should find yourself on this path – for there are paths to be found even in the unlikeliest of places –
– you might discover this beautiful hollow, at the top of the great waterfall which plunges down by the holy well.
Sit for a while; sing a song. The land loves to hear our voices.
When you’re done, go just a little further, fighting your vertigo, and you’ll see below you the line of beautiful cliffs.
Climb a little higher, and you can look out finally to the Otherworldly island, way off in the distant sea. Tír na mBan, the Isle of Women? You’ll need a coracle to find out.
There it is, laid out before you. Do you know now why you’ve come?