Siar amach, siar go Conamara*

* Away to the west, back to Connemara

It is strange to be going south to the place of my belonging. I have always believed that belonging, for me, is a north-westerly phenomenon; now I find that actually, my internal compass points largely west. North may be a secondary component, but it is strange, nevertheless, to be heading homewards to the south.

I am on the road before 5am, with the sky crisp and the moon almost full. I love to travel in the dark, when the world is largely still asleep; it always feels as if I am travelling through a landscape peopled with the dreams of others. The car rattles, crammed with bedding and crockery, and all the contraptions I imagine I’ll need for the coming year of to-ing and fro-ing, of living here and living there: a year of navigating transience.

I do not take the quickest road, through the flatter lands to the east; I am going home to the mountains, siar amach. And so it is siar amach go Cathair na Mart that I am heading now: away west to Westport. As the sun begins to emerge out of the dark skies, so does Croagh Patrick, to my left. Patrick may have claimed this mountain for himself, but the long history of pilgrimage in this place predates him by millennia. Cruachán Aigle, they called it then, and that is what I call it still. I do not love Patrick; I have no patience with his banishings and revisionings.

Two roads lead south from Westport, and again, I am taking the longer and less travelled. I am going to Doo Lough, along the old famine road; fitting for this pilgrimage I’m on to fill a famine place uncovered in my own heart. I have loved the Doo Lough pass (image above) since I came here first, twenty-five years ago, the blackness of its waters reflecting the blackness of this valley’s human history. I am early, as always; as I pull up at the famine monument to eat a sandwich and drink coffee from my flask, the promised rain begins to fall. I open my window so I can see out, and in a sudden blur of grey and white a solitary heron flies past, low and startlingly close. Old Crane Woman, here too? Come to welcome me home?

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An Lionán (Leenane) is sleepy still as I emerge from the north side of An Caoláire Rua, ‘the red inlet’, the beautiful Killary fjord. A few miles to the east, across two rivers, and I am here, here again, just over the hill from that old stone cottage which was my first love, abandoned as I fled from an impossible husband twenty years ago now. Twenty years is the time it has taken to come home, and although it is to someone else’s cottage that I’ve come for the few months ahead, these mountains are still my home. The Maamturks – from Mám Tuirc, pass of the boar. So many places named after animals. Mám Gamhna, pass of the calf. Mám Ean, pass of the birds. Old haunts, old memories. And to my surprise I in my turn am remembered, twenty years on; remembered and welcomed back, and I am surprised too by how very much that means to me – until I remember that this was the place where, for the first time in my life, at thirty-two years old, I came to understand what community means. I came to belong not only to a place, but to its people.

News travels fast, and as an old friend who has dropped by to say hello admires the patchwork quilt on my bed, I am taken back to those rich days when the women of this remote valley first came together to sit in each other’s scattered houses and sew. Those days in which I so fully participated, I have discovered, are written now into the ‘official’ history of this place. I made that quilt in Kentucky, in 1997, carrying across the sea a skill taught to me by a woman in the township where I am staying. It is a triple Irish chain design, with eight-pointed stars where the chains intersect. Each of the many squares between the criss-crossing chains is painstakingly hand-quilted with a large and complex Celtic knot design. ‘Ladder to the Connemara Stars’, I called it, and I dreamed then that one day I would bring it home. Those dreams faded with the passing years, but now I have brought it home.

It rains for two days as I pace my new lair. Walking myself into its rooms, arranging rugs and dishes and erecting a battered old table salvaged from a shed here in Donegal to serve as a desk. A desk which I’ve set up in the right-angled light of two windows, at which I plan not just to allow the next chapter in my own life to unfold, but to write an entire new book. The Enchanted Life, that book is to be called, and as I look out of one of those windows and up along the road to the well-remembered track to Mám Ean, pass of the birds, home to a holy well and another ancient pilgrimage route, I am thinking that my own life is enchanted indeed.

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27 thoughts on “Siar amach, siar go Conamara*

  1. This telling of your going/coming home brought tears to my eyes, Sharon. It brings joy to my heart to hear that you have gone/come to the place where you will be writing your new/next book. May you enjoy the blessings of the sacred days ahead as the darkness falls deepest and then begins its slow return, no unlike yours to Conamara.

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      1. ‘Participation mystique’ for sure. Can’t imagine it without ‘living and breathing’ with it as one heart. May be you can explore the phenomenon in your new book? That would be interesting to read

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  2. What a wonderful journey. I do love how you write. I’m going to read women rose rooted over xmas. I started it a few months ago but need to start again. Have a lovely time in your new abode x

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  3. As we were too scared to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road when I visited Westport, we did walk, a lot, ride bikes and bus ourselves out to Louisburgh where we met Anne and Kevin and their 2 dogs on the beach where I collected pink marble. Anne and Kevin drove us out to the old cemetery and I sang gaelic chants to the well there instead of Catholic Hymns. Most heart wrenching was the multitude of pointed stones, covered with grass in the old cemetery, which I learned were grave markers for famine victims. For several weeks I saw women and children lying in fields, their faces grass stained from trying to eat grass and survive and wept, knowing these were my family, long ago. Even though we did not get to this road and valley, as soon as I saw the picture, I recognised it. My mothers family immigrated from Connemara and it was there that I found a deep piece of myself. Wonderful piece, enjoy your cottage, quilt and looking forward to your new book.

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  4. Merry Christmas Season to you and a wonderful coming year. I am reading, If Women Rose Rooted, greedily, one page at a time, savouring and hoarding. I feel like a child who has discovered her mothers chocolate stash and if I consume this book slowly it will last beyond the physical page.
    Thank you I hope to give you a hug one day.

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    1. Thank you, Sharon, and a hug would be very welcome should we chance to meet! Even though I am pitifully lacking in the chocolate appreciation gene, I like the idea of representing chocolate to those who are not 🙂

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  5. Thank you for sharing your tale of return! This reminds me of a dream I once had, in which a wise woman told me, “You will find your Shangri la, your will find your Ithaca” Through reading your blog and your book, I am coming to understand the power and comfort these places of old myths represent (even though they’re not Celtic myths). I am beginning to acknowledge that knowing what these places of magic and homecoming mean to us is the first step in the process of finding our way back to them. Thank you. Wishing you a year of deepening and flow. Can’t wait for the new book!

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    1. Oh yes, indeed – all the myths of place are powerful and potentially transformative to those who live in those places; Celtic myths are just one subset. I like your dream. In Irish mythology, the equivalent of Shangri-La or Ithaca would be the Land of Youth, which is also called the Land of Women. Unlike the post-pagan early Christian mythology, it wasn’t just the Land of Promise of the Saints: anyone had the potential to go there. Sainthood not required, just common humanity and a spirit of curiosity and adventure and a love of truth. But yes, as you say a knowledge of what the territory means is a necessary prerequisite for discovering it. Wishing you a year of deepening and flow too, and of finding your own way home.

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  6. Such beautiful, touching words Sharon. I travelled to Ireland for the first time in the nineties…and remember passing through many of the places you have mentioned here. It was so lovely to revisit them in my mind as I sit here on the other side of the world.
    Many blessings to you for Christmas…and the coming new year…may it bring you all that you need ☼

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  7. Oh, beautiful. Your words, and the silent songs of those hills which were home to the dreams of women in my family, although they never walked there, at least not with their feet. I wish you blessings for all the passes you go through and all the thresholds you cross in the richly seeded dark season ahead.

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  8. How lucky you are. Your landscape is almost too beautiful for words. And I look forward to your next book, as ‘If Women Rose Rooted’ was one of my favourite reads from this year. I can’t wait to return to it again, as I am sure even more wisdom will unfold the next time round.

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    1. Thank you, Therese. It’s one of those iconic Celtic landscapes, for sure! And birthing a new book is an excruciating thing at the early stages, but I feel it will be nourished by this place. ‘If Women Rose Rooted’ was the Donegal book; ‘The Enchanted Life’ will be the Connemara book!

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  9. It is good to see the ancient place-names remembered. I see a great many such examples, in the US as well as Ireland, as indigenous people of either land reclaim ancestral names for themselves or their spaces, with the old spellings, despite the overlay of colonial revisions or corruptions. I wish people would look deeper and see the origins of things they take for granted each day. As the Native people of the US say, “We are still here.”

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    1. Hi Kieron – thank you for that, and yes, I live in the Gaeltacht both here in Donegal and in Connemara, and so I am always intent on using the Gaelic names for places and landmarks. As you’ll know, the anglicised names are often either inaccurate (incorrectly transcribed by British mappers) or are colonial replacements for the originals, and don’t truly reflect the long histories of place. Names are important; they’re attached to stories which often have a moral or other teaching component. So I think it’s critically important to respect that.

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      1. I agree completely. When traveling about Ireland as a 20-something, I had hoped to find a map of Ireland, or some regions, with place-names restored. All I found was a slim volume called “Pocket Guide to Irish Place Names” by P.W. Joyce. I like to think such a map is out there somewhere, compiled by a native Irish speaker intent on preserving what remains. My Irish has grown rusty from disuse, I’m sorry to say, although I can still read elementary Irish and figure out place-name origins. YouTube Irish language documentaries, especially by Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, who was born in the Dun na nGall Gaeltacht region, have been good for keeping my pronunciation more accurate.

        Wishing you a blessed Solstice.

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