* 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?
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.