From the edge of the Cliffs of Moher, the sea seemed full of serpentine secrets. Do you remember? The lick of sea foam was barely discernible from such a distance; I could feel the rock beneath me falling apart, stones crumbling with their edges scraping the lines of my palms. The wind was whipping and every nook of the hemisphere was filled with the dull roar of ocean battering and grinding away at the base of the cliffs far below. My feet were hanging, swinging, over the edge. The sea was hundreds of feet away.
There is a sudden understanding that occurs. It is felt in the bone. I am sitting there and I am peering over the edge and my body is tilted forward and I am but a marionette under the influence of the wind. I think of the fragility of the human body, the doomed fight against time and the brittleness of bones. And then, an echo of a realization that turns into a rapture that boils the blood, a simple statement that screams and lingers:
What a thrilling thing it is to be alive!
The convenience of the airport may ward some American travelers off from extensive travel by bus, rail, or sea in Europe. The flight from London to Dublin is an hour long. The train schedules and the terminals can be confusing. Why undergo the hassle of two trains, a stopover in a Welsh port town and a ferry? The answer falls somewhere along the lines of that old adage, it’s the journey that makes the destination worthwhile.
A plane ride can be scenic, sure, but traveling by rail exposes the traveler to native architecture and landscape and from the various stopovers the culture, the language, the dress of a foreign people from a much more accessible vantage point. The train as it is in Europe is just as modern as any other, but the history of it seems to go farther back and there is a ritual of sitting by the window and staring at the subtle shifts in landscape to conceal any voyeuristic tendencies. The utmost pleasure of the train, after all, comes from making inferences, playing Sherlock Holmes, listening in on hushed conversations and observing passengers.
There are nine sheep per every human inhabitant in Wales. This is evident by the endless stretches of pasture dotted with tufts of white. Not that you’d know, from up in a plane.
We would arrive at Dublin Port in the early evening, on a ferry from Wales.
The ferry, playing host to a surprising abundance of nationalities and languages, took longer than expected. It was a mammoth buoyant beast. I watched families drive up the ramp into the attached garage, descending from SUVs in droves. The waters were rough, choppy, almost as if pulling us back inland. That inherent tug backwards, that feeling one gets when brandishing the human will against the great force of nature to make way where one should not go, it made sense of those great tall tales of faerie folk that did much to obscure the Irish green from hordes of invading men from Europe.
After departure, we stood outside on the deck awhile and laughed. It is a great feeling, a necessary feeling, that feeling of smallness. The feeling of smallness here, on the ferry, was fearful, buoyed by the thought of the triumph of human ingenuity and the quiet discomfort that followed, buzzing in the skull. Still, to take in the sight of it, the approaching coastline of the abundantly green island of Ireland. It seemed a Tolkien land, a land of rich golds and every possible hue of green. Ireland, yes, it is a study of green. I thought of the many seafarers that had seen this same sight; I was connected to them by this image.
We snuck into first class, on the second floor of the ferry, and nestled our heads inconspicuously into the velvety red fabric of the chairs behind us.
The rest of our trip was accompanied by a gentle rocking that lulled me to sleep. The sight of Wales receding, shrouded in demure fog, lifted itself into dreams of Vikings and spilled blood that had long since dissipated in the sea spray.
In Dublin, we walked much, we saw the church of St. Patrick, we went to Dublin Castle, to the Beatte Library.
There was a colossal, inflatable, impressively-long slide next to a castle with an exhibition on the Vikings. People of all ages, genders were lined up in towels and swimsuits, most without shoes, the soles of their feet making smacking sounds against the cement. Weren’t they cold, you’d wonder. It was 67 degrees. Then again, Ireland has a mild climate, it rarely snows, and the highest temperature ever recorded was 91 degrees two hundred years ago. This was real Summer, so playful in comparison to the sweaty urban heat of mid-July, the poorly air-conditioned subways and the high A/C bills.
We concluded our night with a dinner and drinks in the Temple Bar area, the most touristy area of Dublin. The dimly-lit side streets were crammed with people drinking pints of Guinness outside of pubs with doors and windows open to let the air in and the music out. Strings of red, green, and white triangles hung in rows above our heads; groups took turns posing against a painted version of Ireland’s proclamation of independence, a rallying cry for revolution. We found a couple of stools, wobbly on the cobblestone, placed our drinks on aged wooden barrels and laughed without speaking. It was a Sunday night and we were alive in Dublin.
We went to bed early, on account of us having to wake up at five in the morning. I slept easily and dreamt of pints of sheep.
Galway has a population of seventy-two thousand and half of its population is enrolled in tertiary education. As such, the city has a very distinct character.
Melodies drift from student musicians, tap-dancers, and singers. Every crevice of the city has been aged by history that is now revered as legend and passed on as anecdote. There is a park with a row of flags hung high, proudly bearing family house crests and colors.
Most stories told to us by Paul are ones of misfortune and misery, lightened only by his distinctly Irish delivery. One pub was once upon a yesteryear a castle given to an Irishman for cutting off the English king’s head — the pub, today, is aptly named “The King’s Head”. Another building (also a castle) had a rather strange and undecipherable statuette on its exterior — the story behind it being thus:
“Several centuries ago, there was a noble couple inhabiting this castle. One day, a fire broke out — the couple escaped the raging inferno only to realize (a little too late) that they forgot their baby inside. Thankfully, the couple’s pet chimpanzee exited the castle minutes later with their baby cradled in his arms. Decades later, when the child was fully grown, he commissioned an Irish artist to immortalize the chimpanzee as thanks for saving him from that fire — but the Irish artist, knowing little of what a chimpanzee actually looked like, made a poor depiction of the event.”
Paul the tour guide became Paul the bus driver became Paul the storyteller and the feeling in the air was the same as that of a transcontinental family road trip.
And such stories did he tell us, such stories! First, of the origins of Ireland and of the faerie folk whom he aptly compared to the elves in Lord of the Rings. He said, “They seemed to us quite immortal, but that was only because they lived for so long.” He said, “They were the first people of Ireland and they cultivated the land under the principle that they were borrowing the land from their children.” And then, he said, “And when they heard of menfolk coming from the European lands, they shrouded Ireland in a mist so thick it left many invaders stranded in the violent seas. But menfolk are ferocious creatures, greedy by their nature and eventually they found Ireland after all. And there was a great war that was fought for centuries and it ravaged the land.”
The war ended with a truce, an agreement between the two species — the menfolk would take the Aboveworld and the faerie the Underworld. And so many Irish men and women still believe that the faerie roam among them, that they leave the Underworld from time to time to make certain that the menfolk to which they gave the Aboveworld have not abused the land that was gifted to them, the land that remains today as some of the most anomalous, most fertile, most green land on this Earth.
And so, said Paul, “If you encounter someone strange, someone just a bit off, someone with a shimmer in their eye, they might just be the descendant of the first inhabitants of Ireland, they might just be one of the faerie.”
If one has little appreciation for nature, one must immediately go to Ireland and travel southward. The magic rests in the soil, in its ph, and everywhere one sees plant life from temperate zones next to plant life from the desert next to plant life from the arctic; that is, not only can everything survive in Ireland, somehow, by Ireland’s own nature, everything grows here. It is not hard to imagine the beginning of life here, the beginning of all the species of flora and the eventual and unwanted dispersion of them outward.
Perhaps all places on Earth have distinct feelings attached to them. In New York, I remember, in the early days when I still lived in Manhattan there was that soaring in the chest whenever I would find myself on the street in the early morning. People were doing things, going places, and that made me feel like I was doing the same too. Eventually, this feeling faded, the novelty of the city wore off and what was once soaring become instead a chaotic cacophony that left a painful ringing in the ear.
Dozens of tour buses were parked at the Cliffs. There were people everywhere. This was unexpected. Though I had imagined a more intimate experience, I had to give into the camaraderie of it all. There was a point beyond which there was no railing, no safety precaution. A yellow, triangular sign screamed WARNING! EROSION! The path beyond this was well-trodden, the warning ignored. We followed a couple, lining up and ducking under the railing. The man got down on one knee and proposed. There were congratulatory squeals from friends behind us.
I climbed down onto a sizeable ledge, safe from the crowds but not from the couple of idle risk-takers. It was good enough. I sat down, squeezed my legs up against my chest and began scooting with increasing fervor toward the edge. Once there, I unfurled my legs and looked down.
Yes! In that moment, there it is, that understanding! It is indescribable, this understanding, the arrival of it is marked by a slam of the insides against the flesh and then, then one is awake!
I sit with this understanding and for a flash, I known the purpose of life. This understanding is gained from staring into the abyss that is the ocean, from feeling small, from disappearing into the world, from abandoning the ego, from submerging oneself in the id. This enlightenment is there and then as quickly as it comes, it is gone.
Remember the tale that Paul told us? The one of the faerie that took as their place of habitation, the Underworld? So said Paul: “There are five portals to the Underworld in Ireland; Doolin is one of them.”
It seems pertinent to mention that though Doolin is a small village, it has one restaurant, two cafes, one bookstore, one chocolate shop, and six pubs. T he Irish are a strange sort of alcoholic, the right sort of alcoholic; most drink to be happy, the Irish drink because they are happy. There is a difference. And if they are not drunk off of happiness, they are drunk from the vitality of the sun, which is never present in the sky (it rains three hundred days of the year in Ireland) but always present in the vast green expanses that are everywhere and in the sea which always seems to be nearby.
We ate at a pub in Doolin. Does it really surprise you that the one restaurant in Doolin happens to be housed in a pub?
Afterwards we walked to the sea, to the rocky coastline and sat amongst the jagged slabs of stone. We stripped to our underwear and sunbathed. It was an unnaturally warm day for Ireland, and the weather, the sun beating down on our shoulders, the wind slapping our hair back against our cheeks, it seemed to be such especially for us.
Hours later, we made our way back through the village and up the hills. Wherever there wasn’t path or house there was pasture, and wherever there was that there was either a horse or cow nearby. Irish steeds and cattle are like everything else in Ireland: rich in fur and satisfied in bulk. The silage in the bunkers does undergo fermentation, after all. Drunk cows are happy cows.
We found a ledge far above the sea, nestled into the face of a much smaller cliff. From where we rested one could see the much taller Cliffs of Moher off in the distance to the left and the village of Doolin, not so far off, down to the right. The sun sat in between them making its descent across the sky. We burrowed into the grass of the ledge, our bodies encircling each other as the heat from the air was dispersed by the oncoming ocean fog. We felt the cold of it. The ground became warmer, nocturnal. An irrevocable pull towards the Earth, to fall asleep in the grass, possessed me. We were in Tolkien’s land, we were hobbits with our feet planted in the dirt.
Night fell and with it, the whole of the fog. Anything beyond the coastline disappeared.
Through the holes in the lace of the curtains I can see the laundry outside, hanging on the line, billowing. There are mugs brimming with steaming tea and mason jars full of honey waiting for us at the wooden tables.
The trek from the cottage is more of the same. Pristine skies with spontaneous marshmallow clouds, grazing cattle and the random car or resident walking her dog. We gather flowers as we walk. We make bouquets of them, outfitting them with stray pieces of wheat stalk and straw. The road that leads us to the Cliffs is more busy; cars drive around us and our backpacks. Funny thing, how a whole trip, a whole lifetime, can fit in a backpack.
We have an hour before our bus arrives. I take the path up the other side of the Cliffs, alone, and notice a memorial. A quick Google search reveals the sordid details: suicides, plenty of them, some with cars left in the parking lot, some with notes, some with bodies washing up months, a year after death. I feel a sudden anger; it seems sacrilegious to kill yourself at a national landmark. This is a place of magic, inexplicable. How could it warrant such tragedy, such anger, such woe? In the same moment, I understand. I, too, wouldn’t mind dying in Ireland.
I leave my bouquet on the stone wall overlooking the Cliffs. I am sure that not long after I left them there, not long after we took our seats on that bus leaving Ireland, the flowers were swept away along with my hair tie, into the sea. I think about this sometimes. I think about the flowers floating there, the violets and the yellows and the greens and the magentas swallowed by the ocean rough but still struggling against it, still drifting on against the current.