Weather Report: On Beauty
Post #9: "Thin Places", by Kerri ní Dochartaigh
If you have a copy of my book, Weather Report: A 90-day journal for reflection and well-being, with the aid of the Beaufort Wind Scale, you might have noticed two things; that you are daily invited to write or draw, 'one thing you found beautiful today', and a list of reading resources at the back. These are not unconnected.
This is a year-long project to write weekly, choosing one of the books from that list with a few wildcards too. I want to go deeper into the subject of beauty and, together with you who join me here, to deepen my own understanding of why it is important. Some of the books on the list are very recent; others are long-standing companions that I return to over and over. To me these are the kind of books that, having read them, I can gain solace simply from having them on my shelves.
I see from the pencilled date on the fly-leaf of my copy of Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s Thin Places, that it is almost exactly two years ago since I read it first, in February 2021. It was obvious to me from the first lines that here was a singular voice, a necessary voice, a female voice. A voice that carried within it the unspeakable traumas of living her young life through the euphemistally named ‘Troubles’ in the northern part of the island on which I live, and articulating her experiences in prose that was poetic and moving.
“Memory is like a white moth in flight. Sometimes she comes so close that we can see the light falling into the hidden parts of ancient markings. On other days we cannot see her but we feel the delicate wing-beat down deep, in beside our bones.” (ní Dochartaigh, p. 4)
ní Dochartaigh herself has intimate experience of ‘thin places’ on several levels, those liminal spaces that are neither here nor there, neither completely one thing nor another. Being a child in the city of Derry, of parents from the Catholic and Protestant traditions; the proximity of the all too real but invisible political border that marked off the six counties from the Irish republic; tangentially, and at times directly, marked throughout her childhood and young adulthood by violence, murder and death.
But, she declares, ‘I am not ready to lose another single thing.’ (p. 49) and seeks solace and connection in learning the Irish language (which she was not taught in school) and in nature.
“… in the part of the Gaeltacht where I’d watched the butterflies dancing about the bridge - Cloughaneely - where Irish was, and may still be spoken with strength, butterflies have a different name. [The barista] didn’t know what the name was but she was certain it was specific to that area.
I researched for weeks, eventually finding the name, The Donegal bog word for butterfly is dealan-dé. It has roots in the word ‘fireflaught’, and speaks of the phenomenon observed by shirling a stick lighted at the end: a flash of lightning that comes to you from somewhere closer than the sky. The Donegal Gaeltacht word for butterfly, I discover, is the same word as for the Aurora Borealis: the lights that dance so magically in that liminal place between here and there, then and now, this world and the other. Like the marsh fritillary, my ancestors watched the Northern Lights dance above the vast, wild surface of the earth, imagining that the bog itself had birthed both of these breathtakingly beautiful wonders. (p. 47 / 48)
The power of this memoir is in the beauty of the language and the honesty of ní Dochartaigh’s recounting of the dark legacy she carried, despite moving away from her place of birth and childhood, and moving again and again. She writes of her suicidal ideation, her struggles with alcohol, and personal losses.
Her impulse to turn towards the natural world, observing, noting and learning, is shared with us in writing that has been referred to as luminous. I think it also has a numinous quality, in common with the thin places of the book’s title, shimmering in that place between the sacred and the mundane.
“We are the women of Ireland, and we are breaking the centuries of silence. We are giving wings to the birds in our goddess-born, warrior-strong bodies; these birds are ready to fly.
Oystercatchers made a line out of their flight, as the light made an end to that final day, and I thought of St. Brigid, another border-born female - one that we find in the year’s darkest days… St. Brigid’s day falls midway between the winter solstice and vernal equinox and is celebrated on 1 February. It is a moment in the circle of our year when we can see the light reflecting and refracting, when we breathe out the hardship of the winter to learn that we have been strengthened; we have grown.” (p.161)