close relations

The weather here is like an old coat: familiar. But I’m weary of its chill. Today the cold wind is a broom, endlessly sweeping. Several days of sunshine warranted celebration until the absence of rain began to feel empty. And so there has been rain at last, as pundits predicted. The grass in the paddock I walk through to the studio is blistered with damp. Walking on wet limestone on the hills is treacherous: it’s very slippery and so I measure my tread or wait until the rocks have thoroughly dried before gaining altitude.

Daylight extends past 10 pm and I love watching people walking about in the evenings, popping into the bars in the village. There’s one supermarket and four pubs. The crowd gathers at O’Loćlain’s whiskey bar from 9 and music often starts around 10, but you can never be sure. Last week, word got out that two musicians from Dublin were coming. By 10.30 songs were bouncing off the walls of the small space and I didn’t get out of it lightly. I was instructed to sing something Australian and the only nationalistic song I could think of was Waltzing Matilda (the alternative version). Patrons were welcoming and generous and the visiting song-leader more of a stand-up comedienne than a singer. Folk from Clare (also known as Banner country) will sing ten verses of a ballad without reserve. It’s a practised art.

I tarry in my large, bright studio overlooking the courtyard and round tower house. I’m writing, composing, painting, playing Bach; I’m privileged to be old enough, young enough, rich enough and able enough to be here. Each day is like good coffee or a fine book: endings are a disappointment. There are groups of visiting artists hovering in studios alongside the gallery at the college, taking classes on looking at the Burren. Their teachers are painters and BCA lecturers, past and present, who know this remarkable landscape and have exhibited internationally. The two other artists-in-residence head to their studios each day to probe their imaginations towards production: one in sound, the other paint. We hover in conversations outside the café, on weekend breaks from “work” and in our dwellings.

Swallows swirl past the windows looking for nesting potential. They’ve moved away from the tower at the request of Robert the concierge. The Burren is a sanctuary for birds. although many are in decline due to loss of habitat. Last week, and again today, I heard the first cuckoo in spring, moaning for a mate. Now I understand why Frederick Delius wrote his tone poem On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. It’s like a call to attention. Mary, the college president, told me that by the end of summer the cuckoo’s moan becomes a raspy, feeble drone. Does that signify cohabitation? They remain hidden from view so who can verify relationships? I’ve purchased a pocket book on European birds to try and identify a mysterious call I heard on the hill behind the college yesterday. I thought it was a machine: two loud, low tones of the same pitch and five minutes between calls. Too industrial-sounding for a cuckoo; similar to a lyrebird in mimic. But the book has not so far enlightened me. Tonight I’ll be attending a talk on trees by a Burren arborist…he may know the bird call.

I’m reading American-Irish writer Rebecca Solnit’s A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland, her journal of walks, talks and history in the west and south coast.  It’s a wonderful read. Rebecca and I have each acquired Irish passports thanks to a grandparent who lived here and the generosity of the Republic. (To now obtain a passport in Britain your father has to have been born in the UK: a misogynist development?). Ireland, the country that claims us, invites exploration, to muse on what Solnit calls “mythologies of blood, heritage, and emigration”. It’s hard to know which of those three mythologies (and historiographies) figure most in this land. There’s a continuum of movement and stability here that’s hard to define or understand. Almost everyone I meet has either lived in the USA or has relatives there. Many have family in the UK, Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There are very few with dark skin. I plunge into reverie, thinking on whiteness and the assumed privilege of the western world and on the obstacles for refugees to gain entry into USA, Europe or Australia. When my grandmother emigrated to New York from Ulster before the First World War - a (white) poverty refugee - she required no visa or passport. How would she go now? Irish immigrants are treated well now, compared to post-Famine when they were often locked out of employment or given the lowliest of jobs, as were so many with dark skins. Many Irish immigrants kept strong ties with Ireland and the Irish language (and continue to do so); it was partly due to the American-Irish sporting club (GAA) financially supporting homelands that Ireland gained independence in 1922. Ulster of course remains an anomaly of Europe (soon to be in exit with Brexit). Is a United Ireland immanent? And will skin colour become less homogeneous?

In Tasmania narratives of black and white relations are mostly of white domination but there are courageous stories of indigenous activism and hope that continue. When French explorer Marion Dufresne came to Tasmania’s east coast in 1772, contact is reputed to have been initially friendly. I imagine a new story: Aboriginal landowners reaching out a hand of welcome. From what little I know of the encounter, visiting French sailors and the residents of Cape Frederick Henry Bay had conversations and exchanged gifts; but sadly, violence to the Aborigines then ensued. And what then? The British, in 1788, decided on a penal colony in Van Dieman’s Land to pre-empt French settlement. How different Australia would be had the indigenous residents set the rules for entry, engagement and citizenship. The significance of the fight to protect takayna/the Tarkine on the west coast of Tasmania is a call to justice and collaboration for a land embedded with stories and land-marks of the people who lived there a very long time.

There’s a sense of return here on the west coast of Ireland: each day the number of tour buses seems to increase as days lengthen and warm up. I hear American accents and wonder how many of these visitors are curious about ancestral homes like I am. Place is a flexible state of mind; or discreetly obscure, like the cuckoo’s.

 The garden at the Perfumery, Burren uplands

The garden at the Perfumery, Burren uplands

 Ballyvaughan, looking along the Atlantic Way towards Black Head and Fanore

Ballyvaughan, looking along the Atlantic Way towards Black Head and Fanore