homing ruminations

Why does travel generate comparisons? Perhaps because we carry within us traces of many places and deep residues of ‘home’. And so we fling our memories of the recently left precious-place into experience of the new-and-strange and mark off the balance sheet. And then there’s imagined space, such as the lingering memory of a childhood beach or farm holiday that re-emerges as a longed-for-place that we might fantasise as potential home. I often imagine, and am delighted when I find it, a long grassy pathway leading to a secluded house surrounded by hedges and fields. My favourite holidays as a child were spent on a farm like that, in the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria. The Burren College and its tower have that quiet, reclusive quality made all the more enticing by the narrow hedged lane that takes you there.

These examples are meagre and too generalised; there are many layers and potentials to lived experience of space, place and home. For me, a sense of Home rises like Phoenix whenever I move away from the familiar. I begin to compare and drop quickly into a cauldron of past, present and future: sometimes it’s longing etched with regret; or it might be eagerness for something new that swiftly becomes uncomfortable. Here, in the Burren, I’m in the stir, the stew, the longing: the inevitable intersection of place with time. Already a week has passed and I can feel my roots pushing down, only to be dug up in three weeks’ time. Will I feel at home by then? Or lost?

And here I go again, comparing Ireland (a ‘could-be’, ‘would-be’ home) to Tasmania (my ‘chosen’ home). Both islands share tragic and reclaimed histories and spectacular and fragile landscapes, and many more differences and similarities of course. What about climate? The weather here on the west coast is changeable and generally cool. Temperatures are lower on average than in Tasmania due to the cold winds off the Atlantic and the relative higher latitude. I haven’t experienced a winter here. I imagine long dark days with frosts in the valleys, snow on the hills and slicing winds. But locals say it was mild this year. And today the spring sun is warm and constant.

So, I’m asking questions about climate change in this part of the planet. What is the impact on Ireland? Will this carpet of green ever be in drought? The water table is so high here that if you walk through fields you have to watch out for karst places, where the limestone has dissolved and sink holes suddenly appear (into which you might disappear). When it doesn’t rain here the weather report is “dry”, like it’s a rare phenomenon. The vendors at the craft market today said it won’t last, this sunny weather, and that the extended “dry” is unusual. I can’t imagine a brown Ireland.

And in Tasmania: we had an autumn almost like summer: no rain and brown. On the east coast, as the water warms, the kelp is rapidly receding, its roots decimated by invading urchins. The hairdresser in Belfast told me that as the temperatures have increased the weather has worsened in Ireland: more changes and cloud cover and frequent rain. On the west coast, in co Clare, the manifestations of a warming world are still a mystery to me but a quick search of scientific articles supports that an increase in pests, higher temperatures and poorer weather in general are all impacting on farming and loss of biodiversity.

It's as if time is reducing to what will keep us alive: hope, action and trees.

looking from the second floor of the tower

looking from the second floor of the tower

Rocking in the Burren

I don’t know much about geology but when I remember the west coast of Tasmania, particularly takayna/the Tarkine so recently visited, and compare it to being here on the west coast of Ireland, it is rock that marks both places in my consciousness. The Burren landscape (from the Irish boireann meaning stony) is pebble beaches, sheer cliffs and grey-blue hills rolling towards the horizon. After a few days here I’m still startled by the absence of trees on these stony mounds. But on my walk up onto the rock slabs beneath the terraces and cliffs, I’m delighted by minutiae in the joints of the limestone: orchids, gentians and other wildflowers classified as rare in a local botanical guide. I look across the wide land, a spectator like so many others who walk up on this high ground. The grassy valleys below are mapped with narrow winding roads, farm buildings, ancient ruins and villages. The green is like a clanging against the muted grey hills.

Takayna’s coastline is wild, dark and remote: black and red boulders border the sand hills where Aboriginal middens, holiday humpies and off-road-vehicle tracks signify human habitation. The rocks are jagged, striated and conglomerate, the remains of centuries of movement. Inland, rainforests of 800 year-old Myrtle trees, rare plants and endangered fauna (like the giant freshwater crayfish) persist in fragile uncertainty. The contrast to the Burren couldn’t be more marked; yet both ecosystems and histories of home need protection. The infiltration of tourism, mining, logging and poor land management reduces both these landscapes to colonisation and consumption.

I’m thinking and reading about space, place, belonging, exile and home in my continuing quest for belonging, whatever that means. As American-Indian writer Carol Bigwood has said: Home is a nomadic place but a place of belonging nevertheless.  Here in Ireland there is genetic knowledge, a sense of connection to place through family history yet I live in exile, on an island on the other side of the world. I would need to live here for years to know it as home but I pretend it is. I’m sitting in a café looking towards the grey hills, surrounded by every shade of green imaginable. I’m feeling like a nomad as I attempt to express any meaning of sense of place in words. The wind off the sea is cold and the Irish voices nearby are animated, pleasant, welcoming yet foreign. On the wall is a large mural of a koala and a kangaroo. I’m aware of contrasts and contiguities everywhere: this village is both parochial and international, like the surprises emerging from the rocks and dales cohabiting. Home is in the mind.

from above Newton Tower, Burren Art College

from above Newton Tower, Burren Art College

takayna/Tarkine coast

takayna/Tarkine coast

West Coast


The Burren, County Clare, on the west coast of Ireland, near Galway Bay: rumoured to be inclement and cold yet today is the third day of bright sunshine and clear skies. The Burren hills are vast bald mounds of limestone rock that change hue from grey to purple as the light shifts, creating a sense of impermanence in the Neolithic environment.

I look from my studio towards a round tower-house settled on a square buttress: the 16th century Newton Castle. It’s designed so that if rocks were dropped from above they would bounce off the flat walls: a defence strategy contingent on getting rocks up a steep flight of stairs in the first place. Along the staircase are “murder holes” for dropping hot metal onto intruders below. The tower has four “rooms”, stacked one above the other, each of them round with small windows looking north, south, east and west and with low timber doorways that can catch you unawares as you enter.  The ceilings of the rooms are rough: wattle and daub, whitewashed with limestone, except for the top room which has a ceiling that’s a majestic wooden cone re-built twenty years ago from architectural guesswork. It’s a magnificent piece of engineering. The beams soar towards a central point that from the outside looks like a teetering ball and inside, a delicate web.

I’m improvising in each room, beginning with the ground floor. It’s cold in there so I wear an extra coat. Sometimes a swallow or martin chatters at the doorway.

North East towards West

Belfast. Hooray! When I arrive here today from the Dublin airport by car, I’m met by an icy wind, rain, hail. The girl in the café where I shelter until it passes says: “Oh! that’s Belfast. The sun will be shining in a moment.” And she’s right. Blue sky jostles the clouds briefly but the wind is still chilling.

The city has a hybrid quality, perhaps because I’m projecting the sectarian and political past onto my experience of it.  There are many skin colours, languages and accents here. It’s not just a Presbyterian//Catholic village. I’m bemused and confused by the chaotic inner city road junctions as I try to find my hotel. I spin around the CBD for over an hour, occasionally pulling into illegal parking spots to try and get my bearings. Even with the GPS I’m lost, until I stop and ask a woman for directions. In what is such typical Irish fashion, she goes to great lengths to make sure I know where it is I’m heading. “Over there, Dunagall Rd. Near that rusty-looking building. Keep to the left mind as you go around the round-about.”

But I didn’t and had to circle again to get it right. Finally, the hotel emerges in a road I’ve travelled down at least twice already. It was there all the time. The adrenaline subsides. I’ll have a bed for the night, which, with all things jet lag considered, is saying something to be sure.

Leaning west and on to...

What is West? I lean into (or onto) something that summons while it connotes: a paradigm. Can I remain within (or without) those frames? Am I too sensitive to connotation? I am travelling west to experience places so why be caught in the net of cultural and political artefact? Because everything is cultural and political. Even landscape?

The land/scapes of western Tasmania and western Ireland are geographical positions, lands that pause at edges creased by the sea. Rivers flow into the sea, across ecosystems that merge and diverge. Diversity is always present...

Leaning West

Soon I will travel to Ireland’s west coast, to the Burren, to its escarpments, castles, and narrow winding roads. I will enter a landscape unprepared for what it may offer my senses and imagination. For four weeks I will look, listen, smell, taste, and move within its physical and emotional borders.

What is this imaginal space? From here, in south east Tasmania, I imagine a grey sky, a steady cold wind and rain. The grass will be green along the roadsides and in the fields. Rocks will persist, broken by gulfs of gorse and blackberry. I base these assumptions on my experience of Connemara, a short distance north, across Galway Bay, where, in Leitir Mealláin (Lettermullen) last year, I walked on narrow roads between flat grey rocks that rose like over-inflated cushions in neglected fields of weeds. And hearsay: oh only rocks there in the Burren, but unique.

I’m preparing myself for something harsh and damp. Nothing like the dryness of Provence with its limestone cliffs, terracotta homes, heat haze and dominant blue skies. The Burren will be green and grey. Before I muster my energy for the long flight and driving I will head to Tasmania’s west coast, to the Tarkine, a space too of rock, cold winds and green but with forests and sand and very few houses. There I will reflect, revive my senses and take my memories, in my body, to the Burren.