by Rachel Dickinson
You know how it is when you visit a place, then a decade later try to reconstruct the past. You remember it one way but an older iteration of the little notebook you always carry tells you something different. I like my reconstruction better. It takes out the “and then we did this and then we did that.” It removes messy details. It collapses time and space. In my mind, two days and two Irish islands become one day filled with birds and talking, culminating in a sweat-dripping night of reels. My old notebook did provide the name of one of the Irish reels – The Siege of Ennis aka The Feed of Guinness – a musical clue that sent me to YouTube and set my foot a tapping.
On a trip to Ireland mid-summer 2007, on the morning when the horrifying news of the London bombing was spreading from cell phone to cell phone, I was on a ferry from Baltimore, County Cork, in the southwest of Ireland, for the short hop to Sherkin Island. Sherkin was one of perhaps a hundred islands and islets crowding Roaring Water Bay. Population around a hundred, Sherkin (like all of Ireland) was home to stories including how a Franciscan Abbey became a fish palace (a place for smoking fish) and how a bottlenosed dolphin named Fungie, who had been coming into Dingle Harbor for the past twenty years, performed miracles by curing people of mental and physical illnesses. I liked the sound of the latter and wondered what I had to do to get an audience with the sea mammal.
A dedicated birder of very moderate skill, I was looking forward to crossing the tiny island and dropping in on quirky Sherkin Island Marine Station. I say quirky—a word I don’t use lightly—because the marine station was the brainchild of one man who refused to take any kind of state funding so that no one could tell him what to do. Matt Murphy and his wife came to Sherkin in 1971 because, well, he’s the kind of guy who would want to move to an island. His philosophy for life on Sherkin was simple. “I’ve always been a loner. You come to live on Sherkin, and you mind your own business.”
Since 1975 Murphy and at least some subset of his seven kids have, every day, monitored the phytoplankton in the bay. I don’t really know the importance of phytoplankton but I do know that collecting any kind of data over time will give you a good picture of what’s going on in your environment. As Murphy said, “We just gather the data,” and he leaves it up to others to interpret what it means. Over the years, he’s attracted a dedicated crew of volunteers who also count and survey the micro-fauna, butterflies, and birds who land on or fly past his tiny island.
Murphy, who clearly didn’t suffer fools gladly, said, “Every day is different. The colors are different. One day the bay could be covered with mist, the next the clouds could be pulled half-way down to the horizon. What more could you want?”
At that point, when I started asking about his collections that spilled out of boxes and book shelves and crowded table tops, the other people in my group wandered out of the low-slung house that served as the marine station headquarters. They watched waves roll through the dark blue water in front of them and then smash into the base of a cliff. I glanced at some of the 60,000 water samples, 4,000 micro-fauna specimens, and innumerable log books of daily observations of the birds that cruised past. I looked in dismay at the curmudgeonly keeper of the data hoping there were enough people around him to keep the controlled chaos from reaching Dickensian proportions.
As we walked back across the island to catch a ferry we ran into a handsome young man and his family on the path. They were headed to the marine station. He was a member of the Irish Parliament for the Green Party and liked to periodically check in with Murphy.
Another man passed us with binoculars slung round his neck. A middle-aged research bum from Edinburgh with bad teeth, he went from project to project offering his services as an expert birder. He said that Murphy told him he was the best birder he’d ever worked with. So year after year he came back to bird the island and record his findings in a log book.
We took the ten-minute ferry ride to Cape Clear (Oilean Cleire), a Gaeltacht or Irish speaking island. Cape Clear, three miles long and one and a half miles wide, is the southernmost inhabited island in Ireland. The population has been steadily declining since 1841 when it peaked at 1,052. Today there are 105. Cape Clear is a mecca for birders because of the incredible numbers of birds that can be seen passing by during migration.
It was hotter than hades on Cape Clear that July day and I was sweating bullets by the time we trudged up the small hill from the ferry to a collection of houses and shops. We stopped at Ciaran Danny Mikes Pub for a pint and I sat at the bar next to an older man, Chuck Kruger. We exchanged pleasantries and I remarked that his accent seemed different from the other islanders I’d spoken to. Chuck and his wife bought a farm and moved to Cleire in the early 1990s when he left a teaching post at the American School in Zurich. Since living on Cleire he had written several books of poetry (“I’ve put more death in my work as a result of an illness”) and collections of short stories. Chuck also started the Cape Clear Island International Storytelling Festival in 1994, which is still going strong.
“But that doesn’t really explain your accent,” I said.
“I’m from Auburn, New York.”
“That’s thirty miles from where I grew up!”
“I went to Hamilton College.”
“So did I!”
We just looked at each other and, at least in my mind, I was 2,000 miles west running through the grassy childhood paths of home in upstate New York and over the red shale walkways of the tiny college we had both attended. The moment didn’t require comment, just another sip of Guinness.
My memory of the rest of that day involves rescuing a stone chat (little bird) that was flying around the B&B where we stayed and releasing it into the garden and then walking along a dusty path on the spine of the island where I could see ocean and other islands in every direction. When I shut my eyes, time collapsed and the intense heat faded and I was back home in the familiar landscape of green hills, red barns, and fields of hay brought on, I’m sure, by my conversation with Kruger.
That night, as I lay in my bed, I could hear music coming from somewhere up the hill. I got up, dressed, and entered a hot night that was dark dark dark even though there were a million stars pricking the velvety darkness that was pulled down snug to the horizon on all sides. I followed the gravel path toward the music and found myself at what looked like a house with a big porch where twenty-somethings were hanging out and playing guitar and drinking. I went inside and entered a bar. I got a pint and muscled my way into the next room, which was long and narrow and jammed with people. In the corner were three men playing an accordion, a pennywhistle, and a bodhran. A huge man who I recognized as the ferry driver, was calling directions for the reels. I managed to get a spot against the wall and watched as the room seemed take on a kind of life as the music and caller propelled dancers into twirling and spinning and holding hands while sidestepping around in small circles.
“Next is the Siege of Venice,” shouted the sweating ferryman during a pause in the music. “Only here it’s known as the Feed of Guinness!” Everybody shouted and laughed and twirled and spun and I felt the room breathe a soft sigh as the wooden floor moved up and down with the dancers. And I closed my eyes and felt pulled toward the cooling waters of the bay with the beautiful name and the islands with their collection of characters and birds and phytoplankton. I could almost understand how a man from my neck of the woods could come to call this home.
Rachel Dickinson lives in Upstate New York where she writes for a variety of publications including the Atlantic, Audubon, The Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic Traveler, and Executive Traveler.