The lough at morning carries the drone of traffic like a weight on water, the dull sound lightened by the whitter of shorebirds, the rattle of rope on the sail of a hauled-up boat the sound of old bones clacking.
The city smells of the sea, the briny tack of salt-water washing up-river in the afternoon, gulls scrabbling over scraps, the old custom house marooned by bridges. Overhead, planes fly out, a white wave their wake in the deep blue sky.
The harbour at evening is an archipelago of light, each town around its narrow mouth an island, each slipway and pier a synapse of this inner sea. On a bright day the wind catches the flutter of yachts on their way out to the ocean, past ribbons of barley fields golden by the water.
At night, the bay throbs with green light, marker buoys threading a path to the ocean, the Atlantic a sigh of waves on far islands. The sky south is lined by rolling hills of rock, lavender before the light left, now purple at their peaks, fading with the westward sun.
Inland there is bog and stream, burn and river, mizzle, mist and rain, the island made of water. To walk through it is to welcome it all as one, the cold and light together. This is a hard path in winter, the future uncertain, our storm-battered terrain a troubling dream of wrack and ruin. Off this island the ocean breathes in shallow fits, choked by debris. Plastic marks its foreshore, bleached white by sun and water. Broken down, its parts scatter into the sea, like so many grains of sand.
Still, the sand ripples into the sea, the stone wall stands, the storm wind races through its hand-made gaps. Still there is river mouth and estuary, sanctuary of otter, sole and swallow. Further out is the ocean shelf, from whose dark rises plankton and whale, messengers from the middle deep, beyond the trawlers’ nets.
So the world’s waters swell with the earth’s breath, its islands washed by tides that rise and fall with the rhythm of life. In these seas, the island is ship and portal, harbour and refuge, its complement uncertain, changed by wind and season. Its dimensions are universal, measured by stars in relation to its neighbours. Its boundaries are infinite, its waterline a geometry of endless equation, as diverse as the history of human evolution. To walk it is a waking dream, the sound of shell and stone beneath the feet the muted percussion of deep time, the wind a burr in the inner ear, the eyes watering.
On a warmer day the sea calls, the cold rising through the diaphragm, the breath hurrying until it finds the water’s numbing rhythm, the swimmer bobbing in the waves. The backward look to shore is different every time. Sometimes there is the yellow splash of seaweed lazing on the rocks. Other times all is grey, immersion a blur of muted colour, glimpsed briefly through a film of salt water. One summer evening in Spiddal we swam in a rock scape desert-like in the orange of the last sun, as if on a far planet. Large island, or small, the zone between land and sea is a space of transition, the body, like the mind, in search of new bearings.
This Hy-Brasil is an inner space. For all that we look out, we look in, the present assembly of ourselves a gathering of impressions, experiences, hopes and desires. We are a beachcomber’s dream, washed up and added to the other debris salvaged from on shore. Put together, we might find the future. Early navigators worked for guidance on rumour, experience and luck. Now we have digital maps and satellites. Still mysterious are the dreams that shape our destination, troubled by the acid ocean and changing weather, from which there is no inland retreat. Wherever we are, clouds roll in from the ocean, augurs of a future for which we have no common language.
Our refuge begins deeper back, before human memory. It hides in rock pools and shallows, grown into the forms of jellyfish, limpet and crab. It lives in stone, whose stories are older than words. It surfaces in small hands, turning over rocks in the shallows, shrieking at the tide water rushing over rubber boots. It returns in the touch of small things, and speaks in silent gestures, in the shape of trees bent by the west wind, the huddle of gulls on the cliff, the wind worn into the textures of abandoned buildings. It persists, even as it changes. It takes time, however slow.
The sharp edges of our troubled moment register in the deep shapes of the coastal landscape. From off Galway, mountains line the sea as jagged as a cardiogram, the broken peaks softened by cloud. Further south, the Skelligs are so far out that the presence of land registers as a change in the sky, the distant light diffuse over unseen cliffs and fields. From here the gannets dive down from the heights, arrows into water. Sunk somewhere is the Atlantis of dead dreams, of empire, colony and domination. Pollution reigns over those ruins, its viceroys alienation and despair, the aftermath of which there is no undoing. Out west is the horizon, the setting sun curving the planet back towards Panthalassa, the one ocean.
We have, even now, the capacity to think again, unafraid, our island a vision sensual and collective, lightly drawn in the sweeping lines of a tide we walk together. For each island has its own rhythm, which beats through people and buildings, roads, hills, beaches, trees, plants, and birds. It murmurs in the night from waves breaking on the invisible shore. It thrums through the day at a frequency just below the wind. Holding this in mind is a practice of attention that is of the dream time, each self an island attached to others, all part of a pattern that signals the approach to Hy-Brasil.
We live in the long evening of the western sea, as the light dims. Around us are the grey fragments of past lives in broken slate and fallen stone, the exposed skeletons of the ages whorled with fossil ghosts. The shore is quietening, the birds falling, anglers reeling in empty lines. Before us is dark water and lowering sky, beneath us the shift of tide-pulled pebbles. Above us, other planets flare in the dark, the stars in their train, Venus and Polaris. In this brief moment, the fraction of a fraction of a fraction of oceanic time, the sky reflects the sea, the way forward a journey past the islands of our former selves.
Hy-Brasil is a premonition of this future. Its architecture is drawn from the language and experience of millennia, the interaction of all life in the animate ecology of water, stone and sky. Its cosmology is the pattern of place and object drawn in the texture of rope, slate, sand and paper. Its hope is survival, in solidarity with all around us, from near shore to far. Life on this island is the endless declension of dream, time and expression. Speaking as rock and wave, bird and fish, is the province of art. It has been since before Sweeney took to the trees and fled, and now we learn that language again, in mouth, by hand, and spirit.