Among the stones of Dun Ducathair

I don’t like to write about most things while they’re happening or right after they’ve happened. The best events, no matter how good, are gilded and the worst events, no matter how awful, are tarnished, both beyond the reality of the event. I like to wait. But waiting carries risks. The risk of forgotten details that in the moment seem pure and absolute. The risk of sanding the edges of discomfort and distaste as the memory mellows. The apex risk of simply forgetting and never writing about the thing. As my brain drinks in its heady cocktails of cortisol, adrenaline, dopamine, and whatever else it has stocked behind the bar, I want to write it down right then so that I can remember every detail exactly as it was.

Which is why I wait. Because that moment is not exactly how it was. Neither is this moment, as I sit at a keyboard over a year later remembering the day we spent exploring the desolate stone-laden meadows of a island off the North Atlantic coast of Ireland, because in this moment the memory has mellowed in the white oak casks of me. The truth is, a moment of precision and truth does not exist because the experience was first lived by and will now be shared from a single person with a single point of view.

The mellowing is better, though, for this kind of memory. Tactile things, violent things, things originating in physicality, should be shared as close to the event as possible so that both author and reader can taste the copper in your mouth as you sprint down the canyon or feel for themselves the gentle glide of fingertips across your neck. Pleasant memories should mellow.

We reached the island by ferry. To say Ireland is cold is to misrepresent. It is windy. We visited in late June and by the time we reached Inishmore, the largest and most famous of the fabled Aran Islands, it was July. July is a hot month. If you’re from almost anywhere in the United States then you agree with this truth and shudder a little as you consider the sizzle of your tender young bare feet against the searing blacktop. But Ireland is not the United States. It is an island roughly the size of Georgia that insulates the western English coast against the harshest gales and waves of the icy North Atlantic. That, reader, is cold. It brings with it tempestuous weather and biting wind. A bartender in Dublin warned us against lamenting the weather, though. “If you don’t like the weather,” he said through a tilted grin, “just wait a while.”

The cold did not pass as we rode the Doolin ferry to Inis Mor. It travels two or three times per day, gathering and depositing locals and tourists first at Inisheer, then Inishmaan, and finally at Inishmore. This third island is larger than the previous two by nearly double. Four stone forts, the Duns, have guarded the island since the times when men and women first mixed soil and seaweed to terraform the raw stone land. We rode bicycles through the clear early morning air to Dun Ducathair. Our innkeeper warned us that the day trippers would rush to the more famous Dun Aonghasa as they hurried to visit “the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe” before the ferry departed for Doolin or Galway Bay. Having visited both Duns in the space of a day, I submit that if faced with a choice, you should abandon your ferry, your friends, and your guidebook and walk the many miles over rough karst boundary markers to Dun Ducathair, the Black Fort.

We rode our bikes across rough stone paths until they could no longer be considered paths. From there, we walked. An altar stands on the cliff beside the sea. Carved into it are the names of sailors, young boys, lost at sea. The growing sun warmed overhead. I turned from the altar to the waiting sea that filled the horizon from north to south. The island boasts few trees. Here on the plains that abruptly drop into the sea, there are none. You can see everything. We walked south. Long inhabited, Inishmore is covered in low stone walls built over the centuries with triplet purpose: remove the damnable stones from grazing and growing acreage, retain the precious surface soil, and create boundaries, mostly for the cattle.  You cannot help but wander as you pick your way through the stony latticework. Scraped clean by eons of Atlantic rain and wind, the land sweeps out in tables of stone that crumble and round into bays. Each bay seems small, minor even, as your sense of scale diminishes to worthlessness. There are places on this earth where you glimpse the truth of size and understand that a whole person, an entire life, is a speck of color in the panorama.

Then the bay opens before you and you cannot help but gasp. Writhing turquoise water surges in and out with a soft fury. I climbed down a dozen feet for a better picture of the gulls swarming far beneath me, in time to realize more gulls flew below them and waves splashed against weakening stone even farther down. Another dozen feet would bring me practically no closer to the water so very far below.

We idled towards the Black Fort. In all our time in Ireland, we tasted most of its varying weather, often in the same day. Several days were beautiful. Only this day was perfect. The warm sun glowed overhead, insulating us just enough from the whipping wind. Simple, foundational colors stained everything. Dull slates, mossy greens, the powerful sameness of an empty blue sky, an oily naval blue that belied its deeper blackness and the surface turquoise so reminiscent of sandy beaches that it stirred a minor dissonance here where everything was colder. I have a picture of my windswept wife standing atop this fort that was built by the hands of people thousands of years long dead and who, for some reason, found the coasts of Ireland too easy for their tastes. No, I thought, they had to be out here, just further, just this much closer to the edge of the world. We snacked on caramel toffee and the coarse bread served universally at breakfast. I dozed in the sunlight. She rested her head on my shoulder. It didn’t matter what time it was. I didn’t know what day it was. As I sat there in the remnants of a fort that once guarded this place, once held precious grain stores, once caused strife and fighting first over the labor and then over the ownership, that was abandoned who knows how long ago but still watches the Atlantic Ocean every day, I realized it didn’t matter what century it was. This memory would last, mellow, and one day be drawn out for tasting.

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