If I close my eyes and concentrate, I’m back there, three years old in a floral dress and green sandals with knee-length white socks. My small hand is clasped in my father’s on a beautiful June morning. Seagulls screech, soar and swoop and the salty pungent aroma of seaweed and salt water’s so strong, it almost takes my breath away. I’m back at my grandparents home in Greencastle, Donegal. I loved those summer holidays, as home for me was a terraced house in Coventry, England, a world away from the freedom and soothing balm of life on the coast. The scents, sounds and images are so embedded in my childhood memories, I’m immediately comforted by them and the inspiration is immensely important to me now as a poet and artist.
I’d wander off on my own when I was older just to sit and listen to the gentle lapping of waves, to pick stones and rocks for some creative project, or explore rock pools with periwinkles and sea anemones the colour of claret. I searched for sea glass and unusual shells to add to my big jar that sat on my window sill and wrote one of my earliest poems there, as I watched kaleidoscopic swirls of oil on the water.
I’d will the sea mist to lift on early mornings so I could watch and listen to the chug of boats along the River Foyle. This body of water separated Derry from Donegal, but it also joined both together, connecting them. It was such a magical place, with crumbling castle ruins minutes away down the shore path. We used to play for hours in the ivy clad ruins pretending to be pirates and smugglers.
On the other side was Magilligan, home to a prison camp, minutes from the beach where a road was bordered with swishy pampas grass and whose walls were topped with coils of barbed wire. The sound of gunfire accompanying the gulls squabbling at the jetty didn’t faze me at all, because they always partnered one another. Greencastle is a beautiful place, home to my earliest, happiest memories which germinated like carefully tended shoots. I followed my Gran as we collected eggs from the dark hen houses reeking of damp straw and droppings. The sun seemed to shine all the time, although that’s nostalgia rather than a different time with a wonderful climate.
When it was too hot outside, we played upstairs in my uncle’s huge shed, lying on small mountains of fishing nets in need of repair. My Grandfather sat contented, on his little paint splashed stool in the shade mending these nets, wearing his fisherman’s cap. I used to jump on the metal grate outside the olive-green back door and loved the fact that it acted as a doorbell alerting us to visitors / callers. I picked gooseberries and raspberries from my Granddad’s small garden patch with the powder-blue gate for jam and played house in a trailer with my friends until we were called home for dinner, protesting we weren’t hungry.
We relocated to Greencastle permanently when I was seven and the transformative, healing power of the sea to soothe and comfort in times of difficulty has never diminished.
Now, whenever I inhale the glorious salty air or seaweed along a shoreline, I stop, concentrate on my breathing and remember. Sometimes I hear the echoes of gunfire as the soldiers fired chasers into an extraordinary sky of azure mingled with squawking herring gulls chasing trawlers as they headed for the pier loaded to the scuppers with their catch – powerful beyond words.