Seo é mo laethanta saoire an tsámhraidh.
Dear Sr Mary Dimples,
This year for my summer holidays I got into my vaguely knackered gluaisteán and ventured west, my bathing suit in my bag, hoping for a tincture of Indian summer on the Atlantic shores.
The plucky car ate up the ribboned road, Sister, the vista occasionally relieved by a choppy lake, a German supermarket, a bungalow braceleted by plaster gnomes.
I drove through the cordoned-off county of Kildare, stopping only to pay my tithe to the motorway gods.
I bypassed Tullamore, home to golden whiskey, and crossed the river Shannon, turning my heathen back on the Christian ruins of Clonmacnoise. Then I sped on past Ballinasloe in the county Galway, where, having navigated many a dizzying roundabout, I finally crossed into Connemara – and there they were, Sister, the Maumturks and the Twelve Bens.
Swooping through the Inagh valley, breathless with the mad beauty of it all, I found myself at a tiny little house in a forest where, in return for some golden coins, a well-plucked pheasant and a favourable review on the Airbnb website, a key had been left in the latch.
In the small dwelling a straw broom leaned against a whitewashed stone wall, as if a witch had recently departed. I looked for her out of windows that faced straight into the face of a whispering wood.
Connemara in September, Sister, is home not only to stockinged sheep and silent lakes and glowering mountains but also to monied Dubliners driving back home in high-wheeled chariots stocked with artisan jams and chunky jumpers.
I went into Clifden in search of bread and cheese and wine to bring back to my woodland home. I wandered the dusky streets, past the blank-faced hotel where the chieftains had dined while the paupers self-isolated. Disinclined to face the supermarket right away, I put on my mask and perused the town’s boutique gift shops.
I watched a knot of tourists attempt to sniff scented candles through face coverings, watched them cautiously turn over the price tag on autumnal-coloured rugs, and quietly file out on to the street, where a tight little wind had begun to swirl.
I stood in front of a mannequin draped in a silken kimono and wondered who the buyer would be. Who might wander the powdery white sands of Dog’s Bay or stand on the turquoise shores of Rossadillisk in such delicate, pricey finery?
I went to the supermarket, got provisions, returned to my lair.
Baked in ovens
That night in the forest, the sky opened. I lay awake listening to the trees stretching, the storm raging, the rain pelting down. Sleepless, I remembered all those fables set in dark woods where children are eaten by wolves, baked in ovens, locked up in unreachable towers. There was always a journey involved in those stories, some imperative to enter the forest, to come face to face with the hag who wants your youth, or with cold stone walls to imprison your ardour, or with a voracious old wolf inviting you into his fetid bed. We are, I thought, drifting to sleep, our own ravaged woodlands.
The next day I pulled my sunscreen, shorts and flip-flops out of my bag and chucked them all under the bed. Dressed in a snorkel and some fetching waders, I attempted to visit an old pal. I was turned back at the crossroads by a sprite in a hard hat who told me that, as the valley was underwater, the riverbanks were overflowing with turf-coloured water and a small bridge had been swept clean away, I wasn’t going to be going anywhere for the rest of the day.
So there I was, Sister – on one side of me a raging river, on the other a dense forest, and beyond, a quiet town of waterlogged strangers submerged under a bank of cumbrous cloud.
I parked at a little pier overlooking a troubled stretch of water, then walked a few yards to a roadside shrine and a drenched plaster virgin. I climbed a wet, overgrown path past stations of the cross, washed-out paintings of Christ’s agonies and humiliations, and came to a shrine to Padre Pio, where people had posted prayers and intercessions into a glass-fronted wooden box.
And there in the shadow of the former industrial school at Letterfrack, on a biblically rain-soaked day, clearly visible through the glass, was a message written in a small child’s hand: “I wish to fly whenever I want to.”
I’ve never managed to believe in intercessions, Sister, but on that deluge of a day in this lonely era I could only hope such innocent optimism would somehow be rewarded.