Into the Shock of It

Last summer I started swimming in the sea, something that I’d never been particularly fond of as a child. Although I loved to swim I grew up a good 2-hour drive from the coast and I didn’t enjoy the way the waves seemed to pounce, making me cough as I inhaled sea water, eyes stinging as I spluttered. But in coming back to it as an adult, I’ve learnt to love it. As summer slipped into autumn and gradually gave way to winter, I continued with my swims and became a convert. There’s something wonderful about being at eye-level with the water, literally submerged in something that you’re usually on the fringes of. So, just over a year since I penned my first love-letter to Ireland, I offer this little ditty in appreciation of this lovely country and its surrounding seas.

Into the Shock of It

I wade out into the water
the coldness creeping
up my body with a prickle.
Sand shifts under my soles
and I let my hands hover
stretching out time
like e l a s t i c, 
putting off the plunge.

There is no thought,
only motion.
Forwards. Inwards
against the frothing waves,
leaving behind the sigh
of sea on shale
and the gentle bubble.

Then eye-level, all at once
water rushing
numbing my neck as I 
let go,
thrash out
into the shock of it.
Swear. Chatter.

Five minutes of ebb and flow, 
then I find myself again, 
flip over skywards,
lift my legs and lie
basking in blissful content.

My body hums on a cellular level.
Nose pressed up to nature,
sea-salt-coated, sublime.

Suddenly a cormorant surfaces,
silver fish clasped in its beak,
eyes alertly aquamarine,
black feathers sleek before it
back down
leaving but a ripple in its wake.

Seconds stretch,
minutes lose meaning as I 
make my way back to the shore.
Getting out is grimmer than the in,
my body now as reluctant to leave
as it was to swim.

Springtime in Dublin

It is April, the month of becoming. After a windy, grey winter, Dublin is awash with colour. The tentative daffodils, bringing the first promise of Spring, have been joined by bright red tulips and grape hyacinths of vivid blue. Silver birches are sprouting the smallest, greenest leaves, and cherry trees droop under boughs heavy with blossom. These tender petals range from the palest, creamy white to bold and blousy pink, and contrast with the dark bark. Likewise, the apple blossom is opening; deep fuchsia buds unfurl to reveal a few smudged-pink petals and bright yellow stamens. The bees busy themselves, collecting pollen on their downy underbellies.

Shades of yellow seem to dominate the landscape in this early stage of Spring. Bright yellow flowers emerge, confetti-like, on the spiky gorse. These hardy shrubs bloom throughout the year, but after the muted shades of winter, the lemony hues are particularly warm and welcome. The flowers smell of coconut – a surprise for the unsuspecting walker. Elsewhere, the yellow can be found on the variegated leaves of vinca or periwinkle, creeping easily across borders with starry flowers of purple or white. Heavy-headed cowslips, too, are often found in front gardens or mixed in with the daffs and tulips on roadsides. Pale, buttery primroses push up in unsuspecting places, and their garish cousins are a favourite for filling tubs or lining pathways. Forsythia, broom, buttercups… the list goes on.

The trees, our gentle giants, are slower to show their shades. The leaves of the horse chestnut are fragile, hanging limply groundward. Beech trees offer dainty, crinkled foliage in the brightest lime green, or dusky pink in the case of the copper beech. The colour transformation that these trees undergo over the course of the year is wonderful and awesome in the most literal sense. And one of the most stunning trees at this time of year has be the magnolia. Their unassuming, velvety buds belie the beauty within. Elegant petals in pinks and whites adorn the branches and open to reveal a sturdy stamen, which seems representative of the tree’s hardier-than-we-look character.

Spring is my favourite season, and this is my first in Dublin. The lockdown restrictions mean that we can only venture 2km from home for exercise, but this has made me more creative with my run routes. The weather since the restrictions were put in place has been fair – mostly dry, sometimes cloudy, but increasingly mild and sunny. As a result, Spring seems to have come on leaps and bounds in a few short weeks, and every day it feels like new things have emerged since I was last out. I feel so grateful for the weather and to live somewhere so beautiful, where Spring has space to unfold. And while I tend to think of myself as someone who notices nature, and takes a huge amount of joy from small beauties, having a little more time means that I am noticing more.

This week I found bluebells, which seems early. My first alma mater was set in glorious woodland and the bluebells gave me hours of pleasure in late April and early May. But perhaps the bluebells open in Dublin before they do at home. And just this morning I stumbled upon a patch of forget-me-nots, which transported me back home to my parents’ garden, which is full of forget-me-nots, bluebells, and other flowers that I collect for posies come Spring. While I wouldn’t trade my Dublin-home for my Shire-home during the pandemic, I do miss the garden. But having such a wealth of flora on my doorstep definitely keeps the spirits lifted. I am eager to watch the season progress and blend into summer, when hopefully we shall be safe and free to enjoy nature’s gifts with others. Until then, I wish you all good health and happiness. Be kind to yourselves and others; in the words of Sinéad Gleeson, be the goodness.

#13 (2020) The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

There aren’t many books I re-read year after year, but The Lesser Bohemians is one of them. Last year I bought this paperback copy specifically so that I could take it on my trip to California. Now I associate it with pre-dawn jet-lagged mornings, drinking tea in the cosy reading corner in my friend’s lovely home, and the sound of heavy rain (California was uncharacteristically wet the week I went!) It’s weird how objects can transport us back to places.

McBride’s first novel, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing is beautifully crafted and well worth buying. Her latest novel, Strange Hotel was published this February and you can read my thoughts on it here.

The vibrant energy of 1990s London. A year of passion and discovery. The anxiety and intensity of new love. 

An eighteen-year-old Irish girl arrives in London to study drama and falls violently in love with an older actor. While she is naive and thrilled by life in the big city, he is haunted by demons, and the clamorous relationship that ensues risks undoing them both. At once epic and exquisitely intimate, 
The Lesser Bohemians is a celebration of the dark and the light in love.

As the burb suggests, love is at the core of The Lesser Bohemians, and the relationship between the two protagonists is the primary focal point. However, the novel is also concerned with growth and maturity; facing one’s demons head on; and the importance of trust. Truth and trust play a big role in shaping the actions of the characters, and the consequences are often grim and gritty.

Like McBride’s first novel, The Lesser Bohemians deals with some very difficult — and often explicit — content. There are passages where the desire to cringe is strong, and often I find myself wanting to just get inside the book and rescue the characters from themselves. They’re both scarred and damaged and in need of love. At times, their self-destructive tendencies are hard to bear. However, it is a testament to McBride’s writing and storytelling that the book remains hopeful. It sucks you in and pulls at your emotions until you are ‘just one more page’-ing until you manage to stop (not aided by the lack of chapters).

McBride’s writing is often quite fragmentary. She skips from short, sharp sentences to longer passages, but rarely conforms to what you might consider ‘traditional’ prose. This, I think, is one of the most pleasurable and evocative aspects of her novels. Take this passage, for example:

Coffee smelt cinema no kissing here.* Long limbs crooked to fit. Balled coats kicked under. Darkening. Music there. Quiet here. Then it comes, in its light and white-light. From the start, it has me. I am unprepared. Paralyse in its image. Forward to breathe as birds fleer from the Virgin’s dress. The stamp of it. Weight in me. All down my neck. (Pg. 55)

*In the book there are parts of the text printed in a smaller font, indicating the thought-process of the narrator. This isn’t possible to replicate on WordPress, hence the non-italic text.

Or this, from later in the book:

And where the eye goes, an ocean. No. Overcast sea. In with the hiss of it. In with eyes wetting breeze like sea does, hair goes, strands across tongue. Far off, in pewterish clouds and rain. The rolling unseen where whales might be and underneath does not even bear thinking of. Does not bear there but bears me up. On a skillet pallet small boat. Where I am stood strid and balanced, but for the swell. Over small rollers. Over the place like unreasonable same. Hidden from a shore. Tir na. (Pg. 111)

This latter passage is flavoured with McBride’s Irishness. Tir na, at the end of the extract, is likely a reference to Tír na nÓg (land of the young) from Irish mythology. There are small hat tips to Ireland throughout the book, although less so than in A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, which was scattered with lots of scrumptious Hiberno-English.

In short, McBride’s book is brilliant. She is an exceptional wordsmith and her handling language makes me all of abuzz. The Lesser Bohemians is one those unassuming and often forgotten books that I’m always encouraging people to read. As always, thoughts and feedback are welcome!

6 Months in Ireland

This weekend marks 6 months since I moved to Ireland to begin my PhD adventure! It’s not quite how I expected my six-monthiversary to look. As of Thursday 12th March the country is on lockdown because of Covid19; schools and universities have been closed and I’ve spent the week working from home. I’m definitely an introvert but even I am pining for some social interaction. But, this post is more of a reflection. How did I end up in Ireland? Why did I choose to study here? Why do I love it? If you’re interested, read on…


After falling head over heels in love with the country on my first visit in 2016, I began an annual trip to Ireland. I felt a weird and inexplicable kinship with the place. I loved the rolling mountains and all of the green. The people were so friendly and warm. Dublin felt like a big town rather than a city, and I enjoyed exploring its streets, getting lost and finding myself again. I’m a country girl and have always lived in the middle of nowhere, but Dublin felt like somewhere I could settle. As soon as I left I’d be plotting my return, thinking about where in Ireland to go next. The welcoming feel of the country turned me into a solo traveller; before my trip in 2017 I’d never been on holiday on my own before. The freedom was liberating, and the country became somewhat symbolic of that sense of freedom and provided an escape from the narrow confines of my world.

When 2019 rolled round I was completing my MA in Music at Oxford Brookes University, trying to pull the threads of my academic interests into a coherent dissertation topic. A wonderful conference in sunny (or not so sunny, as was the case) California in early February spurred me on with my proposal. And on the fringes of my mind my PhD notions hovered, shuffling about uncertainly. I was crippled with indecision, constantly exploring different avenues, creating and then discarding plans. At the back of my mind there was this chasm full of what ifs and doubt and worry for the future. After the MA I didn’t have a next step in place. I’d left my job and was doing temporary supply work, which I really wasn’t enjoying. There was a lot of low-level panic and soul-searching in those months.

Fast forward to early summer and the arrival of an email advertising a fully-funded PhD scholarship at Dublin City University. Too good to be true, right? A frantic fortnight followed, life was put on hold, and a PhD proposal was wrestled into being. I desperately wanted to be successful. I wanted to continue with my academic trajectory, and where better to do it than in my favourite city, supervised by a stellar academic? I hit send in June, attended a conference in Ireland later that month, and was invited to interview in early July. A friend kindly did a mock interview with me, told me to stop searching for the problems in every question asked, and pulled me back from the precipice of self-doubt. I could do this.

Needless to say, I did the interview and was awarded the scholarship. I was stunned and thrilled; it felt unreal to be getting my wish. After a summer of dissertation writing and accommodation hunting I trekked across to Dublin (via the ferry) and moved into my new home on September 15th. It was grey and damp, a soft day, not quite the Ireland I wanted my mum to see on her first trip to the country. Over the next few days she settled me in, I gave her a whistle-stop tour of the city, and then I took her to the airport to head home. I felt intensely guilty waving her off, as if I was abandoning her in my desire to flee the kingdom, and there’s still a little pocket of mum-related guilt in my heart.

That said, my first six months in Dublin have been great (Covid19 aside). I live by the sea (an unexpected joy), I’ve joined a choir, made new friends, taken a German course, explored and walked my legs off. Added to this, my research is going well, I’ve given papers at two conferences (and ‘presented’ in-absentia at a third!), and my supervisor is brilliant. I feel luckier than I can express. The me of 12 months ago would have laughed you out of the room if you’d told her that by September 2019 she’d be living in Dublin. I spent the first half of that year feeling hopeless and directionless. I did a shameful amount of moping and hand-wringing and feeling sorry for myself. Fortunately, I have good friends who helped pull me out of that rut and gave me a well-meant kick up the behind. I am blessed indeed, and grateful for their continued support from across the seas, particularly during these more stressful times.

So, to wrap up, here’s a little ‘poetic’ musing inspired by all of those people who look a bit puzzled when I express my love of Ireland, explain a bit about how I came to be here, and why I hope I get to stay post-PhD.


Why Ireland?

Why Ireland? they ask.
Because I fell in love, I say. 
With a feeling, not a face. 
A land and its people, the place. 

What do you like about it? they ask
So many things, I say.
Living by the sea,
finding a home away from home,
realising there’s a place for me. 

The hihowareye, all one word,
And though all the pharmacies seem quite absurd,
the people are kind,
telling you often to mind
yourself now. 

And sure look, it’ll be grand,
who can’t be happy with their feet on the sand,
watching the sun get out of bed,
and peep around the top of Howth Head.

Also, the mountains are there,
looking in the distance all etched and bare,
calling quietly for you to come and see,
to spend an afternoon amongst rock and tree.

From the Fairy Castle of Ticknock,
to the deep lakes of Glendalough,
the Wicklow garden is only a drive.
A hop, skip, jump to feeling alive,
and small price to pay to watch the day
unfurl beneath clouds of grey,
or maybe under hues of blue.

Then there’s the culture. 
All those lovely galleries,
so often free. And the libraries,
with books aplenty just for me
to leaf through, browse, and borrow.

And to top it all, the cherry on the cake,
I’ve been blessed enough to make
new friends to add to those I’d had.
Planners, shakers, and all music makers.
Folks who’ll FaceTime when you’re feeling down,
people to meet and show you the town.

So you’re happy there? they ask.
As happy as can be, I say.
I came to Ireland on holiday
and found a place I wanted to stay.

I’ve six months under my belt,
And in that time I’ve never felt 
the wish to be gone.

So Éire, thanks a million.
Let me see what six months more
will have in store. 

#9 (2020) Saltwater by Jessica Andrews

Sometimes, you pick a book up and want to buy it immediately. Sometimes, you can’t give into that urge, but the book waits in the wings, on wishlists or mental inventories. This was very much the case with Saltwater, which I remember looking at when it was published last spring. I ordered it in from the library last month and will be sad to send it back!

When Lucy wins a place at university, she thinks London will unlock her future. It is a city alive with pop up bars, cool girls and neon lights illuminating the Thames at night. At least this is what Lucy expects, having grown up seemingly a world away in working-class Sunderland, amid legendary family stories of Irish immigrants and boarding houses, now-defunct ice rinks and an engagement ring at a fish market. 

Yet Lucy’s transition to a new life is more overwhelming than she ever expected. As she works long shifts to make ends meet and navigates chaotic parties from East London warehouses to South Kensington mansions, she still feels like an outsider among her fellow students. When things come to a head at her graduation, Lucy takes off for Ireland, seeking solace in her late grandfather’s cottage and the wild landscape that surrounds it, wondering if she can piece together who she really is. 

One of things I found most enjoyable about Andrews’s novel was its form or structure. The narrative is told in a series of fragments, ranging from a couple of sentences to a page or two. These shift around temporally, moving from the present to the past, detailing Lucy’s life and that of her extended family. These help to flesh out present-day Lucy and to explain how she came to be squirrelled away in her grandfather’s isolated cottage in Donegal.

As someone who loves nature and being outdoors, I found Andrews’s descriptions of the Donegal landscape particularly enticing and rich in their detail. I wanted to get onto Airbnb and find myself a little cosy cottage in which to hide out with stacks of books and mugs of tea. These descriptions contrasted sharply with those of Lucy’s life in London, which is depicted as being fairly wild and gritty. I found the London scenes convincing but harder to relate to than her beach walks! This, for example, resonates much more than a description of a rave in some seedy London bar…

Now that I am in Ireland, I am screaming on vast beaches when there is no one else around. I am swimming in the sea, spreading my body wide in the water, feeling my limbs and lungs stretching as far as they can. I am lying in the grass in the cottage garden and watching the stars at night, letting my thoughts wander, limitless, without cutting them short, or backing them up, or squeezing them into too-small spaces. (Pg. 27)

Urban/rural preferences aside, Saltwater is beautifully crafted. Andrews meticulously weaves a narrative that unfurls bit by bit, providing more and more information and context to help you build a solid image of the characters. She deals with issues surrounding body image, the affects of alcoholism, and the process of growing up with care and sensitivity. At points I found myself transported back to my own teenage years.

The buzz of hunger wears away at hate. Skirts too tight and skin dimpled in changing room lights. We get bad haircuts and put toothpaste on our spots and we learn the opposite of love. I cannot tell if I am a pear or an apple or an hourglass or even which one I am supposed to want. You tell me it doesn’t matter but I know that it does, even to you. Boyish seems best because boyish means exempt from these things. I am not boyish. I do not want my body to cause a stir. I don’t want it to be the first thing that speaks. (Pg. 147)

As a whole, the book might be classed as a coming-of-age story, a Bildungsroman. Fans of Sally Rooney, Anna Hope, and Emma Cline would probably find much to enjoy here. It’s definitely one that I’ll eventually buy my own copy of and reread for the sheer pleasure of it.