May 27, 2014

Where the Storms are born

On the 28th of April, I close the door of my Dublin home. My key chain has been getting lighter and lighter throughout the week. Office, bike, home, each key has suddenly disappeared, and the weight of it in my pocket as I walk down this street is comforting. Moving again. My suitcase behind me, I walk to the train station and board a train to the West. Lately, it sometimes happens that my breath gets caught inside my chest and that I feel afraid of all the changes ahead. I just remember to take a deep breath, and clutch my camera against me.

The train moves slowly and sleepily. We pass several stations, each one more lonely than the one before. Finally, I get to Westport, but this is not the end of the road yet. The town is almost empty. The sun and the flowers falling down from the willow trees along the canal are pure bliss. I wait for my bus in a small café owned by an old man, who serves me black tea and a delicious scone. By the time I finished it, there are several people in the room, all asking me where I'm from, where I'm going. I say : « I'm going to Achill », and they look a bit startled. I guess this part of the country doesn't see many outsiders. The old man replies jokingly : « Oh no, you don't want to go there ; it's where the storms are born » and I smile, thinking that I've always liked storms. I used to stay glued to the window to watch them. That's okay, I say, I'm not afraid of thunder. He laughs and I leave, glad to have experienced once more the friendliness of the irish.

The sun is setting and the bus drives through an incredible landscape. The island is truly a wild place. It is like the sea and the mountain couldn't decide which of them should reign over the land, so they settled on sharing it. The yellow heather is everywhere, the grass is short, like it always is on a land constantly swepts by winds. I am the last one on the bus when it finally stops in the middle of nowhere.

The Valley House is old and bears a faded glory. The hardwood floors creak as I pass through the hall. There are several empty rooms upstairs, and a sitting room with a piano under the window that catches the dazzling light of the sunset. I'm living there for two weeks with several others, all traveling from different sides of the world. We take care of this huge, magnificent mansion who looks like something between a palace and a ruin. There are guests staying in the dorms, but most of the time the house is completely silent and it feels like we are children forlorn, living here unsupervised.

Near the house, the bees are buzzing loud in the trees, and wool is hanging from the wire fence, where the sheep went through. I walk for hours under a hard sun who turns my skin red and amber. This place takes my breath away. It still looks the same as it did when the first men came to live here. They left tombs and stone walls half-destroyed. There are more animals than men, stray dogs and squelettal horses and sheep with thick wool dangled like it has been braided by the ever-blowing wind. If you leave the path, it doesn't take long before your feet sink into the dark, wet soil. Turf, everywhere. It's not hard to believe that they found whole bodies mummified here. The ground is trying to swallow me. On the coast, the cliffs are white and torn apart by the waves ; stumps of a prehistoric forest emerge from the beach, a secret just unveiled, and soon to be hidden again by the sand.

The house is very cold. I spend long hours reading by the stove, drinking endless tea and planning my next trip. The evenings are even quieter than the mornings, until Pat opens the pub. Several old men sit on the wooden stools and start talking, laughing with wild accents in their voices, but their eyes are all kind. Late at night, we sit by the fire, Pat serves us the best Guinness in Ireland, and we play the guitar and sing ballads like The Wild Rover, or The Girl from the County Down.

I ride a bike without brakes under threatening clouds, exploring a side of the island I haven't seen yet. I walk on misty strands, pet the horses along the road, and take pictures of a deserted village. I get soaked by a storm that last a few minutes. Rain is never far away here, but the wind blows stronger and dries as fast as the rain drenches. At the end of a lush path that looks like a jungle, I discover a humble old church surrounded by a lovely graveyard. One of the tombstones catches my eye. It reads : « In memory of my beloved wife, Isabella, who departed this life aged 23, the 1st March 1799 – and also my daughter, Elizabeth, who died aged 14 months. » and out of nothing, a few words engraved on stone, I can see them – the crowd of mourning people, wearing clothes of hard black cotton and wool, standing around a hole in the ground, while the rain washes the tears of their faces. And although I don't believe in any god, I hear myself think a sweet prayer for this young mama, her baby girl, and her husband, who were brave enough to live here when no one did.

My time on Achill comes quickly at an end, and before I can realize, I am back on a plane flying me away from Ireland. My heart is aching and I miss so many things already, but a bigger adventure is already happening, and I can't wait to live it. As summer returns, I chop ten inches off my hair, and I pack my bags to travel the world. For a while, the road will be home.

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