Cape Clear Diaries (6): A Fond Farewell

south harbour, cape clear, leavng on the ferry

Leaving South Harbour, homeward bound

I’ve been home for a few days now; enough time has passed to reflect on the two weeks that I spent there. So what is the overriding feeling that I’m left with? What has my time on Cape Clear taught me?

I guess the overriding feeling is of joy and calm. My trip to Cape enabled me to reset the clock, revaluate my goals and rejig my workload to create a more harmonious work/life. In short, I recharged. But Cape also left me with a few important reminders…

1) A sense of place is important

The beauty of the island, the change of pace, the proud nature of the inhabitants, their determination to preserve island life through a mix of tradition and innovation, all fed into a vivid image of what encapsulates ‘Cape Clear’. As I heard said on the island… “You may leave Cape Clear, but Cape Clear won’t leave you.”

In your fiction, you need to make sure that the sense of place is as deeply rooted in the characters as it is in your descriptions. It’s not enough to describe a place to make it believable; you have to convince your reader, seduce them by making the character inextricable from the landscape (unless of course you’re trying to show them as an outsider. Then the reverse is required).

Consider the wild moorlands of Wuthering Heights, the harsh, unwelcoming sidewalks of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, or the unyielding, barren landscape of Eowyn Ivey’s Snow Childwhen it comes to your setting, not just your characters, it’s a serious case of ‘show, don’t tell’.

2) It’s OK to give up

Despite the strong winds and lashing rain at the start of the week, I got it into my head to take the cliff walk. The exposed route involves some incredibly steep hills and boggy terrain, but even with the weather against me, I was determined. Why? Because I’d planned it before even arriving. And I’m stubborn.

However, after hiking for over half an hour without even being able to see the cliff edge or the path ahead, staggering against the wind and sinking my foot ankle deep into a delicious mix of cow pat and bog, I decided to pause. I had another ten days to go. Was it really worth it? For once, I concluded that the sensible decision was to turn back.

Likewise, with writing, it’s important to realise that sometimes an idea just isn’t working. Like a film or book you find dull, the world will not end if you abandon it. The guilt (if you’re prone to such a thing) may linger for a day or two, but if you distract yourself with a completely different project – something fresh, something exciting – you’ll get over it. Trust me. You’re much better putting your energies into something worthwhile.

Now, I don’t mean give up at the first hurdle – you have to give something a good run first. But as writers, we need to be able to see what works and what doesn’t. A story can be perfectly crafted but lack the ‘oomph’ to maintain its reader’s attention. An idea can be brilliant – but not suited to your voice. You have to learn to spot the difference between a great idea and a great piece of writing.

puppy leaving cape clear on ferry

Franklyn the seadog, running low on oomph

Which brings me to my next point…

3)  But sometimes it’s even better to try again

Not to be beaten, I returned to the same cliff walk a few days later, in glorious sunshine, and was rewarded with spectacular views. The waves crashed against the cliff, I had a wonderfully clear view of the Fastnet Rock lighthouse, the gorse glowed against the blue sky and I was surrounded with birdsong. The bog was less boggy and with better visibility, I managed to avoid the cow pat.

If I hadn’t returned to the cliffs, I would have been left wondering – what if? Make sure you give your writing a solid chance before abandoning it completely. Try rewriting in a different tense or person, or starting at a different point in the story. Tell the tale through the eyes of a different character or experiment with alternating viewpoints. You never know, this is when the magic ‘oomph’ could happen.

4)  Take time out

I think one of the main things that Cape Clear reminded me was the importance of shutting off for a while and just seeing what happens. We’re used to being flexible in terms of shifting deadlines and juggling projects – but what about being flexible about relaxation? It’s OK to set rigid times to write and set regular goals, but if you don’t have any issues when it comes to being disciplined, then sometimes it’s a good idea to let things just take their course.

Consider, for instance, when you’re writing a first draft of a novel; my advice is to forget editing altogether. Continue with the word count and let the ideas and characters take over without any revision. Some writers like a carefully planned outline before they start to formulate a draft, but I find it liberating, and certainly more enjoyable, to just keep going and let the ideas and characters run amuck.

clear atlantic, cape to baltimore ferry

A fine day for sailing (not like the journey there – must be a karma thing)

The main character’s name may change from Mary to Tania to Ermentrude as you stumble through this initial draft, but you can easily sort that out later once you have a big body of work. The way I see it, you only get to play at the outset – after that, it’s down to editing. Separate the two to get the most out of your writing time.

And remember, it’s often during the non-writing activities that our best ideas hit. Taking a walk, having a shower, cooking dinner, train rides, chatting with friends – these are the times when your relaxed brain

As I think back to Cape Clear, I’m thankful for many things;

  • time spent enjoying the island
  • people I met there
  • important reminders relevant to both my life and my writing…

But most of all, I have the island to thank for another ten thousand words of a first draft and an absolutely cracking new novel idea – the novel I’ve always wanted to write but didn’t know how that I can’t wait to explore.

Thank you Cape Clear!


Cape Clear Diaries (4): Changing Pace

South harbour, Cape Clear, a favourite spot to sit and dream

Gorgeous views – imagine the smells!

A change of pace was the reason I booked our out-of-season accommodation on Cape Clear at the end of last year. I had predicted that around this time, I would be starting a new novel and that I would need a clear mind and a change of scenery, away from the usual distractions, to make a solid start.

I find that switching from one major project to another is only difficult if you try to make the switch in your everyday environment. Some people thrive on routine but for me, it brings a certain level of ennui that makes the ideas sluggish and the writing process less joyous. I don’t need to be in the same spot at the same time to write. In fact, I prefer the complete opposite.

But why choose Cape Clear?

Firstly, it’s just across the water from home – I gaze upon its two towers every day from the mainland – and it’s easily accessible by ferry. Then, of course, the island is beautiful, with plenty of character, lovely walks and stunning views. Visiting out of season is advantageous, as you’re completely free to work to your own timescales, uninterrupted. And even more importantly, the incredibly strong sense of pride, identity and community that prevails here helps you focus.

Being on Cape Clear has certainly provided the change of pace I needed to kickstart this new novel. Island life is lived at a slower pace during this time of year and for me, there has been no routine to speak of over the last two weeks, other than several walks to various favourite views and locations across the island. And that means concentrated productivity.

strange little jellyfish found in ireland

If I hadn’t gone exploring, I never would have found this beautiful creature (known as sea raft, by-the-wind sailor, purple sail, little sail or velella)

My first week was mainly spent writing, exploring at unusual hours and switching from the juggling mode of thought to pure creative freedom. There was a non-structure to my day which I found really fired my imagination and my desire to create. This last week has been much more about enjoying the company of my husband and dog, taking longer walks and socialising. I’ve still been writing, but the tempo has changed again.

The other night, I wasted almost an hour debating whether to join my husband in the pub for a music session. I’d written my daily goal of 2000 words, but even though I’d achieved my aim, guilt began to gnaw at my conscience. It sounded something like this:

‘I’m here to write so that’s what I should be doing, if I can. If there’s still an iota of possibility that more words could flow, then I should stay put and carry on. Especially since I’ve relaxed more now my husband has joined me on shore.’

The peaceful, uninterrupted writing time I’ve garnered since my husband’s arrival has been pretty irregular, so accompanying him for some fun rather than using the time effectively like I usually would felt like I was cheating myself in some way, deviating from my aim. But then my husband made a very good point.

“A change of pace. A different approach. Isn’t that why you’re here?”

So despite the random attack of guilt, I abandoned my extra writing session and went to the club. And guess what? It was a great night. The world didn’t explode, my typing fingers didn’t drop off and my ideas didn’t dry up. I got to spend some time with some really lovely, really interesting folk, full of stories, information and talent. I also learned a French jig and heard a rendition of Spancil HIll translated into Spanish.

The next day, I wrote another 2000 words without issue. Good, solid prose that probably won’t need much editing.

Some say that an island is a microcosm and I consider this statement to be true, especially if Cape Clear is anything to go by. Living in West Cork I’ve discovered that everything is magnified in rural conditions – from insecurities to weather dependency to community spirit – but an island emphasises things even further. There’s nowhere to hide. It opens you up and lays you bare.

end of cape clear, overlooking sherkin, west cork

An incredible view of Sherkin Island from the end of Cape Clear

Being here, I’ve learned a lot and I’ve realised that perhaps my initial search for a change of place to create a different tempo was unnecessary. It’s the head space that I’m fighting for and against. And that can be achieved anywhere.

Now, I know I’m lucky to live so close to a wonderful island like Cape Clear but being on the island has taught me that whatever you’re into – learning a language, playing instruments, sports, writing – if you’re serious enough, you’ll be disciplined and you’ll adapt. Because it’s part of who you are. It’s as simple as that.

Cape Clear Diaries (3): A Silent Island Speaks

contrast between sea and land in South Harbour, Cape Clear

South Harbour

May 11th, 2013

In the peace and tranquility of an almost deserted island, it’s easier to watch the environment and hear what it’s trying to say. These are a few things that have struck me on Cape Clear over the last few days:

  • Abandoned buoys flailed in the water, flung mercilessly by the frothing sea.
  • The East Harbour’s milky tide crept upon the rocky beach, until only the whisper of a rock could be discerned deep below the undulating water.
  • Amidst the long wavy grasses and spongey moss, vetch and seapinks, briars and monbretia that line the rocks, bees fed and walked aimlessly, as though oblivious to the harsh wind.
  • Nothing on an island can be certain; in the east the wind rages, with angry white horses for waves. In the south, the water is calm and glistening, like no wind has ever touched its beauty.
  • Cape Clear graveyard overlooking South Harbour

    A harbinger with a story to tell

    A boat called Atlantic Freedom tugged at its moorings, riled and determined.

  • As the wind calmed, the buoys on the side of the big, orange ferry swung restlessly, as though eager to crash against the waves of the turbulent Atlantic.
  • The turquoise sea suddenly turned petrol-grey as a thick cloud covered the sun. Combined with the wind, speeding shadows crossed the land, making two fishermen quickly haul their shrimp pots as though fearful of some giant beast’s arrival, ready to swallow them whole, boat and all.
  • Huge Celtic cross tombstones in the graveyard overlooks the harbour like a warning to always respect the sea.

Cape Clear Diaries (2): An island awakes

dawn on cape clear, ireland

South harbour, 5.32 am this morning

I’m not sure if it’s the enduring silence, the rush of ideas still trying to settle, or being alone, but for some reason I’ve been finding it difficult to sleep since arriving. This morning I awoke at 4am and couldn’t get back to sleep at all. So instead, I continued reading Wonder by R.J Palacio, one of my ‘research’ books for this trip. An incredible novel, if you haven’t yet read it.

At 5am the birds started singing a beautiful melodic tune which seemed just for me (I’m certain anyone else on the island was fast asleep). That’s when I noticed the silhouettes swooping and diving past the window and I forgot all about reading.

I can’t see a thing without my glasses or contact lenses but one thing was for sure, the birds were feeding while flying & singing so they had to be swallows or swifts or house martins. Curiosity got the better of me, so by 5.30am I was up, dressed & out in the still morning air.

Have you ever walked around an island at 5.30am when the rest of the world is sleeping? Liberating is one word that comes to mind. Grounding is another.

By this time, the swallows had stopped feeding and the gulls were out. There were some loud birds making a crazy amount of noise, including croaking noises in the undergrowth – more like frogs than a birds. The chorus turned out to be a mix of starlings and blackbirds.

A walk at this time may sound adventurous but to be honest, I didn’t explore very far; just from one harbour to the next. A very short walk (about 10 minutes according to the sign posts). But it was enough for what I wanted; to watch the world wake up. In particular, the Atlantic.

Dawn on Cape clear island, ireland

East harbour as dawn breaks

Sitting on the harbour wall, I watched the clear water gently wash against the pebbles, making a sucking ‘sloop’ noise as it retreated. I saw driftwood & seaweed fronds floating on the calm sea, black-headed gulls resting on the tide or circling overhead.

The wind shoved a break in the clouds across the sky and I wondered whether the ferryboat would run today. I noticed the harbour lights switch off at 5.43 exactly. The clouds slowed down and the water turned from dark grey to the viridian of evergreen trees.

By 6am, the island was shrouded in the murky half light of an overcast day. But as a pink hue stretched to the south, I realised – hey! It’s only just 6am and it’s pure daylight! Summer is here!

Despite the chill on my fingers, the woolly hat, and the rain that started to fall at 6.18, I stopped trying to decipher why I couldn’t sleep and felt thankful for it instead.

Surely, after those short dark days of winter, a morning such as this is a gift?

Cape Clear Diaries (1): Dangerous Seas

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Cape Clear ferry, from Baltimore

Cape Clear Ferry – excellent skippers

My friend was reluctant to let me leave Baltimore on the Cape Clear ferry when she saw the size of the waves. It’s a good job she couldn’t see past the harbour promontory; out on the Atlantic the waves reached four metres high in places. Places we were travelling through.

As the last ferry of the day pulled away from Baltimore harbour – the rest were cancelled due to weather conditions – I sent a text to my husband in case he was worried. Our home overlooks the waters to Cape Clear and he would see the swells. His reply?

“It’ll be like rollercoasters. And you love those. You’ll be grand.”

He’s a seaman born and bred; he respects the ocean as much as he fears it. And he knows me well… Unlike the ferryboat man who took my fare straight away, saying:

“I’d better do it quick, so, before ye get sick.”

“I’m used to the sea, I won’t get sick,” I laughed.

And I didn’t. The ferryboat man was partly impressed, partly disappointed. Especially since the trip wasn’t an easy one. The ferry lifted and rolled with the waves, pitching and lurching. Sometimes with warning, sometimes without.

There were about eight of us in the galley, watching the shifting horizon through the open door. If ever you end up on a wild ferry ride like this, here’s what you need to do (having trouble with my middle ear, these are tips I learned long ago)…

  1. sit as close to the back of the ferry as you can and with your back to the direction you’re going
  2. keep your eyes on the horizon to minimise motion sickness
  3. stay alert to the movement of the boat; when the front end lifts, tense your stomach for the drop
  4. move with the boat as though you’re riding on a motorbike

Trust me, these things will help.

The roughest part of the journey was turning into the mouth of Cape Clear harbour; this is where the seas are wildest and cross currents rage. At times, the engine had to be cut off to pull back, preempting the wall of water coming our way. Waves spluttered over the cabin and drowned the deck.

Thankfully, there was cargo on board which steadied the boat. And of course, there were great skippers steering the boat, with a wealth of knowledge under their belts.

beautiful East harbour, Cape Clear

Cape Clear East Harbour; calm after the storm

Although it was fun, I was glad to step onto land and it took about half an hour for my legs to stop wobbling. It was like they were still following the ebb and flow of the tide.

When I called my husband to et him know I was safe, he told me he’d climbed the hill with our dog, Franklyn, and watched the ferry pitch and flail in the sea through the binoculars, waiting until we’d turned safely into the harbour.

Now on Cape Clear, the island is silent. There are no tourists and few islanders. The air is thick with rustling trees, waves bashing against cliffs and birdsong. A wren dashes out from under a twisting briar and crosses my path, cocking his tail as he perches on an old stone ditch to welcome me.

July in Photos: Cape Clear, Sea Trips and Spooky Walks

Out fishing: noisy visitors…

…and a hitchhiker!

Shooting shrimp pots (we got a haul big enough for three meals)

Lots of chillis on their way

Amazing Inshore Rescue training new volunteers

The first batch of blackcurrant jam

Runner beans doing well

Cape Clear lighthouse in the mist (I’m only a few metres away)

Wild walking ‘paths’, Cape Clear

Heading to the cliff walk in the mist (Cape Clear)

A haunting house – I love the way the tree mimics the roof

Garden roses in bloom

Another spooky walk…

Our first gherkin! (pickling season starts soon)