Festivals, Stations and Jellyfish Swarms

Mackerel skies and horses tails

Moor your boats and lower your sails

These portent-filled skies haven’t been a problem but the mist has, so the boat has been firmly tethered to the pier for the most of June/July. We’ve had a few fishing trips but the shrimp pots are still waiting to be shot and the mackerel has been as scarce as the sea jaunts. However, jellyfish are in abundance, filling the lobster pots and driving the locals mad with their promise of a warm summer that hasn’t yet arrived.

Jellyfish on the shore

On one of our sailing trips it looked like the surface of the sea was bubbling in the distance; on closer inspection, it was a vast swarm of white and purple common jellyfish. In thick layers, they filled a chunk of sea (about 20 square metres) right down to the sea bed – something I’ve only ever seen once during a lagoon visit in Montego Bay many years ago.

As for the mist, it’s slowed the vegetables right down and has left a depressing air over the land. It’s amazing how much you feel the weather here. In a city, you can still go to an art gallery or the cinema, and you can cut through or alongside buildings which offer some shelter from the elements. Here, you’re constantly open to nature’s whims. It’s wellies and woolly hats one minute, sunscreen and caps the next.

A friend of mine has decamped to the village from Dublin for a few months and is amazed at how differently the weather affects her day – and she’s right in the main street. We’re only two miles out but planning is almost impossible; if the weather is fine, you need to get out and tend to the crops or go fishing while you can. It makes life very unpredictable, unsettling at times. And winter when it’s meant to be summer leaves a bizarre taste all round.

Luckily, I decided to take a break from novel writing this month, donating some TLC to my garden and (theoretically) myself. As the cuckoo moved her morning song to 5am, I tried lowering my sails, filling the month with festival cheer and short term projects.

Perfect spot for a live writing event!

At the beginning of June I was at Writers’ Week in Listowel, shaking hands with Michael D. Higgins and chatting to the likes of Patrick deWitt and Germaine Greer. At the end of June, I was writing live stories with two other writers in Kent train station as part of the Midsummer Festival in Cork City. Somewhere in between I was weeding, pruning, side shooting, plant feeding and earthing up drills in an attempt to keep blight away and growth encouraged.

Working on the Ciudades Paralelas installation called Station meant trips to the city every weekend for rehearsals and then two further weekends of performances – a pleasant change during the muddle that is an unpredictable rural summer.

This area is usually known for better weather, but last year’s summer was non existent and this summer is seemingly following suit. Not that I’m complaining. Since visiting my father as a young girl and helping with his garden, living like this is all I’ve ever wanted to do. The visits were during school holidays and nothing extraordinary, but coming from Middlesbrough, an industrial town, they were a slice of heaven in my adolescent life.

I feel lucky every day to live in my own version of paradise, but feeling restless without a big project to grapple, I was pleased to get the chance to be away. They say a change is as good as a rest, but in truth, it’s been tiring. Since February, I’ve stayed in either Galway, Cork, Kerry or Dublin (a day’s travel in most cases) a total of 11 times for work and writing related events. And I’ve somehow written a new book in between as well.

Big (but still green) tomatoes

People think you take it easy when you live in the countryside but I’m finding the opposite to be true. It’s not the stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily do in a city that makes you busier (e.g. chopping firewood, fixing ditches, finding lost cattle, helping elderly bachelors with their farms), it’s the everyday basics. You have to work harder to socialise, to establish yourself in the community, to find work and then maintain a work/life balance.

It was difficult to let go of the novel-writing for the month and in many ways it was more stressful trying to do less. But I guess this is just conditioning. I’ve realised it takes longer than we think to allow ourselves to just be. I’m slowly getting better but I’ve a long way to go.

As we head further into July, the cuckoo has spread her wings and migrated to Africa. Like her, I’m ready to get going again. The sails need to be hoisted so I can focus on my next big project: editing two books simultaneously. I hope the sun arrives, bringing with it an abundant crop and a much-needed surge of energy. And a few mackerel (of the fish, not cloud variety) would be nice!

(Please note, this is a cross post with Krank.ie: an Irish news and current events magazine website.)

Shipwrecks, Beans and Bike-Powered Cinemas

April showers bring forth May flowers,
A wet and windy May fills the barns with corn and hay…

Our punt afloat at the pier

May was a crazy-busy month. We launched our punt (only two trips out and six pollock caught so far; it’s too early for mackerel) and planted out more vegetables. Then there was the local short film festival; Ireland’s only film festival in a village with no cinema. Think bike-powered films, talks with Mike Leigh in the church hall and a visit from the Mexican ambassador and you’ve got an idea of the hotch-potch that you come to expect from rural living. Not forgetting the writerly side, I also managed to complete a new Young Adult book for my agent to read and got long/shortlisted in a few competitions (you can read one of my flash fiction pieces here).

As the local saying above foretold, the plentiful showers of April did bring plenty of May flowers; we got our first lily, our new heather burst into purple blooms and our tomatoes and beans are thriving. We’re particularly delighted with the latter because last year, our tomatoes suffered from blight and so we didn’t get any fruit at all. Tomatoes aren’t too much work; they need feeding every three days (we’re using rose feed thanks to the good advice of the local garden centre) and the side shoots need to be removed regularly to keep the head flowering. You have to make sure they’re not over or under watered and then there’s the tickling (it helps pollinate them apparently). As you can imagine, it’s heartbreaking to spend months tending to crops, only to watch them all fail. Thankfully, everything is going smoothly so far.

Tomato flowers in the tunnel

Spending so much time in the garden (the weeding alone takes at least an hour a day), I’m amazed to learn how resilient plants actually are. The beans, cabbages, potatoes, beetroot, sprouts, leeks and onions have exploded, despite the lack of sun and continuing winds. The infamous heatwave forgot to reach us; when my Twitter feed was jammed with talk of ice creams and tans, I was struggling to see more than five metres ahead of me while launching a boat. But crops that I thought had died have sprung back into life; and somehow, this makes me feel renewed. I guess I’m experiencing what Mary Carbery described in her 19th century diary:

Isolation means a deeper love and sense not of possession, but of being a part of something essential.” (Jeremy Sandford, Mary Carbery’s West Cork Journal 1898-1901)

Although I’m not living as remotely as many, between the garden, the sea and writing, I’m living a rather isolated life. In fact, weeks can go by where the only other person I see is my husband. Although it’s an amazing way of living, watching nature, being so immersed in it, has also proved frustrating in many ways. Mainly because it shows up your own inadequacies. My biggest inadequacy is time related.

It’s not that I’m bad at managing time; if anything, I’m too good at it. You know that phrase: if you want something doing ask a busy person? Well, that’s me. I fit a ridiculous amount into every day. Which is great for achieving but I’ve discovered it’s not good for the soul. It’s tiring, and often things don’t work out how they’re meant to.

The boat launch highlights my point perfectly. My idea of launching a boat would be: figure out what’s needed, who’s needed, pick a date and time. Total time taken: an hour, max.

Out on the open sea

How it really works is: look out of window, hum and hah about weather conditions, have a cup of tea. Work out the tide times, wander down to the pier to take a look, hum and hah about being right, then back for a cup of tea. When the tide is coming in, return to the pier and sit. Hopefully someone will arrive. As people arrive haphazardly (“Joe might be over in half an hour; let’s wait and see…”), sit and chat about getting the boat in the water. Total time taken: whole day. Time taken to actually launch boat: fifteen minutes.

It’s certainly a lesson in patience, but one I need to learn. If we’d had it my way, launching the boat would have been just another tick off the day’s to-do list. But with my husband taking charge (well, muddling us through), it was an enjoyable experience which included a bit of banter, plenty of laughs and a more relaxed state of mind. Which, as a writer, is very difficult to achieve.

Wherever I go, whatever I do, whomever I talk to, my brain is constantly sourcing information which could trigger a new story idea/character/title/novel. Even when I don’t want it to. Especially when I don’t want it to! The moulding, editing, and shaping takes up so much time, the ideas/inspiration part infiltrates every other minute of my day. Frankly, it’s exhausting. Gardening, fishing boating – which all have a strong sense of belonging and purpose – help me to switch off, but I wonder…is it the same for all creative fields? How do other creative people cope?

In my first post for Krank.ie, I talked about the cuckoo. Well, she’s here: I heard her for the first time in the middle of the month and she hasn’t stopped singing yet. This morning, she was warbling away on the wire above our home. Maybe it’s the excitement of the shipwreck that was found off the coast of Schull, just metres from where we live?

A sunken ship may not seem like a big deal, but being coastal, piracy is ingrained in the local history. Most locals can name the majority of the nearby shipwrecks. People from Long Island used to wave lanterns to confuse passing ships, luring them onto the rocks to loot the ship. There are numerous legends about buried treasure beneath local land. So, of course, another find is a great cause for excitement. The bounty that’s been recovered so far consists of a crate of coconuts from the 1600s and there’s a temporary pause in operations due to lack of funding. But that hasn’t stopped people’s curiosity. Isn’t that wonderful?

Lettuce grown from seed

I love the fact that when something happens in a small community, everyone talks about it. In a city, you can often miss what’s going on right under your nose. When people talk in a rural setting, you not only hear the facts, you also hear the legends growing. Each version of the story alters a little and the ideas flourish. I mean that as fact, not a slight. It’s a beautiful part of the ingrained storytelling that still exists across Ireland. I feel so lucky to be here when something like this has happened; you feel almost transported back to the times of oral tradition.

As I’ve said before, rural living is not for everyone. But in a time of such uncertainty and economic distress, there’s worse things you could do than spend time amongst trees, vegetables and the sea to balance perspectives. For me, May has been a month of growing in so many ways. As for the corn and hay, we’ll have to wait and see. You can’t hurry nature.

(Note: This post was originally written for and published by Krank.ie – an excellent Irish news and current events magazine website. Take a peek at krank.ie here!)