I was nine when I went on my first holiday without my family. My father had just died, and my best friend’s family offered to take me to the fields of Kerry to give me fresh air and nature; more valuable than any therapist. My friend’s mother drove me, and I knew we were headed somewhere magical as we drove along the roads lined with Montbretia flowers, like blazes of fire.
At first, we stayed in their small caravan, squashed into various sofa beds and bundles of blankets. I loved the cosiness of it, every giggle spreading through the paper thin walls. The caravan sat at the bottom of a sloping field, tucked into the corner and draped in Fuchsias. In the evenings the air hummed with tiny midgets, that forced us to run and leap into the caravan to avoid their bites. They particularly liked my skin, my blood tastier than my friend and her sisters. We guessed it was because I was a foreigner to those parts, my blood full of sweet city life. Whereas my friend was a native, her ancestors having come from the Gaeltacht.
For a few days we stayed on the Blasket Islands. We sailed across the navy sea, on a small ferry packed with sheep and locals. Even the sheep could speak more Irish than I could, but by the second and third year of the same trip I started to understand, recognising the foreign pronunciation of the words that I learned in school. The men who sailed the boat were as wild as the waves, and I found myself fascinated by the ease with which they seemed to sail through life.
Sometimes we were lucky enough to stay in one of the hut-like houses on the island. Other times we camped where houses had once stood, where the ground was flat and the old ruined walls offered some wind protection. Back then you could camp anywhere you liked, and no-one would raise a disapproving eyebrow.
The old ruin by the well was a much coveted camping space, the supply of fresh water the obvious place of choice. We never understood why no-one stayed there more than one night, until we stayed there ourselves. My friend and I pitched our tent smugly, convinced the whole island was jealous of us, which made us feel very important. I knew something was wrong when I woke early, as the cool dawn sun lit up the tent. I was overcome with an itch. I pulled back the sleeping bag to see hundreds of tiny black midges stuck to my white skin, sucking out their breakfast. Of course I screamed, convinced that this meant the death of me, waking my friend in hysterics. Not one midge had chosen her, the local. When I showed my hundreds of tiny spots to her mother that morning, her face drained of colour, convinced I had Meningitis. At the time I laughed as I tried to convince her that I knew it was midge bites, I had seen them. But now I understand her fear, stuck on an Island with no boat for two hours and someone else’s child covered with spots.
One year we stayed in Peig Sayer’s house. We were particularly excited by the traditional half door. My friend’s mother used to wrap a woollen shawl around her shoulders and smile out over it at the Americans who struggled up the hill. She looked right at home in that cottage, as if she was born to the house.
I had my first taste of wine there. I picked up the wrong glass, thinking it was apple juice and took a deep thirsty gulp, only to spit it out in horror when I tasted the sharp over-whelming flavour that seemed to attack every hidden taste bud in my mouth.
The floorboards upstairs were half-broken, and it was like walking a tight-rope to get to our beds. My friend and I would remind each other every night “Don’t forget to say your prayers”, and by God did we pray in that bed that we wouldn’t fall through the roof in our sleep.
There was a small craft shop on the island. The minute we walked in we were hit by the Earthy smell of harsh wool and an oven full of chocolate cake, as the woman who ran it also did the baking for the tea shop. The day she had to go to the mainland and left us in charge was the high-light of our holiday. We were teenagers then, unused to such responsibility. We only made one sale in the whole day, but the trust we had been given was worth more than if we had sold every item in the shop. For our payment, we each learnt to weave a belt, and treasured our prizes for years afterwards.
By the time I was teenager there was a hostel on the island. My friend’s mother stayed there, but we refused to give up the excitement of camping. One particularly blustery night we got so scared in our tent that we ran up to the hostel in our pyjamas, and climbed into the bed with her. When the rain stopped the next day we went to find our tent, but it was gone. We thought someone had stolen our tent, the lowest of the low. Until we went to the cliffs and spotted the tent bopping up and down on the waves, far out in the ocean. We were stuck on the island that time, the weather so unexpectedly bad that no ferry could sail for two days. Everyone on the island pooled their resources and food, so no mouth went hungry. The excitement was almost too much to bare, and we abandoned our shoes, walking around the island in our bare feet. We said it because our feet dried quicker than shoes, but the real reason was that it made us real like real islanders, in the days before shoes.
The island was always beautiful, but if you got up at 5am it transformed into paradise. We set an alarm to explore it, convinced we would find fairies and magic. The air was crisper, the grass sparkled with dewdrops and the silence was broken only by lapping waves. The beach was covered in seals basking in the early light, their damp bodies shining. The fields were full of mushrooms, that we once picked for breakfast. If we left it too late the three island donkeys would get them first. Rabbits hopped through every field, every nook and cranny hosting at least one furry family.
We had left a note for the fairies at the well the night before, and were thrilled to find the note gone, a sure sign that a fairy had taken it. We checked every morning for a reply, but it never came. Not that we let that dampen our belief.
Coming home on the ferry carried none of the excitement that the trip out held, like waking from a blissful dream that you don’t want to leave. We would wave to the island and hope we’d see it again next year, stashing away our memories and bare feet.
Before driving home to Cork, we would stop off in Louis Mulcahy’s Pottery to buy a souvenir for my mother, so she knew I had been thinking of her when I was gone. The shiny glaze of the little vases and egg-cups attracted my hands like magnets. Every year I hunted out the beautiful cone shaped pottery hand-basins that would transform a bathroom, and vowed that one day I would bring enough money to buy my very own.
Those summer holidays gradually phased out as adult life took over, and I haven’t been back to the Blaskets since. I’m scared that the magic will be lost if seen through my adult eyes; each mountain not as tall and every fairy fort not so full of clues. But I’m still planning on one day bringing one of those deep blue hand-basins into my home, so every time I wash my hands, I’ll remember the Blasket waves trickling through my finger-tips.
(c) Niamh Garvey