Slip-sliding away

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A century ago, this was a cottage. It had a slated roof, a garden and a picket fence. Children played on the strand in summertime. I have seen the pictures… happy holiday-makers returning to Skerries, to the place where their grandfather, Reverend Shegog, was the Minister in the Church of Ireland. You may have seen his photograph, a tall, bearded man in his cork lifejacket, supervising the launching of the lifeboat at the harbour. You may have heard the story of his son, a doctor, who died in the Great War.  A week after his death, a telegram arrived to his quarters, announcing the birth of a child, a child who never knew his father. Old stories, that hang in barely remembered shreds, like the weeds on the crumbling cliff. Perhaps my recollection of the stories, is crumbling too. They echo, like the distant calls of children on a strand, or the cries of the nesting fulmars. Even the fulmars must give some thought to the changes taking place around them.

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Fulmarus glacialis is the official name. The fulmars have lived here ever since the last Ice Age clothed the rock in boulder clay and fine gravel, to make an island. They live on fish, shellfish and small crustaceans, a gourmet diet. They can’t go hungry on Shennick Island.The Dutch name for fulmar is mallemuk meaning foolish gull. The Dutch are mistaken. The fulmars nest together in apparent amity. They stay together all winter, sheltering from the storms. Their food supply is immediately below them. They glide down to forage and soar back up to their ledges, masters of their element. They warn intruders off, with raucous cries.  Gah, Gah, Gah.

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The storms and high tides rend the island. They undermine the cliff. They spill the boulders and gravel onto the strand and sweep it all away. We watch as  the profile changes from year to year. We are concerned. We see the traces of human effort falling away. We experience regret for what is lost. Men stayed overnight in the cottage, to steal a march on the tide, when they went out to collect the woar. The winkle-pickers of today would be glad of four walls and a roof. They come from Latvia. They tell me that they don’t feel the cold. They work at night, with miners’ lamps, moving, like Will o’ the Wisps, on the dark foreshore.

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You can read the story of the Ice Age in the layers, the black marl under the sand of the beach, the rough clay and boulders torn from the bedrock; the fine gravel, deposited grain by grain, in the beds of sub-glacial streams. The sea will take it all, the gravel and the jagged stones, sift and sort it and send it somewhere else, to make beaches of fine sand and drifts of gleaming pebbles. Nothing is lost; everything is changed. The granite pillar above the cottage proclaims ownership of the island, His Majesty’s War Office, ‘in Good King George’s glorious day’. The martello tower belonged to His Majesty. He prepared for war. The gulls and the pigeons own it now.  But for how long more?

For the present, the crabs and winkles welcome the shelter of the rocks and stones. The cockles burrow in the mud and sand. The mussels open and close with the tide. The mussel beds suffered greatly in the recent storms, but already the tiny spat is clothing the rocks, like a fine fur. Give them four years and they will make a tasty meal. People will come to dig for lugworms and probe for razor fish. The tide will ebb and flow, undermining and sifting. Gravity will bear down inexorably. The cottage wall will crack asunder. The tower will creep closer and closer to the edge. You and I won’t be around to see it fall.

The fulmars will move back a foot or two, with every slump and subsidence. They will soar on the updraughts and build their nests in the sun. They will dine together in some style. They will not send their children to war. Foolish gulls? I don’t think so.

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