Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s memoir Thin Places: A Natural History of Healing and Home, chronicles a childhood of trauma in Northern Ireland with aching honesty and lyrical prose. As we watch violence escalate at contested borders around the globe, her story offers a plea for peace, one that looks to the natural landscape in search of hope, solace, and a world worth protecting.
I was born into the middle of this violence, at its exact midway point: 1983. Although no one could have known it, on that cold winter’s day in Derry. No one has even an inkling, back then, but they are halfway through those dark years. They are over the hump of the hill. The violence that has been filling their every waking day, their every sleepless night, will be brought to an end. The kidnapping and terrorising, the bombing and burning, the mauling and murdering, is not going to last forever. We do not know yet the journey that the land on which we live, and all of us who live on it, will make. We do not yet know the lengths and breadths, the words and actions, the negotiating that will be required to take us from being a land of violence to a land of (more or less) peace. Some of us, in fact, may never know the ins and outs of this process, our journey towards peace in the North of Ireland, our Peace Process. We will not know of the words whispered between people, between humans that had never before broken breath to one another before. We may never know of the bargains and sacrifices made, of the leaps of something – something unthinkable – that were taken. Leaps of something that feels much stronger, even, than sheer “faith.” That border has seen it all – every last trace of the violence, bloodshed, silence, trust – the peace that has been carefully and sensitively shaped. A peace as delicate as the wings of a moth.
My grandfather was born in the same week as the Irish border. He was a storyteller, and his most affecting tales, the ones he gave me that have shaped my life, were about place, about how we relate to it, to ourselves, and to one another. Good seanchaidhthe – storytellers – never really tell you anything, though. They set the fire in the hearth; they draw the chairs in close; they shut all the windows so the old lore doesn’t fall on the wrong ears. They fill the room with a sense of ease, a sense of all being as it should be. The words, when they spill quietly out of the mouth of the one who has been entrusted with them, dance in the space, at one with the flames of the fire. It is, as always, up to those who listen to do with them what they will.
The stories he shared were fleeting, unbidden; they came and went as quickly as the bright, defiant end sparks of a fire, well on its way to going out. The stories, those glowing embers of words, were about places that are known to hide away, sometimes from all view. As if their locations are to be found between the cracks, or floating above the thick gray Atlantic. Places that he mostly didn’t even have names for but that he could conjure up as though they were right there in the same room. He called such places “skull of a shae.” Now, I have come to think of the shae as “shade,” a nod to the almost ghost-like nature he saw such places as having. The places he spoke of seemed to scare him a wee bit, or maybe it was talking about them that unsettled him. He came from a strict and hard background that allowed very little room for the voicing of much beyond the grind of being alive. I will remember, always, how he spoke of paths, particularly ones he found when walking across the border from Derry into Donegal. Paths on which friends and he had seen and heard things they were never really able to understand.
The places he spoke of were locations where people felt very different from how they normally do. Places from which people came away changed. In these places you might experience the material and spiritual worlds coming together. Blood, worry and loss might sit together under the same tree as silence, stillness and hope. He spoke, not often but with raw honesty, of places where people had found answers and grace, where they had learned to forgive, where they had made peace and room for healing. Places where a veil is lifted away and light streams in, where you see a boundary between worlds disappear right before your eyes, places where you are allowed to cross any borders, where borders and boundaries hold no sway. Lines and circles, silence and stillness – all is as it should be for that flickering gap in time. He never named the places, of course, and the first time he brought me to one – Kinnagoe Bay – on a soft, pink August afternoon in the late 1980s, he never spoke of any of this at all. He quietly read his magazine about pigeon racing, poured my granny’s tea, and let me be.
Photograph by Manus Kenny
This August in 2019, decades after that first experience with a thin place in my grandfather’s company, just days after I returned from another thin place across the water, British politics reached what may go down in history as one of its darkest days.
I was in the Waterside in Derry. I was in the border town I grew up in, one that has, in recent years, found itself caught up in a spiraling chaos of Brexit negotiations that seem as if they will never settle. That August afternoon almost half a year ago, I was by the fire in my rented house, caught between two heavy showers of Atlantic rain. The BBC shared with us all that the government had asked the Queen to suspend Parliament. It was only a handful of weeks before the Brexit deadline, October 2019 – the date on which, for three years, we had been told the UK would leave the EU. We had no idea then – not a single one of us – how any of the coming weeks, months or years would look for the islands of the United Kingdom. The single issue that has caused – and is still causing – unrivaled difficulty, is the question of the Irish border. Almost every politician has been able to agree on one thing – there is never going to be an easy way out of this mess when it comes to that invisible line.
We are all standing together looking out at an unknowable thing. Some of us already know what that utter terror, that dark and traumatizing uncertainty, feels like. Some of us have lived through things on the same level – rather, some of us have already survived such times. Some of us who grew up during the unsettled, devastating – horrifying – Troubles feel those ripples on our insides start to move again. Some of us left at the first chance we got, and we never looked back. Some of us stayed – following the paths of our parents and our peers – never learning another way, steering our ships always towards the same violence and anger that we knew and understood, keeping the same wounds open from the past that nearly broke. Some of us, though, some of us ran away, and then – somehow – found a way back. Now we watch from the sidelines in horror. The North of Ireland voted against leaving the EU in the referendum of 2016. Our votes mattered not a single jot. Our peace – worth more than anyone can verbalize – is in the hands of people who act as though we do not even exist. Who is to say we will not again witness atrocities the kind of which we have already seen, if we matter as little as we did back then?
On a wet night last month, in October 2019 – a few months after the suspension of Parliament by Boris Johnson, a handful of weeks before the UK was due to leave the EU – I went into my concrete backyard in search of the only patch of cloudless sky, in search of stars. Earlier that day, before the rain had properly set in, I’d gone for a run. Instead of running my usual route – along the River Foyle to look for the same herons and lapwings, the same light on the same reeds – I felt compelled to run a different route in the park. The news that day was so harrowing, full of politics that seemed to grow darker by the hour.
I took my anxious body a different path. I made my way around the football pitch instead of along the stream, up a hill with empty energy drink cans and one discarded stiletto, into a wee copse. Burnt grass and shards of glass from Tesco Own-brand vodka bottles, no light to be found at all. And then she came, wild and beautiful, in flight in the least likely of settings – a mottled brown and white moth. I followed her path above broken glass bottles – things that speak of the addiction and poverty that are already here, which looks like it will worsen in the future that lies ahead. Broken things that speak of our need. Then she was above a dash of red – the first fairy ring I had ever seen in Ireland. Later, before the night fell, I looked her up and found that she was an Oak Beauty. She is very specific to this wooded, broken city of mine. Even as I thought I was open of mind and eye, the moth that afternoon told me to come closer still, tells me – even now – that all is not lost in this place, not yet.
Photograph by Manus Kenny
Nature is not somewhere we go into. Nature is not just “my” river, or the tundra, the highlands, an island, an empty beach or a perfectly sculpted woodland. Nature is not always silent and a bringer of healing. It is not for any one type of person, with any particular background. Nature is the burnt grass that birthed those almost unreal fly agaric, that fairy ring. It is that moth as she jolted me out of my (creeping in) small-mindedness, and desire to box her off. It is the humans of my hometown who are responding to trauma through addiction: the human desire to feel numb sometimes, to ease the worry and the pain, and the sadness, just for a wee while. I hope that the moth danced for them, too – whoever drank and smashed those bottles – and that they noticed her.
Slowly, that autumn night, burning through the gray fog, the stars appeared. Then, under the stars, close enough that I could feel it in my bones, there was a loud, deep shot. Then a siren. I awoke the next morning to find out that the sound was a bomb, one street over from mine.
I am not ready for this again, none of us are. I blustered about the house, sinking into the depths, a place I cannot bear to reach again. I can’t live through it again, that much I know. I watched a spider pushing her eggs from the shower switch to the crack in the corner of the bathroom ceiling, slowly, with intention – the egg sac the same color as a robin’s egg, the same color as my eyes after crying.
I lit the fire, cursing the storm that raged outside on that afternoon, head full of worry about the melting, the burning, the breaking, full of guilt at my part in it all. The flames had seemed almost to dance in time with the howling winds that were shoving the trees around outside, and I remember how comforted I felt by it, by the fact that the winds still howl, and that I still love them, despite it all. It is still there, that breaking and bruising – that sorrow and deep, dark ache – but I am listening now, with everything I have. I am trying to find the way through.
From Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2022). Copyright © 2022 by Kerri ní Dochartaigh. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.
Kerri ní Dochartaigh is the author of Thin Places: A Natural History of Healing and Home. She has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times, the BBC, Winter Papers, and others. She is from the North West of Ireland but now lives in Cornwall with her family.
Milkweed Editions is one of the nation’s leading independent publishers of literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry bringing new voices and perspectives to essential conversations of nature, culture and identity that transform the way readers see and act in the world. This partnership enriches an already long and tightly woven strand of mutual inspiration and shared community between Milkweed and Orion.