Authors: Anita Fennelly
I replaced the towel, on the side of my head, ready to inch it across my face. ‘I’m called the waning moon now, where I’m darkening and shrinking smaller and smaller for the next seven nights, until you can see only half my moon face on day twenty-one. The sap is falling in plants. The tides are getting lazier, as they were back over there on day seven. They’re not bothered to go in very far, or to go out very far. Energy is falling downwards, as the moon continues to wane.’ I dropped to my knees, the towel hiding over half of my face as I as struggled from spoke to spoke like a dying soldier. Sarah continued to giggle on her earth rock. ‘In women, the womb is no longer enriched. Its lining is shrinking and home, here at day one again, my moon face has disappeared and the woman bleeds with the new moon.’ Demonstration completed, the dying soldier finally collapsed onto the sand, as Sarah continued to survey the twenty-eight nights around her.
‘That’s really cool. Is it true?’
‘Of course, it is.’ I said, pulling the towel off my face. ‘Look at the high spring tide today. You’ve got your period. I’ve actually got mine too, and it can’t be just a coincidence that every civilisation since ancient times, in different parts of the world, all came up with the same idea. Even in Gaelic, the words for menstruation, period, calendar and month are similar.’
‘But why don’t we have twenty-eight days in every month now. It’s all mixed up.’
‘I know. The Romans changed it to the calendar months that we use today, so the new moon and full moon now fall on different dates every month.’
Sarah stood on her stone, turning slowly as she counted out the phases of the moon.
‘So in fourteen more days when the moon is full, I will release an egg.’
‘That’s what happens and that’s why it’s such a celebration.’
She jumped off the stone and counted her fourteen steps from new to full moon aloud.
‘In other countries, you would be having a big party to celebrate. All of the women in the family – mother, grandmother, sisters and aunties – get together and you would have a cake and presents. It is the day you become a woman, so the whole family celebrates the potential for a new generation.’
‘That’s not fair. Why don’t we have a party in Scotland?’
‘Well, nobody’s stopping you. In my school, when a girl in my class has her Moonday, I bring a big cake in to class and all the girls give her a tiny gift.’
‘What? Are they not embarrassed?’
‘Well, early in September, they are. They can’t even say the word “period”. It’s called thingies, yokies, monthlies, jilly-jollies, the curse, and a hundred and one other names. But once the first girl has her party and they understand what I’ve shown you here, everyone is excited about it and no girl has ever wanted to miss out on her cake and presents.’
‘My cousin always says she can’t go swimming ’cos she has her
,’ Sarah said, drawing a full moon in the sand around the white pebble. ‘What kind of presents do they get?’
‘Well, my rule is that it has to fit in a matchbox, so they put in hairbands, flowers, coins, sweets, things like that, but I always tell them that their parents’ gift need not fit into a matchbox.’
‘Do you think that Dad knows I’m supposed to get a present when I become a woman?’ she asked wistfully.
‘Well, you’re a mercenary little we-moon!’
She squealed as the towel landed on her head.
‘I suppose you might have to explain it to him.’
‘There’s one thing that I don’t understand.’ She stopped her orbiting for a few seconds, trying to put it into words. ‘If you’re supposed to have your period with the new moon, and release an egg with the full moon, why is it that everybody doesn’t have their period at the same time?’
‘Because today, we’re surrounded by artificial magnets and artificial light which interfere with the moon’s effect on us. Your television, microwave, computer, radio and mobile phone – all those things have magnetic fields which affect you. Then women take medicines and the pill. There are lots of different reasons. Then if you’re ill, your body might delay releasing an egg because it doesn’t have any extra energy. If you live in a city, it’s very difficult to be in harmony with the moon. You’re walking over huge power cables, you’re walking under them. You’re surrounded.’
‘We’re leaving the island today. I’m going to ring Mum and tell her. Will I tell her we’re supposed to have a party?’
‘If you want a party, you tell her you only become a “we-moon” once. Now what about finding your poor Dad and telling him first? He should be on his way back from the fort at this stage.’ Sarah stepped from moon to moon, one last time, counting out the days to her day fourteen, and then on to her next period.
‘It’s really cool, isn’t it?’
‘It is. Now come on. Your dad will be worried sick.’
As we climbed over the top of the cliff, we could see Michael striding back along the north path.
‘There’s Dad! I have to tell him he owes me a present.’ This time she jumped out of the way, anticipating the flying towel.
‘Go on. I’ll see you later… and Happy Moonday.’
‘Byee.’ She scampered off, calling to Michael, who waved back vigorously, like an air traffic controller on the brow of the hill.
I abandoned the idea of any walk that day. I didn’t want to miss Sarah and Michael leaving. I sat out with a book, chatting to Aisling and the curious tourists who passed by. It was four o’clock before Michael and Sarah appeared, on their way to the ferry. I made tea, and we sat on the grassy bank talking, as two ferries came and went. Eventually, the red ferry moored in under the cliff for its last trip.
‘Will you be here next year?’ Sarah asked.
‘You never know. I might be.’ I hadn’t thought any more than a day ahead for a long time, so the question baffled me. Despite the warm sunshine, Sarah had one of Sue’s beautiful purple and blue scarves wrapped around her shoulders, which she continually adjusted to her best advantage. Michael smiled at me.
‘Her Moonday present. Thank you.’
Sarah then pulled a small brown bag from inside her sleeping bag roll.
‘Happy Moonday to you too,’ she said, presenting me with the package. Inside was one of Páid’s wooden candleholders.
As I hugged her, I felt my throat swell, taut as a drum. I didn’t speak. She kissed me on the cheek and took off down the hill. ‘Byee.’
‘Looks like it’s time to pick up that drama script again,’ Michael laughed. He took my hand. ‘Goodbye. And I can’t thank you enough,’ he said. He still held my hand, smiling awkwardly. ‘And be more assertive with those donkeys.’ I nodded, swallowing hard to quell waves of emotion. ‘We’ll definitely be back next summer,’ he said finally.
I never managed to say goodbye. He smiled and released my hand.
He waved one last time from the clifftop, before disappearing down the slipway. I watched until the ferry disappeared into the shadow of the mainland. Then I went into the hut, closed the door and cried. The tears were new and warm. They spilled from a living spring, so different to the dead stagnant waters of earlier days. I thought again of the two little girls I had seen at the old National School and knew that, like them, I wouldn’t meet Michael and Sarah again.
That night after dark, I began to write. I lit a candle, wrapped my sheepskin around me and poured my thoughts and dreams onto the page. At 3 a.m. I was finished. Until I left the island, I continued the same nightly ritual – story after story, in an effort to tell the story that couldn’t be told.
hroughout that month of August, the weather remained warm and calm. The ferries buzzed back and forth with cosmopolitan cargoes. The midges were out in force, flushing squealing lovers out of the undergrowth. One female camper ran to the ferry screaming that she was being eaten alive. She left her tent and belongings to be collected by the ferryman days later. Filling the vacuum after the departure of Michael and Sarah, I busied myself with excursions to the back of the island, bare feet in the damp turf and face into the sea breeze.
As I soaked in the sun, in the shelter of the Bright Dwellings at the far end of the Great Blasket Island, I frequently saw the tiny, lone figure walk from the direction of the stone house on Inis Mhic Uibhleain up to the huge rocks in the centre of the island. I always wondered if it was Charlie Haughey, and I became determined to take that trip to the outer islands, to find out.
One evening in return for giving a tour of the Blasket village to the crew of a passing yacht, they presented me with the opportunity.
‘Do you fancy sailing around the islands tomorrow?’
I jumped at the chance. The following morning as we passed Inis Mhic Uibhleain, I could see the landing place. I wondered about going ashore. The skipper agreed with me. There was no harm in taking a few photos of red deer. Without giving it a second thought, I scrambled onto the rocks and climbed up the landing steps. Our approach to the island had obviously been under observation as a familiar male figure was waiting for me as I arrived at the top.
‘How can I help you?’ Charles J. Haughey asked me.
I was so surprised and breathless it took a while to explain the purpose of my visit. He listened and confirmed to me that he was that tiny figure I had seen.
‘I regularly climb up to study the remains of the past. These stones have seen it all. Sometimes I feel like shaking the secrets out of them. Maybe some day archaeologists will develop a technology that will enable them to unveil the past more meaningfully, but in the meantime we can only gaze and wonder.’
I knew what he meant. Compared to the permanence and power of these islands, we are nothing, as insignificant as blown dust.
‘Over there is what appears to be an ancient burial ground,’ he said. He was silent for a time. ‘I believe the oratory here, and the graves in front of it, are closely related to the monastic site on the Greater Skellig – probably some monks of the same order. Have you been to the Skelligs?’
‘I have. I don’t think I’ll be invited back though. It’s a long story. Perhaps the Blasket dwellings were actually part of the Skellig community?’
‘Well, only the stones know at this stage,’ he smiled. ‘You know, I would have liked to have been an archaeologist.’ We sat quietly for a time. Around us the remains of the oratory, beehive huts and old boundary walls lay silent. Only the sea breeze rustled through the grass. I thought of the yellow digger, gouging out layers of time back on the Great Blasket Island. At least here, in on the Inis, under its present caretaker, the secrets of the stones would remain intact.
‘We’ve started an island log,’ he said.
I understood his reasons. Recording the transitory comings and goings of migrating birds, visitors, winter gales, boats and grandchildren seemed to give an anchor in time, to validate us, before we became more flotsam on the tide.
‘I always wanted to live on an island off the west coast of Ireland,’ he added.
‘Are you from the west?’ I was only aware of the former Taoiseach in a Dublin context.
‘I was born in Mayo,’ he proclaimed with pride, planting his hands firmly on his knees. ‘There’s a place in Donegal called Haughey’s Isle. I looked at it, but it is no longer an island, though it may have been at one time. Most of the islands off the west coast don’t have any proper title, so I was at a dead end. Then Maria Simonds-Gooding suggested Inis Mhic Uibhleain.’
As Charlie talked about the Inis, he said, ‘It is known as the island of the fairies –
, where they play fairy music, to carry away the very soul. On a summer’s evening, at twilight, when the sea murmurs below, and the haunting cry of the seals echoes in the caves, it’s relatively easy to believe anything.’
I knew that this man felt the spirit of the islands. I told him of my experience with the two little girls at the old schoolhouse.
‘I have never seen anything on the Inis myself, but Maria had a terrifying ghostly experience here. It was while she was in here on one of those painting visits, in the early days, that she saw the ghost.’
Curious, I asked him to tell me about it, but he just smiled. ‘You’ll just have to talk to Maria about that. That is
story to tell. Tom and Paddy Ó Dálaigh owned the island at that time. They were bachelor brothers, and kept sheep on the island. As long as they lived, we gave them the grazing for their sheep. When they were in clipping the sheep, they stayed in that
‘How long ago was that?’
‘It was in the seventies. We’re here over thirty years now. It was a great place for the children to holiday, and learn about the sea, and develop respect for it. They were out boating, swimming, exploring and climbing from one end of the day to the other, and now the grandchildren can have that same freedom. We had to build up the landing place –
. That was, and still is, probably, the most forbidding aspect of island life, trying to land. You waited for the boat to rise on the swell and jumped, hoping for the best. The climb up from the sea to here is heavy-going, just as bad as the harbour in Dún Chaoin.’
Memories of our school trip where we jumped into the rocky darkness from the rising waves came flooding back. I recounted our disastrous landing on the cliffs below Dunmore Head back in 1979.
‘I heard about that,’ he said. ‘It’s gone down in the Kerry annals, a bit like the wine story.’
I was at a loss. ‘What’s the wine story?’
He looked at me in disbelief. ‘It is a Blasket story that has become folklore by now. You must have heard it.’
I waited in anticipation. A cloud formation rested on the western horizon, like a distant island.
‘We tell the grandchildren that is Hybrasil, and that we had tried sailing out west, looking for it, but never found it.’ He gazed out to sea and recited:
‘On the ocean that hollows the rocks where ye dwell.
A shadowy land has appeared, as they tell.
Men thought it a region of sunshine and rest
And they called it Hybrasil, the Isle of the Blessed.’
I thought of Fergal’s boat,
Oileán na nÓg
, called after the mythical island where nobody ever grows old. Myth and history, always, seemed to be a vital part of our present, on these mystical islands.