The black causeway

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Our neighbour Sheila says that when she was a child, the sea here parted each spring to reveal a causeway stretching across the bay, encrusted gleaming black with mussels. She was told stories of how the pirate queen Gráinne Ní Mháille held Doona Castle 450 years ago. Of how its great gates would fly open and Gráinne would ride out at the head of her warriors and lead them across the black causeway to plunder the countryside.

I can see the castle now from the cottage window. There are lights in the dark sometimes. Fishermen, perhaps. In the sunshine the walls, or what remain of them, stand black and jagged across the rippling quicksilver and yellow sandbars of Tullaghan Bay. I try to imagine the causeway, rising like a glistening leviathan to cut the waters in two. The people leaving their homesteads, herding their livestock inland. The black causeway connecting neighbour with neighbour, predator with prey.

With no appointment and no reply when we called the agent, we couldn’t get into the cottage that first afternoon. We pressed our noses up against the windows and squinted at our own reflections in the glass as though we could will the dingy muslin curtains to part, like the waters of Tullaghan Bay. The little we could saw was ordinary, unloved. I glimpsed the expected brown gloss paint.

But – and this is the point, the crux, the thing that I still try to understand – none of that mattered. The remoteness, the twilight blue of the sky, the sound of waves and the mountains dwindling to grey meant we had to come back.

Along with all its other historic and modern administrative areas – provinces, counties, baronies, civil parishes, district electoral divisions – Ireland is divided into more than 60,000 townlands, a thousand-year-old Gaelic unit that was co-opted by the English during the colonisations of the sixteenth century. There are 244 townlands in Erris. The smallest is the tear-shaped island of Illanroe, a bare field less than 200 yards long. Others are enormous: Sheskin, to the north of Bellacorick Bridge, is one of the biggest townlands in the country, a vast Department of Forestry plantation six miles by three.

Our cottage – and already that first day we thought of it as our cottage – straddles the border between the townlands of Tullaghanbaun, Gaelic for ‘the little white hill’, and Tullaghanduff, the little black hill. Houses and ruins line the road that runs along the shore of the bay in a ribbon, past Holmes’s Bar and the chapel of St Pius X – neighbours, each offering solace – and without a break or a sign Tullaghanbaun becomes Doohoma, ‘the mound of the sand banks’. Then all the way round the eastern edge of Blacksod Bay the names run like an incantation: Roy, Dooyork, Geesala, Doolough, Muingmore, Bunawillin, Srah. Naming locates, it is part of the process of placing. Raised in a world where every house in every street, road and lane has a postcode, I’m still in awe of the way An Post, the Irish postal service, manages to deliver letters on the strength of a surname and a townland. There are no street names in my part of Erris, no numbers or names to the houses. The mail still gets through.

It took us nine long months to buy the cottage. In retrospect the story doesn’t gain in the telling. It is in any case not the story I want to tell. The house was everything we expected: it had lain unoccupied for a while, and there were damp stains on walls, ceilings and floors. Sheaves of exposed electric cable hung from the walls. A faded print of Jesus and Mary hung in one of the bedrooms and a wooden crucifix was nailed to a wall in another. A worn rosary dangled from a nail beside the back door, beads that hadn’t been told for years. They are there still. I touch them for luck as I walk out the door sometimes, superstitious.

We would fly into Knock, pick up a car and make the ninety-minute drive to Tullaghanbaun, to measure the rooms and sniff the damp and reassure each other that we were doing the right thing. While the slow process of purchase dragged on we were always made welcome, always treated with a natural kindness by everyone we met. If it weren’t for that, we would have given up.

Then, suddenly, the cottage was ours.

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