There are rainbows here.
They come often. So often that it is a rare day when I don’t see colours gleaming over the bay, or hovering bright above the purples of the bog, or far out at sea, a bridge and a promise. We saw one as we stood in the doorway of the cottage, the afternoon that it was ours. I can see another now in exactly the same spot, a clear double, two arcs of light launched across Tullaghan Bay from the distant white scar of Barrett’s quarry at Bangor, violet to red, then Alexander’s band, the dark patch of sky that fills the void between the two bows; then red to violet. I can just make out four colours in the brighter primary.
Aristotle saw three colours in his rainbows. Isaac Newton found five, then decided there were two more, a figure which has stuck ever since. Richard Of York Gives Battle In Vain. In fact there are as many colours in the rainbow as you can make out. The eye distinguishes discrete bands of colour and yes, on a good day a good eye might find red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet (although I can’t be convinced of the difference between blue and indigo), but in reality each colour in the visible spectrum blends smoothly into the next.
The constant presence of rainbows makes me look in a way I never have before. Sometimes the bow stops halfway across the sky, uncertain and incomplete. Doubles are common here, the fainter outer bow an inverted mirror image of the inner. I hadn’t noticed that before. I had never seen Alexander’s dark band, named for the 2nd-century philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias, who first asked why the sky was darker between the two bows. Nor had I noticed that rainbows are brighter near their base; or that, as John Constable saw, ‘the space within the Bow is always lighter than the outer portion of the cloud on which it is seen’.
There is nothing in these rainbows of the hideous crock-of-gold stage-Irishness that goes with shamrock key rings and leprechaun dolls and rivers dyed green for ‘Paddy’s Day’. Look into the past and there is a richness in these streams of light; sometimes a darkness, too. Cesar Otway, a clergyman who travelled through Erris in the 1830s, was told a story of a local man who was walking home across the mountains on the north coast late one night when he found himself at the gate of a magnificent phantom castle, the walls of which ‘glittered with all the hues of the rainbow’. Invited to join the fine gentlemen and women who were about to take their meal, he was saved at the last moment by the sudden arrival of a wild woman who commanded the assembly to release the poor mortal, and which the rainbow castle vanished and he was left, like Tannhauser, alone on the mountain side.
In living memory, a rainbow seen over the nearby hill of Duinn was regarded as a portent of bad weather, and it was the custom for older people to make the sign of the cross when it appeared and to mutter a prayer against the coming storm.
For the Vikings who raided the coast of Erris more than a thousand years ago the rainbow had a religious significance. It was Bifröst, the rainbow bridge that connected earth to the home of the gods, Asgard. Bifröst was guarded by Heimdall, one of the gods of light, who had presided over the beginning of things and whose horn, blown to warn of the approach of enemies, could be heard throughout the world. Heimdall kept watch until ragna rök, the end of the gods, when a great army of fire giants rode in from the south and stormed Asgard. The vault of heaven cracked in two in the heat of their passing and the rainbow bridge burst into flames and collapsed beneath the weight of their horses, signalling the last battle, the death of the gods and the end of the old world.
To the Vikings’ prey, the Christian monks who were settled on the islands off the Erris coast, the rainbow was a reminder of God’s promise made to Noah after the Flood, ‘I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.’ It was also a sign of another promise: in John’s vision of the Apocalypse a rainbow surrounded the throne of Christ as He sat at the Last Judgement, flanked by seven lamps of fire and four beasts ‘full of eyes before and behind’.
A bridge and a promise. That’s only a part of it. In other places and at other times the rainbow has been a serpent, a messenger, a heavenly archer or – my personal favourite, and a testament to the imaginative powers of Siberian tribesmen – the urine of the she-fox. A malevolent rainbow might suck the water from a lake in Estonia, or swallow Masai cattle in a single gulp. Pointing at a rainbow brought seriously bad luck in China and Mexico and the Gabon. Passing beneath one in France or Albania or Ohio caused you to change sex.
So go carefully.