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Ireland (Part 3), Irish Sea

October 2, 2012

“I hate to be near the sea, and to hear it roaring and raging like a wild beast in its den. It puts me in mind of the everlasting efforts of the human mind, struggling to be free, and ending just where it began.”

“The sea, washing the equator and the poles, offers its perilous aid, and the power and empire that follow it . . . . ‘Beware of me,’ it says, ‘but if you can hold me, I am the key to all the lands.’”

I found the above two quotes by the same man, Joseph Conrad. I do not know in what context he said them, but they are true–just as what I felt from Irish sea is true to me. For me, the sea speaks many languages and conveys many moods–in silence, in monotonous murmurs, and in angry roars and rages. For centuries, it has been left to each person to discover what she takes from the sea or feels about the sea.

During my two-week exploration of the Republic of Ireland, I experienced the Irish sea in more than one way.

We spent a night on the Dingle Peninsula, in the town called Dingle. The next morning, we drove along Slea Head Scenic Drive toward Ventry. The road was narrow and often dangerously winding and steep, but the vistas were indeed scenic. The path on which our car traveled was beautiful, and the view of the sea parallel to the road made a perfect union of land and water. The sea was never the same as it came into view.  At times it seemed to sit still; other times it displayed conspicuous motion. Sometimes it was gray, looking threatened by the dark clouds clustered above; other times it simply merged with the sky. On the Slea Head Scenic Drive, the sea befriended the green hills and fields with the same sky as their roof.

A view from Slea Head Scenic Drive

I sailed on the sea in ships–once from Ventry for a four-hour tour, another time for just an hour, from Donegal. Both times, I was in the company of loud tourists but the sea made me her only companion. It felt still and quiet, with only small waves as delicate as the wrinkles on finest silk hinting at a calm motion. The sea let our ship slide on it and did not bid us farewell. Instead, I heard, “Go on with your voyage. I will be here for you to pass on again and again.” With the sea, lost in eternity, I sent my eyes upward to the sky and saw the face of my loved one.

My feelings about the sea were different when I stood on the Cliffs of Moher and encountered the vast panorama of the open sea. There I was truly taken “far out, of this time and of this world,” as George Bernard Shaw wrote somewhere. I had no sense of that sea as part of the Atlantic ocean, linking to other parts of the world. It was just there . . . majestic, awe-inspiring and mystical.

Cliffs of Moher

The Irish sea that stretched my imagination most was the sea which housed all those islands. During my two tours on the sea, plenty of small and large islands were pointed out. The islands I was most eager to visit were Skellig Michael and Small Skellig.  We thought about making a separate trip to these islands but we did not have enough time to make the visit worth our while. Well, the next time I return to Ireland.

In the meantime, having read and heard so much about them, I imagined the solid, massive and awe-inspiring Skellig islands—the place for penance and pilgrimage, where stone steps were built with beyond-human patience and strength, where sea birds feel safe and free, where hardy rock plants provide patches of greenery and colors, and where cliffs stand tall.

The Skelligs would not rise majestically without the backdrop of the sea–the sea that brings Atlantic storms but protects the islands in its own way. Des Lavelle writes in his book, The Skellig Story, “It is the sea conditions immediately around the small, exposed landing of Skellig Michael which dictates the access to the island.” I believe the not-so-easy accessibility to the islands is what makes the place holy, beautiful and mysterious. One travels there despite the natural challenge, willing to surrender convenience for the duration of the trip. It is the place where gods and humans meet looking at the sea with sunsets, shadows and silence.

The Irish sea gave me plenty during my two week trip, already with growing mystery of the harmony of heaven and earth, as if reflecting the Celtic culture in which the dead and the living are not far apart. The Irish sea and islands, especially the Skelligs, beckon me to return. Oh, yes, Don says he will surely come with me.

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