Ryan Vance remembers Loch Erne
Before Loch Erne is itself,
before Ireland even is,
both are named Saimher
marking land’s first jealousy.
Partholon son of Sera
and his free wife Dealgnaid,
first settlers since the Flood,
arrive already exiled.
He has with him his parents
stained deep in his hands,
a murder unexplained –
Ach, you know what parents are like.
His continental temper matched
by impulse all her own she took to bed
Todhga, slave and lover, but
discovered in his clutch she said
O Partholon, is it possible
for a woman to be near honey
or a child next to new milk
or a cat smell fresh meat
or a workman see sharp tools
or a hand feel warm gloves
or a bee hover over gorse
or a rock see a storm-tossed ship
Cried Partholon, Shut your bake!
and struck the slave down dead –
and despite a long tongue in her
Dealgnaid got to the point, so she did:
Or a man and woman be close
in private without meddling
the one with the other?
I blame you for my longing.
Partholon grabbed her lap hound,
slit the mutt throat to anus.
No sooner had the blood spilt
than he cired Dealgnaid, forgive me!
So he named their Loch, their island
after a dead dog, and in doing
named the whole of Ireland
not knowing it went unnamed.
Their old gods overtook them,
killed nine thousand in a plague.
Saimher felt another rising
hot and fluid from the core.
* * *
my sisters and I carry the land on our backs
our green-gold dresses steeped to brown in the charmed muds
of Síodh Linn, Deirgeirt, Aillionn
but for us no druid’s resting field of flowers
at night I hear it screaming for our blood
cursing our descendants and their stars; the giant nears
this is what happened: Méabh’s celebration
woke a deep and mournful rumble from the land
toppling the ancient stones of Cruachan
from its cave, out came the giant, chalky mouth blood-caked
mountainous bulk unfolding like a map
wielding, one-handed, its mossy monolith
the last I saw of Méabh she stood defiant
between the dancing cairns fists clenched
her knotted back turned to us as we fled
oh to be sure she is tough and wild and can hold her own
against countless men but what sort of person
leaves their queen, their friend, to face such a thing alone?
still – we bolt, sobbing rivers across the fields, on to Loch Erne
* * *
His mum runs from one end of the boat to the other, chasing thunder, laughing the sort of laugh she reserves for funfair rides, when it feels like the seats might snap off the waltzer. He follows her gaze up, up, up. The helicopter overtakes the boat, a hole in the sky.
Sharing the clouds with only one other feature – a sacred tower rising from Devenish Island – it does not belong here. It ascends towards the tower to swing around in a perfect half-circle, a big dog testing the strength of its chain. Then begins the descent. It comes in fast and low, a dark faery casting rainbows in the spray.
Her laughter stops.
A cold shadow of air lifts his bedhead curls. He claps his hands over his ears, feels the thunder with his body.
“Well,” his mum huffs as they dock, “I didn’t find it funny.”
She marches up the dirt path, a pilgrimage to reclaim the monastery’s quiet history.
The distance to the next dock, the strength of the storm, how quickly the sun set, fuel in the tank: all underestimated. They are adrift.
Distant lights of mainland communities jump on the horizon. Flickering buoys mark safe sailing routes, clanking in the night like practical jokes. In little waterfalls the rain streams from the deck back to the loch. Below, the family shiver into their yellow life vests by gas lantern. His mum reads to his brother while his dad teaches him poker, spades and diamonds dealt across a bright red flare gun box.
* * *
There’s a photo of me in a captain’s hat, standing on Killadeas docks, but I can’t recall boarding the yacht. It’s embarassing – too young to know I’d carry that holiday for the rest of my life, I’ve lost that week spent pinballing around Loch Erne to sediment and erosion. Now experiences merely glint on the shores of childhood memory, gemstones amongst dark pebbles, and I’m an untrustworthy cartographer, shores less certain with each retelling.
* * *
In a thick dog-eared guide he learns of the two-sided statue of Boa Island Graveyard. A grey-green slab with weather-softened features, this mossy stump of rock was once a face and something else he’s too young to understand, something people put things inside, mementos and the like. He pictures himself circling the statue, each turn finding new features carved into the granite, alien, monstrous.
Without exception, every other graveyard he’s encountered has been boring, but on these islands he’s also seen a great many ruins with their thatched roofs long gone. They’re sad places, but not as sad as this graveyard, the only place of interest on Boa. He suspects it’s not even an island but a green sheet thrown over a floating mound of bones, which might at any moment rise from the waves in a dripping tangle of bare limbs.
Dark and noisy, round tables packed close on carpet sticky with old lager, air thick with cigarette smoke. Looking back, it’s not the sort of environment that should have appealed to his parents so soon after one gave up fags, the other booze, but something makes it worth the risk: a stage, guitar, fiddle and bodhrán. Music is, after all, how the Irish remember, just like everyone else.
They let him wander. How lost could he get in a five-room building on a three mile island? How could there be bad people when there were barely any people to begin with? Naive thinking, but not untrue: the barmaids, the doorman, the chef, all smile at the lost little boy, a temporary and makeshift community for one night only. The headline act adopts him and for two hours backstage they humour each other, but now all he can remember is being carried back to the boat, and the bright sound of her voice in the smoke as she devotes to him the first of her set.
The song itself is lost.
* * *
the night’s so dark we can barely see our feet nor the cliffs
of Magho ahead and like crazed horses we drive ourselves
over the grassy edge, break apart on the way down
my piecemeal remains fly further than the rest
plunging into a body of water I turn effervescent
grief and fear bubbling out of me, broiling the surface
Shoulders, knees, knuckles – all my bumpy bits – bob apart
grow moss and trees, new skin I feel
the giant’s weight upon my freshwater shore
my tides suck at his toes; try me now I dare him
I might rake him over my flinty beaches
pull him down to the deepest part of me
the sort of secret I’m allowed now the streams
of Ireland’s tears flow through the rock and soil
each drop returned to me a mineral memory
Méabh’s buried south under a thousand rocks
did the queen ever tell stories of her chief handmaiden
who became a loch, an archipelago? if not, I’ll wait
given time she will melt away down the flinty insides of her grave and we’ll be sisters again
* * *
As if Saimher somehow knows
the history swept aside by God
and God alone, in the fury
of His inevitable Deluge.
Bith son of Noah – the famous one?
Aye, sort of, he’s non-biblical –
well, Bith and his wife Birren
are told by Noah of the Holy Flood
because you would tell your kids, wouldn’t you?
Even if they’re non-biblical.
Although how Noah knew, being himself non-biblical and all –
look, it’s complicated, just leave it be –
Promised shelter Bith and Birren sail
northwest with all their clan
up to that green-eyed rock,
Ireland, the only landmass spared
The Lord’s infinite shame
of creating something so imperfect,
so caked in the dirt of its own mythology
He must wash it clean and new.
Shipwrecked on Dún na mBarc,
three male survivors – good Bith,
clever Ladra, and foolish Fintan share
between them fifty women; jammy gets.
But: Right, I’m away home, says Bith
and Ladra’s not long after, though
no eejit names an island after them,
leaving Fintan all the women, free.
Oh, they wear him ragged,
chase him to Erne’s mouth.
He jumps into the world-sea
and his flesh turns salmon pink.
In the brine he catches hazelnuts,
nine in total, each one a muse,
and sucking on their hard shells
fills to the brim with knowledge,
When tides at last recede, as sheets falling
from a lover’s body, as a sea eagle
or perhaps a hawk, Fintan returns
to the island for one purpose:
Remind the Irish who they were
before they were the Irish.
Ryan Vance is a writer and designer from Northern Ireland, now based in Glasgow. He is fiction editor of The Island Review and editor of The Queen's Head, an irregular print-only zine of speculative and genre fiction and non-fiction.