I cycled over the road to Coomenole. It isn’t a long cycle from Baile an Chalaidh, but there are a few climbs and my legs aren’t what they used to be, so I took my time. Thanks be to God for the granny cog on the old Bentini. I got there in about 45 minutes, with a couple of scenery breaks on the hills (ahem).
And it isn’t hard to look at that scenery. A blustery old morning and the Atlantic was lashing in the breakers on the rocks around Clogher Strand, and An Blascaod Mór looked dark and brooding under a low metal grey sky. It’s been a year or more since I went over that stretch of road and I don’t think I ever did it by bike before. It was a grand cycle, really, and the road was quiet, that early in the day. The rain held off – never a bad thing on such an exposed raised piece of land sticking out into a wild bit of ocean.
And there was many’s the bird out and about. I saw a male stonechat hopping from pillar to post ahead of me as I laboured up one of the climbs. I’m fairly sure I saw the white tail of a female wheatear with its distinctive pattern. Beautiful bird. Sparrows and robins and starlings and wrens busy about their day. A threesome of herring gulls passed over, the last two of which were screeching and ululating to beat the band at the one in front. They had the gatch of admonishing parents, but the youngling was heedless to the racket and they all flew away towards Cruach Mháirtin. There were herring gulls and black-headed gulls and the obligatory cormorant powering its way over the waves.
When I tuned into Coomenole Strand and freewheeled past the parked cars and turned the sharp bend to descend down to the sand, I found myself pulling up. I could hardly look down at the lovely beach below. I had cycled back into my childhood and my youth, and I knew it. And I wasn’t ready for that, so I watched the gannets diving instead, and I watched the waves break and roll onto the rocks and the sand and I looked out at the islands. There were a brace of little black birds down amid the waves. They had the look of guillemots or razorbills and they were fishing away amid the wild breaking waves, not a bother on them. When a big wave rolled up to them before breaking, they just rode it, and on about their business. When it was foaming towards them they just ducked down under and popped up again on the other side, all go. Lovely little fellows they were and it was pleasant to watch them pottering about on the water, the gannets diving extravagantly around them.
I decided not to go down on the sand – I’ll do it next week when Ciara gets here. I was lonesome for my childhood at the top of the road, my hands on the brakes of my bike – its innocence. Lonesome for my youth, when we camped on the strand one night, not a care in the wide earthy world, and we hadn’t learned how to be cynical. And when I hadn’t yet honed the sharp knife of self-judgement. Long ago, now.
So I couldn’t go down.
I turned the bike for home.
It was an easier cycle back and I stopped in to a little café where they were selling books and knick-knacks and bits of pottery and tooraloora Aran ganseys and what have you. I had a coffee and a scone and read a couple of passages out of a book for sale called Hell For Leather: A Journey Through 100 Hurling Matches. I’d heard of it but never seen it before and it’s good, some interesting reflections on the game, so I bought it for the ridiculous price of €6.99.
On a straight flat stretch of road after the turnoff to The Dún Chaoin Hostel and the turnoff down to The Blasket Centre, I had the road to myself and it was quiet except for the wind and the waves on the rocks below. I had a tail wind and I was tipping away along the road when from my right and above I heard the distinctive call of a raven and I pulled up. It’s for all the world like a throaty honk, deeper and more gravelly than that of the rook, its closest relative. Look it up, I don’t have the words to describe it.
And sure enough, when I looked up, up to the sharp jagged rocks on a rise there, a large black bird was gliding down towards me.
I should say something about this rocky outcrop. It rises sharply and toothlike edges of rock stand out at the top. If you saw it appear in a scene from Lord of The Rings or Game of Thrones, you’d immediately assume that there was some malevolent presence abiding there. And it would be night. And there would be the clichéd sound of a corvid, letting us know that death was around and about. The reality is somewhat more prosaic. It’s just a pile of jagged rocks up above the road and it offers the raven some bit of security from nosy predators and a good view all around. A natural place to perch or roost or even nest. Nothing in the least sinister except in ignorant Hollywood minds.
Anyway, meman comes soaring down towards me, wings outspread and then he does something wonderful. (I’m saying ‘he’ but it could have been a female. Female songbirds don’t sing, but this isn’t a songbird and the cry of a raven can’t be mistaken for singing. But please bear with me and grant me this one allowance. Next time I’ll use the female pronoun – I’m certainly not going to say ‘it’ or God spare us, the singular ‘they’. Thanks. Okay.)
Anyway, meman comes soaring down towards me, wings outspread (a big bird, the raven, the biggest of the corvids) and then he does something wonderful. He tucks his wings in and flips his body to the side for a second, accelerating and dipping, and then he rights himself again. Then, just above me, he does the flip again. And it didn’t seem to serve any purpose. I think he was doing it because he could. I think, in fact, that he was playing. That he was amusing himself with his little flip, this time to the left, this time to the right. Into the breeze. And it was a wonderful thing to witness. I watched him on the quiet road, he did a couple of more flips, and then he faded over a brow of a field and he was gone.
And I thought: wow. No wonder we love sport, and drama and art and music and literature. If a raven, on a solitary flight down to seek out some food, can take joy from playing, surely we can too. It would be wrong not to.
And I was lifted, and I cycled away down the hill, home.