Last year, when the lockdown hammer fell and we were sent scuttling to the shelter of our homes, we collectively endured shock, horror, fear, dismay and something akin to grief, as the habitual structures that underpinned ‘normality’ were suddenly pulled out from under our feet. As the global suffering unfolded and footage emerged of Italians resiliently sharing love and creativity from hemmed-in apartment balconies, I quickly realised my blessings, that the nest we had made ourselves was perched on the rural Northwest coast of Ireland. In Donegal, land, sea and sky collude to form vast, expansive vistas, and with the sea just a few short steps away, even a 5km limit enclosed you in a bubble of abundant natural beauty.
Before lockdown, Donegal seemed to have blessings and challenges in equal amount. Its an ideal place for nesting and rearing young, but you’re taking flight against strong winds regarding career and economic opportunities. Numerous families eke out an existence on one income, with mothers sometimes parenting alone while fathers endure long absences from their families working in London, Glasgow or Dublin.
Now, with the benefit of lockdown-induced reflection, I realise I was allowing life to be shaped more by the challenges, than the blessings of place. I had been attempting flight straight into the prevailing, harsh economic winds of Donegal. While nest building on the wild Atlantic seaboard, doctoral-level fine-art and multimedia seemed an irrelevant frivolity. Once fledglings began to fly a little, I cut the cloth of my ambitions to fit, and re-emerged with what I perceived as a more relevant skill-set. Community volunteering, led to precarious roles in the community and cultural sector. Over time, the few avenues that existed in this space ran their course, so I put my favourite self-care practice to work and set up a small business, as a yoga teacher.
Competing in a dispersed and small market, I filled my days with hurry, logistics, child-care, teaching, striving, marketing, selling, seeking, networking, invoicing, emailing, applying, travel, drop-offs, phoning, pick-ups, homework, housework, clicking, double-clicking. I drove the roads of the county, teaching yoga, and sometimes art, technology or wellbeing practices in places as dispersed as Fanad, Falcarragh, Arranmore Island, Portnoo, Gweedore, Ballybofey and Dungloe. Pre-lockdown ‘normal’ was constructed from these barely questioned, relentless routines. I was aways exhausted, always trying, rarely achieving and barely aware of abundant blessings I was taking for granted.
The initial white-knuckle shock of the lockdown eventually relaxed enough to allow a modicum of reflective thought and I gradually began to take stock. Good and bad, habits began to change. As a necessary first step towards sanity, I broke the habit of a lifetime, and turned off the radio and its incessant newsfeeds. I drifted away from daily yoga practice, without the routine of teaching there to support me. Cans of Guinness began to feature on the weekly shopping list. New, positive habits also formed. I remembered to journal almost daily and that led to some poetry writing. I became obsessed for some weeks by mandalas; repeatedly inventing, colouring and admiring them, happily lost in a pleasing dopamine feedback loop. I dusted off long ignored talents like drawing, drumming, singing and guitar. I became more present and available, noticing family moments that might otherwise have been gobbled by the hurry habit.
In our little family bubble of four, we walked the tightrope of positive and negative habits everyday. We got mired in bad ones like home-school battles, or too much screen time, but we also created new positive ones, sometimes breaking into song around a little campfire in the evening. My husband started boating. My daughter started cycling up to the nearby tiny village; enjoying the new-found freedom of meeting friends on the beach once restrictions allowed. My son began making little hand-drawn comics, excitedly telling us elaborate stories about a friendly cat and rabbit.
Restrictions continue to be loosened these days and I’ve taken great joy out of meeting and talking to people again. Having opened my eyes to look around me during lockdown, I’ve been asking others what kept them going; what habits, hobbies or routines sustained them. I’ve shared my reflections and listened to theirs. I’m fifteen years in this wild Atlantic place. A ‘blow-in’ from Roscommon, I was attracted here by its beauty and the fact that Irish is still a living language in large pockets of the community. I asked Máire, who’s here most of her life what she values most as we enter summer 2021. She’s delighted to be back surrounded by grandchildren and feels that the quieter time helped her tune more into nature. As restrictions lift she’s overjoyed to be able to share her healing gift of Reiki with others again. She also feels strongly called to do a ‘pilgrimage’ of just a few miles, to reconnect with the ancestral feeling she gets from the hills where she grew up. Ardveen is a remote, enchanting place where the Irish language and all the beautiful tapestry of knowledge and poetry it holds survived long after it’s lineage was broken elsewhere.
Also born and raised in Donegal, my old friend Maria moved back from London with her young family two years ago. Her husband still works there and commutes over and back as often as possible. Now that schools have re-opened, we frequently meet when collecting our children at the gates of Scoil Rann na Feirste. Ranafast school is situated in a renowned Irish language heartland and we both travel relatively long distances in the hope of giving them an early, authentic start with the language. With the challenges of London child-rearing fresh in her memory, she too was thankful to have had the wild expanse of Donegal at her doorstep during lockdown. Playing in the garden and walks in the foothills of nearby Mt. Errigal were particularly appreciated during this time. Trained as a nurse, but living miles from the region’s main hospital, she has just one of her two children in primary school, so it makes more sense for her to work in the home full time, than to attempt juggling work and childcare. She cared for the children alone for long swathes of the lockdown, but found new fulfilling pastimes to shorten the lonely evenings. Reading voraciously, she found that positive psychology books particularly resonated. She also becoming more attuned to dormant psychic gifts, feeling especially drawn to working with healing crystals and angel cards.
When I organised to meet Caroline and photograph her, I had clapped eyes on her just a handful of times through a crowded zoom meeting. Patiently enduring photographs, my new friend tells me she was living in Fermanagh when lockdown first began. At that stage she already had a well worn path made, paying frequent visits to West Donegal. She felt especially at home in the coastal areas nearby Errigal mountain, and with the clarity afforded many during lockdown, she decided to buy a home in a remote spot some miles from the mountain. A chartered clinical psychologist, and Eponaquest instructor, she admits that “Moving to a new place where I knew no one in lockdown was difficult , but the beach and swimming helped lots, as did my shamanic practice.” Originally from England, she feels strongly called towards this wild and beautiful place, and is so eager to become immersed that she has already begun Irish language classes. Witnessing the authentic, fresh nature of her experience, it’s easier to sense and recognise the otherwise intangible nature of human connection to the animus mundi or spirit of place.
While global leaders meet in Davos to plan a fourth industrial revolution, foreseeing a time when technology will automate our lives, and the Internet of Things will permeate towns, homes and even bodies, rural places on Ireland’s Atlantic coast begin to hold even greater attraction for those of us still proudly wild at heart. With the global pace of life ever-accelerating, the slower resonance of mountains like Errigal have an even greater magnetic draw for people who crave the nurturing energy of Earth’s remaining wild, remote places. There’s no train line in this county. Towns are dispersed, jobs are few, and rural broadband is patchy, but I’m no longer orientating my default modes of thinking and being to face into perceived harsh winds. I’m choosing instead to be thankful for the peace, beauty and wild, poetic energy that surrounds me. Like the ladies I spoke to, I too feel a healing, psychic, creative well beginning to restore as a consequence of the year’s pause.
I will give the last words to Seosamh Mac Grianna, the Ranafast writer, who’s work recently inspired a bilingual play called ‘Mo Bhagáiste’ (My Baggage). Written and performed by my husband, I was blessed with directorial and design duties, and we brought it to an online stage as part of IMRAM, the Irish language literature festival, last December. Mac Grianna’s life was a hard one, but raised in the shadow of Errigal, he too possessed an unflinching belief in the well of spirit and creativity that can break through the cracks of the everyday, if you take it upon yourself to notice.“ Tá an saol lán mór lán den fhilíocht ag an té dar dual a thuigbheáil, agus ní thráfaidh an tobar go deor na ndeor.” (Life is full of poetry for the person who’s willing to understand it, and this well will never run dry).
Maria Coleman, May 5th, 2021
This story and the images were developed while working on a course with femLENS and NCCWN-Donegal Women’s Network. Huge thanks to the trainer Kate, the organisers Danielle and Joanne and my story’s participant’s Máire, Maria and Caroline, and my extended family.