The Sea, The Sea: Nuala O'Connor On The Power Of Water - The Gloss Magazine

The Sea, The Sea: Nuala O’Connor On The Power Of Water

Irish author Nuala O’Connor describes how the sea has been integral to her life and work …

Water was never far from my ear as a child or younger adult. The River Liffey ran yards from the door of my childhood home in Dublin; its shush over Glorney’s Weir was my lullaby at night. Twenty-seven years ago, in my mid-20s, I moved to another coastal county, Galway, to work at Punchbag Theatre, which sat on the Claddagh Pier where the Corrib River roars into the sea. And Salthill was a half-hour walk from our house, a place to go to on drab and sunny days, to stroll the prom and kick the wall, to let the kids coat themselves in sand.

Life changes – house moves; a second marriage – saw me move further inland in Co Galway. First to Loughrea with its glorious grey lake and, finally, to Ballinasloe, where the River Suck, the main Shannon tributary, flows and pools at the marina. The Suck, and the many turloughs that appear around the town in the wettest seasons, are the largest expanses of water in the area.

Like most people, I love to stand by water, to look at its mysterious movement; to wonder what life lives underneath and within it; to feel its strange, seductive power acting on me. This is true of rivers, lakes, and ponds but, most especially, of the sea. A marine expanse, morphing from aquamarine to grey to silver, is mesmerising. Standing beside the sea, watching it over and back, is the surest selfsoother I know. Even in deep gloom, a walk on a strand and a bit of a beachcomb, always – always – lifts me up and makes me feel better. I have a huge collection of sea-glass, shells, sea-pottery, and interesting stones for someone who now lives 60km from the coast.

And when I teach creative writing, I bring some of that treasure, along with extracts of seanarratives and some marine images, to get my students writing about the sea. I want them to notice the sibilance sea-words have, to feel joy in creating characters who are in, on, or near saltwater. I encourage them to use their strongest descriptive powers, to aim for Iris Murdoch levels of beauty in their prose. Murdoch opened her novel The Sea, The Sea with stunning descriptions, including this: “The cloudless sky is very pale at the indigo horizon which it lightly pencils in with silver. Its blue gains towards the zenith and vibrates there. But the sky looks cold, even the sun looks cold.”

As I write this, I’m on a two-week writing retreat on Achill Island. Every day I walk the road nested between Slievemore and Dugort Hill that leads down to the sea. It’s late October and the moon is waxing full as Hallowe’en approaches. The winds are up and the rain is frequent, but the island is treated to sun-dazzle too. I trot towards the Atlantic and my eyes water as the breeze lands this way and that on my face and body; my lungs happily fill with good air. Amazingly, the hedgerows still hold red fuchsia and the lemon surge of furze; there are pink roses and purple rhododendron blossoms too. Skittish, black-faced sheep watch me as I pass, their dark poo-pearls betraying their presence when they hide from me in the bushes. I release a small curly-horned sheep who has gotten his head caught in a fence and is bleating in distress. I go back the next day to check on him and he is stuck again. This time, on releasing him, I drag him by the horns to a safer spot – a churchyard – and lock him in. I continue my descent to the sea and breathe it all in, happy to have this retreat opportunity, thankful for the quiet and beauty of late-autumn Achill.

I love to stand by water, to look at its mysterious movement; to wonder what life lives underneath and within it; to feel its strange, seductive power acting on me.

The sand on Dugort Beach yields underfoot – it is perfect sand, a rich coppery beige colour, and fine to the touch. A peaty stream swashes and backwashes into the sea, turning the water stout brown. I pick up limpet and razor shells and congratulate them on their beauty. I study shiny bladderwrack tossed up by the water and the golden bullwhips that once anchored kelp to the seafloor. Below the dunes, I comb through a pod of beached boulders, hoping for glass or stony treasure, but I’m not in luck. I find shells, though, mussels and whelks, and I tuck them into my pocket to decorate my retreat cottage desk and, later, to take home. I stop to take a photograph of Sea Cliff House, an imposing place that I’ve become mildly obsessed with. It sits below the mountain and above the water – a long, beautiful, old, white house; a dream home.

I walk to the edge of the sea, the better to hear and see the thundery crash of big waves. I hold out my arms to the Atlantic and shout, “I am open to receive.” I don’t normally screech at the sea, but I’m trying to manifest a sale for our Galway house because the market is suddenly sluggish, and Dugort Beach seems as good a place as any to ask for help. Actor Barry Keoghan, who was here on Achill not too long ago, filming The Banshees of Inisherin, swears by manifestation and, I think, it can hardly hurt, which is my policy on all things prayer, the lighting of candles and so on, to move wishes along. “I am open to receive,” I call out again and am rewarded by a huge heron gliding above and a sudden rainbow over Blacksod Bay.

I make my way back, tired and nature-blessed, to my temporary Mayo house. I think about the fact that we are moving on from our inland Galway home, how we’ve decided to seek a new place that, with luck, will open its arms and welcome us in. We don’t know yet where that place is, but my greatest hope is that it’s got a nice stretch of water nearby. Maybe even the sea, the sea.

Nuala’s novel Seaborne, a portrayal of the life of 18th-century Irishwoman, Anne Bonny (New Island Books, €16.95) is out now.


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