It’s with a mixture of guilt and relief that our summer holidays are being spent in Connemara again. The guilt, which bubbles away in the epidermis, stems from the fact that we have failed to take them abroad. Ever. The relief from the fact that it’s so easy, safe, stunningly beautiful – even in the soft misty drizzle which features for part of most days before doing the decent thing and hiding for a while. It makes perfect sense the relief says. But what about them experiencing other cultures, foods, climates the guilt chimes in. All in good time, the relief says. All in good time.
I’m talking to myself about an idea that’s been brewing which might just jizz it up a little. I’m mumbling about a boat and an island and some bicycles. They don’t usually pick up on my mumblings, nor indeed on my requests, but I find myself now confronted with widened eyes dotted all around the room. There is nothing wrong with their hearing, it seems, after all.
‘Did you say a boat?’ marque 4 asks and he begins to whoop and clap and then there’s a cacophony as they join him and I feel like sticking my fingers in my ears to protect my own hearing.
‘Oh thank you Mum so much, I’m so excited. I’ve never been on a boat in my life’ and he squeezes my legs as his words echo around the room and the guilt bubbles that bit closer to the surface of the skin.
It’s not the way we usually do things. We usually say nothing. Not a word. Bundle them into the car with the notion that we’re going somewhere. It’s a surprise. They guess and guess. We don’t tell. It leaves us with a get out clause. In case we can’t actually get to do the super exciting thing for whatever reason (rain mainly, let’s face it). But then it’s all the sweeter if we do. I’ve blown it. Without having even discussed it first. He’ll arrive down on Friday evening after a busy week at work to be greeted by super excited kids with big plans for his weekend. Early rising energy fuelled plans.
They blurt. He enthuses. The excitement soars. Weather checks are made. I wonder if the solid lines coming out of the grey cloud for Sunday’s forecast are more foreboding than the broken lines coming out of the grey for Saturday. On the strength of this questionable deciphering we plumb for Saturday. Then we cart ourselves off to Aldi to purchase all that we’ll need to survive.
The alarm clangs cruelly but there’s no need for it. For the first time on their summer holidays they are all wide awake at this school going hour. Dressing eagerly, avoiding shorts and flip-flops in a bid to minimise the trauma in case they come off their bikes on rugged terrain. Hoodies, T-shirts, tracksuit bottoms.
Nobody mentions how the windscreen wipers are working pretty hard, although he does glance at me whispering ‘I wonder, I don’t want to disappoint, but…’
‘It’ll clear’ I tell him. It’s just a feeling. I’ve acclimatised to the vagaries of the Western weather now. I purchase the family return ticket in the little porto-cabin, expressing that if the soft rain turns torrential in the next half-hour we’ll be swapping it for another day.
‘No problem at all. You never can tell what way it’ll go’ she says, auburn eyes matching auburn hair, smiling. And with that it lifts, magically, as if it was never there, revealing the true beauty of this fishing town. We make our way to the end of the pier where the ferry awaits. They are too preoccupied to eat, even as I wave warm sausage rolls under their noses. Instead they count the enormous jelly fish idling in the harbour and watch the boatmen load stacks of provisions for the islanders.
We are shown through the gleaming new ferry onto a much smaller tattier old one. As we’re first in the queue. The late comers will be treated to the new one. There seems to be a downside to being too well prepared. But then the old ferry begins to move, ahead of schedule, and we meander out onto the deck which is low to the water. We are part of it. Part of the sea. We make our way up to the prow and, holding on to gapped railings, we ride the waves. I’m receiving hugs and squeezes, while grasping marque 5’s hood lest he slip through.
‘This is your number one idea ever, thank-you’ one of them says.
‘I just love it’ says another.
‘It’s way better than Tayto Park’ says a third and they all agree which causes laughter beyond the family circle. Fellow passengers enjoy their banter and strike up chords with us.
‘And only €76 euros for all this’ marque 5 says gesticulating to the ocean and the landscape and the boat, laughing. I tighten my grip on his hood and try not to think about my Grandfather – a pilot and sailor – who would be horrified to see his great-grandchildren bumping along at the very front of the boat without a single life-jacket amongst them.
We strike a deal of sorts at the bike hire hut – it’s extortionate now that we seem to be tourists – and set off. It’s been at least twenty years, shamefully, since I set my arse to a sadle, and I beg the kids to go easy on us olds. The days that they know nothing about, of their mother offering a saddler to their father home from college, via the student bar, where lemon salted tequilas may or may not have been imbibed, are well and truly gone. Perhaps they could check that we’re doing ok from time to time. But then we take off and it’s easy peasy and the memory of the pleasure of the pedal and the fresh wind whistling and the foot to the ground to pause and take it all in, floods back. But this, cycling with my own crew out here on a beautiful island in the Atlantic, this is something special.
They lead the way, mapless, interrupted only by hens on the path, and we stop to picnic on a rock. We’ve seen a handful of other people only even though two ferry loads of tourists were dropped off. The quietness is dizzying. A man in his 60s is walking in our direction as the kids cycle up a vertical hill. Two women follow behind. He stops to talk to us. I think he’s muttering about mushrooms and how someone has pipped him to it and nabbed them. We sympathise but we do not ask what mushrooms he’s talking about.
‘Are they all yours?’ he asks counting the kids disappearing over the hill.
‘Wow, five, that’s unusual these days. What’s the mix of boys and girls?’
‘All boys’ we say in unison.
‘All boys? That’s fantastic’ he says. I’m warming to him. Even if he’s hallucinating.
‘You know what’ he says looking directly at me. ‘You’d be higher than chief in a tribe producing all those boys’. I laugh. ‘No really, your status would be higher than chief. Fantastic’, he says again and then shares this news with his female companions. I know it shouldn’t mean anything at all, this little snippet of questionable sexist lore, but it does something to me. A fellow human being just saying well done you. Nice one.
We pedal on past breath-taking sheer cliffs and discover a white sand turquoise water beach. We ditch the bikes and clamber down past the bleating sheep. Not a soul to be seen. The sun appears. Some of them insist on a swim. One brave parent does too. Even though they’ve all been warned we have one towel only to share. It feels different to swim off an island than off the mainland. A tingly intrepidness. That’s what I see in them. I’m not the brave one who joins in today. But hey, I’m higher than chief so I can claim a pass.
We reach close to our starting point with an hour to spare before the boat. We sit opposite a hotel at a picnic table above the coast and gratefully receive a Bulmer’s cider and a Guinness while the kids have well deserved cidonas, a smattering of chips, island ice-cream.
‘It’s just been astonishing’ marque 1 says about the day.
‘Hey guys, what do you think about your first time off mainland Ireland?’ and they banter on about the adventure as I feel the parental guilt slipping dutifully away into the copper fizz before me.