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Monday 4 December 2023 Dublin: 3°C

Kerri Ní Dochartaigh on 2021 'One thing is certain, and that is that there still is hope'

Writer Kerri Ní Dochartaigh explores the idea of the year ahead, taking in the ideas of time, borders, and family.

TIME, AS WE know it, is the original shape-shifter.

Now the line of it runs straight as an old railway track; now it is a circle – many circles, in fact. Now it dances without moving – to and fro across millennia – around the whole turning world, filling the night sky with bounding green lights. Past, future, present: the unbidden, ineffable gift of it all.

Memory is like a white moth in flight. Sometimes she comes so close that we can see the light falling into the hidden parts of ancient markings. On other days we cannot see her but we feel the delicate wing-beat down deep, in beside our bones.

The story, our own, is a shared one, of the lines and circles of the land we know, of the sorrow it has known and of our own white moth of memory.

Moths have been flying in the skies of this earth for millions of what we call years; these dividers of time we have created by which to record and to remember. The lands and the seas above which they have journeyed have changed vastly in this time; they are changing still…

This land, Ériu, Éire, Ireland – ‘the goddess’ – records its earliest human presence around 12,500 years ago. In the fifth century ce, the island was Christianised, and by the twelfth century a neighbouring body of land, England, had claimed sovereignty.

Two centuries and two decades ago, in 1801, the island became part of the United Kingdom through the Acts of Union. In the century that followed, the land and sea saw a War of Independence, which ended with the partition of the island.

In May of 1921, just as the bluebells would have been filling the land with colour, Ireland was cut up into two parts – the ‘Irish Free State’ in the south of the island, and Northern Ireland, which remained a part of the United Kingdom, linked to the larger island across the water.

The Irish border, that invisible line that cuts this island in two, has been around for a single century. A small speck of dust from the wing of a moth, a wee gap in a fossil found on a beach, that line that has defined the lives – and resulted in the deaths – of so many people has been around for the whole of my lifetime. Europe is defined, in many ways, by borders. They speak of crumbled empires, shifting boundaries – most of them, certainly the Irish border, speak of unimaginable suffering.

Eon, era, period, epoch: we are a race that has long sought to break things up, to divide, to separate, to draw lines between things that might otherwise have remained as one.

My grandfather was born less than a handful of days before this island was divided in two. The year I was born, Madonna’s song ‘Borderline’ reached number one in Ireland. Ireland was the only place in the whole world where this song gained such acclaim.

Madonna’s ‘borderline’ was a made-up boundary which her love kept being pushed over. My borderline runs for 310 miles, cutting through walls, farms, lakes, rivers, roads, villages and bridges. My borderline is geographical in that it roughly follows water courses, in accordance with remnants of seventeenth century county limits. My borderline is, in reality, a political line no one can fully understand, no matter how strongly the charcoal strokes have been laid on the page.

Thin Places 9781786899637

Some of us may never know the ins and outs of the border, the troubles, and the journey towards peace on this island, our Peace Process. We will not know of the words whispered between people, between humans that had never broken breath to one another before.

We may never know of the bargains and sacrifices made, of the leaps of something – something unthinkable – that were taken. Leaps of something that feels much stronger, even, than sheer ‘faith’. That border has seen it all – every last trace of the violence, bloodshed, silence, trust – the peace that has been carefully and sensitively shaped. A peace as delicate as the wings of a moth.

My grandfather was born in the same week as the Irish border. He was a storyteller, and his most affecting tales, the ones he gave me that have shaped my life, were about place, about how we relate to it, to ourselves, and to one another.

He spoke, not often but with raw honesty, of places where people had found answers and grace, where they had learned to forgive, where they had made peace and room for healing. Places where a veil is lifted away and light streams in, where you see a boundary between worlds disappear right before your eyes, places where you are allowed to cross any borders, where borders and boundaries hold no sway. Lines and circles, silence and stillness – all is as it should be for that flickering gap in time…

As 2021 unfurls, slowly and quietly, we find ourselves standing apart – but together – looking out at an unknowable thing. Some of us already know what that utter terror, that dark and traumatising uncertainty, feels like in some ways. None of us know how it all will turn out, how things might look after the ice of this dark, year-long winter, begins to melt.

One thing is certain, though, and that is that there still is hope. I know that so, so many of us are ready now to stand together under an ever-changing sky, and to speak of things like healing and learning, the saving of things that can still be saved. To stand together under a sky that – no matter how grey and uncertain – still holds room for things like whispered hope.

The Irish word for hope is dóchas, or dóigh, and holds, deep within its ancient roots, glimmers of the Irish word for giving, for belonging, for beauty: dóighiúil. Yes, we are ready, now, to speak of hope. We have the words for it, and that changes things. In fact, that changes everything.

Kerri Ní Dochartaigh’s book Thin Places is out now. 

Kerri Ní Dochartaigh