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Rockabill

19 October 2011

It’s a little before 8am and a sharp early winter sun is lifting over Shenick. Even with sunglasses it stings my eyes and turns the island black. This is not a morning to walk south toward the open horizon. And so squinting, I turn away, only to feel a sharp rebuke on my left cheek. There is no malice in the offshore breeze, I’m just a casual victim of its indifference.  I pull my hat down and my scarf up and head toward the Red Island, leaving Shenick for some better time.  And as the sun begins to gently caress my back it becomes my friend,  and I relax, comfortable in my circumstance.

From The South Strand

Sunrise Over Shenick

I’m on the strand proper now, testing it underfoot, with each press of my boot into its wave washed flatness. For today the Irish Sea has a gentle disposition.  In the distance is the decorated rock.  Or perhaps I should say two rocks and 3.7 nautical miles eastward. Known as An bhó agus an ghamhain (the cow and the calf ), maybe kyr eoa kalfr to the Vikings that ravaged Inis Padraig, perhaps this is even Auoumbla herself. And to the Norman invaders no doubt as Roche Habillé. Handed down to us as the Rockabill, that sailors know now for its hazard and its light, and birders for its flocks of Roseate Terns and Gannets.

I’ve never counted the times I’ve been around the rock, sailing, racing, or driving a rib to shepherd the Skerries fleet. But I can tell you it never looks the same.  I lift my binoculars and watch the waves in quarrel with it.

A Roseate Tern uses its low wing loading and h...

A Roseate Tern

The argument is not so violent today. Just a minor dispute between the wave tossed surf and gulls  at the waters’ edge. I ponder and think on days when giant claws rise out of the sea and strike out at the coloured bands of rock that so offend it.  But it’s a hard rock, rising 22 metres from the floor before thrusting out of the swelling sea, it offers a secure home to light and birds alike.

It was in Dún Lúiche, in the north-west, when I first discover the terrible powers of the god Balor and his maleficent eye. When the vile fluid that erupted from it,  cleft a rock the size of a man (was it a man?) and poisoned the glen at the Mountain of Snows. And it was he who created these islands in a tale of Irish perception that shows how the great are flawed: He instructs his servant to steal a cow from those mountains guarding  the Kingdom of Mourne where she lived, where I lived, and which are easily visible from the Red Island which I now approach.
…..Now the fame of this cow lay in her magical ability to fill, with flavourful, creamy milk, any vessel of any size that could be used to milk her.  And as was the way in ancient Ireland, and perhaps is still, Balor coveted the cow. And so induced his servant to lead her south towards his own lands.  The servant, obeying his orders, led the calf. And the cow followed.  Until at the highest point on land between the mountains and this strand upon which I stand, the servant, neglecting his instructions, let the calf fall behind.  Caring that her calf was safe, the cow turned to look back. And saw in horror that they were taken far from their homeland. Where upon, to alert her stockman in Mourne’s own Kingdom, she released such a cry of anguish that it carried across the whole land.

Image of Rockabill islelets and light

The calf trails the cow, and tragedy follows.

Hearing this, from far in the north-west, Balor without thought, threw a gaze in the direction of the cow, with that menacing and malevolent eye.  Whereupon, as they say in these stories, the cow and the calf were instantly turned to stone and cast out in to the Irish Sea.  They are there now and will remain so.

In truth (or at least in modern science)  these islets were formed in an age when life began to move from the sea to land, well before the time of amphibians, dinosaurs, mammals and birds. In fact,  in the period the geologists call Silurian on the continent they call Avalonia. And though twice as far back in time as the age of the dinosaurs, they are still relatively young when you contemplate on the age of the Earth and the earliest known forms of life.

Eventually the strand  re-captures my attention as it forces me to navigate my way through the wet brown and broken fronds of weed from the sea.  Abandoned by the receding tide,  the waves have shaped and sculpted them into exotic images from the sea’s own depths. I tread lightly and resume my reverie….

Red Island and Martello Tower

The Martello tower beckons me on to Inis Rua (Red Island)

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