By J.S. Porter
In Ireland it rains, and rains, and rains. You don’t get forty shades of green without paying a boggy price. The Irish, in droves, don’t line up for discount fares for sunny Spain without cause. Sometimes I think Shakespeare must have clandestinely visited the island: “With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,/…For the rain it raineth every day.”
The rain is often gentle, a child spraying you with a water-pistol, but sometimes a giant unleashes a barrage of whips and lashes. Almost every day there’s a drop or two to contend with. And yet I would argue that even more than the land of rain, Ireland is the land of wind. The wind it bloweth every day.
The wind in the bushes. Those yellow-flowering roadside bushes you see everywhere, particularly in the north, are called gorse or whin bushes. They make a wind-buffeted music as if harps hung from their stems. The wind in the bushes. The wind coming in from the sea.
You always have a stir of air in your face, a fairy’s kiss or a coastal lash.
Gusts and gales. Gales and gusts. The small fishing village where my mother was born, Portavogie, has winds that would blow your head off. You know you’re alive when, in the snap of a finger, a feverish gale closes your eyes and a hard rain soaks your hair.
I’ve been slow to come round to the fourth element. Earth was always uppermost to me, and then fire. Conemara always felt like home: a stony ground and the smell of burning peat moss. If I moved beyond these two elements, I’d occasionally slip into a third: water. But air I seldom gave a thought to.
Wind I was conscious of, but not air. For some strange reason I never seemed to make the connection between air and wind, that wind was air in a hurry. Air, or wind, is what I most associate with my mother and with Ireland. One of mother’s favourite hymns is a traditional English and Irish melody called “I Feel the Winds of God” with these beautiful lines, “Lord, let me feel thy freshening breeze, /and I’ll put back to sea.”
In fairy stories, folklore, hymns, poems, the wind in Ireland is often associated with the movement of spirits, and in Christian times, to the movement of the Holy Spirit. My own private myth about this phenomenon is that Wind or Spirit—I don’t know where one ends and the other begins—stirs dead things to life again. The wind blows the dust until the dust takes form and walks upon the earth. It may not make much literal sense, but it makes symbolic and mythic sense to me.
I associate wind with my mother, and hence, with life. The wind gets things started again. It blows away the dead parts of the self. The wind makes Ireland an enchanting place. You never know when a stirring-in-the-bushes might happen. John Montague perfectly captures the mystery and unpredictability of Irish winds in these lines from “Windharp:”
The sounds of Ireland,
that restless whispering
you never get away
from, seeping out of
low bushes and grass,
heatherbells and fern,
wrinkling bog pools…
Tinkles and chimes, invisible bells and whistles, rustling winds, these are the things that make walking on Irish earth a musical experience. You can delude yourself into thinking that everything talks, everything is sending you messages, everything is musically alive.
Ireland is a misty, rainy, wind-blown place where the invisible, because it’s frequently audible, seems to have as large a presence as the visible. You learn to believe that there is more to the world than the parts you can sharply define and clearly see.
Yes, the land is misty, hence mystical; it’s windy, hence musical. A wild beautiful melancholy pervades the landscape and the music of its inhabitants. Most of the good tunes in Ireland are sad tunes, but dreamy and other-worldly too. In some moods, put me in Antrim or Donegal. A few rocks, rain hissing down and a strong wind blowing in from the sea. That feels like home.
- published in The Hamilton Spectator, February 15, 2003