Last time I witnessed a full solar eclipse was back in Ireland. It was August 1999 and it was billed as “the astronomical event of the Millennium”: probably the most-viewed eclipse event in human history.
I was back from my world travels, temping in Dublin, analysing market research documentation for a chain of Irish sandwich bars. My “favourite” suggestion was for a sandwich with sausage, cheese, Bovril and crisps.
The 11th of August was a Wednesday. I have no clue how I managed to be in my parents’ back garden at eleven in the morning, but I was. My Dad, who had been very ill that year, was not long out of hospital. Now and again it’s handy to have a structural steel welder in the family, and today was one of those days.
It was a beautiful summer’s day, with the flowers bursting from the ground and the birds singing from every tree. I was looking every inch the professional woman-about-town in my cream Chanel-style bouclé suit and Executive Heels. We stood in the back garden with Daddy’s welding mask and waited. We would not have been aware that the eclipse had even started if it had not been for that welding mask.
Dad and I were beside ourselves with excitement, doing the whole countdown thing. Mum was a bit nonplussed about it all, but like all Doyle women she loves an “event” and this was one. Also, that’s one of my favourite photos of my mother, ever.
Near eleven o’clock on the eleventh of August, the sunshine began to dim. It was eerie. It was different to a cloud going in front of the sun: we shivered as the very heat of the sun was blocked. Irish sunsets and dusks go on for literally hours in the height of summer, but that day we experienced a fast-forward sunset. The cat was seriously unimpressed. The birds fell silent. The sun went out.
We imagined how shocking it must have been when the solar eclipse (allegedly) occurred just after Jesus Christ died on Good Friday. Even weeks from the beginning of the twenty-first century, with all our scientific knowledge, there was something mysterious and sinister about those few minutes when the world went dark and the birds fell silent at the very height of the day.
Moments later, the sun started to emerge and the spell was broken.
Fast-forward again fifteen years and more. I sit on the other side of the world, jealously watching the countdown as the northern hemisphere awaits the next total solar eclipse. I remember that summer’s day back in Dublin, sharing a moment in earth’s history with my parents, my father the armchair explorer so excited to witness something of such magnitude from the comfort of his back garden.
This one’s for you, Daddy.
I‘ve always loved walking. For twenty years or more it’s been my main source of exercise, and never more so since I moved to Australia. For me, an hour’s brisk walk (and I walk at six or seven kilometres per hour) clears my mind, resets my brain, opens up possibilities, recalibrates my spine and offers me precious alone time.
On a good day, when I turn back at the park and head east on Altona Esplanade, I feel so uplifted I could lift my arms and fly back to the car. But it’s taken me twenty years to realise that there is one sort of walk that I adore above all others. I unconsciously seek it out when planning a trip. No other walk every measures up. After two decades of diligent practice I can now say that my favourite pastime is Walking On Very Long Beaches.
I didn’t grow up very close to the coast. It took half an hour by car or bus to get to Sandymount or Costelloe’s beach in Dublin. But all of my family fare better when close to the sea, and most of us now live minutes (or even seconds) from the water’s edge.
I think the turning point for me, though, was ten years spent living in the midlands of England. The closest beach to Leicester was Skegness, and one autumn Sunday I couldn’t take it anymore. I pointed my car east and drove a full three hours non-stop to the coast. When I got there, on a chilly, murky spring afternoon, the tide was out. In Skegness the tide goes out about half a mile, so I had managed to reach the seaside without arriving beside the sea. Defeated, I turned around and drove the three hours back, without getting out of my car.
Fast forward a decade or so to India, when I spent many happy months living in the village of Candolim just yards from a six mile long beach. Each morning I walked south to Sinquerim and the old fort, uplifted by the occasional sight of a dolphin just a few feet away in the surf, feeling like I had the whole beach to myself. Afternoons saw me strolling north towards Calangute, where the only concern I had was how far I would walk before jumping into the water to cool down. That beach gave me my sanity back.
These days I live about a ten minute drive from a nice suburban beach with a lovely boardwalk and a park at either end. Winter and summer, it’s my favourite place to walk: not too busy, just the right length. If I want a change, I can walk at least an hour from Port Melbourne to Elwood before I run out of footpath and have to turn around. And if I tire of bay beaches and need to hear the crash of real waves, the grand sweep of Ocean Grove on the surf coast is only an hour’s drive away.
My ideal beach length is “longer than the time I have to walk it”. In other words, I prefer to run out of time than to run out of beach.
These days, the quantifiable self tells us that we should walk 10,000 steps a day, so I like a good 8-9km round trip walk so I can get my daily quota out of the way whilst staring at waves and getting my ankles wet.
Every trip I take, I search for a location with a Very Long Beach. Tasmania, Ireland, Vietnam, Queensland, USA, the Caribbean: my travels have taken me to, or taken me back to, some of the most wonderful VLBs in the world.
Where are your favourite VLBs?
Today I went on a new adventure.
I reconnected with my origins and marveled and how far I’ve travelled since then.
I drew pictures of my past and built Lego models of my future, in the hope of making the present more meaningful.
I ignored the “what” and the “how” in favour of exploring the “why”.
The afternoon drew to a close and the rain fell.
Suddenly unsure of myself, I stood in the doorway watching the storm until at last, gripped by a sudden certainty, I stepped out and let the raindrops wash my questions away.
In no particular order:
On the eve of Christmas Eve, I stroll up the street where I grew up to catch the bus into town for the first time in more than a decade.
The 78 bus is gone now, replaced by the number 40 that crawls through working class suburbs west of the city, over O’Connell Bridge itself and finishes its journey in the deep north of Dublin.
Older women with shopping trolleys wait in line by the electronic sign showing waiting times for the different buses. That would have been handy when I was a teenager. “Remember, you can get any number but the 18 bus”, Mum says. “you don’t want to be ending up in Sandymount.”
I hop on board and my favourite seat: upstairs at the very front. The main shopping drag is busy this morning. Jackie’s florist has lots of handmade evergreen wreaths for front doors and graveyard headstones. There is no hearse in front of Massey’s this morning, although when leaving the house I heard the slow tolling of the funeral bell up at St. Matthew’s Church, which this very day is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the opening of its doors. Impossible to imagine burying a loved one in the week that’s in it.
Down through the lower end of Ballyfermot, I have a perfect view across the river to the Phoenix Park and the Pope’s Cross. There is a new cafe at the GAA club down at Sarsfield Ranch, but next door the draughty scout hall I spent half my youth in, first as a sea scout and then as a venture scout, has been torn down. Wonder where they meet now.
As we go under the railway bridge, the border between Ballyfermot and Inchicore, I look with fresh eyes over the big stone wall into the railywaymen’s houses with their symmetrical windows and colourful front doors. They look huge and fancy from the outside, and I can’t imagine how they can be only two-bedroom houses.
Inchicore village is much changed since my youth: they even let women into the front bar of the Black Lion these days. There is a nice looking Italian enoteca next door, and a handful of international groceries selling Turkish, Polish, African and Indian food. Over the Camac River, St. Patrick’s Athletic grounds are now surrounded by newer apartment blocks as well as the old red-bricked terraced houses. St. Michael’s Church is not far from the street where my father grew up, but the bus heads towards Kilmainham and St. James’s Gate rather than down the South Circular Road, so this is as close as I get.
I remember the name of a girl I went to school with, as I pass her mum’s house in Old Kilmainham. The entrance to St. James’s Hospital is more modern now, with the Luas trams driving right into the hospital complex. Past Guinness’s iconic St. James’s Gate and the green dome of St. Patrick’s Tower, the former windmill of the long-closed Roe whisky distillery, past St. Catherine’s church, the site of the execution of Irish patriot Robert Emmet. I know these places not from history at school but from the stories my Dad told me every time we drove or took the bus down this route. His knowledge of the history of Dublin was encyclopaedic.
Thomas Street and Meath Street, the heart of the Liberties, are as run down today as they were in my youth. Street sellers call out in their unforgettable Liberties accent: “Get the last of the Christmas wrapping paper, there now five sheets for two euro!” I remember when it used to be five sheets for ten pence. As my father would have said, that was neither today nor yesterday.
The heart of the Liberties has not changed for centuries, the imposing church of St. Audoen’s only in the ha’penny place beside the even grander structures of Christchurch Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral around the corner. So strange that, with the history of this city, we ended up with two Protestant cathedrals and no Catholic one to this day.
Dame Street is heaving with traffic and people. Trinity College is surprisingly bare of Christmas lights but the big old Bank of Ireland is looking great with a huge lit-up tree and plenty of Christmas garlands.
Round by Westmoreland Street the crowds continue. The Spire rises up into the cold grey sky like a giant silver needle, dwarfing everything on O’Connell Street. Hard to imagine Dublin now without this marker of the new millennium.
I hop off the bus at the GPO. School kids from Belvedere College are holding a sleep out in aid of the homeless. Clery’s is wrapped up with a huge ribbon of white lights. There is a big Chirstmas crib at the bottom of the tree in the middle of the street: no baby Jesus in there yet though. not till Christmas morning. The last few years saw a fancy artificial tree on O’Connell Street but we are back to a more traditional spruce this year.
Eason’s is jam packed. Dads queue up with Christmas annuals for the kids. The three-for-two book deals are popular. I don’t manage to escape the shop without a book or two, even though it’s the second bookshop I’ve visited in twenty-four hours. Dublin always reignites my passion for reading somehow: must be all that literary history in the water. I entertain myself for a few minutes looking at the Irish tourist tat on sale near the front doors, and choose a few classic “you know you’re Irish when…” greetings cards to support local small business.
Back outside, it’s not that chilly. The crowds are thickening as the lunchtime crowds start to hit the streets. A day of shopping and family awaits, but for now I stand in the heart of Dublin and try to take in the moment: I made it home for Christmas.