Growing up on an isolated farm in rural Ireland, my childhood memories are largely happy ones. I spent my time playing outdoors; the paddock, orchard and single-track lanes gave me ample space to explore, and on wet days I roamed the drafty outbuildings and the high ceilinged barns where the straw bales were stacked. Comfortable in the realm of my imagination, safe in the brightness of the sunshine, things could have been idyllic but for the inexplicable holes and blanks in my childish comprehension. Looking past the fresh air and freedom, all was not well in my world.
Strange things I couldn’t understand happened often in our house: questions about poison in the food, ambulances in the middle of the night, a cancelled Christmas and my crumpled, sobbing mother, grown-ups talking in hushed voices, hospitalizations and angry rows.
The world outside was a safer place by comparison. The patterns in the bark of a tree trunk, the scratchiness of a straw bale, plants whose botanical names I didn’t know, for they went by different ones in my lexicon, but whose appearance were familiar to me as my own – these were comfortingly consistent and unchanging. The cushion of grass under my head as I cloud-watched, the smell of the air after the rain and the texture of soil mixed with water to make mud pies; these were my comfort in the face of unexplained disappearances and the sharp-clawed confusion that nested in the pit of my stomach. Through them, I came to know the miniscule detail in my surroundings like the ridges and whorls on my fingertips. For me, an entire world could be found in a flooded wheel rut.
I was eight when my parents decided to leave Ireland and move to Britain. The farm, the ponies, the cats and chickens – would all be left behind. Our farm had been handed down through my father’s family. It was all I had ever known, all I had ever needed. I didn’t want to go, but that didn’t matter. I would be ripped from my pastoral womb like a sailor pried from the mast of a sinking ship. The confusion and fear would continue in our new homeland but I would no longer have nature’s talismans to ward them off. I was leaving the environment I wore like a second skin, for Suburbia. Like a stone removed from its muddy indent, I was about to be displaced.
Two memories from that time come to mind. Like thirty-second segments of video, I play them in my head and the images are full of clarity and pathos. The first is of me sitting on a chair in the kitchen, buried in “The Adventures of the Famous Five” while packing and moving went on back and forth around me. I know now my immersion in books was a way of escaping the bleakness of my reality. My outward appearance of absorbed, literary contentment belied the turmoil I was struggling to quell inside.
I read as though my life depended on it and remember the bittersweet joy when I received a leaving present from my teacher – two books: The Secret Garden and The Railway Children. Like an addict, I needed to know my supply was taken care of. Who knew if they had good books in Britain? I still have those books, yellowed now around the edges of the pages, the inscription on the flyleaf a reminder of a lost time and a teacher’s thoughtful gesture. The signs of their ageing are a souvenir of a long-ago life that almost feels like it was someone else’s.
The second memory still burns like it was yesterday. When I recall it, sadness washes over me like a wave and my eyes well up. Even at eight, I understood that this was one of those pivotal moments, that from now, things would change and there would be no way back to what was before. In my mind I see us in the car – my parents, my two younger sisters and I. It’s night-time, and we are leaving the only home I have ever known for the last time. Slowly my father pulls out of the farmyard gate. Halfway through he stops and gets out of the car; the hope leaps into my mouth that maybe they’ve changed their minds and we will stay. But it is only to retrieve a ball from beside the gate post that had been overlooked. Still, my child’s logic still allows me a small sense of relief; at least we saved the ball. He puts it in the boot with the suitcases, gets back into the car and slowly, unalterably, we continue our journey down the lane, the same lane I have run up and down all my life, never thinking there would come a day when I would go and not come back. Leaving the centre of my universe behind, we continue towards our destination: the ferry port in Dublin.
My parents had booked an overnight crossing from Dublin to Holyhead. Once in our cabin, they settled us in our bunks, humouring our tired curiosity and fascination with our new surroundings; from the beds that opened out of the wall to the port-hole that showed only spray-soaked inky blackness. After tucking us in, they left the cabin, the wedge of yellow light disappearing as the door shut behind them. Beneath me, I felt the thrum of the ship’s engines, as we pulled out of Dublin Harbor, leaving behind the twin towers of Poolbeg power station my sister and I had christened Stripey Socks. Gently lulled to sleep by the movement of the Irish Channel, I realised the unfamiliar would be my companion for a while now. Home was behind me – new worlds lay ahead.