Saturday, July 2, 2016

Ephemeral Islands

Liam Heneghan

There is a little tuft of land a few feet oceanwards of Letterkesh beach in Connemara on Ireland’s Atlantic West Coast. You can walk out to it and take a perch on its distant shore; sitting there you can stare out across thousands of miles of open ocean. Exercise a little caution though, for the tide races in quickly here, and during the course of a brief marine reverie the land that was once safely contiguous with the shore becomes an island.

Several of my students who have visited that beach with me over the years have found themselves marooned on this freshly minted islet. And where moments before the surging of the sea calmed the tumult of their mental tides, it’s then they realize that, lost as it is in a private conversation with the moon, the ocean cares not a whit for them. Fortunately, a short paddle in knee-deep waters gets you back to shore and cools any castaway anxiety.

Tim Robinson, that great chronicler of island life along Ireland’s western shores describes his visits to some of these “intermittent-islands,” although the ones he described were of a more substantial variety and at two of them were inhabited. He wrote in Walking out to Islands (1997): “Sometimes one has to wait for the parting of the waters as for the curtain-up of a play, which wakes high expectations.” After this, the timer is set; the duration of your visit is set by the tides.
The shore to which you return from Letterkesh Island is itself, of course, on an island.  This island, Ireland, has itself been separated by an anciently rising post-glacial tide from the neighboring island of Great Britain. There would have been moments when a dithering animal having found itself on Irish soil could have scampered back across the sea to Great Britain and then on, if it cared to, to the continental mainland. Now the ancient land bridges are beneath the waves and the shallow waters are gone. The island of Ireland, in this sense, has been free for an epoch.

Now, if we can continue to stretch out the term ephemeral to encompass a span of more than ten thousand years—a stretch that will give no offense to geologists I suspect, but may offend common sense—then Great Britain is an ephemeral island also having been connected to the continent with land bridges of its own. All of this is from a geo-chronological recent news, since both the land that constitutes Ireland and Great Britain were, at a distant point in the past, undefined regions of a great landmass. The land mass snapped apart to the west as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge opened up the Atlantic. North America and Ireland still drift apart at the rate at which fingernails grow as my old geology professor, Padraig Kennan, once informed a class of us.

One day these nails will be trimmed, and to gravely injury the metaphor, those hands across the ocean will be brought together again.  Ireland, and Great Britain will be reunited. Borderless, indistinguishable from each other, and recognizable only to those with geological-scales memory; that is to say, not recognizable at all.

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