Caught by the River

A Letter From The Inchbeg Fishing School

29th June 2010

from Hannah Hamilton

Caught by the River Field, 1.

It’s summer, and has been for a good three weeks solid, but today the notoriously schizophrenic Irish weather has jumped forwards six months and soaked us with a grey, chilly, Octoberine afternoon. From my kitchen table, I can just about see the corner of the River Field scowling at me through the patterns of all day rain on the windowpane. I’m guiltily avoiding its wibbly gaze.

Really, I should be down there in my waterproofs digging holes, see, but instead I’m still in my pyjamas at 15.52, nursing a cup of chamomile and a packet of Golden Virginia, with the computer on my lap doing anything but.

Six weeks ago, I landed in Heathrow airport after an eight-month adventure that took me from India’s northernmost town to its southernmost, via the south east coast and then all the way up the west one to Mumbai, from where I flew to Tanzania to teach English in a remote village four hours from Kilimanjaro. It was in a bid to circumvent the traditional despair and restlessness that awaits the repatriated traveller that I decided – in a moment of naïve optimism – to focus my summer attention on the construction of a Celtic-style roundhouse on the grounds of my fishing school.

Why? has been the reaction from most of my friends and neighbours, and I don’t blame them. After all, I have no building experience, I cannot thatch, I am rubbish with a chainsaw, I have never even seen a Celtic Roundhouse, let alone worked on one. So my only answer is an enthusiastic Why not?, along with a silent hope that the question will answer itself once the thing is built.

It will, after all, be pretty awesome: ten foot high, thatched, with wattle and daub walls and a mud floor, made from the willow that grows in abundance throughout the River Field, local straw and cob from a nearby clay pit, decorated externally with swirls etched in mud with fingers and an abundance of butterflies attracted by the budlea I was supposed to plant this weekend.

For me, being still very much in the present continuous part of the construction, I am currently loving it most for giving me a practical reason for being away from my phone and the washing up. And my computer. My lovely, loved, slightly grubby, almost antique Apple Macintosh that duly reminds me every time I look at it of the dream jobs that don’t exist, the crap ones I’m not qualified for, the courses that are already full, the editors that don’t write back, the book I wanted to write before I got old, and all the Things I Should Be Doing With My Life now that I’m no longer traversing the tropics or under 27, etcetera.

Instead of these (important/unimportant) things, my attentions have been merrily focused on the taming of rogue willows and the strimming of riverbanks, the sourcing of old electricity posts, the marking of sites, the digging of 3ft holes with spades, trowels, bits of broken trowels, and finally bare hands, the drawing of plans and working out of measurements, the compulsion to frolick among airborn seedlings of Goat Willows and Dandelions that dust the air with magical white fluff, and the careful placing of small stones on big ones around the perimeter of the site in order to request formal planning permission from the faeries. Which was granted.

Surprisingly, I have found that doing unusual things at home makes me feel like a traveller in my own country, experiencing sides of local life that were previously alien to me. Just last week, I stood among cow pats engaging in discourse on the merits of Massey Furguson 105s with a local farmer, learning that I’d need a combine harvester with five turbines as opposed to seven in order to get the right hay for the thatching and would need to find a man in Ballycondra (an area no more than 5 miles away that might as well be the Congo Basin to me) in order to get it. I made friends with a local poacher in order to trap a horrid little mink, and was soon in awe of an unravelling tumult of stories from the menagerie that is his house (17 ferrets, 7 wheaten terriers, a collection of Goldfinch/Canary crossbreeds, a Shetland pony that comes into the kitchen, eagles, kestrels, hens and cocks, bronze turkeys and a whippet) to his adventures in the field, snaring rabbits, poaching salmon and the arts therein, rooting out badgers, foxes and mink with dogs and a spade and how to lift an eagle’s nest from a tree with nothing but a branch of hazel. It’s been interesting.

Now that the eight ground posts are in, a shed full of willow rods have been harvested and the central post (a 15ft ash tree) has been placed, measured, removed, re-dug and re-placed, all that remains is for me to dig the remaining holes to shove the middle sticks in and start wattling. But it’s raining. Ho hum. I know what the Tanzanians would say, leisurely strolling down the road during a thunderous downpour: “You not made of sugar, sista!” I can hear them in my head and I know they’re right. After all, Masai women build their own huts and make no great fuss about it. This thought kicks me into action. Enough of this pansy-assed European preciousness. I’m gonna get my wellies on, and give it some.