Marcel Krueger passes up a Sunday lie-in in favour a walk in the rain
The rain washes the dirt into the gutters, and it swells streams into rivers, rivers into powerful things. – Neil Gaiman, Down to a Sunless Sea
Rain obscures the things we take for granted. When deliberately out in it on a Sunday morning, the walker turns away from his compatriots snug on sofas sipping tea under blankets or still in a warm bed with a hangover, happy that the weather is soothing their throbbing heads. They will probably have a full fry-up for breakfast, if they leave the bed at all.
As I venture into the rain, the smell of fried eggs and sausages is wafting over from one of the houses on Point Road. The rain streaks along the street and into my eyes and beard, pattering against my rain jacket. It is a misty yet strong rain coming in from the sea and the river at the end of the road – what the Scots call haar, and the Irish ceobhrán. There are one or two cars splashing by, and no other pedestrians at all. To my left are the buildings and silos of Dundalk port, indicating yet unseen water, and to my right the crumpling hulk of an apartment complex from Celtic Tiger times, boarded up and with water running from smashed windows, its ochre walls smeared with coal dust and dirt; and then I pass the barracks of the Irish Defense Forces. As Melissa Harisson states in her book Rain, ‘I’m no longer just a fair-weather walker; I can choose to overcome the impulse for comfort and convenience that insulates us not only from the bad in life but from much of the good.’ It feels good to be out in the rain, dry underneath my jacket and hood. Past the barracks, at the end of the road, I turn left, past the rugby field and into small car park, where I get a first glimpse of the river next to the path, along what is locally called Navy Bank.
The Castletown River is 45 kilometres long, and rises near Newtownhamilton in County Armagh in Northern Ireland. From there it flows across the border to the south, gathering strength from its main tributaries, the Kilcurry and Falmore rivers, and finally enters the Irish Sea at Dundalk Bay, about three kilometres east of my house. Dundalk Bay itself is a large, shallow estuary, dominated by a sizeable salt marsh on the western shore. The Castletown River here also acts as the main navigation channel for the deepwater port.
The rain obscures and mystifies everyday occurrences. There is a woman in the car park, hunkering down in front of her car under a raincoat, inexplicably cleaning the right front light with a tissue in the rain – she almost seems atavistic, menacing. The excited barking of a stray golden retriever excitedly sniffing and running up and down the mud bank further down the path sounds like a warning, a bad omen trying to prevent me from walking further on. Coming towards me is a man, similarly wrapped up in a long blue rain jacket, not offering the usual ‘Heyhowareye’, but instead just lifting a hand in greeting, as if blessing or absolving my rain walk.
This part of the path is where I would normally see the mountains from, my spirits lifted by the green and brown flanks of the Cooley Mountains and the granite summit of Slieve Foy looming across the the estuary, but today they are completely obscured. There is not even a hint of dark mountain flanks behind the rain clouds, all an indifferent grey broth a hundred metres out. The flood is just coming in, pressing the river back upstream – Dundalk bay has a tidal range of over three metres, which can increase to over four in spring. There are more herons that I ever saw before here. On the opposite bank, along the mud bank formed by the exposed salt marsh, three grey herons sit equidistant from each other, as if positioned by the benevolent hand of an amateur gardener arranging plastic gnomes. Down by the bank on my side, a mere three metres away from me, I observe another large heron, a proper grey eminence stalking precociously through the water, sniping its beak down every three or four steps, often with success in the form of a tiny silver fish wiggling on the bone spear before a quick shake of the heron’s head stuns and sends it down the bird’s throat. Maybe there are more fish swimming closer to the surface now in this grey weather, and at least there are fewer bipeds walking up and down the Slí na Sláinte, the health way created here by the Irish Heart Foundation. The grey eminence keeps on hunting as I make my way further along the bank.
Go son, go down to the water/And see the women weeping there. – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Weeping Song
The rain brings my immediate surroundings more into focus. As Nan Shepherd writes in The Living Mountain, ‘Rain in the air has…the odd power of letting one see things in the round, as though stereoscopically. New depth is given to the vista…when the mist turns to rain there may be beauty there too.’ From where I stand, I can clearly make out the bridge stumps of the former Great Northern Railway bridge, once supporting the tracks that linked Dundalk with Greenore on the Cooley Peninsula until 1958. Today, these are just two slightly elevated mounds with trees running away to the left and right, indicating the former railway embankment and with the salt marsh now gurgling in between. 111 years ago, the train from Dundalk would have brought passengers to the hotel and the ferry port in Greenore, from where the ferry SS Connemara would take them over to Holyhead in Wales. But not so on the night of the 3rd of November 1916, where an equally dense rain and fog was obscuring the views at dusk. At 8 p.m. that night, the Connemara left Greenore with 51 passengers and 30 crew members on board. On the other side of the water, the collier SS Retriever was inbound from the Irish Sea to Newry, struggling against the wind and the rain. The Connemara, despite the difficult weather, set out on time and so the two ships met just beyond the Haulbowline lighthouse, where the Carlingford Lough is only about 300 yards wide. Both vessels had their lights dimmed to avoid German U-boats, and so they saw each other only when it was already too late. The Retriever smashed into the port side of the Connemara, slicing her hull almost to the funnel. The Retriever then pulled back, dooming the ferry. She sank within minutes, her boilers exploding on contact with the ice-cold water. The Retriever, the bow staved in, took about 20 minutes longer to go down. But due to the bad weather and wild sea, chances for those making it into the water were slim. There was only one survivor, and 94 souls went down with the ships.
Like a wet dog I shake more thoughts about the phantoms of Carlingford Lough away and make for the sea. The path now leads past the water filtering plant, where an outflow beneath the river creates a whirlpool evoking a large fish, or a shoal, swirling below, seagulls bumping up and down on the waves around the outflow. Past the unmanned bird observatory I then reach Soldier’s Point, where the path bends off to the right, following the shoreline into a housing estate. Straight ahead is grey-brown water, the river flowing out into the estuary. A naive metal statue of the sea god Manannán mac Lir sits askew on a block of concrete, seemingly inclined to topple any moment – a modern appreciation of old tales, maybe. Next to the statue is a low, L-shaped wall with a bench behind looking out over the bay, a large light for incoming ships, and a coin-operated telescope for visitors. There are displays of the ‘Birds of the Castletown Estuary’, and a list of safety instructions. And there are two memorial plaques, one for Stephen Fergus, ‘who died beyond this point on 12th February 2012’, maybe bringing assistance to a stranded friend, and one for John Lambe and James Woods, ‘drowned within sight of this point while lighting river lights on the 10th Feb 1936’. I lean against the wall and look out over the sea. The rains still smothers everything in grey wool, and I can’t even make out the green buoy in the bay, the one that for me always marks the beginning of the sea proper, of its dangers and promises. I am glad that I walked here, in the downpour, which helps not only to bring the immediate surroundings more into focus, but also makes the fabric of the past seem more visible and solid, sometimes. Out in the rain, alone, the increased solitude brings both delight and uneasiness.
Then a gust of rain hits me in the face, I make a disgusted grimace and turn around to walk home, for tea.
Marcel Krueger is a writer, translator, and editor living in Ireland and Germany, and mainly writes non-fiction about places, their history, and the journeys in between. He is also the book editor of Elsewhere Journal, and his articles and essays have been published in the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, Slow Travel Berlin, the Matador Network, and CNN Travel, amongst others. He has translated Wolfgang Borchert and Jörg Fauser into English, and his latest book, Babushka’s Journey – The Dark Road to Stalin’s Wartime Camps, is published by I.B. Tauris this month. More information on his website.
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