Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Kerri ní Dochartaigh

Kerri ní Dochartaigh | 12th January 2020

It’s time once again for the annual series of postings we like to call Shadows and Reflections, in which our contributors and friends look back on the past twelve months. From Kerri ní Dochartaigh:

I have found the words for butterflies, in my native tongue, and I am drawing their lines on my insides. I am ready, now, to speak of unnameable things. I know that so, so many of us are. To stand together under a sky that – no matter how grey and uncertain – still holds room for butterflies, moths, dragonflies and things once thought unnameable; things like whispered hope…


After wakening on my first New Year’s Day sober, I was heralded into my first swim in the Atlantic Ocean as a non-drinker by a curfew of curlew at Shroove beach at Donegal’s jagged edge. I swam under the delicate sliver of a crescent moon, in the midwinter hush of the day’s fading blue; the year was born to the whisper of a new song. The moment I arrived home I picked up a pen again, properly; for the first time in well over a year, and I didn’t stop. I wrote every single day of last year. 

I went away for my first time sober, and spent the most beautiful, healing days alone in Copenhagen. There were birds – so many birds, words – so many words; and light unlike any I have known before.

February brought snow that danced like white moths on my skin. I wrote about Saint Brigid for Oh Comely; my mind full of thresholds, belonging and identity –  the moment when light starts to filter back into a coal-black world. I started learning Irish, the language of my soil, the heart-song of my blood and bone. I wrote about a stormy Sligo weekend in my van for Little Toller. The kindness shown to me following the sharing of these words still moves me to tears. 

Amazing women came towards me in vast numbers this year; I hold more strong, kind, goddess-like women in my life now than I ever thought imaginable. My gorgeous agent came into my life in March, and if I banged on about her for decades it wouldn’t say enough of what she has done for my confidence; for the trust she has helped me place in my own hands. After meeting her and Kirsteen McNish – another incredible woman –  in London, I shared some words on birds, Brexit, and the idea of home here on this cracking, glistening site for the first time, and from then on it’s been pure joy to be involved. It means such an awful lot to me to have the support of the CBTR crew; like being held by strong and nurturing hands. We all need ye, and I know I am speaking for the many when I say that. Thank-you so much for what you do D, J, A and R. It is the best thing we can do in these times – to steer our course together; stronger for the act of gathering – a golden exultation.

My first book went to auction in April, and the amazing folk at Canongate will publish Thin Places in just over a year. To say I feel grateful, yet again, seems too hollow to sum it all up. The people that I’m sharing this journey with are some of the most wonderful humans I know. I am a very lucky girl, and I hope to do everyone proud. 2019 showed us how essential it is to listen out for the voices that may not normally be heard above the cacophony. We need to help each other through in every way we can; kindness from human to human is a political act, and I feel anchored by those I walk beside. 

Many folk had a dark, terrifying 2019, and April was full of the most extreme joy and the most extreme sorrow –  hand-in-hand –  that I have ever known. I began writing my book a handful of hours before the young Journalist Lyra McKee was killed during rioting in my hometown. Less than an hour later the news also reached me of the death of my closest school friend. Grief has been on my shoulder – crawling into my hair like an ebony-black bird –  for most of this year. I wrote a wee bit on grief here; a small drop in a vast ocean. Loss has been there again and again; in various forms –  alongside gleaming, iridescent joy. There is sorrow and suffering in so many folds – of places and people; the land and its creatures are all ready for deep-rooted change. 

The words of others have been a huge comfort; in letters and books, messages and carved stone, in the beat of song; in the silence before the words – that speaks loud as thunder – soft as a wren. 

Summer Solstice came, and I spent it camping alone beneath the stars; where the Bredagh River meets the sea. The turning point of the year, the time where the veil is lifted; I could feel the earth holding me close. I swam in the sea’s belly, lit bone fires to protect me through the year, and tended the hearth beside a sacred copse. It has been a year for acceptance; of myself and of the years ahead that are unfurling like a fern; so different in shape and colour than how I always thought they would be.

I attended Port Eliot Festival for the first time. Oh my, where to even start with that ‘aul magic, eh? Some of the people I met there I already hope will be lifelong friends. If you know, you know; just. I wrote a wee bit about it here

Back in Ireland, I saw a cottage that held the promise of a home, a proper home; the first of my life. The first time I visited there were so many butterflies, dragonflies and swallows that I felt dizzy. The second time I fell through rotted decking, stung myself all over, cracked bits of bones, and left my body black and blue for weeks. You win some and then you win some: with feeling.

Summer held the huge decision to leave the North and move into that wee stone railway cottage on that old ghost line across that tumultuous, folkloric border. I began to pack box after box of books; I began to think about what it might mean to feel at home – to feel safe.

I awoke on the Autumn Equinox in a mucky laneway bathed in light, just beyond the central bogland; in the heart of Ireland. I began tearing out rotted wood from a small dwelling built in the same year as the Irish border. I began clearing away soot and broken things, I began sweeping and hollowing out. I began creating pathways and making room; I began loosening things that have long been wrapped too tightly around my neck. I started unravelling myself from the life I knew. I started to give away most of what I own. (I kept the books, of course.)

In the Autumn I visited The Nature Library in Glasgow which was one of the most nourishing, inspiring experiences imaginable. Beautiful banter with Kathryn Josephs, in Glasgow, wolfing down the best brunch of the year (decade?) was a serious highlight. What a human (what a moth). 

I spent Samhain in Edinburgh with my lovely editor; feeling the strengthening sense of shaping something in more hands than just my own. A feeling of being guided through the darkness that making art about hard things can heap upon us. I will never get over how many good people are around me these days.

I let go of so much this year; of people, ideas and places that have hurt me immeasurably – I am lighter now, so much lighter, and grateful for it. I think many of us have had a year seeped in the soft grey fog of loss. I think many of us are ready to let the light back in.

The winter we still find ourselves in began for me with weeks spent doing the first re-draft of my first book. November was full of self-doubt, illness and nightmares that shook the house of me to its core; that rattled at the foundations and locked the doors with the wrong key. I reviewed Robert Macfarlane’s Ness here and the next day I woke up a year sober. There may be words for it all – for the things that have taken the place of all the lost things, for the hope and the endless beginnings, for the softness that can sometimes feel like a curse – maybe someday words will come, but for now it is all too newly born.

I celebrated with a swim at my favourite place. The water was shockingly – gaspingly – cold and when I got out of the Atlantic, I found my first hagstone. I found it under a bright winter sun, at the ending of the Celtic Reed month – the day after reviewing a book seeped in such magic. Finding that gracefully sculpted thing felt like a gift from a place unknown.

I will be grateful for December 2019 until the day I die. 

I read words at Caught by the River Avon alongside some of the most inspiring, soul-soothing folk. Human beings are fucking beautiful, despite it all, and I feel so lucky to be living through this time; to watch the goodness unfold against the bleakest backdrop – like the brightest star of some forming constellation. I shared a stage with Max Porter, an unimaginably humbling and belly-aching thing; if you can be around humans that make you howl with laughter even after a year like the one just gone, you know things will be OK.

I dove into the great unknown and took a train in lashing rain to spend a handful of other-worldly days in the company of three beautiful women I had never met before in real life. I hope to spend more time watching the ‘Foundle’ project unfold its exquisite wings this year. We shared food and fire, hurts and hopes; words and light. Jo, Louisa and Tanya: thank-you and I love you; that is all. 

I returned from a land that was on the cusp of great change. I awoke in a white room in the very heart of another land – to The General Election results. I wrote hurried and heart-hurt words here. I felt them creep up from my gut like an eel. I felt the weight of the land on my hands. I realised for the first time that our words might not really be our own; that they might come to us from the peat-brown earth, from the black sky; words might come to us from stone and from curlew – from shell and from spume – from bone and from fire; from the bellies of the  creatures of this burning, aching planet.

The day before I left the North of Ireland I co-led a Winter Solstice walk for CAAKE project out the line; along the River that for decades has cut my hometown in half. I shared words on circles and lines; on the turning earth in all her healing goodness. We gathered objects spat back, and carved out the space to welcome the new year – the new decade that was making its way towards on the wings of unseen birds. 

I crossed borders, near the closing of the last decade; both seen and unseen. 

Christmas Eve Eve held the move into that wee stone cottage. Christmas Eve held the joy of my life – an old Springer Spaniel called Coco; rescued from a life void of love – brought into my home like the promise of light. Christmas, my birthday and the birth of the new year were measured by going with her deep into the fields behind the laneway – where the solid earth becomes bog-land. Tracing lines and circles that have altered my inner landscape immeasurably, mere days into living here. 

The old year we just gave to the embers of the earth’s fire was one I have found hard to find the words for. Much – so much –  has changed beyond all recognition. So much has been lost, and in its place there is goodness unlike anything I have known before. 

I light the stove as the wind drags the wrens from the trees, as the sky fills with peachy light and mistle thrushes; as the dog waits for me to take her into this silent land in the middle. 

I close my eyes and I remember a cinnabar moth, dancing on a bright shoreline; in time with the turning.





(the word for human is hope)