Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Kerri ní Dochartaigh

Kerri ní Dochartaigh | 21st January 2021

Since so many of our lives were lived in thematic overlap in 2020, we asked our contributors and friends to focus on the small, strange and specific as they looked back over the last 12 months for our Shadows and Reflections series. Today, the run reaches its end, marked with a contribution from Kerri ní Dochartaigh.

In 2020 I found myself deeply and utterly obsessed with objects. With things – solid items – that could be ordered and sorted, held close – that could be given, kept or mused upon.  The books I was drawn towards spoke of objects; meditations and inventories, logs and studies: I grew increasingly called upon by the solidity of things

The year began with editing my first book, THIN PLACES; an unearthing of experiences, places and feelings so insubstantial as to seem invisible. By the time I’d finished, I knew – deep inside my bones – that I was done with all that could be deemed fragile and gossamer. I craved physical items in ways that felt almost surreal. In the Spring I gathered objects, from the world outside, and brought them into my home. Nests & Stones, Feathers & bones; I surrounded myself with that which could be held. I needed the objects I spent my days with to be weighty. I needed to be able to hold them in my hands. More than that, I needed to put my hands to work, in ways that lay outside of memory, outside of melancholy, outside of mind; outside of mourning. 

I wanted to do something other than write about objects, though. I wanted to leave a mark on them. 

I found myself then, as Summer turned to Autumn, carrying a wee seed inside my body. It started as a poppy seed, then became a sweetpea; making its way through the garden’s corners like a shapeshifter. All being well, my lover and I will welcome a wee one into our home in the Spring. I’ve been growing this wee creature for 26 weeks now, and it’s bigger by far than the leeks we grew. Almost everything has changed since I found out I was pregnant yet nothing feels to really have changed at all. One thing that I wasn’t quite expecting to come hand in hand with the sickness, tiredness and rounding belly – was an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. Nostalgia, not for places or people as such but for experiences involving both. Pregnancy has carried the memory of particular moments back to me in the oddest of ways…I’ve started to dream of clothes from times before now in the most surreal, near on mythical manner. My nights are woven together with garments from the past; objects I always knew I loved but had never considered to be of such value as to fill my night times with their fabric presence. I mentioned the dreams to a friend, who asked me what the circumstances had been around the purchase of each item, and suddenly things fell a little into place.

In that magical, haunting way that things can sometimes go, the three items I’ve dreamed of all share three things in common: they cost a fiver each from a charity shop, they were all bought at a time in my life when I was much less anchored than now, and each thing is damaged to the extent that I have not been able to wear or use it for some time. 

It is necessary at this point to state that I am not the kind of person who is good with their hands. I am, however, the kind of person who has spent years gathering people around them, for some reason, who are beyond good with their hands. This year I have watched as friends set their hands to things that are too good and too gorgeous for words. I feel very lucky to have been sent some of these hand-made things from these people. Prints and weaves, mugs and candles, wee mittens for a small creature, jams and chutney; even the man I love with has been at it too, making frames for these prints, holders for these candles; shelves for these hand-made items that have made their way into our home.  I am also, it must be said, the kind of person who long has grieved the fact that I cannot knit or weave, make prints or ceramics, carve things from wood and so on – but the thing I have been obsessively upset by is the fact that I do not know how to mend. It is exactly the kind of thing that should be something that I do. I am the kind of person who believes, right inside my bones, that there is beauty in decay; that things are much more special for having been through the simple act of existing in this world. I’ve scrolled endlessly through Instagram oohing and ahhing over exquisite works of art created by making layer after layer of repair. Rips and tears on material transformed into the most perfect fault-lines, through the very act of being fixed in ways that are not only obvious – but that make the thing more itself, somehow; more the object it always had the potential to be.

When I found out I was pregnant, I sold loads of the clothes I’d gathered over decades of second-hand shopping, both to clear space in our tiny home and to put towards the purchase of equally gorgeous things for the small, see-through creature that we’d never dreamed would come along. I’d sold bags of stuff on Instagram, so when I had these dreams I suddenly became terrified I’d lost the objects that my sleeping brain had become so fixated on. I couldn’t even look through the remaining bags myself, sending my lover out instead to trawl through black bin bags of things I’ve been trailing around behind me since long before I even met him.  Every single one of them was still there though; two of them were even safely wrapped in tissue paper to save them from any more damage. I am the kind of person who becomes attached to objects without even having realised it, it appears. 

I tell a pal that I want to give visible mending a go (he is a famous and most excellent craftsperson who earns a crust from stitching onto garments) and he tells me: ‘your brain doesn’t work that way’, and I feel something in me bubble up. I hear a wee voice inside me telling me that might not, in fact, be true.  And so it happens, there and then, as winter traces its glistening, bone-cold fingers over us all: I book myself onto an online mending course with Molly Martin. I realise after I’ve spent an hour having her guide my hands over the green of the garment beneath me, that it is the most calm I’d felt in at least a year, perhaps in many years – as many as I could fit on my newly busied hands. And so it began. Slowly but surely I found wee threads of help along the way. The lovely Diva off this site sent me images from a vintage book where the bit needing mending was referred to, beautifully, as ‘thin’. I found lots of old scraps around the place and practiced my running stitch and the little stabs I’d learned in the lesson. The light of many afternoons gave way to gloaming as I sat by the stove – utterly engrossed – remembering what it felt like to sit at peace. I focused, not on any of the worries that try to gnaw at our teeth these days, but on straight lines and neat marks – and when those would not come I focused instead on the feel of the fabric; the ebb and flow on its surface, like a silken sea. I’ve made repairs on two of the three items I dreamed of this year. 

Here they are, with a wee bit of the history behind them. 

Green Japanese cotton work jacket – repaired cuffs.

Purchased in Edinburgh Tollcross Salvation Army. I was 24, on a weekend away in the Scottish capital with the idea of checking it out as a place to move. I went in on my first day and got talking to the lady behind the counter, asking if they ever got any unsual old coats in. Three days later, just before I caught the bus back to the airport, I went in for another rummage and the same lady had held this by for me. It came with a wee handwritten card in blue ink saying it was a Japanese work-jacket, handed in by a theatre across the road.  I snapped it up, along with an illustrated version of Paul Gallico’s The Snowgoose. When I moved to Edinburgh the following year I moved a stone’s throw away from that charity shop, and got to know that lady so well. She was one of the very first people I told that I wanted to write a book. She said: ‘always wear your green coat when you write, hen. It will bring you all the luck in the world.’

Blue floaty floral silk jacketrepaired neckline, seams of both arms and inner section.

Bought in a Charity Shop in Stoke Newington, when I was visiting my brother for a few days. At the time I was working in a Swedish Bakery in Edinburgh, leaving home at 5.20 am on a fine black sit-up-and-beg bicycle with no brakes, and finishing at 3 to try and write a book. I went to yoga every other day in an old Veterinary Building turned into an arts venue, with a whippet that farted constantly. I went on picnics/to festivals/gigs/dinner/carboot sales/ beaches with pals, read in the bath with lavender hot chocolate, and just generally did whatever I wanted. The trip to London was with the intention of deciding if I wanted to move South (it rained in Edinburgh quite a lot)…This wee jacket was in the window and not supposed to be for sale, but the guy behind the counter said something about the charm of the Irish and sent me on my way with it, back out into the scorching mid-summer sunshine. 

Derry Shirt-Factory Scraps blanket – still to repair rips throughout.

The only item I have not begun repairing yet is my favourite object in the world, purchased in Saint Vincent de Paul Charity Shop in my hometown when I was living in Edinburgh and considering moving back to Derry. It’s made by women who worked in one of the shirt factories, from all the seconds and left-over scraps. There were two of them, and I remember thinking when I bought it that if I knew another person in the world who would buy its twin, it was the owner of my favourite vintage shop. I imagined him snapping it up and hopefully selling it on for a pretty penny. I had quite liked the owner of said shop for a number of years. I loved his dapper dress sense, the homewares he picked by hand, his glasses, and how his kind eyes said so much more than his words did.  Just before flying back to Edinburgh I went into his shop, in the kitchen of an old convent, and saw the other one hanging on the wall. When I eventually did move back to Derry, it was to live with the man that bought the other blanket, though he had long since sold it on. When we got together I was at a very low point in my life, convinced I’d broken everything beyond all repair. He reminded me that, just like those blankets we’d each bought, sometimes things rip and fractures happen – but by putting time and love into mending them, we make them so much more beautiful than they were even before the damage. 


Sashiko is a form of Japanese stitching, a process of needlework. The newly mended object is a piece of Boro; often the result of continuous, time-consuming & loving care. 


Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s ‘Thin Places’, published next week by Canongate, is our current Book of the Month. Read Will Burns’s glowing review here. You can buy a copy here.