Caught by the River

Thin Places

Kerri ní Dochartaigh | 28th January 2021

An extract from Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s Thin Places — our Book of the Month for January, published today by Canongate.

Like that river, I am becoming an unmapped space held in this in-between place, right in this island’s beating heart where borders feel like they hold no sway…I think of how there are still places – parts of this earth – where light flows in like a river that has burst its banks. We hold in our open hands the strength to take suffering and turn it into song. Our voices can tell a story of hope above the cacophony of sorrow. The day before I left Derry I ran through St Columb’s Park underneath ancient oak trees that tower above a trickling stream, the same stream I have listened to as closely as my ears have allowed since I could walk. Up the hill – mud thick underfoot, squirrels in the fallen leaves, a magpie in the lower branches of a chestnut tree, a mistle-thrush quarrelling with itself in the hidden parts above. I don’t know if it was the fact that that geographical place holds so many deep memories for me, if it was the adrenaline from the cold, bright run I’d just paused from, or maybe it was just something that the air held inside it, but I felt, for the very first time, as though I was letting go. As though each outbreath was taking something from inside me, and giving it back to the city that made me. I watched as my breath made ghostly white shapes right in front of my mouth, and I felt something inside me fall silent. There was quiet inside me – unbidden, startling – and I could hear myself, and I wanted to hear; I wanted to listen.

I was born in 1983, in the last white breath of December, at the ending of that old year. I arrived just as winter staked its claim on the north-west of Ireland, in the exact midway point of those dark, liminal, beautiful days between Christmas and New Year. I was born into a gap, in a way, a dip where the old year gathered momentum to try to make it to the crest of the hill. A wee cranny in the V of the land – I came in the lull, just before the turning of the year’s circle. My birthday has always held the feeling of something not quite fully formed – a day that has not been sculpted properly, an in-between place, somehow. The date creeps up like the silence before a storm – and when it comes, it is defined by a sense of otherness, as though the day is on the periphery of two worlds. Things nestled in the middle point of other things hold an energy all of their own. I was born into another middle, too: the middle of the Troubles. No one knew it, of course, but that year I was born cut the violent, terrifying period known as the Troubles completely in half, making a border out of time. They would continue – those tragic, terrifying years – for as many years again as they had already been raging for. There are particular periods in time – that human construct of division – that seem as though they, too, might allow for the lifting of veils, for things to happen in ways that would not (that could not) happen in any other moment. I think of the messages – the rich undercurrent of deep meaning – that have been revealed for me in this past year through delving deeper into the Celtic calendar, the circle of the year created by my ancestors, to help us all to get through. There is a time for everything – for sowing, planting, harvesting. A time for holding on, and a time to let go. A time for sorrow, and a time for healing. More so, there is, simply, time. There is time for it all. We still have time to step in or out – of places, of relationships, of thought processes, of our own selves. Sometimes the snow will still be here on St Brigid’s Day, and sometimes we will have a year without it coming at all. There will be years when the autumn trees seem more vibrant, more sublime, than we ever remember them being before. There will be years when we have suffered so much that we can’t pick out one season from the other, never mind one day. Days when we cannot imagine ever feeling okay again, thinking that we have taken enough of it all, enough already, enough. Then, a change in the wind, the first bluebell, the smell of snow in the sky, the moment courses on, and everything has shape-shifted – everything is okay again, more than okay, maybe, even.


Thin Places’ is published today. Order your copy here. Read Will Burns’ review, published earlier this month, here.