Chris Duff has always been a man more at home in the water than out of it. He was working with the US Navy in Holy Loch, Scotland in 1982 when his enlistment period ended. Faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to re-enlist, he opted to return to civilian life. Soon the dream of an Irish journey would be born.
Chris tried several trades, at one point working in upstate New York as a butcher’s assistant to an old couple from Ireland. When he asked where the old man was from he was told the Aran Islands. For those of us who love Ireland it brings delightful visions of stone cottages and late night music sessions into our heads. The couple pulled a coffee table book off a shelf and opened it to some striking images of the Aran Islands and its people – rough seas, steep rock cliffs, stone houses, skin-covered boats called currachs and rugged, wind-worn faces. Our man Chris was captivated by the wild sea surrounding that beautiful island and a seed was sown in his brain that would grow and give birth to a life-changing Celtic adventure fourteen years later.
Chris’s decision to kayak around Ireland was not the first such journey for him. He embodies the spirit of adventure that many of us only dream about. He had kayaked around the US and Canada – twelve months and 8000 miles. He had also circumnavigated Great Britain – five and a half months and 3000 miles. Ireland, however, with its wild seas and unprotected west coast, with powerful waves meeting the first landfall of Europe, would be a different story entirely.
The starting point is Dublin’s famous River Liffey on June 1, 1996. The sacred vessel of the journey, an eighteen foot sea kayak loaded with one hundred pounds of food, water and camping gear, a journal wrapped in plastic for safe keeping and a map of the Irish coast carefully splash-guarded at the helm. As Chris begins his travels he shares with us his blessings – ten years of carpentry work had allowed him to save enough to take this precious time off for this adventure, to “take the time and just be quiet for a few months.” Few of us have ever know that luxury but he has worked hard for it and appreciates it; lucky for us he shares every moment so we can enjoy it vicariously through his words.
What struck me most about Chris’s writing is the mystery and wonder with which he regards the beauties of nature around him, particularly the west coast of Ireland, where stark cliffs are pounded by strong seas and winds whip wildly. At times he kayaks into sea caves along the coast and paddles in the semi-darkness and one feels his reverence for what nature has wrought in our landscape.
Ireland’s coastline is simply mad with bird life, particular the islands off the coast. At one point a large-winged fulmar watches him curiously, floating in the air and staring him in the eyes. Chris says to him “You are so beautiful my friend. What have you seen and where have you been today?” There is a timelessness in the eyes of such a bird, that can make us feel our insignificance in the face of Mother Nature. Chris visits islands rich with bird colonies – cormorants, puffins, shags, fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots, gannets, razorbills – by the thousands. They are all very tolerant of his presence and simply accept him rather than flying into a frenzy at his approach as one would expect. It’s a bird watcher’s paradise.
Along the journey, Chris visits numerous islands – some with names that sound familiar like Skellig Michael and Clare Island, others that are tiny dots on the ocean landscape. In foul weather he sits out the wind and waves, peering from his tent at the storm outside, waiting for a break in the weather. He takes us with him as he sleeps in a beehive hut or paddles under a waterfall near Dingle Bay to take a cold freshwater shower or even goes religiously pub hopping from session to session in the busy pub town of Dingle.
What is remarkable is that unlike many with Irish ancestry, Chris Duff did not come to Ireland to seek his past. He wanted to enjoy a challenging kayaking journey and be alone with the winds and the waves. The powerful force of the Irish landscape and the Irish people, however, makes its mark upon him. He begins to feel not only a sense of belonging but a sense of wonder and of loss. As he walks through tangles of wildflowers on a deserted island, he comes across ruins of stone cottages and chapels and the history of the place pours forth to ensnare him as it has done to so many others. He muses:
“Across the narrow waterway two stone house ruins stood bathed in the last rays of sun. The island, radiant in the evening light, looked as if it was an enchanted fairy tale land. Shadows of stone walls divided green meadows, and the cap of rock that broke through at the top of the island looked like a place where fairies might dance…”
I found it a pleasure to travel the circumference of the Emerald Isle with a philosophizing “American canoeist.” His courage in the face of the wild waves of the west coast is mind-boggling to a land lubber like myself. At one point he lands safely on some remote shore only to be greeted by a local emergency crew that was looking for him. Someone had spotted him “struggling” in the waves and thought he was in distress. Meanwhile he had been having the time of his life happily battling the waves!
The names of the landmarks of his journey ring like a cast of famous actors with cameos in a blockbuster film – Mizen Head, Dursey Head, the Skelligs, Dingle Bay, the Blaskets, The River Shannon, Galway Bay, the Cliffs of Moher, the Aran Islands, Clare Island – and more! The list goes on. It truly is a cast of remarkable characters and keeps you guessing which one will walk on stage next.
When visiting the Blasket Islands, which were abandoned reluctantly by the villagers in the 1950’s, Chris comments that in a kayak the paddler always sits facing forward. In the traditional Irish currach, however, the oarsmen face the rear of the boat and watch their wake. This last view of their island must have been quite painful for the villagers as they rowed further and further away from the ancestral home of their kin.
The people along the way are uniquely Irish. Whenever Chris emerges from the sea, seemingly out of nowhere, he is met with remarks of disbelief. “You’ve come from Dublin in that?! I think y’er mad.” The kindness to strangers has always been the hallmark of Irish hospitality; thousands of years ago it was actually mandated by the Brehon laws of the land. It simply seems second nature to a generous people. The fishermen who casually hand him a few lobster claws or some cleaned fish for his dinner, along with advice about his crossing. The housewife who makes him dinner and asks him to join the family by the fire for a night of storytelling. The couple who rise at dawn to see him off on the next leg of his journey. The fellow kayaker in Galway who gives him a place to stay and relax after a spell of bad weather and helps carry his heavy kayak through the crowded streets of the city. It is only sadly in the north of Ireland, where the troubles were still raging, where his knock at a door is met with suspicion and fear rather than a smile and a warm welcome by the fire.
Ireland is a revelation to our kayaker friend. He is awed by the natural beauty of windswept islands and cliff-lined coasts, drawn to the friendly people, bewildered by the sheer volume of history bursting from the seams of the landscape and humbled by the mysterious sacredness he feels. He has a gift for storytelling, for describing a scene down to the last rays of the sun, that may well be proof of his Irish ancestry.
To those who are faint of heart, there are scenes in this book which are truly harrowing. Chris paddles over waves that would frighten the be-jaysus out of you and me and navigates around submerged rocks that could puncture his wee kayak and drown him. But truth be told, he does finish his journey safely. As the old saying goes, he “lives to tell the tale.” So enjoy every beautiful and hair raising second of it!
Copyright Janet McGrane Bennett 2010
Janet McGrane Bennett has run and operated Celtic Reader Irish Bookstore since 2002. Her life long passion for Irish history and literature encourage her to share this love of books and all things Irish and Celtic. She is a graduate of Drew University English Literature undergraduate program and studied Irish history, theatre and literature at St Patrick’s College Maynooth in County Kildare, Ireland. Every year she travels to Irish and Celtic festivals on the East Cast of the US to set up her traveling book shop under the sunny summer skies. Visit Celtic Reader online at http://www.celticreader.com and at http://www.celticreader.wordpress.com