SOOTHING?The lights from Eagle Island Lighthouse would sweep across Lally’s bedroom walls at night, in a soothing rhythm.?Pic: Evita Coyle
Cherished Erris childhood days
Author Caitriona Lally looks back on childhood visits to her uncle’s farm in Erris, where her young imagination soared
I was born and reared in Dublin, but my brothers and sister and I spent our school holidays on our uncle’s farm in a beautiful part of Erris. My mother was born and reared in Kiltimagh; my father in Gladree, five miles west of Belmullet.
The corner of Erris I know is a treeless haven on the edge of the Atlantic. In winter, the fields are burnt brown with salt-winds, a beautiful shade of bleak. I love walking the cliffs when the sea is wild, the waves are fierce, and the wind blows sea-foam up the fields. I live in a very built-up part of Dublin, and I sometimes crave an escape to Erris. The land opens up to the sea in a way that makes you feel you can breathe.
When I was writing my first novel, Eggshells, I brought my laptop to Erris with the intention of writing there. But there were too many distractions – playing cards for small money in the kitchen, visiting neighbours and relatives, and going to The Shop – the local pub with a shop attached. Also, it’s hard to write a book about Dublin streets when you’re surrounded by open fields.
Growing up in the ’80s, my siblings and I were lucky to experience hay-making in summer, although the men working the fields probably didn’t feel so lucky to be doing such labour-intensive work. We captured frogs in empty margarine tubs, we got up in the middle of the night to watch calves being born, we fed pet lambs (and staged protests against lamb-eating in springtime when the lambs were at their cutest). We flung bottled messages from the cliffs, and once received a reply from a girl in England.
In a game that would make social workers today quiver, we gathered empty glass bottles from the dump, lined them up on a ladder in a shed, and played Off-Licence.
Going visiting was also a popular activity. Not only would we get to see our cousins, there was the strong possibility of getting Kia Ora orange and Custard Cream biscuits, as long as my parents didn’t utter the dreaded words: “Ah no thanks we’re grand, we’re just up from the tea.”
My younger brother and I went through a phase of getting up with our Uncle Mick in the morning when the farm work began, to ‘help’ with the milking. We washed out the milk churns, tipping them upside down to feed the dregs to the dogs, and did our best to herd the cows in to be milked, but they just mostly just gazed placidly at these small humans and refused to budge. We may have been more hindrance than help, but we felt like junior farmers. My farming phase was short-lived – I hit the sleepy teens ahead of my brother and prioritised lie-ins.
Uncle Mick’s house is perched on a small hill, near a radio beacon, not far from the cliffs that look out onto Eagle Island. As a child, I found it so soothing to watch the rhythmic three swipes of light from the Eagle Island lighthouse streak across the bedroom. The light doesn’t seem as strong now. Maybe they’re using energy-saving lightbulbs.
We used to watch the helicopter fly over to the island with provisions to feed the lighthouse keeper. When Eagle Island was automated in 1988, I felt a bit sad that the light sweeping the bedroom at night wasn’t powered by human hands, but it’s easy to be romantic about hard work when you don’t have to do it yourself. I used to want to be a lighthouse keeper; I thought living in a lighthouse would be like living inside a giant toilet roll.
We were members of the library in Belmullet, and we’d regularly swap the eight books we had with eight more. If it was a particularly rainy summer, we could have the entire library read between us. Being an obsessive reader of Enid Blyton’s adventure stories made my holidays in Erris even more special: the cliffs could contain smugglers’ coves, the radio beacon might be transmitting signals to criminal gangs, the bogs could be burial places for stolen booty.
Although my siblings and I are Dublin-born and mostly Dublin-bred, we all support Mayo football. Some of my Dublin friends get annoyed at my lack of support for my county of birth, but these things run deeper than logic. We grew up with the legend of Willie Joe Padden, and you can’t switch loyalties after that.
Erris is so far under my skin it’s hard to put into words. I would love to write a book set here, but I fear that visiting relations and The Shop might take precedence over writing.