Footprints by Mike Biggs

As fairy gold turns to dry leaves in the light of day, so cherished memories of places past are fragile, and a return often disappoints.

It is 1990. There are four of us: my sons Dan, 12 and Davy, 9, and my pal Brian, all on temporary release from our home lives of work and school, traffic and drizzle, homework and business. Today, here in south west Cork, we are free men intent on making the most of our parole with a visit to Sherkin Island. I first came here as a student in 1965, and have kept the memory hidden like a golden treasure ever since. I feel a slight apprehension, hoping that time has not shrunk or faded the tapestry of my precious dreamscape.

A small irregular patch of iridescent greenery set in Roaringwater Bay, between Cape Clear Island and the Irish mainland, Sherkin is a tiny, glorious place. Looking west past Cape Clear there is only 3000 miles of Atlantic Ocean, with the New World on the far side. The old name, Inisherkin, from the Irish Inis Earcáin, means the island of the sea-pig, or dolphin.

 

Measuring only about one mile by three, it has a pub, a hotel, a church and a school. Of the 350 inhabitants, most are farmers, with a few fishermen, living only fifteen minutes by boat from Baltimore but at heart a long way away. Small fields, rough pasture, rocky outcrops and sandy beaches are packed into this tiny island, with its balmy climate and profusion of life. Ancient dry stone walls define the fields, and thick hedgerows border the narrow lanes.

The small mailboat chugs gently across the choppy waters of the bay, and deposits us on the tiny jetty on Sherkin. There are no other passengers, and we are left along with several crates of bottled beer and boxes of crisps, and sundry packets, mostly destined for the hotel and the pub. A cheery local, with a huge grey beard and twinkling eyes in a nut-brown face bids us good morning and sets to work gathering the goods. Chatting awhile to this stranger, as is the norm in Ireland, we learn that the only thing of note which happened here since the great potato famine was when a tractor being delivered tumbled off the jetty into the harbour. Although it was a few years back, people still talk of it sometimes, just as they did on my last visit, twenty five years ago.

 

Up to date with the news, we bid him farewell and set off down the lane towards the Silver Strand, a beach on the west side of the island. Immediately the silence wraps itself around us. There are only five miles of road on Sherkin, and few vehicles. Apart from the odd tractor and bicycle, the locals use ancient cars long since worn out, with bald tyres and clapped out engines and gearboxes. Most seem to be Morris Marinas, held together with prayer and baler twine, motivated by tinkering and imprecations. The occasional clatter and roar heralds their presence, but fortunately they are few, and our walk is undisturbed, accompanied only by birdsong and the gentle hum of bees worrying at the wildflowers.

The narrow road is bordered by high fuchsia hedges, with flowers drooping over us like a myriad small scarlet lanterns. In the fields, behind the orange and yellow lichen-encrusted dry stone walls, the high shining grasses are flecked with wild flowers of every colour, and butterflies already flitter about, energised by the morning sun. As we amble along, taking in deep breaths of the rich, tasty air, we feel like kings.

Half an hour later, or maybe an hour, or whenever, we reach the aptly named Silver Strand. The view stops us in our tracks, and we gaze wide-eyed and open-mouthed with joy. A great sweeping expanse of silvery white sand stretches out across a small bay, with the Atlantic waves distantly booming and slapping at the beach, hissing gently as they recede. It is low tide, and the sand is still wet, gleaming, smooth, shiny and untouched. In a moment, shoes and socks are off, and we step reverently onto this glorious beach.

As we walk down to the waters edge, we look back to see our footprints, like dark hallmarks clearly imprinted on the Silver Strand. We are the first here today, and this moment is ours to savour; it is just as I remember it.

The boys scamper about, exploring the rock pools populated by tiny crabs, sea anemones and the brilliant seaweeds which adorn these tiny scenes. Like the fields and hedgerows, the sheer abundance and variety of life here is a taste of a land as it once was, before intensive farming, monoculture and chemicals. Sherkin is truly a small paradise regained. Stiff muscles relax, heavy cares and worries, duties and burdens fall away, and our heartbeats slow to a gentle tick-over.

After sandwiches and lemonade, and the obligatory skimming of flat stones across the waves, we feel obliged to snooze awhile in the sunshine. Shirts off, trousers rolled up, we sprawl loose-limbed on the warm sand, lulled by the soft breeze and distant sea sounds, adjusting to the natural rhythms of Sherkin. Cradled in its kindly lap, we let our time ease gently by, and our other lives are far away, out of sight and mind. Looking back towards Baltimore, we can see dark blue-grey cloud over the mainland, but here, as ever, the sun shines, and it seems that we have slipped into another, parallel universe.

 

At last the sun begins to settle in the western sky. Sighing with contentment we gather our stuff and slowly wander back to the jetty, aglow with the day, to await the mailboat. Nearing Baltimore we take a long last look back at Sherkin, lying still and unchanged; my golden memories still glitter. By now the tide will have polished the Silver Strand, ready once again for footprints.