Review by Peter Reason
I have been totally absorbed in Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s Thin Places since it arrived in the morning mail and I read in the Preface: ‘The right moment, when it comes, calls you up, up; calls you into the wind that lifts you. A wind that carries you with it, on its tails.’ As I sat down ten days later to write a review, I was at a loss to know where to start. This is such a multifaceted book, drawing together a tale of unimaginable suffering; the politics of Brexit in Northern Ireland; the divided city of Doire/Derry/Londonderry and the Troubles; the land, the Atlantic and the River Foyle; and the thin places, ‘like snowfall in darkness—sensed without being seen’, where a different reality, a different beauty, may become accessible.
The most straightforward way to describe the book is as a memoir. The story of a girl born in the mid-point of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, to Catholic mother and Protestant father; who at the age of eight heard her parents discuss a mass shooting in Belfast; whose father moved out, leaving the family living as identified Catholics in the Protestant Waterside. The family was firebombed in the night and moved to new housing in Catholic Bogside but were soon forced out as insufficiently Catholic. As a teenager she encounters the torture and murder of those close to her. She flees Derry, is constantly on the move through her twenties: Dublin, Cork, Edinburgh, Cornwall, Bristol; ‘desperate to strip away all the layers of trauma that a childhood of devastating violence had left in its wake.’ She works her way through university, then conscientiously as a teacher, never missing a day’s work. All through this she is holding at bay her multiple traumas—and also those who might love her—drinking more, thinking suicidal thoughts most days, occasionally alarming her friends when the old terrors break through—friends who she loves but who are unable to touch the depths of sorrow.
Another place to start a review would be from my notes from an early morning reading of the chapter Frozen Bones (I soon learned this book is not for bedtime reading). At this point, ní Dochartaigh has got herself away from Derry. Immediately after university and urgent surgery, she flees to Cork unwell and in a cold relationship: ‘I felt the weight of sadness under, rather than on my chest.’ As I place my bookmark, I find myself exclaiming out loud “It’s so sad!” Then I realise that despite all the pain this woman is facing, her book draws me into a very strong sense of identification, even though her background and gender and experience are all so very different from mine. She achieves this by weaving between a ruthless and relentless account of the multilayering of trauma that has unfolded through her life, yet with no sense of self-pity or self-indulgence, and a quieter poetic, metaphoric, invocation of another world, always present, yet often grossly overlaid by the ever-present violence.
This memoir is also an account of the Troubles from a ringside view, full of sickening stories. Ní Dochartaigh tells, with startling economy, of her father being forced by Protestant paramilitaries to drive through an army checkpoint with a gun at his head: ‘When he made it home, nothing was the same again’. Later, the reader is ambushed by an account of the sudden disappearance of a friend and the later discovery of the tortured and murdered body. The English reader is confronted with a truth of the origin of the Troubles in centuries of colonial policy; and most importantly, of their potential resurgence once the UK voted in favour of Brexit. Northern Island supported Remain: ‘Some of us who grew up during the unsettled, devastating—horrifying—troubles felt those ripples on our insides start to move again… I am not ready for this again, none of us are… Our votes mattered not one single jot’. She presents us with a devastating indictment of the—mainly English—utter indifference to the impact of Brexit on the Peace Process, Brexiteers and Remainers alike. This is an account that should draw down shame that in all the furious debates about Brexit, we English collectively failed to see, or maybe care.
Then there is another theme, maybe the most important one, that runs through the book: the theme of fragility, of beauty, of the ‘thin places’ carried in the title of the book. The first pages draw us in with an encounter with a winter moth on the Atlantic shore of Donegal. Moths, with their fragile, veil-like wings, carry a metaphor for thin places through the book. She soon tells of her dear grandfather, who from time to time would set a fire in the hearth and close the windows so the wrong ears could not hear; then the words would ‘spill quietly’ out of his mouth, telling of places that hide away, where you might encounter things you are never able to fully understand, from whence you come away changed. Woven through the book are her encounters with such places: rivers and loughs, canals, fields and islands, not always beautiful—there is a corner of a Derry park littered with broken vodka bottles where an Oak Beauty moth appears and the clouds part to reveal a starry sky.
‘Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. They are places that make us feel somewhat larger than ourselves, as though we were held in place between worlds beyond experience’. I am reminded of the American Zen poet Gary Snyder, using different imagery: ‘Sacred refers to that which helps take us… out of our little selves into the whole mountains-and-rivers mandala universe’.[i]
This feeling of the experience of thin places runs through the book, sometime figural, sometimes more subtly pointed to. Of course, thin places are closely associated with ní Dochartaigh’s story, yet they are also more than this. Toward the end of the book, when she is returned to Derry and begun to reach beyond her trauma, in a chapter titled Hollowing, Hallowing, she writes of swimming in the Atlantic on the shores of Donegal. I picked out the words, ‘There are places in this luminous, aching world that are glassy, like the lakes of a hundred years… they are not ours, but we are theirs… a part of those places ourselves.’ And somehow these words draw together for me everything she has written of thin places though the book. They evoke in my mind a feeling for a living world, a world of depth and texture. She is, as I read it, calling forth a world, not of separate things, but of presence. For me this is not a separate and transcendent Otherworld, but this world in its full beauty and mystery, full of immanent sentience. It is an invocation of a world in which we humans might be truly content, and in which we would know our place in the greater scheme of things. ‘These thin and sacred places wait for us to remember.’
One must wonder if there is a link between loss and broken heartedness and the experience of thin places; a link that comes from a mix of necessary courage and inability to do other than to let that wind blow right through you. As Joanna Macy tells us, drawing on Boddhisatva teachings, ‘The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.’ Kerri ní Docharteigh is broken by histories and violence beyond her control; but in being so broken she is open to what I have called ‘moments of grace’[ii] which are smothered by everyday (Protestant, Catholic, colonial) reality. There is an account she titles Echoing Grief in the middle of the book where she tells of her drinking: going down to the corner shop to buy a bottle of wine in a brown paper bag ‘I had begged myself not to buy’. On good days, ‘strong Sundays’, she would walk home with the brown paper parcel but walk past her door to a little square where a group of men often gathered and offer them the unopened wine. ‘It seems… a little unbelievable, as many true things are—but every single time… I gave that wine away, I shared the laneway back to my flat with a wild creature’—a jay would calling in the branches, a tree full of long-tailed tits, often a silent, red, urban fox.[iii]
Kerry ní Dochartaigh introduces her book in a video from a field near the cottage in the middle of Ireland where she now lives: ‘I haven’t been here very long,’ she says, ‘I haven’t been anywhere very long’. She tells us that she carried the darkness of the Troubles around like a big black crow, that Thin Places ‘marks the journey from worry and darkness and bordered places to a place of freedom, a place of light, a place of hope, a place where places held me close, helped me heal, and reminded me that I was a thing worth being saved’.
This is a quite remarkable personal, political and literary achievement.
[i] Snyder, G. (1990). The Practice of the Wild. New York: North Point Press, p.94.
[ii] Reason, P. (2017). In Search of Grace: An ecological pilgrimage. Winchester, UK: Earth Books. Also, Reason, P. (2015). Moments of Grace. Earthlines, 9, 13-18, http://peterreason.net/Papers/Moments_of_Grace.pdf.
[iii] I am indebted to my artist niece Sarah Gillespie, who has also been reading Thin Places, for this insight and some of the words in this paragraph.
Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. He writes regularly for Resurgence & Ecologist, and has contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, and The Clearing. He has written two books of ecological pilgrimage, In Search of Grace (Earth Books, 2017)and Spindrift (Jessica Kingsley, 2014). With artist Sarah Gillespie he published On Presence: Essays | Drawings in 2019, following this in January 2021 with On Sentience: Essays | Drawings, both available directly from the author/artist. Find Peter at peterreason.net, and on Twitter @peterreason.
Kerri ní Dochartaigh, Thin Places (Canongate, 2021). 978-1786899637, 258 pp., hardback.
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