I took this picture at St Patrick’s Well near Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, in Southern Ireland. It has been a place of worship for Christians and pagans for thousands of years, and there’s a real bang of sacredness off it. When I visit it, I leave cleansed, and connected to the essence of life.
The voice was warm. It was a voice that invited you to stop, to help. It broke my stride as I made my way along the street. The voice belonged to a young man wearing a beanie hat, who said he was doing research about people’s favourite things to do in the town.
Thinking he was doing a project as part of a college course, I expounded on the delights of the restaurants. Picking up on his American accent, I said several of them served American food, because as a nation, we Irish were fond of all things American. Then I asked him what the research was for.
Turned out he wasn’t doing research. Turned out he was a missionary for a Christian church.
I didn’t turn tail and run. It would be hard to show that level of disrespect to a man of faith, even if he did have bad teeth. So I heard him out, extracted myself and went on my way.
Selling Your Wares
I couldn’t fault the friendliness of his manner, but as I walked away, my mouth was flooded with the sickly-sweet taste you experience when you realise you’ve been manipulated. He had presented himself as someone looking for help, when in fact he wanted to sell me something, in this case spiritual enlightenment.
It’s easy to come up with a retort in hindsight. I resolved that next time I meet a missionary, I’m going to ask them how long it will be before the Apocalypse comes. And if they say they don’t know. I’ll shake my head sadly and say, ‘You’re no good to me, so.’
Cruel, perhaps. But it’s better than being taken for a mug. Still, I don’t know if I’ll be using that retort. Because it’s likely that I’ll be walking faster from now on. When someone like that stops you on the street, it damages the chances that in the future, you’ll stop for someone who genuinely needs help. And that really does make me sad.
First, there is the fear. It curls around me as I edge my way down the steps to the water. My brain plays showreel of images: a seal taking a bite of my belly, my body being dashed against the rocks, sucked down by a whirlpool of water. I push on towards the ladder, knowing that the images will evaporate once I hit the water.
Shock and Awe
Then comes the shock. As I lower myself down the ladder, rung by precarious rung, the water begins to bite. When I run out of rung, I push myself into the water and all the breath leaves my body. I keep pushing, out, out into the open sea. And surrender myself to awe, at the expanse of sky above me, at the expanse of sea all around me. And my body floating in it. I am privileged to be cradled by water, to float on the edge of vastness.
Then the thread snaps, and it’s time to go in. A sense of urgency returns as I make for the ladder, for the steps that blur into each other, with a handrail so low that it’s submerged by water. But now is the time for warmth, as life returns to my numbed limbs. I wrap myself in the blanket of my towelling robe. And I wrap myself in a blanket of banter.
Sea Swimming Community
I am surrounded by a community of people brought together by water: some to swim, some to dive and some just to watch. They bat remarks back and forth, about the water temperature, the weather, the state of the nature. Laughter breaks out often. No names are needed: the language of water is enough. This is not a place of worship, yet I fancy I can hear a whisper of the divine.