The following is an excerpt from the memoir Thin Places: A Natural History of Healing and Home by Kerri ní Dochartaigh, out now from Milkweed Editions. Click here to learn more.
Even as a child, I could see no way of staying in my hometown. The edges of the broken and breaking city never quite held themselves in place, and my own family life mirrored those fractures. There was just so much loss all around me. Everywhere I turned seemed stabbed right through, constantly punctured by the outside world. The past, present and future all seemed to blend into one, and every single part of the story held sorrow that I couldn’t get rid of, no matter how deep I tried to bury it. So many different things—situations, times of year, people—made the bad things rise up from inside to bite me again. Triggers, I know that now. It left me feeling scared, hollowed out and with no control over any of it, not really knowing how to make it—any of it—stop.
I grew up, to start with, in a terraced house on a rough grey council estate. Rather, I started my growing up in the garden of that house, spending as much time knee-deep in the mud that never really dried out due to the unstoppable rain that swept in from the Atlantic. Ours is a past steeped in rust, a history bathed in thick black squelch, mudlarking, always, for our sense of self.
If I had to describe that first house I would struggle. I remember a yellow teapot on the top shelf of a chipped red dresser in the kitchen, which looked out onto the garden. If on the other hand you asked me to describe that small space enclosed by tall grey concrete walls, filled with the sounds of the next-door neighbours fighting through windows that wouldn’t close properly, I could outline that garden for you in perfect and minute detail. I spent most of my early childhood, no matter the season, in that man-made jungle of a garden. I was outside every chance I got. I was outside because it simply made no sense to me to be indoors. My parents would find me, utterly transfixed and bogging dirty, hands holding all sorts of treasure. I’d beg them to close their eyes and open their grown-up hands so I could fill them with the wonder of the living, breathing, dying world. Broken bricks in the corner of the back yard filled up with ladybirds in descending size order, each limb and wing compared and contrasted against its brother or sister. Frogs would come to our garden from the stream at the bottom of our housing estate to die and I buried each one with a handwritten poem. I grieved for them so deeply, so fully; I remember feeling their loss like a wounded knee. During those early days in our housing estate’s concrete, impoverished world I learned so much about just getting through. I didn’t realise this for many decades though, and it took me many more years of growth to understand that sometimes, out of concrete cracks, hardy, bright poppies appear in places where no seed has been planted.
Back then, the city of Derry had seen twenty years of civil war in its public spaces—our sacred and safe places—which had resulted in a deep-rooted fear, the ripples of which could be felt in more than just the devastating human loss that was visible. When whole streets are burned down, and the face of a city changed beyond recognition, very few folk notice their disconnect with the natural world. When you’ve no home to go to because it’s been petrol bombed, seeking the wonder of the wild world is not a priority. Derry was a dark city to be in for my childhood and I was scared. That first housing estate was completely Protestant. As a child I knew the disgusting words being thrown around my street as loosely as lemonade—bottle petrol bombs were about Catholics just like my mum. I knew everything could go up in smoke at any moment, as you were walking to buy credit to feed the ‘poverty bells’—the squealing electricity meter.
The worse things got in our council estate—children being suffocated with flags for being from the wrong street, punishment beatings, cats being burned within inches of their lives as a warning to their unwelcome owners—the more I retreated into myself. I stopped talking and would sit at the bottom of our garden alone, facing the grey plaster wall for hours. I grew wordless—trapped under the weight of the violence, silently screaming out from under the frozen river.
Loss and violence swallowed the verges of things and I watched from the corner as my childhood was eaten up. The shadow that my hometown made of itself—and of all those still held within—left no space for anything else, there was too much darkness to even try to grow. The Troubles have left scars that run too deep to see. I left at the earliest point I could, but none of those new places gave me the feeling of home I was so desperately searching for. I wore loss and sorrow on the surface of my weathered young skin. I ran from place to place, rootless, lonely, and never quite knowing how to ask anyone to help me back up from underneath the hard black ice.
Time, as we know, like the sea, is a force and a creature all of its own. We can stop neither of them. We stand on the sand, watching as the days become years, as the line made by the tide disappears, as the hungry waves devour the borderline that once defined the land. People, places, experiences and the act of living a life, our days come together and we find we have grown; we are being carried in time’s salty course. I found myself, a third of the way through the year that was 2016, at the age of thirty-one, returning to my hometown of Derry, doing the one thing I’d promised myself I would never, ever do.
I had spent my teens and all of my twenties absolutely desperate to get away, to pretend I was the same as other people my age, who hadn’t lived through what I had, who weren’t carrying things the like of which I was still carrying and feeling like I had to pretend weren’t there. When I look back now I see that it was much more about embarrassment and an inexplicable sense of shame than it was about the past itself. We all became—many of us did, anyhow—so set on trying to gloss over it all, those violent, terrifying memories, so keen to try to make sure none of it ever came back. It felt a wee bit like being a child again and again and again. Did you ever spend days obsessed with the idea of your loved ones dying, your house burning down, your favourite toy or book being stolen, and the only way to stop any of it, to make sure it didn’t happen, was not to step on the cracks on the pavement? To hold your breath until you reached the bottom stair. If it was only red cars that passed your window then everything would be okay, nothing bad would happen that day at all. If I played it all down, just gave one or two small, inconsequential details of my childhood—if I kept enough of it back that it was at least slightly believable—it’d all be fine. If I didn’t have to keep saying how fine I was—how it was grand, sure; so many people had been through so much worse; and sure, hadn’t I got so lucky—then I would fade into the background. I wouldn’t risk feeling that I was being pitied, doubted, viewed as a damaged and broken thing.
Every time something new happened to fill my life with worry and pain, or an old wound was forcibly reopened, it felt too ridiculous to even try to share it with those I had built a new life around. It wasn’t that my friends and colleagues were not caring and supportive people; they very much were, and still are. It was just that sometimes even the explanations are too much to bear. So I tried to deal with it all myself, not in any selfless way, but because I had no coping skills that would allow me to let those around me step in close, close enough that they could try to understand the way it all fitted together, the way my present was weighed down by a past that wouldn’t go away.
I’d been struggling silently for well over a decade to find the courage to resurface from under the frozen river, to let the light flood into the parts that scared—and scarred—me to my core. At the time I told no one how badly I was feeling. That I felt sick when I thought of myself, when I thought of my past. I told no one that—grateful though I was for so much in my life—most days the overriding feeling was still helplessness, and paralysing hopelessness, too. That almost every single day I felt like the only way out was really out, out of the life I was in . . . and I could see only one way to do that. Suicidal thoughts are incredibly hard to bury, no matter how you might try. Back then, most days, in the early morning light, the only thing stopping me from taking my own life was guilt. Even now I tell very few people the whole truth of how my mental health has looked over the last two decades. Depression is still something many of us suffer in deepest silence.
That solid body of icy water casts quite a spell. Those who have grown up with deep trauma can drown underneath it. From the age of sixteen onwards, at differing levels of intensity, I experienced suicidal thoughts that I found increasingly hard to cope with as the years went by. I felt, through both of the decades between then and now, that the only chance I stood of making it through was by staying away from where I came from. To stay away from the place where I’d lived through things that I could not even begin to process. I swore that I was never ever going back to Ireland. The worse things got the harder I swore. That city I grew up in would drown me. That city would kill me, of that I was utterly sure.
And then, one day, just as my thirties had begun, something vast broke inside me. I began to wake up every single morning feeling like I was being called back. I could hear the land trying to say my name, a thing I never imagined I would ever hear, and I could not ignore it. It came unbidden, all out of nowhere, and nothing was the same after I began to feel drawn back to this place. I awoke most mornings for close to a year with the streets of Derry mapped out on the insides of my very being, a morphed and unwarranted cartography.
Every corner I turned in my adopted home across the water transformed itself right before my confused eyes—becoming Shipquay Street, The Diamond, Carlisle Road, Fahan Street. I was being enshrouded by the geography of a city many miles across the sea. I was being haunted by places I thought had long been abandoned and buried far beneath my feet. I couldn’t—no matter how hard I tried—in the deadness and in the fullness of the night, get the view from the top of the Grianán Ailigh out of my head. The light of Inch Island on a frosty morning; a Faoilleach—winter—storm coming into rest on Kinnagoe Bay; whooper swans in a delicate V above the River Foyle. The harrowing memories were resurfacing, too, but they were no longer coming on their own. Something had changed. I was letting it all come to the surface. I had lifted my own veil, the one that had hidden things away for decades—things that I needed, more than anything else in the world, to finally look in the eye.
I felt the violence and sorrow from my past creeping up my guts, clawing to get out—and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I knew I had to let it surface, at long last, but how was I expected to cope? Fear covered over everything, leaving my thoughts coated with a blank whiteness I could never quite shake off. I didn’t know what would be left underneath—how my relationship with my homeland would look when that snow melted away. If I went back to where my faultlines were forged, would there be a new outline? Would I see beyond the sorrow—down deeper?
I gave in. More simply than that, I gave. I was the thing that had to give. I returned to Derry, ready to try to translate those words. Those words that had begun to thaw out after decades of fearful silence.
There is a power to place—a hold that is kept over us—a woven thread that never really loosens itself once we have been there, and been held by it. I didn’t realise until very recently the impact that the spaces I had sought refuge in as a child could, and would, continue to have on me as an adult. The ripples of geography continue to be traced on our inner surfaces, even if our experience there was fleeting and seemed like nothing to us at the time. No matter how long ago the experience was, its power, its healing, sits in wait, sometimes buried deep, other times just waiting to be called back from within.
When I returned to Derry, after living away for almost my entire adult life, I found that I was drawn back again and again to very particular geographical spaces. Often these were places that I hadn’t even realised were of any deep importance or meaning to me. I also assumed, for some reason, that when I moved back, the longing I felt for places—for exact spots in particular parts of my city and island—would ease, dissipate even. I assumed that the overwhelming yearning, so extreme as to be almost a physical sensation, for places would leave me once I lived on Irish soil once more. As of yet, it hasn’t left me. I feel it almost like a hunger. A hunger to be in the sea at Carrowhugh on the Inishowen Peninsula, even on the iciest days of December. To be at the outermost tip of Inch Island in heavy and battering rainfall. To sleep in my van, held within the very centre of Ireland’s beating heart, moving through the bog-land like a curlew. I have started to understand that even when standing barefoot on the soil of my homeland, swimming in any of its bodies of water, heart-deep in the caves, I am still being called back.
It is three and a half years now since I moved home, in a moment that was right on the cusp of the biggest storm to rock the island since the Troubles—the Brexit vote. We are, I fear, in the very eye of the storm. All around me shops lie empty, car bombs have started to go off again on our doorsteps, EU funding has already been pulled out of youth groups, addiction units and much more, even before the UK has officially left the EU. It is weeks yet until the General Election. Already the young folk in Derry stand even less chance of getting on in life than they did before this chaos took hold—chaos we didn’t ask for.
From Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2022). Copyright © 2022 by Kerri ní Dochartaigh. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. milkweed.org
Kerri ní Dochartaigh has written for The Guardian, the Irish Times, the BBC, Winter Papers, and others. She is from the North West of Ireland but now lives in the middle, in an old railway cottage with her partner and dog.