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Colm Toibin: North Atlantic Light

Photograph by Pádraig Grant

I am in Wexford now, in the southeast of Ireland, in a house close to the sea in Ballyconnigar Upper, or Cush, as it is called by the locals. My parents knew this stretch of coast; my father, in his twenties, with some friends, once rented a small house close to the strand near here. My parents also came on bicycles from the town of Enniscorthy on summer Sundays. There are photographs of them before they were married taken on the hill at Ballyconnigar Lower, which was also known as Keatings'; and then there are many more photographs of us as children when the family came here to spend the summer each year. While we lived our ordinary lives in the town, it is here, this small stretch of coast, this literal small backwater, where I feel closest to something I know, or remember, or wish to see again, write about again.

At first when I came back here, and even later, very little seemed to have changed, the smells were the same, or were familiar, as were some of the lanes and fields and ditches, and the mild good manners of the people were also familiar, and the light over the sea in the morning, and the way a rainy day can clear up in the evening, and the marly sand of the cliffs, and the strand itself, and the hesitant, insistent low waves and the small stones of different shapes and colours (no detail too small) at the edge of the shoreline that make a hollow rattling sound as they hit against one another when a wave comes in or else they are pushed toward the back of the strand by the tide and left there when the tide goes out.

Some things have changed, however, and some things here are not familiar. There has been coastal erosion, so that the hill where my parents were photographed and which used to have a lookout on top has completely gone, and Keatings' house too, which was a landmark, has gone, and my father's first cousin Dick Whelan's house, which was close to the cliff, has fallen onto the strand, or most of it has. When I walk down there I can see the old fireplace and the back wall. And there are some new houses, including two that seem big and imposing in this modest landscape, as well as this house that I am in.

The house we rented each summer is lived in by different people now. A porch has been added, and a bathroom and a new roof. In the years before my father died, there could be seven or eight of us sleeping there, and then aunts and uncles coming to visit. I have a memory of my Auntie Harriet going back to town one summer evening on her scooter, a memory of listening to the sound of the scooter fading and fading more, and then faint in the distance, and then not there. Of the dozen or so people who came to that house, only three of us are alive. And I am the only one who comes to this place still, who walks the lane past the house down to the ruin of Dick Whelan's house and then further down the opening in the cliff to the strand.

The painter Tony O'Malley lived in Enniscorthy in the 1940s and came to Ballyconnigar to draw and paint. He did some drawings of the hill above Keatings', and of the strand. As far as I know, he was the only painter who thought this mild landscape worthy of attention. Many of the Irish painters of his generation went to the west of Ireland, where things were wilder. Or they went to France. Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, Tony O'Malley, with his wife, Jane, spent a part of each year in the Bahamas. His tones and textures became more exotic then; he created vivid and exciting shapes and bright colours. He told me once that these new colours would begin to creep into his work in Ireland in the time before he would set out to spend time in Caribbean light. Just by thinking about the light, or by his knowing he would soon be there, the work he made would start to change.

His work moved north/south; he came from northern light and had his eye nourished by the luscious glare of elsewhere. And then he came home. Home. I am here now. In 1976, three years before she died, Elizabeth Bishop compared herself to the sandpiper of her poem of that title: "Yes, all my life I have lived and behaved very much like that sandpiper – just running along the edges of different countries and continents, 'looking for something'. I have always felt I couldn't possibly live very far inland, away from the ocean; and I have always lived near it, frequently in sight of it." This is something she shares with many people, and even those who do not share this must dream of it, at least sometimes. It is hard to move too far inland.

In the mornings in Ballyconnigar, the sea is always different. It can seem closer sometimes, ready to spill over, when the light is clear, and then distant and forbidding, alien, almost steely sharp, stately, withdrawn, when there are clouds and no wind. In the mornings when there is sun, the light on the sea can be all glare, or buttery on softer days, or austere when there are clouds in the western sky.

Some years ago a friend let me know there was a small painting by Tony O'Malley for sale in an auction in Dublin and I should go look at it. I recognised the scene as soon as I saw the painting. At the bottom of it is written "1952 Ballycunnigar", with O'Malley's customary signature from those years. (He must have written the name of the place as he heard it.) The painting is small, eight inches by ten. It is of a cliff, a strand, the sea, the sky. It is of a scene that is not there any more. It is the soft marl of the cliff that was below Keatings' house gradually going down to be eaten away, washed away, to become nothing. It is painted from the south, facing north. It has the sand below the marl in two shades, one more golden because it is in sunlight, the other darker because it is in shadow. It has to be a summer's day, late in the day, because the slanted light is coming from the west. The clouds over the sea are shaping up for rain but are cut through by light; perhaps they will blow away. And then there is the sea itself, as easy blue as it often is, with a low wave in white and then another low wave behind it. No rocks; no people; no obvious drama, just the world doing its work. What is strange is that it could be nowhere else in the world because of the incline of the cliff, the softness of the sand and the sea, and the precise and peculiar curve of the land going north. It is Ballyconnigar Lower as you move towards Ballyconnigar Upper in the years before they added the huge stones to stop the erosion; in the years before the erosion itself changed this landscape, lowered the cliff and altered the incline, so that soon it will be remembered by no one, and no one will recognise the scene in this painting.

Tony O'Malley saw it in 1952, and I saw it some years later. Both of us looked at it; he must have studied it closely to get it as exact as he did. It must have mattered to him to make a painting from precise looking and rendering, or finding shapes and colours that would approximate what he saw, but capture it, envision it, re-create it. I never looked at it like that. It was part of what was normal, what was there. But I remember it. I believed perhaps that it would always be there. I must have taken it in on the same summer days, or days like them, days a few years after the painting was done. In any case, we both were there. "Our visions coincided", as Elizabeth Bishop wrote in "Poem", on seeing a painting of a childhood scene, and then she tempered that with "'visions' is/too serious a word – our looks, two looks:/art 'copying from life' and life itself,/life and the memory of it so compressed/they've turned into each other." This feeling that we know somewhere, or we knew it, and it is "live" and "touching in detail" is, as Bishop says, "the little that we get for free/the little of our earthly trust. Not much."

Not much perhaps, but enough to be going on with. Or perhaps not.

From On Elizabeth Bishop. Published by Princeton University Press. This extract was first published in our print edition in 2017.

Colm Tóibín is an award-winning Irish novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, playwright, journalist and critic. He is the author of numerous novels, including Brooklyn, which won the Costa Novel Award in 2009, The Master, Nora Webster and House of Names.


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