The early days in any new place, no matter how longed-for and eagerly anticipated, are always intensely dislocating. That sense of being other, alien; the fleeting flashes of anxiety when you venture beyond the safe, known boundaries of the beautiful little house by the river which called to you from the first moment you saw it, and wonder for a moment where it is that you have landed, what you will do there, and what you will become. That sharp dislocation haunted the edges of my first days here with David and the dogs, even though I am quite confident about my reasons for being here: I am here because this is the only country where I have ever felt as if my feet were in the right place, and because no matter how hard I might try to make it work, when it comes right down to it, nowhere else will do.
But there is a moment, a couple of weeks in, when I walk down the drive from the house, cross the bridge over the laughing river, close the gate behind me and head with two eager dogs up the way and along the track to the old bog road. It is 6.30 in the morning, and the light is constantly shifting and settling and shifting some more, in that way that you only ever really experience in the far west. Sun over Muckish, mist over Errigal, dark clouds in between, broken by insistent rays of light dancing, teasing and flashing through every gap. There isn’t a sound across the valley, only the nearby fluttering of stonechats in the heather. Three mallards rise up from the river below and head south. I let the dogs off the leash and turn full circle, knowing now what to expect. The brightness of the sea reflected in the sky, and the astonishing silhouette of Tory Island beyond Falcarragh to the north-west; Muckish mountain to the east, beyond another long, paved bog road winding out into the hills; the Derryveagh mountains to the south-east; Errigal to the south; Gortahork to the west. In each direction the light is different. The dogs play chase-and-tumble among dry tussocks of grass and heather, and a heron flies high along the path of the river. And in that moment I know for sure that I will come, and soon, to know and love the land beyond the river just as much as I love our sheltered green patch by the waterfall in the wood. I’m not quite there yet; I don’t know the stories of this specific place, and I don’t understand its seasons. But when I look out to Errigal I know that to get there, you take a narrow, winding road through a beautiful green valley peppered with small farms and a ruined stone church. I know that if you head east you can walk for miles into the hills before you’d encounter another road, even though I haven’t done it yet. I know that there are eagles in the Derryveagh mountains, and selkies in the Donegal sea. And for now, that knowing is enough.
There are no easy answers to the questions of belonging. All I know is this: when the earth trembles beneath me, and the wind shakes the foundations of the house and threatens to blow the roof off; when the tidal waves come crashing around my feet and knock me off balance, and the fire burns away the tree trunks that I’m trying to anchor myself to, there is only one thing left. The image of this country is what rises up from the ashes. Where it has always been, locked in my heart since I was a child. The only place to run to, the only place where simply standing on the surface of the soil, closing your eyes and turning your inner ear to the long intertwinings of land and place and myth and poetry that are soaked into the hills and stones and fields, is enough. ‘What does it mean to belong,’ a friend asked me recently, ‘when so little, if anything, in this life can truly be said to belong to you?’ It means this, I can tell him at last. This: mysterious, wonderful, and utterly inexplicable. And now, even though this move is only half done and I have to head back across two seas one last time before I can sink my roots firmly and forever into this new soil, something deep in me has settled that has been unsettled for far too long.