By Phil Scraton:
Throughout my childhood the coast had special meaning. The River Mersey did not offer its ports, Liverpool and Birkenhead, easy access. Shallow channels were dredged of their silt and sand to allow access to the Irish Sea and to the world. Ports built on the backs of slaves traded through the Atlantic triangle, on the last hopes of Irish migrants as they escaped the Great Hunger and on the wool, cotton and coal industries of Yorkshire and Lancashire whose labour was exploited in pursuit of Empire.
Where I lived they called it the ‘shore’, holiday-makers preferred ‘the beach’. I can’t remember the first time I heard the word ‘strand’ but wrongly assumed, as my German friends know so well, it had a Celtic connection. I can’t explain why, but for me ‘the strand’ has always evoked expansiveness; the power and vastness of the ocean, the constant movement of the tide – incoming, outgoing, only calm for fleeting moments each day, each night.
While ‘the beach’ suggests social gathering, the clamour and noise of dense crowds, ball games on pitches drawn in the sand, ice cream vans in nearby car parks, where kites fly and children torment crabs and tiddlers in rock-pools, ‘the strand’ suggests a place of wonderment and escape, of expansiveness and solitude, of thundering sea and silent dunes. Whether moving or resting, landing a kayak or walking a coastal path, the strand is a spiritual home – a retreat offering contemplative and meditative sanctuary to restless minds and tired bodies.
It was in a cabin in Jervis Bay, New South Wales where we heard of the death of our good friend, academic mentor and human rights activist, Louk Hulsman. Heavy hearted, but celebrating a life unselfishly dedicated to social justice, we headed to the sea. It was deserted, not a single person, not a footprint in the sand.
The 32nd Wave
At Bherwerre where the ocean crashes
Over the solitary five mile strand
I’m sure I heard your voice …
Beyond the thirty-second wave.
Kayakers will tell you that’s the one
That swells and rises, surely and calmly,
Emerging purposefully with force and passion
Its crest glints sharply with grace and dignity
Dancing ashore to move hearts and minds
That was the moment your laugh was with us
Pitched, as always, above the maelstrom
Generous and warm, forever Louk,
Taking hold of the thirty second wave.
As we walked drumming and singing travelled on the breeze. Booderee is a Dhurga word meaning ‘bay of plenty’ connecting the Koori people to the sea and the sustenance it offered. We followed the sounds into the village – a ‘reservation’ – neither tourist destination nor curiosity but a living, working community; a poignant reminder of Australia’s apartheid history and divided present. Juxtaposed to the ever-expanding ‘gated communities’ of the wealthy, the contrast is living testimony of colonial legacy.
In a 1988 short film on the struggle for land rights, We Come from the Land, local elder George Brown proclaims the area, ‘the most sensitive and strongest part of the Dreamings and a place of origin of the thirteen tribes of the South coast’.
Access to land is not about possession but reflects the aboriginal principle that land is to be shared, not owned, one that Louk adhered to throughout his life.
That evening we played Damien Dempsey’s fiercely brilliant and uncompromising track, Colony.
A while later, travelling the country roads of the Dingle peninsula South-West Ireland, news arrived of the birth of Clare’s son. Arriving at Smerbhic’s sands in the warmth of late afternoon sunshine, we wandered and rested. The West, ahh the West; the Atlantic beckoning, still offering hope, new life, to a population undefeated by colonial rule, yet a new generation emigrating from the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. But this was not a moment for regret or sadness.
The West’s Awake
We left the broken summit through carpets of heather
Set against a clear blue sky, ocean’s thunder below
Echoing through caves whose ledges are seals’ safe haven
Late summer blackberries ripening in hedgerows aflame
Of red, yellow, purple, orange
The sun still high over the Great Blasket
Its silhouetted majesty beyond Slea Head
Then wandering in evening’s calm
On sheltered Smerbhic strand at steady pace
As restless swallows parted from barns’ yearly nests
Bidding farewell for the long flight south
Across the bay haymakers stood silent in golden fields
The harvest taken from Erin’s unforgiving land
It was here the West awakened to signal ‘Liberty’
Through its ‘crashing wind and lashing sea’
We stood in awe, in peace, in freedom
As word arrived of his birth …
Leaving the strand and heading back to Ventry over the hills the track playing was Lumiere – Éilís Kennedy and Pauline Scanlon with Damien Dempsey: The West’s Awake. It captured the moment perfectly.
Words & Pictures: Phil Scraton