Ancient Hollow Grief by Kerri ní Dochartaigh


25 December 2019


‘An ancient, hollow grief’


I thought I knew of ebb and flow,

of stillness and of the echo of silence.

I thought I knew of beauty and of loss;

I always thought I knew of grief.


I thought I knew of light and dark.

I thought I knew of this turning, delicate earth;

I thought I knew of this place –

so full of fiercely sculpted strength.


(I knew nothing; I know nothing.)


Oh my grateful






and eyes and ears.


I am listening and I am looking.


 (These fields are my heart and my life’s work)



26th December, 2019





Of how the light still finds its way.

Of how the grey drips down onto wet,

still hedgerows;

of how it finds its place amongst

the reds and the greens

– the hips and berries

– the ferns and the leaves:

of how the laneway glitters with

the light that is still finding its way;

through the grey.



Of how the clouds have cleared a space,

a gap in the wren-sky;

of how there are none here to hunt

their delicate wee forms:

of how none will break their bodies

into sharp and hidden shards.

Of how their bones and feathers:

white and fine as snow –

will not be strewn across this muddy winter path.

Of how the wrens – so many wrens – are still here.

Of how the hazy air holds the light in its tight fist

– making it softer, making it softer; making it soft.

Of how the sky takes the softened light

and shares it out

– as fairly as the newly born blue allows.

Of how winter brings a light;

the like of which we always will forget.

The like of which will always take

the breath away from in our lungs: the like

of which we could never grow accustomed to.



(Each December, when it comes, we discover

we had forgotten it so fully;

the light that makes us gasp; that makes us

grasp at the edges of the day –




Of how the field is as soft as the light

– softer, still; of how the soft field

is like a fruit I have never seen –

never eaten of : of how the squelching

is a hand inside the gut – the belly,

of how the womb – yours, hers –

the sound is the earth’s womb,

making room for us to enter.

Of wrens and weans,

of air and earth.



(Of you and of me;

Of how the light still finds its way.

Of the bottom field.

Of the first St Stephen’s Day-






31st December, 2019


Feathery sky. Light like a river-song; berries holding the water in prayer.


Thrushes and wrens, crows and blackbirds; movement in the reeds that we cannot quite place.


A train – far off – carried in over the bog; displaces the silence.


We never quite trace the same pathway, even as we walk the ground our own steps have made on the surface of the land. The dog never wants to leave the bottom stream and the pile of fallen branches; a winter pyre of ghost-bark and lichen-limb. I never want to leave the middle point, where it is like I imagine it was at the beginning of all this; when moths flew above this ancient bog-land, long before we had eyes to see them; before we had bones to bury in this soft, still – turning – earth.



1st January 2020


Soloing thrushes in the first light of a newly born year, reminding me that all that has been lost is not without a trace leftover of something beautiful; glinting like silver in the darkest copse.


Down the same laneway, through the same gate – across the same fields, under the same trees; beneath the same moon, and softly fading light; going gently and gratefully.


It is never the same when we return there, over and over; we are met by a landscape that feels only just born – like the freshly birthed year; like snow fallen only moments before.


The sky, so changing and unlike any I’ve seen before, feels like it keeps us in place, scoops us up and holds us close for a wee moment, then sends us back onto the surface of the muddy earth. We try to trace the contours and find the veins that make the beating underfoot but we cannot: the land’s lay is never ours for the knowing.


Back through the gate, up the lane – sinking into mud that wants to take us deeper still; to let us nestle in beside the parts of the earth we will never see.


I close my eyes and all I see is light; dancing in time with the turning.



4th January, 2020


There  could never be enough words for it all but there is more than enough time.


The earth is in pain, we know that, and those of us who hold her dear can feel it in our bones. We may feel weepy, anxious; we may feel fear raining down like thick clots onto our skin.


All is not lost. There is still time. We are still here, and we must remember that it is in the day to day living that we must change things – that we undo the tangled knots and find the thread that ties it all together in a more honest, kind way.


As the earth tries to heal we must be strong guardians, we must not let the fear mean that we cannot still be the still, calm voice. We must still hope. We must still be human the best way we know. The word for human is hope.



5 January 2020


Even in silence, the earth still calls to us – still shares the truths of her being; even in the quietude we hear the beat of the heart that holds us closest of all.





7 January 2020


Icy cold lough beneath a howling, grey sky as swans hold fast to the surface. Thoughts of children and voices; of singing and bells, of wandering and exile; wondering what it might mean to belong somewhere amidst the dark, echoing sage we are watching unfold.


I have never been held by water as cold as this.


I have never been held by land as gentle and as silent.


I am listening and I am looking; with everything that I have.



13 January 2020

‘Ebb and Flow’


Fuller than the moon, further from our tender grasp than summer sleep – yet so much a part of us – of our sinew and our bone; of the parts of us not even close to solid – the sea. 


I grew up in the North West of a beautiful, tumultuous island; a rock in the wild Atlantic – full of storm-light and the debris from the battles of millennia.


I grew up within walking distance of the line that cut the island in half – as though she were a ripe fruit, the moon in the middle of her fullness; as though that ancient rock of my home were a worm –  sliced into two worms – carelessly.


I grew up surrounded by places that echoed and danced, where bells could be heard that were not really being rung – at least not by anyone or anything visible to our eyes. I grew up held in place, on that barren, bleak, beautiful land –  by water full of white waves and tall stories – curses and promises; by the sea in all her ebb and flow.


I have spent so many hours in that sea that I have long lost count. I have stroked the water in all its shades, in all of its moods – in all of mine, too – and the love I have for that body of water is a fierce, almost palpable thing. There is an ache in me, deep down – in beside the very bones of me – the further I am away from that body of water’s bones, and its deep, hidden belly.


I dragged myself through the darkest year of my life – the one just passed us by – by throwing myself into the waves – no matter how tall or fierce, no matter how violent or calm, no matter how freezing the winds were that bit at her and at me, in the pale glow of Winter.


I carried unimaginable levels of trauma and unnameable grief into her curves, and wept as she swallowed them up whole. I played with seals and with birds that dived at me like I was like those bells – invisible to their dark, beady eyes. I left the sea silvered by unseen things, soothed by the same; ready to face the land again, and all that it held.





A handful of days after the Winter Solstice, I crossed the border from the North of Ireland into the South – and many other borders; as equally hidden from any eye that might search for their forms. I arrived in the very heart of the island of Ireland, at her beating core, on the eve of Christmas Eve; to a new life – as far away from the sea as I could possibly be on this grey, lichen-covered, storm- sculpted rock.


The days, weeks, and months ahead will hold much change, and I wonder how it will all settle; so far from the grip of the sea. I read that w know less about the sea than we do about space, and I wonder if I know less about myself than the sea. I wonder if there are other ebbs and flows – other ways that I will be carried; other waves that will hold me close; like a thing worthy of being held.


I wonder how the sea looks today, at Shroove Lighthouse – as the waves sing to the seals – as the light falls onto the sharp grey rocks; as the silence after the storm eats away at the land.





Kerri ní Dochartaigh is from the North West of Ireland but now lives in the middle, in an old stone railway cottage; on a ghost line that once connected the South of the island with the North. She writes about Nature, Literature and Place for The Irish Times, The Dublin Review Of Books, Caught By The River and others. Her first book – Thin Places – will be published by Canongate in January 2021. Follow her on twitter and on instagram.


Photographs by the author.


1 Comment

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Philip Marsdenreply
March 30, 2020 at 12:11 pm

This is very beautiful, Kerri.

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