Unnameable Things by Kerri ní Dochartaigh

 ‘The new theory of chaos asserts that the flutter of a butterfly’s wings…can herald, momentous storms. The same may be true of History…It is not the size of the voice that is important: it is the power, the truth, and the beauty of the dream.’ Ben Okri



AT the age of eight Beatrix Potter was already studying and recording a wide variety of creatures in a wee sketchbook she herself had made. She was particularly drawn to the delicate form of insects, becoming a keen amateur entomologist at a young age.  Potter made frequent visits to the Natural History Museum to sketch their insect collection. Then she would return home, where she learned to prepare slides of specimens to view under a microscope.


At the age of eight, in February 1992, I heard, in very hushed voices, the news of a mass shooting in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Members of the UDA, a loyalist paramilitary group, opened fire, killing five customers and wounding another nine. All the victims were local Catholic civilians. Less than an hour after this, my Father’s ‘Video Van’ – our family’s sole source of income on our impoverished Protestant housing estate in Derry-Doire-Londonderry – was driven through three British Army Checkpoints across the Irish Border into Donegal. My Father was driving the van with a gun at his left temple. He has never, to this day, spoken to anyone about the words the unwanted, Paramilitary passenger in his van spoke to him. When he made it home safely, the scars only being scratched out on his insides, my beautiful twenty-six-year-old Mother wept and wept and wept.


I knew something bad had happened because my Dad didn’t go out that night in our Transit Van, filled with videos to rent out so people could watch something other than the News. My memories of that year are fairly hazy, especially as things went from bad to worse in those terrifying streets – but I do know that in that same year, at the same age as Beatrix Potter, I too was given my own microscope. Suddenly, in that concrete ‘garden’, on a Council estate of unthinkable trauma, in a city tearing itself to shreds; a deeply nourishing lifelong relationship with the natural world was born.


I hope you never find yourself in a situation where you need to protect any child from witnessing bloodshed on the very streets they have no choice but to live on. But if you ever should, I urge you this: find books about wild creatures for them, find them a microscope, a magnifying glass – anything at all that makes the unknown make sense. It doesn’t matter how broken the surroundings may be, how bombed out; no matter how terrifying every single bit of it all may be. Just find them a way to sit in muck, as creepy crawlies do their do, as bees buzz through holes in concrete walls, as spiders build webs on empty coal bunkers under a sky that – no matter how grey and uncertain – holds room for butterflies, moths, dragonflies and unnameable things; things like whispered hope.


Every February I have dreams of the February I have just recounted, and I try to take them apart as if they were a ladybird specimen: the feelers go here (why are the antennae different sizes from one another?) Now: here are all the legs but the tarsal claws are out of place. Now here come the wings; bodily parts and dreams are so similar when we try to analyze them out of the moment.  This February, during a fierce Atlantic Storm, I took my own Van from Derry – along the coastline, across that border of increasingly tumultuous clamour – to Sligo.  When I awoke from a night of dreaming in a van, I had not dreamed of a van. I only remember one dream from that stormy night, and it was both surreal and deeply moving in equal measure.


In the dream I was living in a previous house and I had a shelf full of found objects from wild places.  There were seed pods, mermaid purses; a row of the roundest pebbles imaginable.  There were shells the shapes of which were so daedal it was if they had been sculpted in another world. There were fragile, hollow bones, bleached white over centuries. But the most beautiful object of all, that shelved article which I have not yet shaken out from my insides this week, was a dead butterfly.


It had been laid atop the wood exactly as it had been found, its wings folded over on themselves, like when we would make painted representations at school. Do you remember? The teacher would hand you a perfectly symmetrical paper creature, and let you place little dots of paint all over one wing only. Next you would fold the other wing over upon the first, gently massaging the liquid. And then the waiting game; would yours be as beautiful as the real-life ones? Never, of course, could this have been the case. The dream butterfly, like the painted mirror ones from our childhoods, had folded in upon itself but its exquisite markings could still be made out on those fragile wings. It was the most understated shade of brown – full of Autumn, with splashes of furry burnt orange, like leaves on top of drying mulch. On the underside of the hind wing there was a curve of small spots that looked like eyes. Right at the point I saw those eyes the creature unfolded itself, slowly and with such delicacy,and flew up off the shelf, encircling me, leaving me in no doubt as to her identity: she was a beautiful, very much alive, Large Heath Butterfly.


I awoke to the sound of almost otherwordly rain battering the van roof, as if we were in battle. We drove further along the Wild Atlantic Way as the storm threw horizontal sheets of rain onto the grey, swollen world. In the early evening, when a ‘phone signal could be had, I logged onto Instagram to find my fee full of insects of every type – a collective yet individual response to the new article in the Guardian, with its heart-wrenching, terrifying truths. A few hours after a dream in which an insect presumed dead proved to be alive, I read the news that within a century they could ALL be gone. How are we meant to go on from here? I tried to muster up everything, anything inside of me; I tried to find the words. The only thought I had was: I have no words. Not in the way that the teenagers around me say ‘literally can’t even’ but rather: ‘I am living on my home island, on the soil of my ancestors, and I don’t even have the word for butterfly.’


For the first time, properly, I felt the loss of things, of precious things; the loss of things I realised I could not even name.




In Irish folklore, butterflies were the souls of the dead and it was unlucky to harm one. The Red Admiral butterfly, however, was thought to be the devil and was persecuted. The idea of the butterfly as the embodiment of the soul implies their ability to cross into the Otherworld. My ancestors often saw no boundary at all between wild places and that otherworld which we cannot see.


I left Ireland at the very first chance I got and moved ‘across the water’; desperate to strip away all the layers of trauma that a childhood of devastating violence had left in its wake. I was drawn to the wildest parts of that neighbouring island I ran to – highlands and islands, forests and woods, bodies of water of every shape and form. I was drawn to places where the veil between the worlds is lifted right before our eyes, leaving us with no choice but to float between the two; full of grateful wonder. I don’t know if there is a name for such places as Treshnish on the Isle of Mull, Mwnt cove on the Ceredigion Coast or the Fens – in any other languages. In Ireland, we call places such as these ‘Áiteanna Tanaí’ or ‘Thin Places’.


Wild meadow in Summer, Treshnish, North West Mull; a ‘thin place’.

Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in ‘Thin Places’ that distance is even shorter. They are places that make us feel something larger than ourselves, as though we are held in a place between worlds; outside of experience. After years of visiting such places away from Ireland, I heard a voice calling me back; a soft but insistent cry; a call back to my own ‘Áiteanna Tanaí’.


I moved home three years ago, right on the cusp of the biggest storm to rock the island since the Troubles. We are, I fear, in the very eye of the storm right at the moment that I type this. All around me shops lie empty, Car Bombs have started to go off again on our doorsteps, young folk stand even less chance to get on in life in their border city than they had before this chaos took hold; chaos we didn’t ask for.


Where is our government? Our representation? Where is our voice? It is no small thing that one of the main reasons our Assembly has not sat for two years is because of a row over the Irish Language. Place-names in the North of Ireland come from a variety of sources, however the vast majority derive from Irish. The desire to cover over this layer of identity, to try to erase our past, speaks volumes about Ireland’s terrifying loss of connection with the natural world; our unwilding.


In the North of Ireland we are once more in a state of limbo. There are echoes of my childhood but there has been much change in the decades held between; change that I am very grateful for. There was more chance of me being able to learn Icelandic in my childhood in the Waterside of Derry than Irish. (I still speak more Icelandic but I am working hard to redress this balance).


I am allowed, finally, to unearth the words. We are losing species at a terrifying rate. We are talking here about mass extinction of species in Ireland, on our very doorstep. I think of the loss of our language, of our traditions and culture; I cannot help but see it all tied up together with the same rope. How can one protect what one cannot name? I made a conscious decision to write this piece in Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin – the Centre of Irish Language, Music and Culture in Derry-Doire-Londonderry. It felt, not only like an act of rebellion, but like taking my first steps down a garden path; a garden that holds room for unthinkable metamorphosis.


I spent the first few days after The Guardian’s devastating piece utterly unable to read or write another single word.  I had reached my full capacity for sorrow. I could see no way out of a black ‘bogach’- trapped in a bog long stripped beyond recognition. I recalled Kathleen Jamie’s poignant words at the start of our Brexit journey – the most affected I’ve ever been by an essay’s title: I can’t see.


Have words inside brackets ever had such impact? There are so, so many of us that, despite all the fear and crow black darkness we are feeling right now, can honestly say: ‘(I still love the world.)’  Kathleen Jamie, you are a brave and wonderful member of this race.


Now, though, somehow; I can see again. In fact, all I can do is see.  A friend approaches me at Cultúrlann to tell me he’s bringing a band called ‘Daddy Long Legs’ to play in their basement space. My mind fills with memories of sleeping at my Granny and Granda’s house, watching ‘Pilibín Eitre’ dance across the ceiling the year The Peace Process began. I will never forget their gentle hum, late into the night’s grey yellow glow, over the top of my Grandma’s TV set, that had started, slowly, to speak to us all of a great sea change on our horizon.


Every day new words are put up in the café here as Gaeilge as a prompt to help people with the learning of the language. Blue-tacked to the wall outside the ladies ‘leithris’ are the words: ‘Is é an féar níos glaise i gcónaí’: ‘The grass is always greener.’ My thoughts turn to my own  back garden, and the memory of butterflies on wild poppies in the summer just gone by, of the dandelions we did not cut back, of the bumble bees that had made their way up our ‘boreen’ ; a laneway that leads to the street where, thirty years ago this week,  a British Soldier was shot dead right before my five-year-old eyes. Sorrow and loss will always be tangled with this land.  Grief still lies on our pathways, as it does in so many other lands, but for the time being, the sky still holds room for all those wingéd wonders we have not lost.


I turn the radio on, Gideon Coe is reading a text from a listener in Scotland. We are only a handful of days fresh of learning how serious the situation is for our insects, for our planet; for our future. The listener tells a thoroughly chilling story. I am rapt. He had been driving when the distinct feeling that he was sharing the car with something else came over him. Something tickles his ear, his head, his cheek. He bats and shoos at the unseen thing; eventually his unwanted passenger lands on his satnav. We are told: “I don’t think we will be hearing from the moth again.”


Gid Coe falls silent, and I can almost hear the stillness of ‘Droichead na nDeor’  ‘The Bridge of Sorrows’, as I stood in the summer shadow of Muckish Mountain, reading about those emigrants long ago that left Ireland in hope of a brighter tomorrow. This walk to the bridge had all the finality of a funeral, as most of the emigrants never returned.


I could hear the solitary curlew that had sang its siren song above me.  I could see, in the blue radio light, all the ‘Fritileán Réisc’ that had danced around me in that space, so defined by loss; grief and sorrow seeping down through ancient peat bog, into the otherworld. No matter the devastating loss that Donegal has been hit by, that ethereal, beautiful Marsh Fritillary has, somehow, returned to parts of the bog that are slowly being managed and cared for. In that part of the Gaeltacht, where Irish is spoken with strength, butterflies have a different name: ‘dealan-dé’.


The term has roots in the word fireflaught’  and speaks of  the phenomenon observed by shirling a stick lighted at the end; a flash of lightning that comes to you from somewhere closer than the sky.  The Donegal Gaeltacht word for butterfly, I discover, is the same word as for The Aurora Borealis: those lights that dance so magically in that liminal place between here and there, then and now; this world and the other. Like the Marsh Fritillary, my ancestors watched The Northern Lights dance above the vast, wild belly of the earth, imagining that the bog itself had birthed both of these breath-takingly beautiful wonders.


Right beside the little stone bridge in that bog, a plaque reads: ‘Family and friends of the person leaving for foreign lands would come this far. Here was the separation. This is the Bridge of Tears’.


I, for one, am not ready for any more separation from the natural world, and I know that I am not alone. I am not ready to lose another single thing. Even in a hundred years I would not be ready to suffer any more loss.


 I make for bed, but the haunting sound of Kathryn Josephs has begun to fill the house:

‘From when I wake the want is/ Under my eyes and I draw with my tongue / All of your lines in my mouth, in my mind… / The hold of me over your bones have of mine.’

I hope our Scottish listener is listening, still. That he, like me, begins to awaken every morning with the ‘want’ upon him, a hunger for all those things already lost; like a moth to a dancing light.  I have a feeling in my bones that he will hear from the moth again. Maybe, in fact, it will be all that he can hear.


I have found the words for butterflies, in my native tongue, and I am drawing their lines on my insides. I am ready, now, to speak of unnameable things. I know that so, so many of us are. To stand together under an, ever-changing sky, and to speak of things like healing and learning; the saving of things that can still be saved.


To stand together under a sky that – no matter how grey and uncertain – still holds room for butterflies, moths, dragonflies and things once thought unnameable; things like whispered hope.


The Irish word for hope is ‘Dóchas‘, and speaks of so much more than an inner desire for the thing itself; of so much more than deep trust within oneself. The Irish word for hope holds, deep within its ancient roots, the words for the outward embodiment of encouragement; against all odds. Inside the Irish word for ‘hope’, we find glimmers of the Irish word for ‘giving’.


Yes, we are ready, now, to speak of hope. We have the words for it, and that changes things. In fact, that changes everything.




KERRI NI DOCHARTAIGH lives in northwest Ireland. She writes about nature, literature and place for publications which include Oh Comely magazine, New Welsh Review and The London Magazine. She is learning to speak Irish and exploring her folkloric island in a Transit Van.  You can follow her on Instagram HERE and she publishes new writing on her blog HERE.


PHOTOGRAPHY by the author, with the exception of the image at the head of this piece, which is by Manus Kenny and is entitled Grianan of Aileach, County Donegal, used by kind permission.
















































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Kerri ní Dochartaigh on writing Thin Places. – Dublogreply
January 28, 2021 at 1:07 pm

[…] in but once I knew I needed to open up, to really shine light on all the hidden parts; I wrote an essay that changed things forever. . The essay was shared widely, and I heard from hundreds of folk […]

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