The flight that brought us home to Ireland after our seven months sojourn in the Canary Islands (half our stay intended, half not) was the most comfortable I’ve experienced in years. With a large plane almost entirely to yourself, you could again pretend you were somebody.
There were four cabin crew in attendance and two pilots in the cockpit! What more luxury and security could one possible desire?
We had already paid for selected seats but were offered exit seats at the centre of the plane with extra legroom. Indeed, we were asked if we would oblige by moving. Clearly, we appeared fit, muscular, and athletic, the kind of couple who could have opened and thrown overboard the emergency doors in the event of an urgent evacuation. To all effects, it was our private plane, with empty seats all around us. The sheer spaciousness was overwhelming.
For decades now, the flights I’ve taken have been uncomfortable and jam-packed. Similarly, the airports, the ‘hubs’, overcrowded and frenetic as the Stansted model, the condemned passengers waiting in long queues to be crammed into buses, to be crammed into planes.
Instead, at Tenerife, we were two solitary figures, walking to a lonely desk manned by a lonely staffer with whom we exchanged information in the tones of a confessional or church.
It reminded me of the era when, on a whim or an urgent summons, you could whizz out to Heathrow Airport, park your car for free, pay cash over the counter for your ticket, pass through emigration in seconds, and walk 200m to your plane. Now, as then, we embarked on a journey to be enjoyed, not suffered. Your patronage was valued and your composure preserved. After the lockdowns, will air-travel return to the pack-‘em-in, let-‘em-suffer model? I hope not!
All was novelty. We stretched our legs, extend our elbows and landed masked and refreshed, on a sunny Sunday afternoon. We’d enjoyed our four hours aloft, and what bliss to see the green fields of Cork below us. What bliss to pick up our car, left by a friend in short-term parking, petrol in the tank, air in the tyres, and charge in the battery, all ready to drive away.
The first, most striking sights were breaks of tall grasses and wildflowers on roadsides; to an overseas traveller, they would immediately have messaged a country where policy left nature to its own devices, preserved from the hedge trimmer, conserved from suburban demands for neatness.
Robust were the weeds beneath hedges, on roundabouts and verges, weeds as tall as ourselves promising habitat for insects that would feed birds, lizards, frogs, shrews, and field mice, and evidencing national good intentions to cease the destruction of nature and give it a chance.
As we drove west, a mist came down, softening the fields, blanketing the distances, Austin Clarke’s “the mist becoming rain”, imbuing the atmosphere with a body and romance which more pragmatic souls might call dampness. Irish air is rarely bone dry, rarely as clear as the air on the stark, dry peaks of the Canary Islands.
Almost home, we passed by Timoleague Abbey, dark and ancient in the mist, unchanged for centuries. In La Gomera, volcano plugs stand 325m tall against the cloudless sky, gigantic monuments as old as the Earth itself, but not human monuments. The oldest building on the island is a solitary tower, a simple blockhouse fort, erected by the Spanish back in 1477.
Columbus visited there in 1492 en route to the Americas, but no remains of this history exists around it.
Monuments in Ireland are surrounded with history. Just a kilometre below Timoleague Abbey is Abbeymahon, even older, a Cistercian foundation of 1172. Stumps of stones poke through the grass, marking ancient graves. This Ireland is redolent of time, and evidence of human stories are everywhere.
Someone had joked that, arriving home, we might need a helicopter to find our house in the garden-turned jungle, the pond turned swamp, the trees-turned forest.
Opening the bedroom curtains next morning, there, sitting by the pond, was a grey heron, half hidden by weeds. For a moment’s flashback, I thought it was Ron, the heron foundling we had raised from childhood. He had fathered seven families in the nearby heronry before his disappearance and presumed demise in 2018.
It wasn’t Ron, it was the scrawny, half-starved heron chick a friend had brought to us, lost and flightless, last year. For the seven months of our absence, a neighbour unfailingly visited our garden every day and fed it with fish we had left in the freezer. Now a first-year adult in full feather, with half-grown crest, it will breed next year.