Endless changes of Courtmacsherry Bay gladden the heart

Courtmacsherry Bay, looking east from above Timoleague. Picture: Damien Enright

Here, on the side of Courtmacsherry bay, where there’s so much unimpeded space in front of one’s nose, the world is lit with an overwhelming brightness after storms or rain, amazing not simply because of the contrast with the non-view of the last time one looked, but because it can be brighter than summer.

Views are generally longer in winter, anyway, because the air is less dense, less pollen laden, perhaps less hazed out by heat ( if it’s a lucky summer) and winter blue is more

intense than summer blue, and the sharpness in the air heightens the sharpness of the view. However, “the sand flats in golden light, and sea and air all shining bright” give a great sense of space to the world.

The permutations of light is one of the paybacks of living on the shores of a large estuary that fills and drains twice each day.

During spring tides, when the floor is ebbed and the sun is shining, it may be as golden as an Arabian desert and intersected with a filigree of cobalt channels populated by menageries of birds.

The walker casts a long shadow if it’s winter. He or she and their dog are specks on the arena. It’s as if one is looking down on them from above. On pet days in windless weather, the walkers, return out of the distance, the tide behind them, like a white-fringed carpet gently unfurling across the sand.

On recent days with a full moon, spring tides and storms, the benevolent bay became another creature, alien, threatening.

When the moon filled it with the sea, its face became a tumult of battle chargers, manes and topknots white against the black water as they raced landward from as far as the eyes, through the spray, could see.

Wave upon wave in unbroken ranks they charged and leaped the sea walls, flushed across the roads in great assaults, slammed into the ditches beyond and sluice-back to meet their oncoming comrades somewhere around the white line where, chest to chest, they leaped skyward as if its some sort of sport, or joust, or test of strength — can the sea knock the wall opposite, the wall that protects the abbey ruins seven centuries old and never been breached or knocked, and stand, worn down by time, wind and fresh water, but not by the sea?

The wall I speak of is at Abbeymahon, on Courtmacsherry Bay. Of the 12th century abbey, all four walls stand, broken, half gone. There is no roof. However, spring tides are not always storm-driven. They feed the bay.

On their arrival, a billion humble creatures emerge from burrows in the mud and from their shells to feed, cockles, talins, clams, mussels and razorshells, periwinkles and whelks, shrimps and small crustaceans, shore crabs, fan-worms, lugworms, ragworms, and sand eels. On these, the fish and the birds feed.

Seismic changes in prehistory formed the bay. It was eons after it was formed that humans become part of the view. The first substantial buildings were that 12th century Cistercian monastery, and then Timoleague Abbey.

Looking at the abbey, one might well imagine ghosts of those who once worked the quays when wine ship arrived from Spain, great barrels of wine rolled across the dock, the scene in front of the abbey a forum of activity, large carts with dray horses loading wine, unloading skins for export.

Then bottom of the bay was suddenly lifted in a seismic ripple emanating from the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

The wine ships could no longer reach Timoleague, and a, now, seaweed-wreathed scatter of rocks protruding into the bay at the farthest end of Courtmacsherry, fashioned into Tanner’s Pier, became the docking point for arriving cargoes.

In time, a channel was dug to allow medium draft boats to the new village pier.

Courtmacsherry: one might ask had the ships from Cadiz, with sherry from nearby Jerez de la Frontera, lent the village its name but no, it derives from the Irish Cúirt Mhic Seafraidh, evolving through MacShaffry to MacSherry.

While the sea bed rose and blocked the flow of wine to Timoleague, it brought sand to Courtmacsherry. Centuries after the earthquake upheaval, locals mined sand onto barges at low tides.

Sand and salmon, shrimp and cockles, a fecund bay. And, alongside, woods overlooking the water, from which blow-ins such as I, now 27 years resident, never tire of the bay’s changing views.


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