Clodagh Finn: Holiday at home but please don’t call it a staycation

Clodagh Finn on the American phrase that brings her out in hives 
Clodagh Finn: Holiday at home but please don’t call it a staycation
A family on top of the world at Malin Head, one of the destinations in the Fáilte Ireland 'Make a break for it' campaign

A staycation is all very well but the word simply fails to capture the Irish summer experience of walking down a sunny grassy back road still steaming after rain, and being reminded by a hedgerow fuchsia that vivid purple and red look amazing together.

We used to think the magnificent flowers looked like ostentatious drop earrings but, as Zoë Devlin so poetically puts it, they also look like ballerinas “with a crimson skirt, purple petticoat and long, long, slightly uneven legs”.

Her website (and book The Wildflowers of Ireland: A Field Guide) are the culmination of about 35 years of country walks “spent looking down”, and both make ideal reading at a time when we are encouraged to holiday at home.

Let’s hope we can use what remains of the summer to look anew at our own country in the same way that we started to appreciate the world within 2km of our doorsteps during lockdown.

Before we start, though, can we do something about the term ‘staycation’? It brings me out in hives.

It’s not just the forced jollity of it or the fact that it is an American invention (no offence to visiting Americans; they are under enough scrutiny as it is).

It’s just that the word simply does not have the same possibilities as, say, the Irish phrase ‘Mo laethanta saoire’ under whose multi-syllabic guidance we poured out tales of sticky ice pops and hypothermic sea swims in school essays, year after year.

Maybe this year we could say that we are all off on our ‘laethanta here-a’, a bilingual wonder-word suggested, though not coined, by poet Catherine Ann Cullen.

The ebb and flow of that phrase allows much more freedom to embrace all that Ireland has to offer which, it seems to me, is a bountiful supply of unexpected connections and surprises. 

Here’s one. Zoë Devlin’s interest in wildflowers was prompted by an elderly relative who was none other than Dr Kathleen Lynn, feminist, socialist and nationalist.

While better known to most of us as the founder of St Ultan’s Children’s Hospital, to Zoë Devlin she was “an old lady with a long, brown tweed skirt in which there was a large pocket”.

As Zoë recalls: “She took me up the hillside in Glenmalure [Wicklow] and, at a certain stage, she crouched down with me to show me my first ever wild orchid. From her large pocket, she took a magnifying glass and I shall never forget the wonder of seeing into the little mouth of that amazing plant. From that day forward, I was hooked.”

There are so many stories like that one; accounts of the wonder inspired by Irish people and places.

It’s going to be a different summer. Difficult even. It will be hard not to feel downcast about the scars left by coronavirus.

Doors will be shut, some never to reopen. Those that are open will be operating with restrictions. 

There will be masks, Perspex and an understandable level of Covid anxiety as holidaymakers do an uneasy dance between keeping safe and keeping occupied. If you are avoiding the crowds, where’s the craic in that?

Fáilte Ireland’s new campaign may have the answer. The ‘Make a Break for it’ slogan will certainly strike a chord with many feeling the claustrophobia of lockdown. It’s the second part of the message, however, that may save summer 2020; the one that urges us to discover our own hidden heartland.

An upcoming RTE podcast series, The Almanac of Ireland, taps into the same idea, and it sets the perfect tone for what could well become a summer of discovery. Starting on July 29, Manchán Magan will present “a lucky bag of stories from all over the country” that celebrates Ireland’s cultural, linguistic, culinary, and natural heritage.

Why not create your own summer almanac and use it as an antidote to the very real issues that are dragging so many of us down during these uncertain times?

The first thing I’d put in my compendium of Irish wonders would be a picture of a stunned friend who left his car out of gear and looked on, helpless, as it rolled backwards up a hill on the road to Mahon Falls in Waterford.

According to local lore, the phenomenon is the work of fairies and, conveniently enough, there’s a hawthorn tree at the very spot. 

Others say magic roads, or gravity hills as they are also known, are simply optical illusions created by the landscape, which tricks you into thinking a downward slope is really an uphill one.

Make up your own mind, either in Waterford or at other locations in Sligo and on the Cooley Peninsula.

There’s nothing illusional about another almanac contender — the fresh-water well at Gleann-na-nGealt, or the Valley of the Mad, near Camp in Co Kerry where the Mad Sweeney of legend was said to have found a cure after he went mad in the din of battle.

In 2012, a chemical analysis of the water showed that it had much higher levels of lithium, a treatment for bipolar disorders, than other water samples taken locally. Well, what do you make of that?

And there is so much more to discover. Just this week, for instance, archaeologists at Navan Fort, the ancient capital of Ulster, explained how remote-sensing technology has revealed evidence of a vast Iron Age temple complex, one of the largest in later prehistoric Europe.

The site, just outside Armagh city, is also the setting for the heroic Ulster Cycle sagas which feature Cú Chulainn and Queen Medb of Connacht. In the same way that archaeologists found real evidence of the city of Troy mentioned in Homer’s ‘Illiad’, we also have a cycle of myths and a real site where they are believed to have taken place. From 30 July, it’s open again.

Oh, the places we might go and the stories we might tell in summer 2020. Go on, make a break for it but please don’t call it a staycation.

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