- A review of Kerri ní Dochartaigh's new book, "Thin Places."
Kerri ní Dochartaigh wanted to leave behind her hometown of Derry, Ireland from the start. She grew up in a fractured household with a Catholic mother and Protestant father – an abnormal pairing in the Irish community at the height of the Troubles. Her family home in the Protestant Waterside area shattered into pieces by a petrol bomb one night, causing ní Dochartaigh’s family to escape to new towns. Most of ní Dochartaigh’s life has been an attempt to suppress memories of conflict and danger, and her coping mechanism became the observance of natural forces and suspension into Irish folklore culture. Ní Dochartaigh’s memoir Thin Places tells of how her early days growing up in the Troubles pushed her to flee Ireland, and how finding “thin places” in nature healed her own perceptions of a homeland that was ruptured by religious and ethnic tensions.
“Thin places,” a term coming from Irish folklore, means a space in which the world becomes veiled by a sense of ease and mysticism. In a thin place, as ní Dochartaigh’s grandfather described to her, “you see a boundary between worlds disappear right before your eyes, places where you are allowed to cross any borders, where borders and boundaries hold no sway.” Ní Dochartaigh’s writing is laced with long-winded recountings of her past trauma of growing up in political instability, broken up with explanations of thin places that have provided solace in tumultuous times.
She escaped to natural landscapes, such as Grianan of Aileach, Treshnish on the Isle of Mull and the Cornish Merry Maidens, to experience a sense of calm in a land of great political turmoil. From a young age, ní Dochartaigh observes creatures like white moths, leahmain bhȧna, as a means to escape her own reality that was defined by strict borders and tension. Ní Dochartaigh prescribes parents of children who may be living through violent times to “find books about wild creatures for [your children], find them a microscope, a magnifying glass, anything at all that helps the unknown make sense.” Studying moths, butterflies and beetles absorbed ní Dochartaigh’s attention as a child in a time when the rest of her surroundings were unstable.
The memoir exhibits the pain one feels having to leave their homeland from political violence. She says, “Europe is defined, in many ways, by borders…we are a race that has long sought to break things up, to divide, to separate, to draw lines between things that might otherwise have remained as one.” An onslaught of people have been forced to leave their homes in the hopes of finding safety in European borders, only to be faced with further ostracization from greater society.
Ní Dochartaigh recognizes the absurdity of borders and definitions that are created to divide people from another – Roman Catholic or Protestant, the United Kingdom or Europe, nationalist or unionist. Her escape to thin places is a desire to be “free from border and barrier – in a place where the veil is so thin that we are reminded what it means to really be here – in this glorious world.” In the natural world, she is able to cast away mankind’s definitions of land and feel a sense of autonomy over belonging amidst the fields and trees and critters.
Coming from a place that was mired in violence, ní Dochartaigh felt a great sense of shame. Her feelings of embarrassment of the past made her turn to drink and a series of detached relationships, as she stumbled through her early twenties. She succumbed to the tempting idea that leaving a place characterized by violence would erase her childhood traumas. As she bounced from various cities in her early adulthood, ní Dochartaigh describes a pull back to Ireland and the need to reconnect with her Irish roots at a time when the country was being splintered again by Brexit. She picked up learning Irish as a way to situate herself within the culture that she tried to estrange herself from for decades.
The memoir fits into a larger phenomena of female writers, such as Joanna Pocock with Surrender: The Call of the American West, who scrutinize their relationship to the planet and man’s impact on climate change. Ní Dochartaigh set out to weave together a personal narrative in combination with historical facts and descriptions of the natural world, but at times the chapters failed to mold together in a sequential order. The book skirted on a thin place of understanding ní Dochartaigh’s past and trying to grasp Ireland’s traumatic history, shifting from personal anecdotes to extended sentences on the powers of nature.
By Kerri ní Dochartaigh
Published April 12, 2022