CORK, Ireland — It’s summer in Ireland (or what constitutes summer in Ireland) and it has roused our irrepressible instinct for superstition. For all our desire to become one of the smart economies, we are still ultra superstitious. We flail about the streets to avoid stepping on cracks or under ladders. The sight of a flock of magpies triggers frantic bouts of counting (one for sorrow, two for joy, and so on). Umbrellas left open indoors is an antecedent to hysteria. We don’t even talk about shattered mirrors.
Having recently rolled through the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, our minds are now secretly ticking forward to July 15: St. Swithin’s Day. We know nothing about this Swithin character except that if it rains on the date named in his honor, we are, essentially, fooked. The saying goes that if it rains on St. Swithin’s Day, we’re doomed to another 40 days of rain. Weather is a serious matter to Irish people and it occupies a space of utter mysticism in our minds. We all know the kind of monsoon event that Irish summers can be and we believe, deep down, that low pressure and all its symptoms are the result of some portentous force having a laugh at our expense. Be honest, you blame Rihanna for summer 2007. I know I do. Swithin’s Day looms as large on our horizon as Budget Day, and every fine day between now and then will be ruthlessly enjoyed.
About a month ago the country was overcome with a week’s worth of sunshine. Boyfriend and I stared at Evelyn Cusack’s smiling face as she waved her arm over the multitude of cartoon suns that hovered across the map of Ireland. That was all it took.
A few photons of light energy breaking through the clouds set in motion a form of migration to rival that of the Antarctic penguins and the red crabs of Christmas Island.
It is a phenomenon that we all participate in. Tartan-patterned flasks that have been passed from one attic to another for generations are unearthed and dusted off. Bread is buttered, filled, and foiled. Wardrobes are plundered in search of swimwear that has not been worn for years. Rugs and towels are rolled up. Cars are loaded as though in preparation for the apocalypse. And then, following a comprehensive check-list, there is a hemorrhaging of people from our urban centers to our blue-flag coastlines. For me, it was Garretstown in west Cork, but the routine is the same everywhere.
The second the handbrake is yanked, you stumble from the car, ninja-stripping across the car park in a frantic clamber for your own square of sand. It is as though you have discovered and claimed el mundo nuevo. You drop your cooler box, your backpacks, your rugs, your newspaper—everything except the bucket and spade that you secretly, desperately, wanted to bring but couldn’t. Now that you have cordoned off your own zone, you begin the process of factoring up. It’s not really that you’re pale in that cool Scandinavian way and you want to preserve it. In fact, you’re more… grey in that malnourished Irish way, but you still can’t ignore the internal “you’ll get skin cancer” caveat that your parents barked at you as a kid. And anyway, nothing says summer quite like the scent of UVA protection and a stranger’s second-hand cigarette smoke (which is inescapable on blustery Irish beaches).
You sit down on to your rug with all the grace of a subsiding structure and wait out the obligatory 30 minutes for your skin to absorb the sun cream. To pass the time, you whip out the newspaper. Supplements, crosswords, and Sudokus were invented for just such an event. There is no free wifi here. No means for your devices. This is a time for the wholesome art of reading, of informing yourself on national and international issues that you feign to understand, and for some slightly academic entertainment.
You open the first page and the whole thing lifts like a kite into the air. From that moment, you engage in a ferocious wrestling competition with your broadsheet publication (tabloids are less susceptible to breezes, and in any case, are no great loss). You haul its wilting pages back and pin it down to the rug with your body. This is an improvement but it still does not permit page turning and the sand is now blowing into your eyes. You content yourself with the cover page even though you read that part in the car on the journey over. You glimpse the upper right corners of subsequent pages, grasping a word here or there, headers, page numbers. Fascinating stuff. You stick at it mindlessly for a while until you estimate that you are, probably, UVA’d.
Buoyed by the warmth of the sun, you rise to your feet and march towards the water. It could be childhood memories or it could be sunstroke, but either way you have shrugged off those adolescent insecurities that once had you creeping awkwardly, surreptitiously to water’s edge. You know you are not perfect. No amount of recessionary jogging, Junior C championship training, or mechanical erosion has been able to shift that stubborn cellulite. Your legs are bruised and potholed after last week’s league encounter with that beast of a corner-back, but you don’t care. Your blindingly white skin is crying out for vitamin D, having been deprived of it for the best part of a decade. The water is inexplicably appealing, as though its salty tang is calling to the fish buried deep in your evolved genes. However, this is as far as the allure goes.
Your body nearly spasms when it laps coldly around your ankles and it takes every fiber of muscle to swallow back a whimper. You lurch forward a step or two, perhaps even hallucinate icebergs on the horizon. The gentle swell of water that washes a little further up your legs towards your knees is confirmation. That’s deep enough thanks. This is the Atlantic Ocean after all and I think I’ve been brave enough for one day. You retreat quickly, stumble back to the rug, and grab a towel to stave off frostbite. You might engage in some very athletic bat-ball, flinging yourself lithely across the unforgiving terrain, grunting with the effort and the feel of those sea-shells biting into your feet. After some competitive rallying and your body temperature now normalizing, the time comes to plunder the cooler box.
Those ham sandwiches, naturally salted with some rogue sand, are ever so tasty after your exploits at sea. The rice crispie cakes too. It all goes down a treat with some tea from a tartan patterned flask. You tackle the dog-eared edge of your side of the rug, weigh it down with a nice stone-formation, and lie back. You sling Boyfriend’s t-shirt over your face as reprieve from the glare of the sun and nod off for a short while, twitching softly at the occasional nose-diving fly. It is 19 degrees Celsius, which is pretty perfect for our delicate Irish blood. Any lower and you’ll be reaching for the fleece you bought for 20 cent in Penney’s; higher, you might actually pass out.
You rest your eyes for an hour or so, then gather up your belongings and trudge back to the car. Your hair is suitably wind-swept. You have a salt line on your shins and sand between your toes. You feel the right amount of plantar fasciitis underfoot — just enough to know you have spent the day in flip-flops.
It was, perhaps, not the success you had hoped for, yet you leave with the proof of the coast in your bones. You join the queue of traffic and begin the slow process of transfusing the cities again. Tomorrow you might need to wear a scarf and come July 15, you may need to purchase a boat, but today was as good as any. Yes, the summer is here.