Duff, Chris. (1999). On Celtic Tides: One Man’s Journey around Ireland by Sea Kayak. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
I’ve always been a boat person. Ever since I can remember, water has been an irresistible magnet. Maybe it’s the sea in my Irish blood – because no matter where you are in Ireland, you’re never far from the sea – or maybe it’s because I was born in the sign of Pisces. I used to laugh at my mother who’d get seasick on a raft in the neighbor’s pool, because I was born with sea legs. I was devastated when my uncle sold the Freudian Sloop (he’s a psychologist) and moved away. The memories of summer days sailing Lake Michigan out of South Haven are some of my fondest – the perfect venue for listening to Moody Blues albums.
When I saw this book in a review journal, I immediately ordered a copy for the library I worked for and then ordered another for myself. I couldn’t put it down. While I’ve never had the courage to go kayaking, let alone sea kayaking, Chris Duff’s experiences have proved invaluable as a window on ancient Irish life. The Gaels took to the sea in small ox-hide boats (usually made for one to three men) called curachs, which they still use today, and larger warships known as secht-sess (seven-benchers), carrying perhaps fourteen men. On June 1, 1996, Duff began his journey in Dublin harbor and started paddling south along Ireland’s coast. It took him three months to circumnavigate the island and finish where he started on September 6. His experiences as a kayaker would not have differed so much as those of an ancient Gael in a curach. I was interested in his unique offshore perspective and I hung on his every word.
Two places I was particularly interested in were Fair Head and Dunseverick on the Antrim coast in Northern Ireland. The main character of my trilogy, Conall mac Áedáin, spends his childhood on Fair Head and would have seen the boats coming from and going to Albu (Scotland). At that time, most sea-worthy vessels would have put in at Dunseverick, where a sheltering bay, a prominent hillfort, and a renowned chieftain waited to receive them. Here’s what Chris had to say on his approach to Fair Head:
“Fair Head loomed massive beside the swift waters, basalt cliffs standing black and vertical against an evening sky. Beneath it, almost at the water’s edge, lay house-sized chunks of hexagonal towers that had slipped from the cliff face, falling and crushing into fragments other columns that lay shattered into perfect six-sided blocks….Twenty feet out from the cliff, I shot through the inner tidal rip – a noisy, violent chop of 3- to 5-footers. It was less than 200 yards long, a boisterous child compared to Benbane. It lifted the boat, tossing it playfully, then chasing me into a shore eddy on a surfing wave….” (p. 258).
By reading Duff’s memoir, I was able to get an idea of how the tides worked in various places around Ireland, or how long some journeys might take in a time before diesel power over even sail power (although secht-sess made use of square leather sails). For example, in crossing Belfast Lough, Chris wrote: “During the hour-and-a-half crossing, the tide had turned, giving me a two-knot assist by the time I reached the south shore….By noon, I was twenty miles down the coast….” (p. 261).
In September 1999, having read only half of On Celtic Tides, I was compelled to write to Duff to thank him for sharing his insightful journey with the world, and specifically, for his detailed descriptions that formed a picture of the Irish coast so clear in my mind. A month later, he wrote back. I still have the letter.
A year later I wrote to him again, asking for some clarification about the nature of standing waves, his experiences at the hillfort of Dunadd in Scotland (another place that is heavily featured in my trilogy), and if he’d paddled anywhere near the Corryvreckan (a maelstrom between the islands of Jura and Scarba). He responded with a four-page letter! It just goes to show, authors love to hear from their readers. If you have questions or comments in your reading, it’ll likely be worth your while to write to the author – even if you have to go through the publisher, which is what I did to reach Chris.
One thing that struck me about Duff’s writing is how poetic it is, even in describing the most mundane experience. Here’s another except form On Celtic Tides: “I paddled past a feather, its downy upswept ends catching the faintest drift of air and turning it in a tiny circle. It stopped spinning, frozen for a second on its reflection, then slowly turned again. Perfectly balanced, it floated with grace and beauty.” (p. 120).
If you’re looking for a unique perspective on Ireland, spend some time with this book. You won’t be disappointed.