Pitch Black

Ireland gets darker than any place I’ve ever lived. It gets so dark I can’t even explain it to you – darker than the desert, darker than the mountains, darker than anything I know.

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I think I forgot that when we moved away for a while, and came back. Even then, I’d only experienced the murky, shadowy darkness of Drogheda town, its streets tinged with random sepia-toned street lights, not the absolute blackness of the country sky at night. I can actually now comprehend descriptive terms like “piercing darkness” or (Shea’s favorite) “pitch black.”

For several weeks after starting my job at UCD, I would walk the 1.8 miles from our house to the bus stop at around 6 am. At first, I was walking at sunrise, then, a week or two later, it was a little before sunrise, then suddenly it was completely black outside, especially when the clouds covered the moon and stars. Part of the road is like a tunnel of old trees, and, even with a bright lantern, I could only see a few yards in front of me. With Halloween coming up, it did not take much to make me jump when walking down that road. Whether listening to the protests of the 50 or so crows I disturbed in the trees or wondering what kind of ghost stories the locals could tell,

(particularly as we live near an 1000+ year old cemetery with huge Celtic crosses and an ancient round tower). I would not have been at all surprised if I’d caught a glimpse of a moaning wraith or restless wandering spirit on that road. I never did see anything strange though, and coming face-to-face with a cow was the most terrifying reality I encountered.

Now that the clocks have gone back, we’ve entered a whole new realm of darkness, one in which I am hesitant to set foot. Thankfully, Frank drags himself out of his warm bed to take me to the bus in these circumstances. By the time the bus reaches Dublin, the sun is nearly up and (if I’m awake), I can enjoy the sunrise or bemoan the grayness, depending on the day.

At night, Dublin is another story. It’s fully dark now by 5 pm, if not before. Ireland is a higher latitude on the globe than we think – higher than Toronto or New York or London – which is also why it stays light very late in the summer. Now that winter is nearly here, the days are snapped short, like a 35 mm film missing its final reel.

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My commute takes me right through Dublin City Centre, past many of the country’s biggest tourist attractions. The bus lurches along Leeson Street, past St. Stephen’s Green and over to Merrion Square. It then creeps along beside the National Gallery, Trinity College, the Science Gallery and Pearse Station before crossing the Liffey and turning past the Customs House and running parallel to O’Connell Street as it heads North to Drumcondra. I’ve spent the last two months people watching and making mental notes of spots I’d like to revisit on days off as the last golden rays of sun reflect off the buildings and the water. Now that it’s November, though, I can see very little out my window apart from the dark. Faces are unrecognizable and one can imagine that, once the traffic has quietened, these streets could be quite terrifying for a person walking alone. Or maybe not – probably most people who were born and bred in Dublin are used to the darkness, street smart but unsuspecting of any modern Jack the Rippers hiding down every narrow lane.  I think, for me, I’d rather come face to face with a ghost or a cow on the country lane than walk the streets of Dublin alone at night.

Still, the earlier nights do lend a kind of unique voyeuristic peek into offices, shops and residences one couldn’t otherwise see. The lights are bright and it’s dark outside – and if you’re bored on a bus, it doesn’t count as being nosey, does it? Many people work until 6 pm or after, so I see into a lot of offices housed in Georgian terrace blocks. It’s like a whole new world, one in which I can glimpse high ceilings and magnificent  interior windows, decorated plaster ceilings and ornately curved doorways. The other week it got quite cold and I looked through one such window to find the women inside typing away on their laptops as a blazing fire roared in the beautiful old fireplace (in what would have been an upper class drawing room 200 years ago). How lovely that would be! Of course I see the stained glass of dozens of churches and cathedrals as well. Then there are the restaurants, squeezed over a couple levels, often in smaller buildings that were probably once Victorian shops. But mostly I just find myself envying the patrons of the countless cozy pubs on my journey, as they sit gathered with friends, pint glasses in hand, the lights warm and glowing as the windows fog over.

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As I pass into the North side of Dublin, up Gardiner Street, the hostels are full of people stung by the housing crisis. Further on, even the lived-in buildings look derelict, dirty sheets hung over the windows and garbage piled up outside the doorways where men and women sit and wait for buses or friends or children coming home from school. As the darkness deepens, the water on the canal is as still and reflective as a black mirror and people move in shadows around the streets. Occasionally the claws of a leafless tree grasp out at the bus as we pass, but we are now heading into the quieter part of the journey.

When the bus comes in to Drogheda and we get to the stop outside Dominic’s chipper, I drop Frank a text to let him know I’m close.

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Some nights, if I’m a bit late, Frank can’t come get me right when I reach my bus stop at Monasterboice. Rather than stand in the dark and wind and rain, it’s actually the perfect excuse to duck into our own local pub, affectionately known as Donegan’s. The fire might be lit, the football on, and a glass of Smithwicks at the bar is not a bad way to wait an extra 10 minutes. After my sometime diversion, I clamor into the car with Frank and the kids, all happy to see me, and we take the curving black road home.

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