Words: Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Music: Linda Buckley

I don't know when my eyes first met the gate at Aghadown, but I know that I was breastfeeding when I first saw those words; every time I read, there is a baby in the crook of my elbow. I have been breastfeeding for 9 years. So many hours of my life, I have spent holding a succession of infants, watching days slide their light across a succession of rented walls: dawn-light, afternoon-light, dusk-light, twilight, streetlight. In my mind, the babies' faces have melted into each other, but the ritual is the same. I choose a book or lift my phone. Lips fasten onto my skin, the sensation less suck or suckling than clamp and latch. I watch the jaw in its steady seesawing, all swallow and glug until the eyelids drift. I know the baby sleeps when the jaw grows still. With a sleeping mouth fixed to my breast, I read.

~ ~ ~

The edition of Charles Smith’s The Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Cork that I come across online seems to have been first published in 1750. I am charmed by the distance between me and its author.

Me: consuming his words from a handheld screen, while suckling an infant. 

Him: scribbling notes in rickety carriages, strolling through castle gardens, shivering in draughty drawing rooms. One image stills me:

Affadown, the seat of Colonel Beecher, three miles west from Skibbereen, is adorned with good gardens and plantations. The jawbone of a whale forms the side-posts and arch of a gate-way, large enough for a coach to drive through, although some part is buried in the earth. Near it on a rising ground is a round tower; on its top is a lanthern, from whence is a prospect of the adjacent coasts and islands, with the ruins of several old castles.

I copy and paste and google, but fail to find any reference to this gate in contemporary literature. I wonder whether this may be because the spelling has evolved from Affadown through Aughadown to Aghadown. Still, it holds the remnants of the Irish name for this place. When we say Achadh Dúin, we say field of the ringfort. I follow scarce threads of Aghadown’s history over the internet until finally a tourist’s blog gives me a series of snapshots of Aghadown House:

This is a small, barely recognizable ruin under a mantle of ivy. Not very interesting.

Colonel Beecher’s abode, once grand enough to be referred to as a Seat, has fallen back to earth. Only the house’s western wall stands, its hearth still visible under thick vines of ivy. The whale bone must have toppled as the grand gate to the estate deteriorated. I imagine Colonel Beecher in his carriage, moving through the whale’s pale jaw, just as gallons of ocean water once did. In its previous embodiment, the jaw drew saltwater though a baleen sieve, sifting krill and plankton. I wonder whether some shard of the jaw remains buried there.

I know that the whale’s mandible won’t be alone in that ground. The famine-struck earth around Skibbereen holds an abundance of jaw bones, mostly human. The mandible is often the last remaining trace of a human life, and can be used to pinpoint age at time of death. In this part of Cork, jawbones are everywhere, scattered underfoot: those of elderly people, of men and women, of boys and girls, of infants who died suckling a mother’s empty breast.

~ ~ ~

The blue whale’s mammary glands are the largest on earth, each a metre and a half in length. The external architecture of their mouths means that the calf cannot latch on to the nipple; instead it settles in close to its mother as she releases milk near its mouth. The whale's milk is heavy, dense, rope-like in consistency, qualities that prevent it from dissolving in sea water. Long cords of milk unravel through water to the calf's mouth, pale ribbons tossed into the dark. 

Unlike the whale's milk, the first human milk is a thin yellow liquid delivered directly into the infant’s mouth. In the moments after birth, the human infant's mouth finds the breast and the baby’s jaw fills the mouth with tiny droplets of colostrum. The breast becomes a site of constant motion, change, and momentum. The infant sleeps, the infant grows, the milk changes from custard yellow to magnolia, the baby smiles, the baby grows, until one day the child grins at its mother from under the book in her hand, and gives this source of pleasure and warmth and milk a name. Each of the children I have nursed has chosen the same name. Num. We all name the things that matter to us: the bodies, the objects, the places. I wonder who first chose the name Achadh Dúin for the place where a whale’s jaw would one day rest.

In the 1950s a new scheme sent schoolchildren out to gather folklore from the elderly. Whenever I find myself reading through the archives from this scheme, the occasion of their recording rises to meet me vividly. Reading a scanned page, I see a girl called Nan Swanton sit down with Patrick O’Driscoll, her 85 year old neighbour, to transcribe his memories in neat copperplate lettering. I see him lean towards her to talk of penal times, the history of local monuments, a series of riddles. He tells the story of Rahine fort, whose inhabitants were known to clamber into a local landowner’s farm to steal his potatoes. No matter how often the farmer fired at them or cursed them, they laughed and continued to pinch his spuds. Music is still heard from the fort, Patrick tells Nan, and lights are seen there at night.

This is the genre of story told by the firesides of those who survived devastating hunger, by those who saw neighbours die of fever or starvation, or disappear over the ocean. The stories are told and told and re-told, passed from mouth to mouth, from the elderly to the young. The tales don’t speak of bones or grief, but of potato thieves thriving, alive (albeit unseen), living joyfully and mischievously under the land. The old people hear the echoes of their music and laughter. They see their lights, still.

~ ~ ~

When my final child is born, the lights in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit shine on her both day and night. She sleeps in an incubator, too weak to feed from the breast. I must suckle a large breast pump so that she may be tube-fed. I am bent over this machine, adjusting its intensity, when with a jolt, I remember the whale’s jaw impaled in the dirt near Skibbereen. How it must have begun its life with its jaw at its mother’s side, absorbing long threads of her milk. After a whale calf leaves its mother, no nudge will open this secret trapdoor again, no white ribbons will unravel into the dark to connect her to her child.

I fumble for my phone and search for Aghadown, zooming from satellite map in to Street View. Compulsively, I move up and down the roads, as though I am pacing the boreen, my slippers growing damp on the road. I search until I find the ruin of Colonel Beecher’s house. I suspect that I even find the old gate posts, where the jaw may once have been suspended.

In the still image, the ruin is surrounded by meadows. I see a herd of cattle there, frozen, their faces buried in lush summer grasses. I stare so long that I can almost imagine the sound of their jaws working the cud. I think of the milk building in their udders, milk that will never see their calves’ mouths, but will be extracted in a distant milking parlour in a symphony of hiss and gush. I think of the whale’s jawbone, somewhere nearby, unseen. I think of all the other jawbones in the earth. The lilt of music from the lios. The milk in the ocean. I turn dizzy, then faint, fingers and knees trembling. Then, I fall. I fall back. I fall back into the dark. I feel myself float, long, liquid ribbons emerging slowly from my chest, floating around my floating body, until the threads cover me, sheltering me in their pale light. I give myself to those opaque filaments, and feel myself unravelling into milk.

~ ~ ~

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Mandible was first published in gorse, Issue 9, November 2017.