Kerri ní Dochartaigh grew up in Derry in Northern Ireland, in what is considered to be the birthplace of The Troubles, a bloody conflict that lasted for three decades but still has ripple effects today, stirred up again by Brexit. Born to a Catholic mother and a Protestant father, ní Dochartaigh is intimately acquainted with the invisible and real borders people draw around identity and geographical locations. “The truth is, we had never been either of these things—Protestant or Catholic — and to live in Derry in the ‘90s and to have neither of those words to fall back on left you in a harrowing hole of a place.”
In “Thin Places: A Natural History of Healing and Home,” ní Dochartaigh returns to Northern Ireland after spending so many years fleeing from it, determined to carve out a new life but discovering that her place of origin was the only possible place to truly do that. Her hometown is a place of grief and division for her. In 1995, as a child, she survived a petrol bombing when her family was directly targeted in their own home. There’s a darkness that she carried with her for years as she went from Edinburgh to Bristol to back to Northern Ireland again, one that took the shape of a crow. It also morphed into excessive drinking and suicidal ideation. Derry has one of the highest suicide rates in the UK, and it’s no surprise given the pervasive history and cycle of violence as well as silence.
How does a person contend with coming from a place where suffering is part of its legacy? For the author of this memoir, it’s through acknowledging the mysteries and beauty of the natural world and spending time in its liminal spaces, something she learned about through her grandfather, a natural storyteller. These thin spaces are part of her inheritance. “Places where a veil is lifted away and light streams in, where 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.” One such location for her “was at the periphery of a field, at the top of a laneway, looking down onto a rough, sectarian housing estate — the second of my childhood — on the edges of Derry.” The author reflects on living on both sides of the river, and how much water means to her. “A body of water knows no definite form, no true boundaries, no borders. She is held delicately in the in-between place, carrying us in her strong flow to spaces unknown, unmapped territories.” She also writes about the unimaginable pain of the death of two close friends, including one who is murdered in the small village her family moves to after leaving Derry, a tragedy that scars what had felt like a space place to her.
It takes ní Dochartaigh many years to find her way back to the most important place of all: herself. Whether she’s meditating on moths or birds or the vivid colors of her home country, it’s her own perspective on the world around her that grounds her, soothes her, and offers solace. “Battles, governments, laws, leaders — borders — come and go, but the land and its sacred places remain unmoved and unchanged in their core,” she writes. “There are some places in this broken, burning and bleeding world in which I have experienced moments — fleeting but clear as winter light—where I feel hope like the beat of moth-wings on my skin.” As she studies the Irish language, she learns that the word for “to hope” also means “to burn.” “Embers, holding on for dear life, held tight inside the hearth’s womb, waiting to be rekindled.”
Fire almost consumed the house ní Dochartaigh lived in as a child, but fire isn’t only destructive; it’s a source of heat and power and illumination as well. “Thin Places” can be repetitive at times, circling back to the same reflections as often as a bird maneuvering in the sky, but in a way that feels purposeful, not random. Sometimes we need to cast a light on ideas numerous times in order to really see or comprehend them. And sometimes we need to give ourselves over to where we come from, however fractured that place may be.
“Thin Places” is a book about the danger of destructive boundaries, and how crucial it is to inhabit the spaces in our lives and in ourselves where we can find a language for what is too often considered unspeakable. After doing the hard work of confronting what she spent years running away from, the author is exactly where she needs to be. “Something deep down has shifted, and with that quiet change, a space has been caved inside me; there is room now for things, for things that there once was no place for before.”
Kerri ní Dochartaigh
Milkweed, 240 pages, $25
Michele Filgate is the editor of “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.”