It was while walking by the sea that the idea came to me. I have often found that having the water rippling beside me helps in the formation of ideas, or maybe it’s just coincidental. A friend said that it had to do with our make-up of over 97% water, and he might just have something there. Whatever, a stroll along the beach, with the bubbling water a constant companion, has always been a place for reflection, imagination and quiet.
And, of course, relaxation.
Some time ago, on a beautiful spring morning, I was walking on Sandymount Strand when an idea floated into my mind, just like a wave top coming ashore. It is one of my favourite places in Dublin to go and ‘be alone with my thoughts’, such is the openness and calm to be found there, especially in the early morning. As I walked slowly along the sandy beach towards Ringsend, I gazed over to Howth and the almost mirror-still water that stretched to the horizon. How often had other people looked out at this scene from where I was now standing, I thought, and breathed another lungful of clear, tangy air?
And then it came to me.
People had been coming here for years, since time immemorial, gazing out over the very scene that was mine to behold. For just in front of me was a line of footsteps in the sand, an image that had not changed since the first person left similar marks so very long ago. The French have a saying for this: ‘Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’ which translates as ‘the more it changes, the more they it stays the same.’ That seemed about right as I watched a wave rush in and cover the footsteps in its watery embrace, removing them so completely as to leave no sign of their brief existence.
As the water receded, smoothing the sand into a new canvas awaiting its next mark, I remembered that James Joyce had a fondness for this place and included it in his most famous book, Ulysses. In chapter three, the young hero, Stephen Dedalus, walks along the strand and wonders about imagination, thought and sensation. The feel of the words is meant, in Joyce’s hand, to be fluid, hence the setting by the sea, where all things move from birth to death and, finally, renewal. This transience can lead to something permanent, and it is this cycle of renewal that really got a hold of me as I stepped quietly into the cold waters. I immediately left a mark that was just as quickly erased. The thought that there are things that could not be changed had a strange, comforting feeling. Joyce understood this better than most and allowed Stephen ask the question ‘Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount Strand?’ It was not something that I could answer, but I liked the idea that he, like all of us who walked on the strand, had ‘our moment.’ We all leave a mark, but as to whether it will last into eternity, well, that is for others to say. In the meantime, I keep walking on the strand, not so much in the hope of seeing Stephen Dedalus, but in anticipation of the soothing, dreamy rhythm of the gurgling water.