Seán Kenny on the genesis of his Issue Thirteen short story, ‘Rathlin’.
We travelled to Rathlin Island, off the north coast of County Antrim, in the summer of 2020. From our Airbnb in Ballycastle we could see it hunched on the horizon, this looming comma-shaped punctuation in the north Atlantic. Our ferry crossing was cancelled due to poor weather. We re-booked, changing our plans and extending our stay in the north by a day. I guess Rathlin was exerting some pull on us.
Walking up the hill from the harbour (everywhere in Rathlin seems to be on a hill), there was a note of dark humour. An anthropomorphic figure constructed from tree branches leant on a barrel outside McCuaig’s Bar, sporting a solitary item of apparel: a disposable face mask.
Rathlin was quiet. Due to the pandemic, most of its tourist accommodation was closed. There were other day trippers, of course, but they were well scattered. We met only a handful of people as we walked the island. Mostly there were seabirds and cows and always the roll and crash of the ocean.
Among those we did meet was a man who had travelled from the mainland with a small group of family and friends. They were on Rathlin in remembrance of his sister, who had recently died from cancer. The island, he said, was her favourite place, and she would visit it often. The man was keen to talk about his sister. Her career, her diagnosis, her struggle with the disease, her death. Her love of Rathlin. Each time there was a break in speech, I assumed he would leave the topic, would move to the safer ground of small talk. Yet it seemed that something in him needed to speak like this to us, though we were strangers. Perhaps it was because we were strangers. Perhaps it had nothing to do with that. Perhaps he spoke to many people like this. Or perhaps it was being there on the island, on this day. Grief is a many-tentacled beast. None of us can know how it may strike. But grief, of course, is the dread universal.
Rathlin is beautiful. It is a wild and battered beauty, craggy and stark. It’s an island off an island, a remote corner of a remote corner. There is a lonesome quality to the place, a sense of outpost in its lighthouses, its seabirds who come and go with the seasons.
I don’t always give my stories very well-defined settings. Often, they just take place in kitchens or in bedrooms or in cars, generally in the suburbs. The suburbs, I know.
There was some confluence that day of place and circumstance that set me on a path that led to writing ‘Rathlin’. It took time for all of this to distill.
There is a Steve Earle song, Ft Worth Blues, written by Earle as he toured in the months following his friend Townes Van Zandt’s death. Earle chronicles the shades of his grief as he travels through many places. ‘Amsterdam,’ he sings ‘was always good for grieving’.
The characters of Jim, who is grieving his wife, and of Kate and the narrator, are wholly my invention. Maybe Rathlin provides the canvas for the particular shades of Jim’s grief in the story. But there might be something of the island in them all.