Saturday, May 30, 2020

Ray McGrath

Ray McGrath’s new column as he adjusts to a life in isolation


It’s day 64 in the cocoon and I am missing the sounds that connect me to the ‘other’. Thirty years have passed, thirty joyous Springs full of hope, since I came to live here at the edge of the Glazing Woods. It was the serenity, the silence of the place, that first drew me to it. And the silence was gentle, lying softly on my being.

But also here were the connecting sounds that in a strange way were part of the silence – the Rosslare train rumbling across the Barrow Bridge three times a day, the throb of a fishing boat passing under my kitchen window and loudest of all was the sound of the tide, especially the core of the ebb, burbling and rushing through the poles of the weir below the house. These three, emerging from the silence, defined my soundscape and my sense of place.

There were other sounds which did not register then as clearly as they do now – the birds were always there – the dawn chorus, the cawing of the crows, the lonesome, haunting night cry of the curlew in the Marsh.


‘Silence can also be oppressive as thousands have known first hand throughout history – those sent to the gulag, the mental as well as the physical; others closer to home who have found their voice only recently or whose voice is still not heard.’


And…the more domestic patter of the mouse in the attic, the grunts of a foraging badger at night, the drip-drop from the gutters, the footsteps of grandchildren and those I loved have also been there to accentuate but balance the silence that defines this place, this time, and now this cocoon.

Summer sounds too are different from winter sounds – the wind in the winter willows is a lonely whistle; in summer when the trees are fully dressed there is a greater spectrum, from the sighing and soughing of a gentle wind in the leafy sycamores to a sonorous roar in a gale.

And the small ones of nature, the bees and damsel flies have their sounds too when we open our ears to hear and the poets who dreamed of islands and “living alone in the bee-loud glade” would surely have found words to describe these symphonies.

And when I think of silences, the dilemma of a teacher friend in Quebec who, when trying to find the word from her second language to describe utter quietness, confided that she was worrying about the effect in class of her effort: “It was so quiet, so quiet (as she struggled to find the word), you could hear a butterfly break wind.” She may have used four letters there where I’ve just used nine: you get the picture, I’m sure.

In ‘The Sound of Silence’, Paul Simon urges us to be aware of the incessant chatter to fill the gaps, people talking without speaking/people hearing without listening. No wonder he and his friend and co-musician Art Garfunkel sought to use the silence for reflection and growth.

In a recent interview, George Prochnik, author of the seminal ‘In Pursuit of Silence’, gave us this thought: “I came to think of silence as an ecology of sound that enables us to maximise our awareness of the full tapestry of sounds that make up the world.” Interesting too how Louis Armstrong saw the creative space that often comes from silence, from the gap to “the important notes were the ones I didn’t play”.

Recent medical research on the links between music and silence points to high levels of brain activity in the gaps between notes. It seems silence makes space for interpretation and imagination. The poet Edgar Lee Masters speaks of another kind of silence in his poem ‘Silence’ “and there is the silence of age/too full of wisdom for the tongue to utter it”.

But silence can also be oppressive as thousands have known first hand throughout history – those sent to the gulag, the mental as well as the physical; others closer to home who have found their voice only recently or whose voice is still not heard.

And compared to these silences I hesitate to speak of the silence of the cocoon – but it is real and it can be oppressive. There is the silence of loss, the loss of loved ones, now felt acutely by many; DH Lawrence eloquently reminds us “since I lost you, I am silence-haunted”.

I have known loss and the silence of loss but I also have been spared much sorrow. There has always been the restorative engagement with the ‘other’. It is this I have recourse to now: that engagement with a fellow human being who from time to time also feels the silence of the cocoon.

And I am so looking forward to moving from phone which has served me well to physical presence and the sound of human connection and the possibilities it offers. I leave you for the moment with these lines by an unnamed poet known simply as ‘Silence is Beauty’:


The silence before the sound

Is a quiet envelope between

The now and the after

Before the sowing of whatever




Comes next


(Ray reminds us that there is much opportunity for engagement with the other during Covid. Call to Chat, an initiative of Waterford Libraries and Waterford Older People’s Council, can be reached at 1800-250-185. Social Prescribing is another possibility for social conversation and engagement. The city number is (089) 02501413. For Waterford County the number is (089) 4917360.)


From Cheekpoint, Waterford, Ray McGrath contributes regular columns to the Waterford News & Star, including his most recent series Gaultier Heritage Rambles.

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By Ray McGrath
Contact Newsdesk: 051 874951

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