The personal snippets that follow were broadcast on RTE’s
Programme Sunday Miscellany, to which poet, journalist, and editor Sean Dunne
introduced me back in 1992.
by Sunday Miscellany on 11 May 2014
ritual way to bed I step outside
a final peek at stars and moon,
pulsing Fastnet Lighthouse beam,
lights, the weather.
what towers before me but a vast white arc.
all my seventy-plus years, I’ve never seen
an act of nature. I gawk and I gawk
I dash inside for Nell and we stand
beneath this arc of whiteness,
pure dramatic gentle gauzy white.
the east, toward the newly-risen
radiant moon, the sky gleams with stars,
just emerging from the horizon,
Pleiades distinct in their little clearing of black,
own tiny galaxy the Milky Way
fainter and fainter straight for the moon;
to the west no stars at all but a misty rain
perhaps but a hundred yards away.
glance at my fisherman’s watch,
that the moon’s five days plus past full.
some five or twenty-five minutes
simply staring at this gift – and trying to take in
we guess to be a lunar rainbow, a rainbow filled
the white light of the effulgent moon –
decide sadly yet happily it’s time
head for bed, our heads packed with what we feel
straight out of the fourth dimension.
next day, as I’m hopping out of bed,
memories of the previous night alive and well,
switch on the radio, hear in the opening sentence
word moonbow, a word I’ve never heard before
what I assume refers to the kind of phenomenon
saw the previous night. I head for my study,
some quick research before breakfast,
that there are many names for the rarity we witnessed:
bow, lunar bow, moonbow, white rainbow,
rainbow, mother bow. And that,
Native Americans, especially the Cherokee
back 3,000 years. They experienced the moonbow
a distinct sign from the great Spirit” that gave them a “blessing”.
see I’ve been unconsciously in a long line worth the wait.
on Sunday Miscellany on 13 April 2014
rare I think of thanking God
the other day
our local church,
baby began to cry
as the flustered mother tried
that ten month old gift,
began to listen to the baby’s fuss
of to the sermon,
it was then that I heard
purity of tears
concentrated on what I knew to be
bit of the soul of heavenly sound.
when I’m in church and hear a baby cry,
listen thankfully to God’s music.
on Sunday Miscellany on 17 March 2014
for rain and fog, but uncertain about leprechauns and saints, Nell and I
our alchemist, we the dreggy substances in the retort. While the reaction
didn’t transform us into anything like gold, we thingamabob blow-ins
later crystallized as a consequence of the experiment.
our alchemist, we the dreggy substances in the retort. While the reaction
didn’t transform us into anything like gold, we thingamabob blow-ins
later crystallized as a consequence of the experiment.
by car ferry in Ringaskiddy from Roscoff, what greeted us but a postal and
petrol strike. In a contrarian way we
couldn’t have been more delighted; we
headed south, meandered west, following the coast and our druthers –
often eating picnic breakfasts in petrol pump queues. Everywhere, Kinsale,
afternoon, on the spur of the moment, I telephoned the States, where our
three kids were vacationing by visiting both sets of grandparents. I spoke
with my mother only to learn that my father had died suddenly, in his
sleep, just ten days before. The funeral was over. I’d missed
everything. She was managing. The kids were fine. The bits and pieces from
the Russian Sputnik that were to rain down on the East Coast hadn’t.
She’d been unable to reach us because we’d left no Irish address or
telephone number, and there were no mobile phones back then. Dad had
beaten her at a game of Scrabble that evening, perhaps for the first time
ever, and, despite his handicaps, had split a little wood earlier in the
day. When she awoke in the morning, she stretched, reached out, touched a
I exited the phone booth. An unknown woman waiting for the phone in
hour later Nell and I found ourselves prowling the eastern shore of Lough
Corrib. We had fled
night fell I’d built a cairn in memory of my Dad beside the lake.
early the next morning we heard a whistling. It grew closer, came right up
to our tent, receded into the distance. We discreetly waited, unzipped the
flaps, peeked out. A pail of fresh milk announced the dayspring.
simple act we experienced as a kind of Irish blessing, a gift, the true
kind that doesn’t ask for anything in return. Whether from leprechaun,
or saint, or Paddy Michael Johnny Joe didn’t matter. It was the kind of
gift that gave worth to life.
Broadcast by Sunday Miscellany 2.03.2014
|Winter weather? Well, when you live on a pigwidgeon island
An eight-mile journey out to sea, with a sixty acre
Hunk of grazing land, bramble, bracken, boulders, cliff,
Not to mention an organic garden that works
Year-round and a house that couple hundred feet above the swells,
Then you’ve luckily no choice but to become au fait with wind,
Waves, weather, the wild wonder of it all.
And what have we had these past two months
But storm after storm, day after day, white horses as high
As an elephant’s eye gads no. Why today
They’re often averaging 8 metres, with a new record set
Just east of us last week by a 25 metre monster off the coast
Of Kinsale. Imagine a frequent wave height some recent days
Of 15 metres, that’s over 45 feet to this old geezer’s mind.
And many’s the gust over a hundred miles per hour.
Weather? Climate change? God’s sneeze?
I watch as the combers roll by harbour mouth,
Once every minute or so a baby a good thirty feet high,
And the wind’s blasting slates off
Many an island roof, trees tumble helter-skelter,
Rain-soaked pastures metamorphise into muddy ponds,
Ten inches in January, seven plus halfway
Through this month of Feb. No electricity
These last three days, no phone for well over a week,
Ferry sailings cancelled frequently, though a quick
Dart to the mainland (and back) now and then.
But we’ve each other, and neighbours –
And enough food to last perhaps another week,
And coal, candles galore, new batteries for the radio,
A game of scrabble to replace TV and Internet.
And, I must confess, to watch the breakers
Exploding against the points at the mouth
Of South Harbour, to watch ’em burst
Brilliant white up the cliffs, to see them crest
In the middle of nowhere, come crashing down,
The most dramatic magnificent mothers
I’ve seen in all my 75 years.
And then the wash, an F-sharp symphony
Of cacophonous crests cascading off the keyboard
Of Cape’s cliffs. Yet somehow, this time,
Our slates stay on and the apple trees’ flexible branches
Snap mostly where I need to prune them anyway.
When I step outside, backyard gusts batter me about.
For the first time ever I can’t step up to what we call
Our Look-out Point. Yes watching the waves,
Feeling the wind, experiencing wild weather
Heaves my heart into my clichéd mouth and my mind
Into the savage wonder of it all, me but a grain
Of coastal sand in this prolonged sneeze of adventure.
and the Kitchen Sink
Broadcast by Sunday Miscellany 6.12.09
Arriving in the west Cork village of Baltimore all of an hour before the
ferry to Cape and home, Nell and I decide to put the time to use not by having
the usual cuppa in Bushes’ Pub or by walking out to the Beacon for a peek at
Sherkin Island and, on out to sea, at Cape itself, but by dropping in on some
friends and sharing the latest. Before we know it, thanks to the tea and talk,
it’s time to run for the boat. Only once aboard do I realize that I have
absentmindedly left my raincoat draped over the corner of our friends’ sofa.
So as soon as we arrive home, I give them a ring and they kindly assure me that
the raincoat will be on the early evening ferry.
enough, when I meet that ferry as it comes in to Cape, and wait for the
passengers to disembark, who is last in line but the captain himself, and what
is he doing but carrying my black raincoat in a white sink as he works his way
across the stern deck and up the pier’s green-stained concrete steps.
I go up to him and thank him for bringing me my raincoat, he holds out to me
both raincoat and sink.
I want’s my raincoat,” I say, perplexed.
here,” he replies, “I was asked to get your gear out of the boot of a car,
and I did, and here it is.”
laugh and laugh and reply, “Gear means clothing, not a kitchen sink. That sink
belongs to them.”
looks sternly at me as I try to restrain my laughter and ask him to please
return the sink to the boot of the car in Baltimore, if it’s still there, and
if not, just to put the sink on the pier and I’ll let my friends know so they
can retrieve it.
carefully puts the sink down on top of some bags of fertilizer, nods at me, and
I go off with my raincoat, still chuckling at the ridiculousness of the mistake.
I mean, I’m still thinking, how could “gear” include a sink?
home, I call my mainland friends and tell them what had accidentally and
absurdly happened, that a sink had gone missing from their boot, but to have no
worry, it would be returned to the Baltimore pier that evening. But they, they
was no sink in our boot, Chuck! What are you talking about?”
then do I realize that the skipper has played a joke on me. As I later find out,
he had been helping a plumber carry his equipment off the ferry and my coat he
had just happened to drop into the plumber’s sink. And he simply had to pull
I laughed and laughed at my having been made a fool of. And the next time I saw
the captain, oh but we had a good laugh together too, my utter naïveté after
two decades on Cape still resulting in these interludes.
is island life: Everything and the
& Oak Trees
Broadcast by Sunday Miscellany 25.10.09
hundreds of acres in every direction, despite the blizzard, my wife and I could
just make out gentle farmland, and, nearby, were touched by the snowy tops of
the graves in a modest cemetery. But a giant oak loomed above us in the Meeting
House parking lot and held our attention as the swirling white stuff deepened up
to our knees. Recalling that oaks can live as long as 2000 years, we stumbled
around this junior member of the Quercus clan.
It was, by my rough arm measurement, twenty-four feet in girth. Its branches
were bigger around than many mature oaks. No wonder, I thought, that the oak was
sacred to Jupiter, to the Celtic Druids, or “oak men”. No wonder Native
Americans thought of oaks as “peace trees”, under which they smoked peace
pipes with the white man. No wonder the oak symbolises regeneration and
restoration of family life. No wonder St. Bridget, as well as St. Columba, lived
in the heart of an oak.
symbolic, I still feel, that that oak stood before the Pennsylvania London Grove
Quaker Meetinghouse where our only daughter was shortly to be married. I confess
that that oak prompted me to tell this little story during our daughter’s
wedding, with the wind howling, the electricity shut down by falling branches,
the snow covering all the windows, and many of the expected guests unable to
drive the last fifty miles.
Alexander I was Czar of Russia, back in the early 1800’s, an American sailor
lad called on the U.S. ambassador and begged him to arrange a meeting with the
Czar. ‘Nonsense,’ said the ambassador. ‘But sir, I have brought him acorns
from the tree George Washington planted at Mount Vernon.’ ‘A few nuts!’
said the ambassador dismissively. ‘Show this fellow the door.’ A day later
the ambassador was drawn to his window to see what was causing a hubbub in the
street below. There stood the Czar’s splendid coach with its four black
chargers. In great anticipation the ambassador called his servant, ‘Quick, my
dress coat, the Czar is honouring me with a call.’ To his amazement, his
secretary shortly entered with the American sailor lad. The youth said, ‘The
Czar has asked me to pay my respects to you, sir.’ ‘What, you arrive in the
Czar’s coach? What does this mean?’ cried the bewildered ambassador.
‘Well, sir, yesterday I stood by the palace gates and one of the Czar’s
officers happened to come out to investigate me. I told him my desire and showed
him the acorns I’d brought from the States. He laughed and said, “Come with
me, boy.” He had great keys and he unlocked gate after gate. At last we came
in to a lovely garden and there, alone, was the Czar. The officer introduced me
and I told the Czar my errand. He took the acorns and examined them. Then he
walked to an open spot and I watched the great Czar plant them himself. Then he
said to me, ‘My boy, you appreciate the really worthwhile things in life as
did your country’s father, the great Washington. Tomorrow my carriage will
call for you to show you the sights of my capital.’ When the American
ambassador retired some years later, he took back to America a handful of acorns
from the Czar’s oaks in St. Petersburg.
blizzard of ’93 – and that William Penn oak – presided over our
daughter’s wedding and taught me some basics.
Broadcast by Sunday Miscellany 16.8.09
little island cottage sits high above Cape Clear’s pristine South Harbour, and
every morning, weather permitting, after breakfast, I meander with my cuppa
through the kitchen garden to Look-out Point, some fifteen metres northwest of
our house. This summer morning I’d thought I’d shortly be writing a poem, or
scything bracken, or both, rather than entering a world of yesteryear. But as
soon as I scanned the seascape, I was abducted into another time. Below me, in
the very middle of the inner harbour, swung a ship at anchor that turned the now
sadly legendary Asgard, which I’d seen down there several times before, into
small fry. I feasted on soaring spars, on massive bowsprit. Leaving my whetstone
on a stone slab, I dashed off, hoping to touch base with the seemingly mythic
proportions of the three-masted topsail schooner below.
South Harbour pier, for 300 days of the year deserted, was chock-a-bloc, kids
from one of the Irish colleges, a group of canoeists, snorkellers from the
Adventure Centre, a few locals. I waited at the foot of the pier until a group
of five, with babe in arms, strolled by. I asked if they knew anything about the
majestic ship. Yes, they were from it.
learning that the three masts were, indeed, extraordinarily high, 118 feet above
keel level, that the ship herself, the Oosterschelde,
had a length of 164 feet, and hailed from Rotterdam, I was told by a young man
he’d give me a tour of the ship in an hour. I grinned, promised I’d wait.
they ambled off, a Cape family approached, the four-year-old excited about the
pirate ship. Since he usually asks me questions about sharks and whales, I
realised that my imagination wasn’t the only one fired up by the topsail
hour later the schooner’s RIB pulled alongside the pier and I climbed aboard
as the helmsman piled out and the young man I’d met earlier climbed in and
took over. As we came alongside the Oosterschelde,
I craned my neck to peer at her masts. I’d never before felt a ship so tower
over me. From head to toe I could sense the presence of legend. Her masts’
vertical thrust gave me a thrill not unlike my feelings the first time I entered
the gothic nave of Chartres Cathedral and followed the columns prayerfully up
and up into the vaults above.
visited wheelhouse and bowsprit, examined photos of the ship sailing through an
iceberg arch in Antarctica, tried to put my arms around the foot of a mast and
discovered I could hug no more than just over half the diameter.
hour up in no time, the ship preparing to depart for Castletownsend, my
knowledgeable guide, himself it turned out the captain of the ship, deposited me
back on the pier.
scooted for the high ground of the tip of our farm to catch a final glimpse of
her majesty leaving Cape. As she exited the harbour, with the Fastnet Lighthouse
in the background, I waved and she hooted an echoing farewell. Eleven sails in
all, with the tidal flow against her, though with a following breeze, she slowly
disappeared into a sudden bank of fog.
I wanted to gleefully tell my young island friend, a pirate ship from yesteryear
had kidnapped me, literally spirited me away from the ordinary world into that
where myth and legends come alive.
Broadcast by Sunday Miscellany 12.7.09
being so equipped
live full life in an average of three days,
three days and, if you’re lucky, maybe as many nights.
what the Large Heath butterfly’s got,
days out of chrysalis to death,
three days to find a mate,
and meet the Maker.
Man, talk about packing it
don’t complain, just bobs about
his truly daily business
from tussock to shaggy tussock,
for food and friend.
Missus lays her eggs on the dead brown leaf
hare’s-tail, drops to earth.
got to know ’em when, into our also momentary space,
first Mister B., confused by glass, air turned solid, no smell,
against invisible planes, and he but probably born today.
last he alights in the conservatory’s upper southeast corner,
tawny wings as tight as El & I can eyes, reconnoitres,
three days to find a mate,
and meet the Maker.
Man, talk about packing it
in she daintily flits, fainter, fewer eye-spots,
I wonder if marauding meadow pipit can be far behind.
staring eye-spots may encourage such a predator
miss the body proper on his nabbing thrusts, but to me
circles suggest, I must confess, kingdom come mandalas.
Mr. and Mrs. Butterfly, says I at last,
him into a closing church of hands, and stepping outside,
calculate: you’ve 72 hours,
in our little communion hour together you’ve lived a year in my life.
go, you gentle. I separate sanctuary into halves
he, quiet, waits, wings raised,
I hear him pray, imagine being born today, middle-aged mañana
dead the day after Tuesday, oh Mr. and Mrs. B.,
off he flies, so El cups her, strides into outer space, opens church-door thumbs
she’s free too, an angel flickering about above the shrubb’ry
darting do-si-do dances with her man,
three days to find a mate,
and meet the Maker.
Man, talk about packing it
Legacy of the Famine on Cape Clear
Broadcast by Sunday Miscellany 10.5.09
the late 1980s, new to Cape Clear, my wife and I regularly explored the island.
When we asked permission to wander through private property, we were often
invited first to step in and have a cuppa by curious and friendly locals. Sadly,
the eldest of them have now passed on, but I remember the stories they shared
with us. And whenever I asked about the days of the Great Hunger on Cape, I
heard how they had heard firsthand from grandparents who had survived the Famine
that life had been much better here than on the mainland . . . those eight
sometimes wild miles away. A common perspective indicated that, all considered,
life was so much less threatening here that between two and five hundred people
from the mainland moved to Cape, which had a permanent population of around 1000
during those potato-less years. Here the newcomers could collect limpets and
periwinkles, harvest edible seaweed, catch fish from the shore, and in general
manage to eek out a way to stay alive.
that these stories could have been the consequence of an unconscious selective
memory at work, I’ve since read many other bleak accounts of the Famine on
Cape. Skibbereen Journalist Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa wrote about a Cape woman
to whom he personally delivered seven pounds of meal with the help of the island
priest. He recalled, “Father Collins took us to see the bedridden woman,
Kittie O’Driscoll. He went on his hands and knees and crept into a hole in the
side of a hill. I crept in after him, and there, stretched on the flag stones,
with nothing between her and the flag stones but her shreds of body clothes and
tufts of heath, was the poor bedridden woman. Leaving that place the priests
took us into some cabins where children were lying dead– dead from hunger;
took us into other cabins where the doors were flag stones – and things that
were there in the shape of wooden doors having been burned for firing.”
of the few statistics from Cape at that time indicates that 52 children were
born on the island in 1845. In 1847 that yearly figure dropped to 9. We can draw
a tragic inference from such a decline.
journalist, Jeremiah O’Callaghan, who visited Cape in 1848, wrote for the Cork
Examiner that he was met by “moving skeletons with swollen legs and distorted
features.” Yet in 1848 it is also noted that the Church of Ireland established
a school and a church on Cape and, as Eamon Lankford writes in his book about
Cape, “Housing conditions … during this time were poor. Most families, many
of whom had 10-15 children, lived in one- or two-roomed stone and mud cabins….
[But] The Minutes of the Island and Coast Society meetings of this time note the
attendance of 70 pupils at the mission school and upwards of one hundred at
church services. Given that soup, other food, blankets clothing and fuel were
distributed amongst the number, it is little wonder that deaths from starvation
in Cléire after 1848 were few.”
how do memories of the Great Hunger linger on Cape – since the island has no
special famine cemeteries? As blow-ins, we’ve now learned that when a
neighbour drops in, we don’t ask “Would you like a cup of tea?” just once,
as we used to, and then, when we heard the “no”, make tea for the two of us
rather than all three. Now, with due respect to the Famine tradition, we have
learned to ask three times, the first two questions the polite host’s duty –
and the refusals the polite guest’s response. The third “ask” meant that
there was in fact enough tea for all of us in the house so a “yes” was not
Broadcast by Sunday Miscellany 12.10.08
From inside Cotters, a Cape Clear island pub located not far from the Bird Observatory, all that could be seen one late afternoon out the window toward North Harbour was a five-year-old girl jumping up and down in some inexplicable delight. When her father and, by chance, the Bird Obs warden, went to investigate, they discovered that the young lady in question, perched gleefully on an old church pew, had sighted nothing less than a comical creature indeed, a Scops Owl – what birdwatchers consider a “most twitchable” specimen.
Indeed, this 1999 sighting of a Scops Owl proved only the third such sighting in Ireland since 1950, but of the previous two rarities, one was found dead and the other dying. Luckily this fellow couldn’t have been more full of life.
Anyway, word quickly went out that a Scops had been spotted. Between fifteen and twenty birders from around the country arrived on Cape over the next two days and five succeeded in seeing this rara avis. Now, having grown up with Great Horned Owls, and once, around 1948, having been struck on the shoulder by a baby owl that apparently fell out of its nest while I was walking through a woods in the Finger Lakes Region of upstate New York one night, I confess this Scops Owl – with its petite body and a face rendered absurdly expressive by moveable ear tufts – afforded even owl-jaded me pleasurable surprise. I examined him from arm’s-length. The tiny fellow – over a fifth smaller than your common blackbird – had apparently overshot his landing after wintering in Africa and heading for southern Europe.
One of the warden’s oddest experiences of the year occurred beside the island’s Alder Woods. Standing in the lane, his ever-handy binoculars focused on an as yet undecipherable movement in the copse, he sensed something alien. Glanced down. Two feet away, a mink was nonchalantly ambling past with a rabbit in his mouth. The mink shrugged at any threat posed by the warden and continued on his way.
The warden’s account of this moment reminded me of another Cape event from around fifteen years ago: Every day, for two or three days running, my wife and I noticed that a birdwatcher wearing a loud salmon-coloured pullover had stationed himself in a pasture near the island Post Office. On about the fourth day he led a group to his observation post. And then they peremptorily disappeared. Later I learned why. That bright splash of a man had spotted a female Red-capped or Black-capped Bunting and desperately wanted to make the identification, as one would have been a first for Ireland, the other a first for Cape. Finally he called in help, so tricky was the difference between the two. And as his twitching posse stood with all their paraphernalia, telescopes mounted atop a dozen tripods and binoculars zeroed in on the as yet unidentified Bunting, just as they were about to conclude the determination, literally out of the blue a Kestrel plummeted, attacked the Bunting and wolfed him down, leaving nary a traceable feather.
Indeed, with just over three hundred bird species recorded on remote Cape Clear since the Bird Observatory was founded in 1959, I – perhaps neither patient nor curious enough to become a twitcher – can’t help wondering who will see what next.
Hauling Lobster Pots
When I hauled my first-ever lobster pot, a pulsing curl of black rose from the depths. Once aboard, the caged creature within simply lay there quietly coiled. To innocent me he began to cast evil with unswerving eye. Staring back at him, I recognised something not simply slithery, slimy, but powerful, imperative.
My Cape Clear Island mentor turned the one-piece pot upside-down, threaded his arm through the cage’s throat. Circumspectly, my fisherman-friend then traced his way out, ever so delicately towing the tail of the all-seeing conger. A sudden lurch. But my guide had whipped his limb out ahead of the attack.
I moved away. My unruffled teacher reached in again, this time threaded the tail out until a foot or so of eel hung limply down. Slick as greased lightning, the beast slid out. But so that I’d learn my lesson, the eel was dropped not into the freedom of the open sea but into our rowboat, which became considerably smaller for his presence. I observed a snapping, writhing sea-snake of alarming density! Prodded with an oar, he struck. I stood cowardly by on the middle thwart, hooked with curiosity. I heard the razor-sharp teeth go snap.
Soon three congers lazed in the bilge. Now and then they made swimming motions and approached ankles that quickly moved away. Occasionally the eels snapped. My friend said blithely, or teasingly, I wasn’t certain which, “Take no notice”, but having a frisky conger not far from my lower extremities took all my notice. He could lie there ’til dusk yet be fresh as a daisy for a spontaneous foray.
A few weeks later I was handling congers myself. Until, that is, one threatened my marriage. My younger son had come to Cape for a short visit and I’d put the twenty-year-old to work hauling a singularly heavy pot. When he raised it to the surface and saw what was within, he blandly handed me the rope, said nothing, rolled his eyes, stepped back. I hefted the pot even with the gunwale. The king conger within was wound round and around so that the pot appeared stuffed with layers of glistening blackness. My wife sidled to the bow, our youngest to the stern. I wanted to see the full length of the monster and prepared to loose him into the boat. At that penultimate moment I heard a firm, unfamiliar, threatening female voice hiss at me: “If you let that thing into this boat . . . I’m leaving.” I turned, caught between Scylla and Charybdis. My wife, or a new vision or version of her, perched precariously on the bow, toes already dangling in the water.
I paused, twisted off the top half of my new two-piece pot right where it hung against the outside of the gunwale. A sinewy shiny ebony stretched out, out and out, six seven eight feet; he disappeared with a swift plunk into the sea, back to his den.
That night I read in Irish mythology how storytellers have imaged the eel as a protector. Cuchulainn’s spear, the Gae-Bolga, derives its name from the fella. I further learned that “Morrighan herself assumes the shape of an eel in a magical combat with Cuchulainn”; and that the eel is “a great purveyor of wisdom and inspiration.” Be that as it may, old King Conger inspired me to yield him victory.
St Ciarán of Cape Clear
When we moved to nature’s peace on Cape Clear Island back in 1992, little did we realize a saint came with the territory. And when we discovered that St. Ciarán is often referred to as Primogenitus Sanctorum Hiberniae, the eldest of the four pre-Patricians, we became fans.
On March 5th, 352 AD, Ciarán was born on Oileán Cléire. As a young boy, he was playing outdoors when a kestrel swooped upon a nearby wren, flew off, alighted with the wren crushed to death in his talons. Ciarán cried out, “Kestrel, kestrel, return thy right to me.” The kestrel flew back, dropped the bird at his feet. With tears streaming down upon the wren, Ciarán prayed, “Arise, and be made whole.” The wren fluttered its wings, flew off.
That resurrected wren was Ciarán’s first miracle.
When almost thirty years old, having heard rumours of a new religion, Ciarán set off for Rome, and eventually was consecrated a bishop by Pope Celestine. On his way home he met young Patrick, who implored, “Go forth before me, and in Christ’s name found a monastery at a well called Uaran.” “And where is that well, Patrick?” Patrick replied, “Take this bell with you, and when you reach the well, the bell will ring out for the world to hear.”
Ciarán returned home, christianized Cape, preached throughout Carbery, eventually journeyed as far as the Sleive Bloom mountains, where he stopped beside a well in Ossory, and there the bell, which had remained mute since the gift was given, rang out.
At first Ciarán lived by himself. Fox, wolf, deer, and badger subjected themselves to his rule as if devoted monks. With the assistance of a wild boar, he fashioned a rude hut, walls of wicker-work, roof of dried grass. Since disciples soon discovered his retreat, in 402 he founded a monastery at Saigher.
The monastery prospered. Shortly he had fifty yoke-horses for the growing and harvesting of grains and he distributed the harvests to the poor and distressed. Rich are the accounts of those Ciarán raised from the dead, including a band of murdered bards. Another miracle involves blackberries.
One autumn day, Ciarán spread clean linen over a blackberry bush. He asked his disciples not to remove the cloth. Soon after Easter, King Aengus and his queen, Ethnea, were guests at a nearby castle belonging to Conchyrd, Chieftain of Ossory. Conchyrd prepared a banquet for his distinguished visitors, during which the queen became attracted to him. The more she watched him, the more her passion grew. She contrived to tell him of her wish, but he tactfully rejected her advances. She then feigned an illness, knowing that her husband would have to continue on his journey and that she would be left behind. When asked if there was any cure for her illness, she replied in a sick whisper, knowing that they were out of season, “Blackberries”.
Worried, Conchyrd rushed to Ciarán, who promptly collected a measure of the blackberries still fresh under the cloth, and delivered them to the queen. Ethnea, flabbergasted, found the berries delicious, discovered her passion gone. She confessed her sin and Ciarán granted absolution.
Ciarán continued his conversions and miracles until the day of his death – March 5th – the very day he had been born; and it’s thought that whoever celebrates his feastday shall be prosperous in this life, happy in the next.
If you ever visit Cape, be respectful of St. Ciarán’s Holy Well. You may drink from it prayerfully, but don’t exploit the waters. Not so long ago some fishermen drew water from the well, then sailed off to the fertile fishing grounds beside the Fastnet. Ready for tea, they set the holy water to boil. But no matter how long they kept their kettle on the hob, the water wouldn’t boil. And never again would water boil in that kettle.
St. Ciarán’s spirit’s alive and well on Cape!
Model T Ford Days
My maternal grandfather had been a gambling man during the 1920s, and when the Great Crash hit he lost his fortune . . . except for his winter and summer homes, which he had, perhaps craftily, placed in his wife’s name as a safety precaution before the stock market collapse and his consequent bankruptcy. One other item he didn’t lose – despite all his purchases on the margin – was a black Model T Ford. I don’t know which year it was, but those Fords were last manufactured in 1927. And some of my earliest memories of Grampy come from the rides he used to take me on in his old Model T.
Being five years older than his next oldest grandchild, I had a special relationship with Grampy. In the middle to late 1940s he used to invite me to go on afternoon explorations with him in the Model T. While it was a cosy little car, with just a front seat, it had what we called a “rumble seat”, that is, if you walked to the rear of the car and reached way up to just below the rear window, you could twist the handle for the rumble seat and pull it down. The trunk, or boot as it’s called in Ireland, would open up, and that opened piece formed the backrest for a place to sit, with the rear bumper not far below your head. I loved to sit there and feel the wind racing around my body as Grampy prowled the country roads, pointing out special features of the landscape to me.
I never knew exactly where this curious Grampy of mine would go exploring next, but off we’d go through the small-farm rolling landscape of upstate New York, lake after pristine finger lake, hill after rolling hill, through a village, past a huge swamp with snapping turtles in residence, around a pond with deer beside it, past an Indian reservation.
One day, when we can see several long thin lakes at once from some high vantage point out in the boondocks, Grampy tells me what I guess some Native Americans – Iroquois, I think they were – once told him. When their god stood back from the world he had created, he examined it closely, saw that it was beautiful, and placed his hand upon it in benediction. These eleven- to forty-mile-long lakes were formed by that imprint.
One early summer afternoon Grampy reaches the top of a long hill and suddenly, no other vehicles in sight, we start cruising down, gathering speed. Gosh but now, geeze, but it’s windy back here above the southeast end of Owasco Lake, the smallest of the lot, the one I know best. We must be going close to forty miles an hour! “Hang on,” shouts Grampy. “Here comes that bellywhopper we call Mr. Hall. That’s his red barn there on the right.” Whee, my stomach’s in my mouth.
Thanks, Grampy, for taking that bump on the fast side. Good thing Gramma’s not here to protest.
Half an hour later we’re slowing down, we’re turning onto the dusty three-quarter-mile dirt road winding down to his summer house at Long Point. I hop out, shut the rumble seat, thank Grampy for the ride, and scamper barefoot down the path to the point feeling as though I’ve been getting a new view of the wide wide world.
Hitchhiking through Europe in 1961
After earning the princely sum of twenty-eight hundred bucks in 1960-61 for my first year of teaching, I was in no position when my summer vacation rolled around to book passage on the QEII for an exploratory first-time trip to Europe. So I purchased a copy of Europe on $5 a Day, stuffed a hand-me-down World War II knapsack full of clothing, bought 600 dollars worth of American Travellers Checks for my six week trip, and, after an 18-hour flight from New York, disembarked in Luxembourg.
In those days touring Americans didn’t travel in jeans or track suits or leisure wear, but in more formal attire. You could still tell with considerable certainty who was American, English, Italian, by the way they dressed. Dress proclaimed nationality: eyeglasses, shoes, tie, handbag. Homogeneity of garb hadn’t yet swept the western world. I wore a dark suit not only for the plane ride but also as an integral part of my hitchhiking strategy.
Walking through the airport gates, tie flapping, I wondered where I was headed. My only foreign language was French, three years of school French, a smattering of grammar, an inkling of literature. But no conversational ability. So, when I saw a road sign that pointed to FRANCE, off I went, looking for a wide shoulder where a car could pull over. I stuck out my thumb.
A loud stream of cars and heavy trucks barreled past. Suddenly a motorcyclist stopped. With knapsack bouncing, I ran up to him. He said something in some language totally unknown to me and motioned me to sit behind him. I’d never been on a motorcycle before, had heard stories as to how dangerous they were.
Off we went.
To stay alive I had to hug the unknown creature in front of me, arms around his thick leather-encrusted trunk. Soon we were out of the heavy city traffic, whizzing along at such a clip that I worried my knapsack might pull me over backwards. The road reminded me of upstate New York, straight and wide, like the Cherry Valley route, with long rolling hills. We zoomed through the countryside. I kept my head turned to the side to protect myself from the wind. Now and then one of us gestured at some sight and exchanged grunts.
And, d’accords, ici la belle France. Jumpin’ Jehosaphat! I was at last in the land of Rabelais and Baudelaire, of Chartres and Notre Dame. I remembered my first French lesson. The initial sentence on page 1 mingled with my vista of la campagne: “Je regarde autour de moi.” And I was doing just that now, watching the judiciously spaced plane trees rush past on either side, the huge farmhouses, farmhouses with outbuildings that formed honest-to-god courtyards, the real McCoy. Giant arched doors through which wagons could be drawn heaped with Breughelian loads of hay.
An hour later we entered the city of Metz. When I gawked at an ancient cathedral, complete with flying buttresses and clerestory windows, and rows of Tudor houses around it, I gestured to my fellow grunter, that, thank you, I’d get off, now, here, merci, please, and bon chance, dankeschön. He grunted something in some other language, stopped, took off his glove and shook my hand, pulled his glove back on, roared off waving.
That was the welcoming start of an on-going European adventure.
A Snake in the Grass
As a young boy, around eight years old, I become fascinated by local reptiles. My grandfather one day urges me to come with him out behind the ice house – a sawdust insulated large shed where ice from the nearby lake was stored in the winter and lasted through the summer – and there, as we quietly and slowly peek around the corner, we spy a four- to five-foot-long serpent quietly stretched out sunning himself at the shed’s eastern foundation. To innocent me, this experience feels like a peek into a secret world.
My grandparents later assure me that, if I want, I can catch some of the smaller snakes around this part of upstate New York, and have no fear of any poisonous ones. There aren’t any, despite what a few slightly cockeyed aunts and neighbours might say. “If the snake’s head doesn’t swell out before the neck begins, then you know for sure the snake’s not poisonous. Just be careful, Chuckles, whenever you pick up any snake, to grab it right behind its head. Then it can’t bite you, whether it’s poisonous or not.”
And they’re right. I begin to hunt through fields and woods for garter snakes, and now and then I spot one, grab it behind the head, and carry it around with me for hours. I love to study its eyes, how its tiny thin red tongue flicks out. A few times I even take a garter down to the edge of the lake and, grabbing the tip of its tail, I twirl the snake about before sending it swirling out over the waters. Fun is to watch it swim back to shore, to see its body curve back and forth. And usually, once it makes shore, I magnanimously reward the poor fella by letting him go free.
One day I stumble upon a garter snake that must be two feet long. I grab him and, all excited, think I’ll show him off to Aunt Jean, who lives next door. I waltz into her living room, but she’s not there, so, hearing a sound in the kitchen, I pop in holding up my catch for any and all to admire.
Only Aunt Jean’s there, and she, to my amaze, starts screaming, dashes through the house and out the front door. Not understanding what’s wrong, I run after her to see if I can help. Out front, she turns around, sees me running toward her, takes off down the path, shrieking hysterically.
Barefoot, I scamper after her as fast as my eight-year-old legs can go. I’d only visited her kitchen to show her my prize find. Just look at her. Ah, she’s an old scaredy-cat. Wait for me, Aunt Jean! Stop screeching “Chuckles, get that thing away from me.”
Suddenly I see that I’ve not only frightened her smack into the arms of a group of fellow adults, all relations, but I’ve embarrassed her, I’ve made her a laughingstock. Surely I know what that’s like.
And shortly I learn from an assemblage of my elders that I shouldn’t do such things, not to grown women (which, I assume, makes girls fair targets); but naughty or not, I don’t quite understand what those things are.
Little do I know that next summer I’ll have a terrarium in my downstairs room filled – to my aunt’s horror and my delight – with twenty snakes, all well fed and tended to while in summer residence with me. Guess it’s just as well I’m living with Gramma and Grampy.
The Iron Curtain Goes Up
Exploring Europe for my first time ever during the summer of 1961, I stuck out my thumb and caught a lift from the outskirts of Paris all the way to Munich. The driver, an elderly German, started talking. First he told me about Hitler, how much he loved the man. I held my tongue to see if I could get a line on such seeming madness. The driver appeared such a nice man, a simple man, an honest man. Instead of rocking the boat I encouraged him to row.
He shared his war stories. He rhapsodized on how Hitler had been a man for the people, of the people. When I pressed him to explain, he told me how the Volkswagen, the People’s Car, had been Hitler’s idea, an idea for the good of the common man, letting him afford what had hitherto been for the rich only. He described how Hitler had planned the nationwide network of superhighways, on one of which we were now cruising; he added that Hitler’d been for the ordinary people rather than the elite.
And then he told me about his year in an American prisoner-of-war camp in France. Oh, he’d been treated fine, but look at what had happened to Dresden, the city of all German cities that most loved America, and one of the most beautiful cities in the country. It had been bombed to smithereens; Hitler wasn’t the only destructive, country-conquering power about, he added; Hitler was simply trying to give his own country an identity in which the ordinary man could believe, the super-race a dream to unite the little guys.
I didn’t try to argue. Instead I tried to get a handle on how any of us can be so misled. Hearing he’d been at some of Hitler’s speeches; that he’d shouted “Heil Hitler” with the rest; that he’d never felt better in his life than when in those crowds, I began to sense that collectives are dangerous, that they betray man’s soul. Through collectives, twenty-two year-old me concluded, we abdicate responsibility. And then we drop bombs, carry out genocides.
No wonder, it occurred to me, wise leaders of old had, in their entourage, a “fool” -- one of my favourite characters in King Lear [and one I believe President Bush sadly in need of] -- to remind them of other points of view; no wonder some Native American tribes had a “contrarian” who, for example, when everyone was dancing one way around a ritual fire, would dance the other.
I don’t know if I was a wiser man when I left his car, but certainly a sadder.
In the centre of Munich I found a clean Catholic-run youth hostel at a reasonable price. Then I started walking the streets, exploring the museums and churches, and happened upon the Hofbrauhaus, the largest drinking establishment I’d ever seen. Room after huge room of energetically talkative, beer-swilling people. The place was packed, the atmosphere friendly, the waitresses able one handedly to hold trays of five or six steins of beer high over their heads as they wove their way through the crowd. I sat at a long trestle table, found myself chatting with a middle-aged Egyptian political exile and his mistress. Next we knew, from loud speakers hanging on the walls, the closure of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin was being announced. The Berlin Wall, the beginning of the Iron Curtain, as it came to be known, started there that very afternoon. My new friend explained the implications. He, who before the announcement had seemed a wise witty mentor, broke down halfway through his history lesson and bawled like a baby. There was everywhere about us a vast feeling of forlorn emptiness. And we felt we couldn’t stop what was happening – this great division in the world, this split between east and west, between communism and democracy – that we couldn’t stop it any more than we could stop meteors from falling. [Or, today, any more than we seem able to stop the war in Iraq. But still, as individuals, for the sake of truth, sanity, our children and theirs, we’ve got to try.]
Below Sea Level
Down we go from the red and brown and sparkling grey hills
of the Negev Desert, down from the miniscule Bedouin settlements,
down and down and down to the Dead Sea itself,
down to the earth’s lowest point at over 400 metres below sea level.
Not a breath of wind. The saltiest of waters reflect
the cloud-capped Jordanian mountains along the entire eastern shore.
But the size of this shimmering mirror perplexes me.
What had once been a lake 320 kilometers long is now but 65
and shrinking. With no outlet, a high evaporation rate,
and about 5 centimeters of rain a year in the region,
the shallow southern basin appears more like flooded farmland.
As we drive north beside the western shoreline,
the Sea of Salt only a hundred meters to our right,
we look up into mountains rising abruptly on our left.
Between the peaks, some of them resembling gigantic sphinxes,
stretch canyons and the inviting yet scary black mouths of caves.
And not a sign of life. No birds, no livestock, not a farm, not a house.
When we stop to picnic in a park beside the quiet waters,
I place my hands in the water, can’t believe how slippery smooth
they feel when I pull them out and rub them together.
It’s as if they’ve been oiled. Then I lick a spot. My tongue
feels bitterly stung. No wonder we’re advised not to open our eyes underwater.
When we reach the north end, I realize
that on the entire lake we’ve only seen one small boat,
a military vessel simply cruising the waters as a presence.
No fishermen, not only because of the political pressure
between Jordan and Israel, but because the water’s so salty – about 30% salt
compared to the Atlantic Ocean’s 4%. No wonder there’s not a fish in lake.
As we drive toward Jerusalem, I look back at what was once the Sea of Lot,
and, in Byzantine times, the Sea of the Devil. It has me in its grip.
The Aqueduct to Caesarea
As we drove south from Haifa toward Tel-Aviv, with the bright blue but wintry Mediterranean Sea quietly shimmering on our right, we noticed a mammoth stonewall-like structure crossing the cactus-sprouting yet surprisingly fertile green countryside from a mountain range some ten miles to our left all the way over to the sea. When we commented on this strangely salient wall, our Israeli/American friends asked us if we’d like to see up close the remains of what was actually an aqueduct which had once supplied fresh spring water to the significant seaside settlement of Caesarea, the Roman capital of Judea for almost 600 years.
Excited, we said yes, we’d love to see an ancient aqueduct, hands on. We shortly turned off the main highway, drove toward the sea, parked in a large but almost empty lot just a couple hundred yards away from where the aqueduct, which had been paralleling the sandy edge of the sea for half a mile, came to a sudden sad crumbling end.
I could barely believe the sense of human achievement I felt in this aqueduct, the millions of man-cut light brown stone blocks that had gone into it back in the second century AD. How deep the wall went down into the sand I can’t say, but what remained was about thirty feet high and ten feet thick. As far as we could see, the aqueduct was regularly pierced by matching semicircular arches neatly spaced, with about five feet of stone between their bases. The arches rose up two-thirds of the way to the top, and where each arch began its curve – about four feet above the present ground level – a smooth absolutely flat bit of stone, the impost, jutted out, some six inches worth. And wherever some of the original top of the aqueduct was extant, I saw another kind of rim area, perhaps an undecorated entablature. Between the impost and the entablature, the stones were quite small in size; a labouring man could have struggled along with one tucked under each arm. But the stones from the impost down toward the bottom of each arch were sizeable, probably requiring four men to lift one stone.
Not far above the arches the piping had been laid, piping which dropped, I overheard, about two inches for each mile it progressed from the mountains to the reservoir in Caesarea. While I didn’t see any of this piping, I later read that it usually consisted of rock-cut conduits.
When I spotted a youthful tourist climb up to the top of the aqueduct, I confess I had to do the same. Once there, I walked along, now quite by myself, and felt as if this structure on which I was privileged to meander had its own kind of majesty mystery and might. In a way it reminded me of the Egyptian pyramids in that the aqueduct was architecturally and practically their very opposite, their antipode. It had helped people live in this life rather than in the next. It was humbly horizontal. It was utterly public, without secrets. Yet, as with the pyramids, what labour thousands of people put into cutting and transporting the stone and erecting the work.
When I eventually climbed down and rejoined Nell and friends, we walked to the water’s edge and looked back at the aqueduct. It shared the golden brown colour of the beach and we felt how its myriad arches added a complex rhythm to the ripples in the sand. As we admired the aesthetically mesmerizing arches which slowly disappeared to the north, we realized that they also had an altogether practical purpose: they saved dramatically on the amount of stone needed for building the aqueduct without diminishing its strength. Yes, we decided, an aqueduct of down-to-mother-earth practical value yet, at the same time, a work of art.
Standing on my Head
Hoping that what woke me up would wake my students too, and believing that you don’t teach only a subject but who you are yourself, I had no hesitation as a secondary school literature teacher to be passionate about the novels and poems and plays I assigned my students. And I’d tell stories. Pose riddles. Have anybody late to class tell the biggest lie as to why, the bigger the better. Kids weren’t late often, and when they were, we had fun.
All the paper-grading, however, required much of my evening and weekend time, until I discovered a way to shorten my written comments. For each paper, instead of my usual paragraph, I finally learned how to concentrate my evaluations. No matter how weak a paper was, I’d comment on its best quality in one sentence – and, in my only other sentence, I’d constructively comment on the paper’s weakest characteristic. And no matter how good a paper was, I’d do the same thing. Two sentences, strength and weakness. At home I began to have more time to play with my own children.
Realizing that I learned more when I had to teach a class than when I simply sat in a class, I’d have each student become responsible for two classes a year. I also encouraged my students to ask questions – and reassured them that sometimes the more silly or even stupid the question might seem to them, that those were the very questions that most often got to the heart of the matter.
One day, having just finished reading aloud a poem by T.S. Eliot or Alen Ginsberg – I can’t remember which – a student raised his hand and asked, “But sir, how does your archetypal poet see this world?” I felt stumped, didn’t know what to say, and remained quiet for several minutes, suspense building. Then I did something I’d never done before, and never since: I removed my shoes and crawled onto the large sturdy oval wooden seminar table, right to its middle. Surrounded by twelve utterly quiet students (in that international day school in Switzerland we never allowed more than twenty in any one class), I lowered my head to the table, raised my knees to rest on my elbows, and then slowly, tentatively, lifted my legs toward the ceiling. While standing on my head, and wondering if I would ever more be seen as an utter idiot, forgotten pens pencils car keys and loose change falling out of my pockets, I waited for the silence to return, and then, from some up-side-down somewhere else, said, “A poet sees exactly the same world you see, but from a different perspective.”
I kept standing on my head for a few more scarily silent minutes, then lowered myself to the table, collected my belongings, and crawled back to my chair.
Partly in protest against the Vietnam War, and partly because my wife and I were curious about what it would be like to live in Europe, we moved from the USA to Switzerland in 1966. Ten years later, we decided that we owed it to our three kids to spend a sabbatical year back in Auburn, New York, my hometown, as far from New York City as Ireland’s southernmost island, Cape Clear, is from Derry.
Culture shock we expected, but not in the bizarre ways it shook us.
For example, we enrolled eleven-year-old son Charles, eldest of our three, in a middle school with a population of around one thousand, quite a change from the fifty pupils who attended his primary school in Switzerland, and he inadvertently set us up with a challenging experience.
On his very first day in class, he had to fill out all kinds of standard forms. One question he’d never been asked before stumped him: “Of what religion are you a member?” Since we’d been bringing the kids up without a particular church, though with readings from the Bible and from a myriad of other wise books, including collections of world mythology and fairytales, he raised his hand, asked the teacher what the question meant. The teacher reworded the question, “Just put down whether you’re Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian or Jew. That’s all.” Charles thought a moment, then bravely said, “But what if I’m none of those?” The teacher scratched his head, then answered, “Just put down what God you believe in. That’ll do.” Charles completed the form.
During the normal parent/teacher conference day later that autumn, the teacher pulled us discreetly aside and asked us to explain how Charles could have answered such a straightforward question with such an alien concept. “What do you mean?” we asked. “Well,” he answered, “your son filled in the blank with one word, and that word was” – he paused a moment – “Zeus. What, pray tell, are you doing to him? Are you part of some new sect? I mean, this school’s non-denominational, but what’s going on in your family?”
In an attempt to clarify matters, we described to the teacher a vertical triptych Charles had painted a couple years before. We’d forgotten about it but the concerned interrogation brought the drawing vibrantly to mind. In the bottom third Charles had colourfully sketched a crowd of human beings and houses – and underneath them an angry devil shaking his fist at the heavens above. In the middle picture he’d sketched a squadron of bombers dropping their ware on the assemblage of humans. And in the top third he’d portrayed Zeus, in all his glorious wrath, hurling thunderbolts at the bombers. Satan, we realized, was shaking his fist at Zeus for interfering.
We told the teacher that we’d interpreted Charles’ masterpiece as a dramatization of a Grecian Yahweh’s Christian Justice, the direct consequence, we assumed, of our reading to the kids, and telling them stories, from throughout the Greco-Judaic heritage of the western world. Shaking his head in disbelief, but finally smiling, the teacher let us go.
Now, forty years later, Charles and his wife, firmly settled in New Jersey, are home-schooling their children so as to emphasize a connection to nature and history – and a balance between body and mind. For their birthdays, we’ve sent the grandchildren illustrated versions of the Bible – and of Greek mythology.
“What is life? . . . The breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.” Those were Native American Crowfoot’s last words, in 1890. And by the late 1940s, my primary school chums and I could all but confirm his insight. After all, we then believed, we’d “growed and growed” almost all the way up, had turned ten eleven twelve and we knew all there was to know. And come winter we headed with secondhand skies and bear-trap bindings into the hilly hundred acre once-upon-a-time Indian cemetery.
In a section without graves we packed a trail in two to four feet of virgin snow. Slowly we mastered shushing down a short, graveless hill, and struggling back up without sliding backwards as we contortionists learned to step with the left ski tip pointed almost due left, and the right ski tip almost due right. Looking at our long rows of tracks, we understood why skiers named this pattern the herringbone. More slowly we learned how to come to a stop without falling. We’d force ski tips to come almost together, but – and this was the tricky part – not let them cross over each other, and we’d push the backs of the skis wide apart so that the skis were in a position appropriately called the snowplow. Hardest of all was to turn. Eventually we learned to push out with the downhill ski, shift all our weight onto it, then lightly slide the other ski into a parallel position, and we’d turned, we’d learned to stem-christy. These manoeuvers mastered, we sallied forth into the cemetery proper. In this Christianized Iroquois burial ground, we slalomed down the steepest slopes with gravestones as markers that never lied.
When sledding instead of skiing, a trudging band of us would gain the mouth of my parents’ driveway, our house across the very top of a steep cul-de-sac. We’d troop into the driveway for that extra bit of preparatory space, sling our towed sleds around and lift them in one practised, macho motion. Ready as a tribe of Indian braves, we’d dash forward, holding our sleds like shields before us. When we hit top sprint speed, we’d fling ourselves down bang, bellywhopper after bellywhopper, and race to the bottom, some futilely kicking their legs for an extra spurt, most hunkering down so that they offered the least wind resistance. And woe betide him who let his lips or tongue touch the steering, for warm wet flesh sticks fast to freezing metal.
When the sledding camaraderie peaked, we’d be putting together trains. Eight to ten of us would form a line. The train driver would lie on the first sled, hook his toes into the front of the next sled, and so on down the line, with the last sled, or car, designated the caboose. Off we’d go, at first keeping fairly straight and allowing speed to build up. Then the driver’d start making gentle S-turns, but what was gentle for him wasn’t even polite by the time the turn had worked its way back to the caboose. And once the driver snaked back and forth the width of the car-lined street, the tail end of the train jerked and snapped about as if a furious death throe amplified while passing through the train. Usually the caboose, and sometimes the previous two or three cars, would lose control and flip out. It was as if the train became a whip, the snap occurring at the tail. Most of us dared to be the caboose to see if we could avoid derailment and wreck.
We may not have smelled the buffalo’s winter breath, but we gave chase.
DECK THE HALLS WITH BOUGHS OF SEAWEED
Late morning Christmas Eve, gusts begin to rattle Cape Clear Island slates. The air’s thick with rising storm, the sea emits a tell-tale greasy glint. We decide we’d better lay in an extra supply of basics and drive to Siopa Beag. Some mad roaring beast’s above, pawing the metal roof. And, shazam, we’re in darkness.
We learn that the ferry left Baltimore at 11:30. It’s now noon. Pulled by a force we don’t understand, we batter our way to a breakwater that affords us a view of Roaringwater Bay. No ferry in sight. Others join us. We realise we’re all here because we’re frightened, frightened of the storm, frightened for the safety of the boat, those aboard. We sense generations of past islanders staring out to sea, waiting, praying. There’s no banter, no gossip, just a small crowd of grim faces trying to discern the ferry, willing it into sight.
At 12:30 we glimpse her. The crowd gasps as a breaking swell hides her from sight for longer than we think possible. We hear a fisherman say “there’s no badness in the seas [pause] yet.” The mad wind shrieks. I imagine the harbour’s white caps whipped by some angry god and understand why wild times bring out pagan imaginings.
The Naomh Ciarán II, as if in slow motion, makes her approach, despite her frequent disappearing acts, toward the harbour mouth. “In” in the nick of time, the ferry draws near the pier. Seven men stand ready to secure hawsers to bollards off stem and stern. Around 20 other mightily relieved people stand watching. A few are crying, relieved to see their loved ones safely home. After the half-dozen passengers disembark, including Father John Collins, here to celebrate Christmas Masses, the ferry lads set out to move the ship from the outer to the safe harbour.
As soon as the ferry’s loosed from her fair-weather berth, she’s blasted by such ferocity that in seconds she’s pinned against the adjacent pier, the Bull’s Nose. The huddling men with the hawsers dart forward, dragging critical ropes to the next bollards. Both bow and stern must be kept secured while the twin engines rev; otherwise the screaming wind will swing the hull about and the boat herself become a loose cannon on the deck of the harbour.
When the final bollards are looped, we relax. It took her an hour to steam the 8 miles “in” to Cape Clear, another half an hour to move the last 100 yards to her overnight berth.
Nell and I head for home. We park, check the roof, the windows, enter the lee of indoors. We discover, that our house, lit by twelve candles, is utterly relaxing, a complete change of pace. We can’t read, watch TV, listen to music. We can’t be, as a T.S.Eliot describes modern man, “distracted from distraction by distraction.”
During the days following we learn from a fisherman neighbour that gusts hereabouts may have reached 140 mph; the Valentia Observatory tells me their maximum was 102, and adds that much higher gusts were possible.
So, despite flying slates and barges and punts, no one was hurt on this ruthlessly exposed almost treeless island. And, in the aftermath of the 1997 Noel Hurricane, we realise that we set out for basics -- and found ’em.
Tail-end of Hurricane Sets a Record
In the autumn of 2000, the tail-end of Hurricane Isaac swept over Ireland’s southernmost inhabited island, winds gusting seventy miles per hour. The next morning, skies clearing, sea spit clouding every windowpane, a visiting birder peered about Cape Clear’s waist, a highly protected miniature valley, which includes an area known as Cotter’s Garden, and hoped, though for what he knew not. Something off course. Something from way west.
He saw a flick of loud yellow. Praying that Isaac might’ve dropped off an accidental hitchhiker from North America, the man does a double-take, sees something never before recorded in Europe. Yes, he’s happened upon an occasionally sulky but definitely perky Blue-winged Warbler.
Word goes out. Mobiles ring. Around Europe pagers shake with MEGA ALERTS.
When I board the afternoon return ferry in Baltimore, having completed my monthly mainland errands, I hear of this special guest, learn that he winters from Mexico to Panama.
And suddenly, about me, alight a flock of birders from all over Ireland and England, a few from Scotland, Switzerland, the Scillies – with hundreds more underway.
As we depart, a crew member informs an enthusiast that a Sparrow Hawk has just been sited quartering the terrain of Cotter’s Garden. It’s loudly decided that if the Hawk doesn’t get the Warbler, the Warbler’ll be leaving three minutes before this ferry disembarks.
Once on Cape Clear, my wife and I walk the half-mile home, unpack supplies, and read the mail. But curiosity gets the better of us and we head outside. Halfway to Cotter’s Garden we realise we’re such novice birdwatchers that we’ve forgotten binoculars.
There, in a field that once was a garden, a group of thirty-odd birders stand in a zigzag line, focusing on a clump of nettle and Japanese knotweed. The excitement’s tangible. Cell phones are having a field day. Urgent whispers make the rounds.
We finally see him, a blur of perky yellow. The group’s been given a shot of adrenaline. Caught in this collective, I want to shout Hallelujah and imagine Handel’s chorus reaching crescendo in the shrubbery behind. My wife’s hopping up and down with the glee of a child who’s just seen Goldilocks emerge from a forest with three docile bears in tow.
Mesmerised, we watch as the warbler darts from plant to plant, across the field to a stand of pines, back to where he first went to ground. A Scotsman scrutinizes him gulping a caterpillar. A Northerner observes a grub disappear down his gullet.
The crowd swells. We hear the ferry return from an extra run, see birders leap off, race the length of the pier, dash along Tra Kieran, sprint up the hill. They join us, gasping creatures who might just be that second too late.
The next day three times as many people are in the field, more above it. A third of those from the day before have gone, some to see a Paddyfield Warbler in Allihies, others further north to check on a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I overhear a man on his mobile discussing his flight to Inishmore from Galway later this afternoon.
On the way home, we bump into an Island woman, describe what’s going on, including the birders hotfooting it. She recalls a similar incident years ago when she saw visitors madly dashing, binoculars bouncing, from the ferry to God knows where. Wanting to help, she asked one, “Who’s died?”
600-plus birders from all over Europe visited Cape Clear over the next four days – and all saw the blue-winged warbler. Truly ’tis an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good. Thanks, Hurricane Isaac.
One That Didn’t Get Away
One sunny summer Sunday afternoon, back in the early 1950s, fourteen-year-old me tossed a net, fishing pole, and screwdriver into my grandfather’s green rowboat, shoved it down the shale beach into the flat calm lake and, half an hour later, finally succeeded in starting the one-and-a-half horse Johnson outboard, a monstrous kicker built back in the roaring ’20s.
Once it growled into life, I slowed it down as far as it would go, grabbed my fishing rod, pitched my favorite black F-7 flatfish overboard, let out some seventy feet of line, wedged the handle into the floorboards, and returned to the engine to fiddle with the carburetor because I was cruising much too fast to troll for my favorite game fish, the small-mouth bass.
Suddenly my reel clicked furiously. Assuming I’d caught bottom, I shut off the engine, jumped for the pole. When the boat came to a stop, the line continued to zoom out. I pressed my thumb onto the spool to slow down the line release, but in seconds my thumb began to burn. Desperate, the line almost played out, I grabbed the spool handle with my right hand – my left half way up the pole – and halted the flow of line. The rod bent savagely. I feared it would break or the twenty-pound-test line snap, and I could feel whatever creature it was at the far end powering away. Worried that the boat’s sideways resistance might further complicate matters, I hustled to the bow and, as if pulled by an invisible force, the boat quickly swung toward the fish and began trailing a discernible wake.
Occasionally I was able to reel in a foot or two of line, but not more. In half an hour the creature had towed me half a mile north. Several men out fishing around a far point spotted the drama. One motored alongside. He secured his craft to my port gunwale. Another did the same to starboard. Soon the three of us, and our new raft, were pulled south, back to where I’d started an hour earlier. We discussed what the fish could be and decided it had to be a carp, as no trout, bass, perch, pike, or sucker had such strength.
Whatever the creature – our tugboat for the next two hours – he pulled us back to the waters I knew best, headed straight to the thickest bed of weeds, then to a great drop-off and dove straight down. We were now a hundred feet above him rather than behind him.
Ever so slowly I began to reel him in, hoping he’d have sufficiently exhausted himself and wouldn’t be able to dart off. Eventually, I tugged Mr. Tugboat into sight, about fifteen feet below us, a monster, the biggest fresh-water fish any of us had ever seen. I worried that when he saw my net dip into the water, he’d give one mighty kick and shake loose my lure, but instead he simply stayed dead weight. We netted him, lifted him aboard.
When I’d lugged him home to my parents and grandparents, Grampy immediately filled a large metal tub near our back door with water, and I dumped the twenty-five pound carp in it. And for the next few days I held court: local farmers, sport fishermen and their families came to view the anomaly, what many called the largest fish ever caught in Owasco Lake. Then, since our dinning room was protected by screens only, no windows, my queenly grandmother quietly commanded that I bury my catch before he began to stink us out.
Before that day I’d never considered erecting a gravestone over the body of a fish.
The Fourth of July
Back in the late nineteen forties and on through the fifties, in preparation for the celebration of the 4th of July, our national Independence Day, my grandfather encouraged his growing nine grandchildren to prowl the shore of the lake – where we all lived in close proximity to one another – and drag driftwood to our bonfire site down on the point. If the requisite old boards and branches weren’t found, we’d delve into the surrounding woods to tug back whatever we could find on the forest floor. Eventually we’d build a bonfire that looked like a large Native American teepee.
On the day itself, Grampy cooked the evening barbecue of hotdogs and hamburgers, down near where the mouth of the brook opened into the lake and only about thirty feet from the bonfire site. Aunt Jean’s jelly salad, Uncle George’s sweet corn, Aunt Anne’s baked bean casserole, my mother’s macaroni dish, and Gramma’s rich chocolate brownies, all supplemented Grampy’s log-grilled meat. After the meal we’d move from the picnic table to the adjacent beach. Darkness would be falling, the night wind would usually be its almost non-existent self, and Grampy, after pouring a touch of kerosene on a few key spots, would light the bonfire, which in no time would be throwing flames and sparks high into the heavens.
Eventually someone would pull a burnt limb from the blaze and hold the glowing end out to us kids; we’d touch it with the ends of our sparklers and go dancing about the beach twirling magic wands.
And then Grampy would erect a ten foot high tripod of poles, rest the top third of a gutter pipe where the poles were tied together, and force the base of the pipe into the shale beach, the pipe angled out over the lake. This odd construction became nothing less than a rocket launcher. He’d position a skyrocket at the very base of the gutter pipe, and then let one of us light the dangling black fuse with a large-headed kitchen match – and skedaddle before the rocket started emitting sparks. Each rocket would power up the length of the pipe and shoot high into the sky over the lake, where it would burst into exciting displays of multicoloured light. Occasionally there’d be a great flash and an explosion would echo round the lake.
When the dozen or so skyrockets had all been launched, and maybe a Catherine wheel or two spun round, a few Roman candles set off right at the water line, we’d return to the bonfire, now collapsed into glowing embers, and form a cozy circle around it. It was then that the grown-ups would begin singing and telling tales, true stories, family stories, ghost stories, local legends. One time, right at the end of a spooky story about an old man who for centuries had been living in the depths of the lake, we suddenly heard a great splashing in the water and saw the old man himself rise up and start to charge toward us. How we screamed – until we recognised Uncle George. Then how we laughed.
Between stories, we’d scan the lake, which was a mile wide, eleven miles long and sparsely populated, to see how many other bonfires and fireworks we could spot. And sometimes, on those clear nights, Gramma would point up into the sky and tell us a story about Cassiopeia or Draco.
And finally, with some of us kids starting to slump onto neighbouring shoulders, it was time for bed. We’d wend our way home, replete with family favourites, both food and lore, me to my bed on the open porch of my grandparent’s house where I’d fall asleep listening to cricket song.
Thanks to my maternal grandmother I grew up loving storms, especially thunderstorms, those phenomena King Lear said “strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world.” Gramma would take me by the hand and we’d walk the hundred yards down to the shore of Owasco Lake, upstate New York. The clue, she said, to an approaching storm was always the wind. It would drop just before a storm hit. Then a pulsing lull. And then the storm would attack from a direction different to that from which the wind had just been coming.
We’d stand on the shale beach – the same beach off which I cast for smallmouth bass and where I searched for fossils and Indian wampum – and we’d watch the white line approach. We judged how close we could let the rain advance without our getting wet, and then make a dash for home, trying to keep the same distance between us and the rain as when we started our mad scramble. Now and then we got drenched, but usually we made it to the safety of the front porch, and from there we watched and listened. How the fabled Rip Van Winkle’s grey-bearded dwarfs in the skies could roll those bowling balls. How I enjoyed their hullabaloo. “A strike! All the pins down that time!”
Jagged streaks of lightning filled black skies. We’d count the seconds between when the lightning burst and when the thunder reached us: “one thou-sand, two thou-sand, three—” and we’d know that that last bolt had been 2 1/2 miles away.
My grandmother, a genealogist by inheritance and by nature, used to talk about some of the contrarians and oddballs we were descended from. The story of a great grandfather named John Parry, who was killed by lightning in 1772, intrigued her and she’d quote her mother’s account of the event: “One day at noon there was a thunderstorm; he stood in the doorway of his house in Kittery, Maine, with a basin in which to catch rain water, and was killed instantly by lightning. He was found standing on his feet in the doorway leaning against the door. The silver of his watch was melted in his pocket but the works were not injured. The watch was given to his daughter who in turn gave it to her daughter. . . .” Where the remnants of that watch are today, I’ve no idea.
Even the Cape Clear island cottage where I live today, I’m told by neighbours, was hit by lightning back in 1957. The bolt went through the roof, just missed the man of the house up in the master bedroom; then shot down the stairs and out the front door, just missing the man’s daughter who was pottering beside the fireplace. Ever after, whenever she heard thunder, she’d start to shake.
But to this day, some sixty years after my Gramma used to take me by the hand, anytime I see lightning I discover I’m counting. And any time I hear thunder, as happened more frequently on Cape Clear Island the summer of 2004 than at any time before in my twelve years full-time there, I watch excitedly for the next streak of Zeus’s power. Gramma always said, “If it’s got your number on it, you’ll never know it, so why be afraid.” I hope I have the opportunity to pass her perspective on to my grandchildren.
For the sake of my old man’s back, I take a break from spading the overgrown garden and climb the few stone steps up to a tiny knoll just north of the plot and about fifty feet northwest of our home on Cape Clear Island. Once there, I sit in a rickety old chair and – as is my morning tea ritual wont as well – I start scanning the patchwork landscape of drystone walls, small half-acre fields, the old fish palace, a couple dozen scattered cottages, Roaring Water Bay, the mountains of West Cork.
Suddenly, right below my nose – that is, a mere three hundred yards below me on the far west side of South Harbour – something catches my attention. No, it’s not another bull that’s fallen over a cliff and needs to be rescued. Nor is it another thirty-foot basking shark insouciantly swishing his tail back and forth as he feeds on plankton. This time, after almost twenty years here, and half-a-dozen visits a day to this Look-out Point, I see something I’ve never seen before: a dolphin leaping high into the air, arcing over backwards, splashing rambunctiously into the sea. Almost immediately, some twenty feet from that spot, another dolphin breaches, this one twisting and fully rolling around before re-entering his element. Another two leap side by side. After several minutes I estimate that this herd, or pod, consists of about eight common dolphins, and that they’re all bursting with energy and playfulness as they soar into the air, backwards, forwards, straight up, sideways, every leap different from every other leap.
In all my sixty-odd years of prowling the natural wonders of this world, I witness the most frolicking, lyric bunch of mammals I’ve yet encountered. But after about two minutes of this delight, I break out of the spell that has bound me, run for Nell and together we hustle back to Look-out Point. They’re there, a mere ten feet out from the far shore, still frolicking about as they begin to make their way south. We ooh, we aah, we quickly point this way and that toward yet another breach exploding before our eyes. Hands instinctively cover gaping mouths.
When they’re some four to five hundred yards from us, they slowly, sportively dance out of sight around the point where the inner harbour ends and the much wider outer harbour begins. We can only assume they’re headed toward the far mouth of the harbour and then on toward the Fastnet Lighthouse to put on a show for the resident seals.
We had ten to fifteen minutes of perfect play before us. For once I didn’t go for the camera, fearing that by the time I got the tripod up and the zoom lens attached, they’d have disappeared and I wouldn’t have had any real experience of them.
In my memory I still see the dance as a veritable ballet! The sea’s surface the dolphins’ stage. Rudolph Nureyev, were you trying to imitate these dolphins all your life? They, like you, could shoot up into the air and then, for that millisecond that has a sense of eternity about it, they’d seem to float stationery there in space, and only then complete their dive of utter freedom back into the most basic of elements.
A Whale of a Day
For whale-watching purposes, the weather couldn’t have been more favourable: the swells rose no more than three or four feet, stretched some fifty feet from trough to trough; a gentle eight knot breeze came from the north and, since we were just to the south of Ireland and weren’t voyaging more than ten miles out to sea, we had solid protection from waves, which had no space in which to build up to any size; lastly, the day stayed overcast, and thus the sun couldn’t complicate matters with bright reflections and shadows that could be mistaken for signs of cetacean life.
After cruising some twenty miles east of Toe Head in the Holly Jo, a catamaran with wide bow and stern decks, and passing the peninsulas of Galley Head, and then Seven Heads, we were well out from the Old Head of Kinsale when we made our initial sighting of five Fin Whales blowing. To our amaze, as we approached them they didn’t disappear, and next we knew we were cruising quietly alongside them.
These sixty-five footers – the second largest creatures on earth, as long as a bus – blew regularly, and ignored our intrusion. They swam insouciantly on our starboard side for about ten minutes before sleekly disappearing into the depths. But almost immediately, half a mile west, someone spotted another pod of razorbacks blowing; another to the east. Sleek falcate fins emerged from magic depths. A marine biologist explained how the Fin Whales eat not pounds but tons a day, sieve them through their baleen-filled maws, and added that they can lunge-feed often, and live to be ninety.
Suddenly the pilot rammed throttle forward, and off we flew, he having spotted his favourites, Humpbacks, two of them. Again and again we catch up to them, hear them snort from twenty feet away, watch them right beside us twist around their lengthy pectoral fins and angelically go flukes. The white of their bellies, of the underside of their notched twelve-foot wide flukes, such contrast to their upper reaches. These whales make old Sperm Whale Moby Dick seem a shorty in length if not in aptitude. The appendage wings of this knucklehead, we hear, often embrace the opposite sex. We look about. All around us, about a quarter mile off, another twenty blows of four different pods of fins, multiple geysers in the middle of the sea.
After several hours of constant and close contact with both kinds of whales, and once with a Fin between the pair of Humpbacks, they all disappear and all we see are bubble trails and what are called their footprints and it’s time for us to journey back to harbour before dark. On the way we slow down by various feeding frenzies just to check for dolphins and porpoise, sunfish and shark, the occasional slow dorsal fin of a minke whale, but somehow the Humpbacks and Fins stay with us in spirit; it’s as though we’ve developed a new sense of the fullness of reality, as though we’ve been in shallow waters all our lives till now, and now, whether seen or not, the Fins and Humpbacks swim beside us, help us discover what it’s like to be a child again. I’m drawn into nature rather than merely observing it as I watch the whales surface in my mind and go about their unchoreographed play, their play a way of life.
As a boy somewhat infamous locally for having a hole in his stomach, or what in my mid-teens came to be called an automatic garbage disposal unit, I always relished Thanksgiving, a national holiday my family, a few aunts and uncles, even an elbow aunt or two, usually celebrated at my nearby grandparents’ house. That fourth Thursday in November there’d be no school; and the smell of a slowly cooking twenty-pound turkey, stuffed with breadcrumbs and other goodies, would fill their house. High up out of easy reach in the pantry would be a collection of home-made pumpkin pies and in the fridge bowls of fresh whipped cream at the ready.
Soon the side-board would fill with heaped steaming vegetable dishes and a mountainous bowl of mashed potatoes; platters would appear with piles of finely sliced white meat, another platter with juicy drumsticks, second-joints, and the prized wish bone. Then it was we’d all file in to the dining room. As we sat at our nametag designated places around the table, stretched to its limits by all the extra leaves, I’d watch crystal goblets filled with claret sparkle before each adult, and I’d eye sceptically the contrast between them and the tall sweating tumblers of cold creamy milk before my sister and me. All formally seated, the men having held chairs for the women, my grandfather would say the blessing, and we’d dig in – well, I’d dig in, as there was that hole to fill – though I wouldn’t begin eating with gusto until I’d all but submerged my turkey, piled-high dressing, and mashed potatoes with the suave richness I ladled out of the gravy boat, and had placed a few spoonfuls of homemade cranberry sauce on the tiny space that remained on my plate.
Another matter of import was keeping my elbows off the table, my tie off my plate, and looking anyone who spoke to me, or to whom I spoke, straight in the eye. Such were the ways of Gramma’s etiquette. And had there been disagreements or lively gossip or political arguments out in the living room before the meal, no such conversation was countenanced during the meal, or every now and then so proclaimed my grandfather’s eyebrows. Eating was a time for gentle camaraderie.
Occasionally over the festive board I’d hear stories of how this national holiday had started back in the Plymouth colony in 1621, after a bountiful harvest in the New World assured the early settlers that they could survive the winter months ahead. Occasionally I’d hear accounts of what Thanksgiving had been like in the family before the Great Crash of 1929 had said bye bye to all the hired help. Never did I hear that Thanksgiving had been a season of rejoicing from civilisation’s earliest times. The ancient Jews celebrated the Feast of Pentecost as their harvest festival, as that was when wheat ripened in Palestine. The Romans had feasts in honour of Ceres (from whom our word cereal comes). The Druids celebrated their harvest, Samhain, on the last day of October, the first day of November, the start of the New Year when, as Frank Delaney says, “the air fills with cries and incantations, the moment turns between the light time of the year and the dark time, the fertility of the earth must be renewed, the future of the tribe guaranteed.”
Certainly for me I knew that my next 24 hours were replete and that the rest of the week would consist of leftovers to which the bottomless pit in my stomach would happily put an end.
At ten, eleven, even the ripe old age of twelve while growing
up in upstate New York back in the late Forties, I vaguely enjoyed Halloween,
but robustly relished the night before it, Mischief Night. On Halloween groups
of us would dress up in wild scary costumes, especially as witches and evil
wizards, or as pirates and skeletons, and go trick-or-treating around the
neighbourhood. We’d heard rumours that this night used to be a festival for
the dead but didn’t know that the celebration had a Druidic ancestry. Most
houses had a hollowed out pumpkin on the front porch with a flickering candle
inside it revealing crooked teeth, mean eyes, an odd nose. Again and again,
after ringing a doorbell, we’d laughingly say, when the door opened, “Trick
or treat?”, sing a song, and thrust out large paper bags. Almost invariably
fudge or a brownie, or some chocolate bits or sometimes a few pennies or even a
nickel, into our bags. And we’d parade to the next house.
But on Mischief Night we revelled in high jinx. We’d pull pranks on our neighbours. Soap windows. From behind trees blow our pea-shooters toward front doors or lit upstairs windows. The night both scared me stiff and thrilled me to the bone. Once a gang of four of us moved the front porch steps of a neighbour around to the back door. Occasionally we’d ring a doorbell, run for the nearest tree, usually between the sidewalk and the street, and then see how our victim handled our rudeness. Other times we’d notch the spindle that sewing thread came on, insert a small stick through the central hole, wrap a string around the spindle, hold it against a door or window pane as we pulled. What a rat-a-tat-tat. We’d scamper a few front yards away, hunker down behind a hedge, watch the consternation of the neighbour when he or she came outside to try to collar the culprit. Somehow we never got caught.
One Mischief Night – I’m not certain whether I was sick or simply grounded – I was not to leave the small upstairs apartment where we lived. In my pyjamas I snuck into my parent’s closet, opened the window. Since we were situated near the top of a hill, with a cemetery on three sides of us, and our house right smack across the literally dead end of a cul-de-sac, I had a fine view of all the houses running down the hill. I reached for my peashooter and ammunition, took steady aim at Mrs. Messenger’s house, three houses down the south side of the hill, and opened fire. Mrs. Messenger was one of my mother’s best friends but someone my father wouldn’t allow into our home as she was a touted gossip and Dad thought her a bad influence. Although Mrs. M and her family lived in the far half of Number 70, to my delight I was still just able to bombard her upstairs front bedroom window. When she came out to see what was happening, from my secret perch I kept on firing the little hard pellets of dried peas at her porch roof and she hadn’t a clue where they were coming from but she could hear them pinging against the cedar shingles. Finally she threw her arms into the air, slammed the door, and shut off all lights in the front of the house.
Yes, I thrived on Mischief Night. It was as if on that one special pre-Halloween night we could rid ourselves of our rascality, and, if we were lucky, not get caught.
The Way It Used To Be, aka “Summer Stuff”
After breakfast I look west across Cape Clear Island’s South Harbour, over swaying masts and wheeling gulls, and spot a tractor with a buckrake depositing a haycock beside a stone-bordered foundation. A flock of children playfully trample pikefuls laid flat by three men.
In no time I’ve joined this summer ritual and am trampling away with the kids. Bits of hay, bits of banter, cover us all. The reek rises. Now and then someone checks the stack for straightness.
“That corner’s a bit proud,” I hear from the artists below.
Tramp, tramp, tramp. Every step I try to compress the hay without jostling the stack. Back and forth, back and forth. I’m in the rhythm of a beast of burden trudging round and round a menial yet essential task. The stack grows too high for the safety of all but the oldest boys. The work becomes more serious, especially with a wet, heavy fog rolling in from the Fastnet. Periodically I place my pike along the edge of the stack, step on it, and a barber below, with a long-toothed rake, combs out loose hair.
As the hay stack grows, my trampling slows. Three men pike up to me. I spread and position the hay as well as pack it. The boys descend. I lay occasional pikefuls across the middle so that the hay interlocks with that from the other side. The fog skins off north, blanketing Roaringwater Bay. Now the reek begins to tower, to jiggle like slow-motion jelly beneath me. And as if on cue, a parade of women bustle down from the house carrying kettles, jugs, platters. They spread tablecloths on the grass. Thick egg-salad sandwiches ooze between my fingers. Below, the harbour mills with yachts preparing for a nearby race. A farmer curls asleep beside the reek. Another tip-toes over, dumps an armful of hay on his face. Wild shouts, gesticulations, laughter. Kids scampering about. Recriminations. I hear one of the seventy-year-olds say, “This is the way it used to be.”
And we’re back at work. Tramp. Reposition. Conversation drifts up to me. Push the corner out. Too low to the southeast. Haircut time. Have we enough hay to finish her off? Is that a drop of rain – or a gull? This cock’s too much wet in it. Lay it flat, man, not so much at once.
The top twelve feet high, I have to reach my pike down and snag efforts from below, pull ’em the rest of the way up. Someone who really knows his stuff joins me. Two on top, two piking, two hauling the cocks from adjacent fields, kids raking the fields to collect the last wisps. A mug of water’s pushed up to us on the end of a pike.
Using our pikes like grappling irons, we two on top snare an old fish net, folded in half, pushed up. Presto, the reek’s secure, covered tight with bright orange, blue and black twine. We beat a few more humps out, climb down the rickety ladder, tie stones and heavy pipe along the edges of the net so that winter gales won’t blow our creation to the Scilly Isles.
And it’s finished, the cattle guaranteed hay through the winter. We trudge to the house, where yet more food, uisce beatha and banter are passed around as we sprawl in the yard.
I return home, take my first late afternoon nap of the year. When I wake, I peer out the bedroom window. And there, across the harbour, she stands, four-square, straight, golden.
The University of the Wild Wild West
June 1960, college over, not to start my first teaching job until September, I set off from central New York for Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. When too tired to drive my second-hand 1940 Nash any further, I found an out-of-the-way spot, and, in pitch darkness, threw down my mattress. I awoke with a cow licking my face, a brook at my feet. The next teeming night, I slept in the boot. Never west of the Mississippi River before, I completed the 1800 mile journey in two-and-a-half days.
June and July I worked as a lifeguard in Colorado Springs. When no one was around except fellow lifeguards, with all our legs dangling in the pool, I learned how to read aloud T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock poems. I loved the line, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” And, wondering where I was, I took August off to prowl the west and started by visiting my legendary Aunt Ros, who lived on a 10,000 acre ranch in Colorado’s northwest Yampa River valley.
Having moved to Colorado in 1908 and become a schoolmarm in a one-room schoolhouse, she soon became engaged to a local rancher. Not long before the wedding, fiancé Bob was kidnapped and held ransom by Mexican desperadoes. In a shoot-out, Ferry, her fiancé’s best friend, managed a clever rescue and helped put the outlaws –mineworkers looking for easy money – behind bars. Fifty years later, Ros and Ferry – their spouses several years dead – married.
One day Ferry asked if I’d round up a hundred head of cattle, bring them to a nearby paddock. I confessed I’d never ridden a horse, never driven cattle. No problem, he laughed, just get on that horse and head off that direction: the horse’ll know exactly what to do. He’ll teach you, be your professor. Sure enough, the horse accepted me as his student. We drove home the cattle. I liked my new mentor. But, over the next few days, after a few dozen five-mile lectures, I felt my bottom blossoming with blisters. Any lecture between a walk and a gallop I begged him to shorten.
Another morning, free of horse tutorials, I joined Aunt Ros for a class on a vacant family homestead. As we traipsed the grounds, she advised me to be on the look-out for rattlesnakes. Some dozen rattlers lived in the immediate vicinity. When I asked how best to protect myself, she suggested I buy a new pair of blue-jeans. As long as they’re unwashed, she said, they’re thick enough to halt the rattler’s fangs. That afternoon I drove the ten miles to the nearest town and treated myself to a present.
The next day Ferry asked my help to brand fifty young steers. Slim, one of Ferry’s galloping cowhands, would lasso the neck of a racing critter; I’d dash on foot up to the rope, slide my hand down it until I came to the maverick himself. Next I’d reach across his bucking back and lift and throw him so that he’d land on his side, my chest thumping down on top of what had been his far flank. Immediately a dismounted Slim tied the kicking legs together and Uncle Ferry brought to bear the red-hot branding iron. By nightfall, all pulled off without a hitch, I glanced at my rattlesnake-proof blue jeans. They’d turned brown.
And it was time to head East, climb out of the jeans, don a suit and tie, and begin teaching. I still wonder if my real university wasn’t the wild wild west.
An Unexpected Hole
Part of the delight of being a teacher, I discovered back in 1960, my first year as a teacher, wasn’t just the continuous classroom challenge of allowing kids to gain confidence in themselves and their skills, but of preparing for class. I never knew how to read a book until I had to teach one. Suddenly I had to become aware of what I was reading, of what I could be missing. I had to question everything. If I encountered a word I didn’t know, I had to look it up, memorise it, learn its history, its story; if I encountered an image, or an idea, I had to recognize its connection to other images, to related ideas. Having to take responsibility for what I read transformed reading from a passive, sometimes escapist, pastime into an active experience.
In the dead of winter that first year I taught King Lear, neither a play for the faint of heart nor for early fall or spring. I’d loved Lear, the three or four times I read it in university, but I’d never physically entered into the play before. We were reading the last scene aloud. I took the part of Lear because I hoped I had a knack for imitating an old man’s voice. While I didn’t yet have the chutzpah to walk into the room carrying the (student) body of “my” daughter Cordelia, I entered into the part enthusiastically – and naively. It caught me. While I was reading as dramatically as possible the line, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, / And thou no breath at all,” the simple, ordinary monosyllabic words, and the overwhelmingly complex emotion they contained, overcame me, and to my utter horror and surprise, I broke down.
I hadn’t cried this way – despite my grandparents deaths within a week of each other earlier that year – since I was about fifteen, thinking tears something I needed to outgrow, and had outgrown. I expected my students to fall into gales of laughter at my predicament, but they simply sat there, patient, kind, and waited for me to regain my composure. It took me about twenty minutes, and no one said a word until the bell rang and the kids milled around and filed out. One of the sturdy soccer stars – I think his name was Jake – touched me lightly on the arm as he left and said, “That was great.” I don’t know which of us learned more about Lear and emotion that day. But I’ll always remember those students as some of my best teachers. And literature hasn’t been academic or escapist to me since. Having a good read’s as real as having a walk, or, as in this recollection, falling into an unexpected hole.
During World War II I recall hanging out the attic window of our half of a rental house and watching the crowded troop ships steam down the Hudson River. My mother held me tight. Some half mile below, I witnessed enormous ships overflowing with wildly waving and cheering uniformed men. War looked exciting, glorious.
Bobby, a nursery school chum, soon had souvenirs, including a Nazi general’s cap, that his soldier father had sent home. Whenever I took a bath, I stipulated that my navy boats be launched with me into the sudsy main. I loved to splash about while singing a snippet of a ditty I’d picked up on the playground,
Hitler’s in the bathtub, / Sinking submarines.
Mussolini is a meany, / And all the Japs are worse.
I created waves that dashed the enemy flotilla against the hard edges of the visible world.
During air raid practices, shrill sirens would start low, grow louder and louder, winding up to a frenzied pitch. Gramma and Grampy, with whom I now suddenly and mysteriously lived in upstate New York – as far from New York City as Derry is from Cape Clear Island – would rush from room to room, window to window, pulling down each thick, green, opaque shade. We wouldn’t be bombed, I was told, if the bombardiers couldn’t see light. But that didn’t reassure me much, particularly when I’d hear a squadron of deep-throated planes flying low overhead in the night sky. How could they tell friend from foe in the dark? Their evil droning roar yielded no comfort. Yet, if the night was clear, and the moon out, I’d pad over to the window, pull back the heavy shade, see how many planes I could count. Could the pilots see me peeking? Would I ever hear explosions, see tracers illuminate the sky? It was somewhat thrilling to be so scared.
Evenings, and after church on Sundays, when the folded square of tossed newspaper arrived near the front porch steps, Grampy would show me the front page with its thick black headlines. Lying on the rug, we’d pour over the war map. Curving arrows demarked division advances. I particularly remember following the 8th moving up through Italy.
Air raid practices in kindergarten and first grade. Form lines two-children wide and solemnly file into a basement room until the all-clear is given. Everything had to do with war. What we ate, what we didn’t eat; what we bought, what we couldn’t buy. “Think,” I was regularly reminded, “of all the starving children.” I can still see my grandparents untying twine from around the grocery boxes, then tying all the ends together and adding the knotted piece to a large ball in the pantry cupboard.
And I remember, shortly after the war, while playing baseball in a vacant field in the cemetery beside which we now lived, looking up at a long thin trailing cloud that stretched across the sky from east to west. We were proudly told by some of the fathers present that that cloud was periodically circling the globe, and came from the wonderful American atomic bombs which had ended the war against the Japanese. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I was proudly informed, represented the birth of a new era, an era of peace.
Since my maternal grandparents didn't install electricity in their lakeside home in the boondocks of upstate New York until 1949, every summer morning from about the age of seven on I had the chore of going out to the Kerosene House – a little storage shed next to the larger Ice House, where we stacked the wood – and, from a large galvanized tub, pump kerosene. I can still feel that delicate pump handle in my grip, no thicker than the tip of a fly rod. I’d lift it straight up, push it straight down. Up and down, up and down, I’d pump, and the foaming fuel would gush out into a large white enamel pitcher. What for a smell, fresh, raw, powerful, with a sense of the rank and corrupt, the dangerous! I didn't like to be splashed because the stink wouldn’t wash off easily and, unless I took a swim, would often malinger through the day.
With the pitcher firmly gripped, barefoot I'd make the rounds of all the lamps. Grampy trimmed the wicks, Gramma cleaned the fragile thin glass chimneys, I filled the sturdy lamp bases. Holding a small funnel and hearing the kerosene gurgle in light little gluck glucks, the acrid smell would again suffuse me and I'd feel that my life had a basic routine, a pattern, a ritual that helped shape the day and intensify participation in family life. Do the chores well, I assured myself, no matter how boring or trivial or stinky, and then you're free as a kingfisher.
The last bowl brimming, cap back on tight, next I had to refill the various wood boxes. Three-foot logs and kindling I lugged into the living room, not through the long narrow length of the house but from the side porch door, beside my outdoor bed, thus shortening any sawdust trail I tried not to leave behind me. I laid the logs for the evening fire and stuffed the wood boxes on either side of the U-shaped front porch as well as the one next to the Ben Franklin stove in the winter dining room. The Franklin, because of its small door, could hold only short, chunky split logs, a foot long, no longer, while the living room fireplace could hold three-footers, no problem. Grampy particularly liked to burn a well seasoned cedar log in the large fireplace most nights. He relished the smell, the crackling sounds, the multicoloured flames. When the sinewy wood sparked wildly, he'd make some reference to fireworks – which he enthusiastically set off on our 4th of July celebrations, along with one report from a small cannon – and collar the high screen from against the chest stuffed with years of newspapers. And then, all secure, he’d tell stories into the night.
Sunday afternoons, unless it was rainy, I had one other chore. Along with my uncles, grandfather, young sister and younger cousins, I’d walk the shoreline collecting driftwood and haul it to the point. If the beaches hadn’t enough to build a bonfire with, then we’d fan out into the surrounding woods. And almost every Sunday night, after a picnic supper, with Grampy barbecuing the hotdogs and hamburgers, and toasting the buns, and Uncle George supplying the fresh ears of corns from his farm, we’d sit around the bonfire, toast marshmallows, talk, sing, listen to stories.
I still love a cozy fire, as well as a good story, and those summer evenings helped set the pattern for my life.
Back in the nineteen forties, as soon as I heard my grandmother or mother call, "Chuckles, Chuckles," I knew it was almost dinner time, time for me to select two glass pitchers from off the top of the dresser and walk to the well.
I loved this chore, even though I sometimes objected aloud. It made me feel useful, as though I earned my boyish keep -- and I appreciated the pump itself, almost as a friend. I usually had to prime it first, dumping a little water down the top, and then, with quick short strokes, create enough of a vacuum to bring the water up.
Once it began to flow, I had no further problems. I pumped away, ignoring the first dozen long gushes because the water took a while to run cold, and then I’d fill the pitchers to the brim so that I could afford to slurp a little out on my barefoot trip back to the house.
The pump itself made a most particular noise after each stroke, almost like a goose honking nasally, but on the intake of breath rather than on the expulsion. I learned to distinguish who was working the handle without looking because of the different rhythms produced, and I could tell by the sounds who knew how to work it and who didn't. Some visitors, and an aunt or two, could pump up nothing but air and the pump itself would make gaspy, wheezy noises as if it were in its last throes.
As soon as I’d finished pumping, I'd refill the priming bucket since I disliked going to the pump to discover someone had forgotten that bit, for then I'd have to scramble down to the lake and haul a bucket of lake water, water that was warm and not reassuring. I didn't like to mix lake water with well water, they had such different personalities. Well water had what I imagined a holy feel, lake water a profane – even in those days before nitrogen run-off from chemically fertilised farms began to contaminate the lake.
I proudly carried the brimming pitchers along the narrow path that ran the fifty yards from beside the pump house – where resided a gasoline-powered black monster of a pump for our toilet and sinks – and past the lilac bushes, to the summer dining room. By the time I reached the dining room screen door, the pitchers would be beading moisture. Usually, but not always, careful not to let the screen door slam shut, I'd place the pitchers on the yellow sideboard – and by the time dinner was served, the bits of stirred-up sediment had sunk delicately, in little swirls, to the bottoms of the pitchers.
I felt as though you could eat that well water, and lick your lips afterwards, it was that good. And now, with this evening chore more than half a century behind me, I doubly appreciate Benjamin Franklin’s adage from the seventeen forties, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.”
My childhood and teenage winters centre around our upstate New York home, which sat smack across the blustery top of a steep dead-end street two hundred crow-flying miles northwest of New York City. Surrounded on three sides by what was once an Indian burial ground, our house faced straight down the best sledding hill in the heart of the peaceful Finger Lakes. Well, peaceful except in winter. The roar of giant snowplows filled the pre-dawn countryside for two to three months a year. Snowfalls of two feet weren’t that unusual.
Even when we had no blizzard, six foot drifts often formed overnight and closed certain exposed roads simply because winds swept up the snow lying on the ice that covered the open expanse of hundreds of square miles of glacially dug lakes, and these swirling winds dumped the white stuff wherever it would grip.
My hometown of Auburn was one of those “gripping” places. Especially around our house. All Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and late afternoons on school days, there’d be as many as thirty kids sledding from right in front of our front porch steps. Starting early December, and lasting into February, this cul-de-sac became our primary playground. On a school day alone, we might get in a dozen runs before our six-o’clock suppers.
And around five o’clock, when intensifying flakes eddied in spheres of riffling silver light beneath each street lamp, when on each trudge up the hill our footprints from the previous trek had disappeared, and when the snow refused to crunch under our boots because of the cold, then we happily knew winter to be in earnest.
The coldest snap in my memory hit my first, or freshman, year in a nearby college. January of 1957. The mercury didn’t so much drop as disappear, 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit during the day, 55 below at night. And it didn’t rise above minus 50 for a most solid week. Students’ and professors’ car radiators burst; worse for me, so did the heating pipes in South dormitory. I could’ve been living in an igloo. But that might have been cozier.
Just going outside carried risk of frostbite. Wrapped in a secondhand army-navy store parka, a scarf over nose and mouth, I discovered that breath moisture immediately crystallized in the weave of my scarf so that I had to keep changing its position. Like an Arctic crab I scuttled along the narrow campus paths, often scrambling through sections which had drifted over since the last between-class break.
Head ducked into howling wind, I’d cross the quadrangle, enter English Composition 101 three minutes later, panting, stamping about more to get the feeling back in my feet than to shake the snow out before it melted inside my socks. Those with beards – and few had them in those pre-hippie days – looked like old men, graybeards at twenty.
When we didn’t have classes back to back, we huddled in our beds. Under old counterpanes and dingy army blankets we wrote our themes, memorized irregular French verbs, cussed the strict logic of improbability.
Later, living in Switzerland for 26 years and often finding myself atop Alpine peaks in the dead of winter, I never again encountered such cold.
A Flummoxed First-year Teacher
In 1960, as a naïve beginning teacher at a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania, I quickly discovered that in addition to my four literature classes I had a wrestling team to coach five afternoons a week, a dormitory hall with 80 15 and 16-year-old boys to supervise, three meals a day to oversee at my dining room table, the student newspaper to advise, and membership on various subcommittees. I lived in a tiny room on a hallway with my 80 charges. At any time of day or night, I was to be available for whatever exigencies arose, homesickness, water fight, algebraic word problem, puppy love. Soon I realized that, although I had the luxury of every other weekend and Thursday evenings off duty, my free time could be devoted to nothing more glamorous than marking papers.
Halfway through the year I was trying to teach Dickens' lively but to me rather melodramatic Tale of Two Cities, a part of the given syllabus. Somehow I'd escaped reading this novel until then. After several weeks on the book, and amid a growing sense of the horrors of the French Revolution, I bounced into class hoping for nothing less than to prove the relevance of the book to our lives. But the usually responsive students just sat there, each at his or her desk, quiet as Quaker meeting house mice, staring hard, unblinkingly, at me. I became conscious of a charged atmosphere, and finally of a snap-clacking, so looked closely about. The girls, like Dickens' silent Madame Defarge beside the guillotine, knitted away, their hands resting on their desktops, clack clack clack. No matter what I said or did, they wouldn't talk, wouldn't stop knitting, wouldn't stop staring coldly at me. The boys, I then noticed, each held a handmade miniature model of a guillotine, and would raise and let fall the blade, snap. The entire class period they sat thus, clacking and snapping, speaking nary a word, staring obdurately.
I stuttered, I stammered. I tried to wax lyric with some form of erudition. I asked outrageous questions. I bullied. I cajoled. To no avail. Finally all I could do was stop pulling my hair – shake my head in surrender. . . and laugh. And when the bell rang, it was all they could do too.
Indeed, laughter honoured that rebellion. I experienced Quakerly pacifism, or Thoreau's civil disobedience, at its creative best.
Convinced of the surprising joys of this profession, I taught for another 29 years, but kept in mind two sayings: Saint Bernard wrote that “You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters”; and Aristophanes said that “You cannot teach a crab to walk straight.”
In 1949 my parents decide I’m more than old enough – age eleven – to start piano lessons. For six months I submit to them but confess I rarely practice the required hour a day because I stubbornly feel a sissy sitting indoors when it’s light out and I could be shooting my homemade bow-and-arrow in the cemetery or playing kick-the-can with my friends. Why, I don’t know one other boy in the whole town learning the piano. But still, a part of me likes the lessons even though another part doesn’t. Suddenly my teacher invites me to play at a recital at the Cayuga County Museum. My parents agree. Five or six other youth, all girls, will be playing. I practice and practice an “Air in G” by Bach.
The big day comes. The museum, stuffed with showcases containing Iroquois arrowheads and pottery and a host of locally-found artifacts, such as wampum and Indian pipe stems, has a gleaming black concert grand at the south end of the main drawing room and is packed with adults in formal attire. For the first time in my life I’m wearing inherited tails – left over from the pre-depression days when I’m told Gramma and Granddad were rich – a pair of my Dad’s cuff links, some great uncle’s studs, a bow tie. And it’s my turn.
I approach the piano, turn, bow, announce my piece, walk around the bench, remember to flick the tails out over the bench as I sit. I’ve never sat at a concert grand before, can’t believe the size of it. Out of the corner of my eye I see my teacher, who I know’s been taking notes on what everyone does, ’cause I’ve been watching her scribbling away. Holy smokes, it dawns on me, we’re being graded on this too. Perform, perform.
I lift my hands, place them in front of the Steinway emblem, let them fall onto the opening measure. My god no. I can’t believe it. I’m in the wrong octave. I’m an octave too high. Why do they make pianos this big? I stand, walk around the bench, bow, apologize for starting in the wrong octave, return to the keyboard, flick out my tails, check the emblem, start an octave lower. My god no. I can’t believe it. Now I really am in the wrong octave – I’m decidedly too bass. I was right the first time. Help! I want out!
But I play on, too embarrassed to stand up again, too embarrassed to stop.
When baseball season begins a few months later, I force my parents to admit I have no musical talent. I’ve stopped practicing altogether. So the piano lessons cease and I join the Van’s Bakery twelve-and-under baseball team and play first base. And I practice with my buddies every day.
When you live on a little island cut off from the Irish mainland by severe storm between five to ten days a year, you need to take on board certain weather signs. Especially if you’re a fisherman preparing to set forth for the week or a farmer preparing to make hay. You need to pay attention not only to the altitude at which the cows are grazing but also to what the lobsters are doing when you haul pots. Because the lobsters – with the no-nonsense way they have of forecasting the weather – could save your life.
Let’s say like some farmer-fishermen around Cape Clear Island, you’ve a string of 25 lobster pots. You bait them with slices of mackerel which have been “schooling”, or what the British call “boiling”: that is, when a school of mackerel chasing sprat near the surface of the sea suddenly encounter some predator, such as a blue shark, they change direction all at once, thousands of ’em leaping out of the water at the same moment. Well, you bait your pots with these easily-caught mackerel, shoot the pots at dusk, and haul them in at first light.
As you lift each pot into your punt, on a good morning one in five having a lobster inside, you suddenly spot your first lobster and he with his claws gripping the pot hard. Well, that’s the only sign you need to know you’d best skedaddle from the sea, as heavy weather’s on the way. That lobster’s a living lesson: He’s gripping anything handy, locals say, so that intensified sea movement doesn’t sweep him away from his prized territory.
Take heed of the lobster gripping the pot.
Word of his trick’s saved many a yacht.
From my island neighbors I regularly encounter other tips, too, on how to plan my day or week or season. From another fisherman I learn that if the ropes leading to each lobster pot that run off the main rope are twisted, look out, heavy weather’s underway. A housewife tells me that if the vapor trails stay visible across the sky long after the jets themselves have disappeared, rain and bad weather are imminent. From a farmer that when there’s a red scab behind the setting sun, a storm will hit the next day. From an elderly retired seaman, that if the island lake level is high in the spring, then summer will be fine. From a birdwatcher that when a cormorant is spotted swimming in the North Harbor, the main working harbor, beware. And from everyone local I hear a saying that doesn’t appear in any of my half-dozen dog-eared collections of Irish proverbs: “wind and rain in May / keep the barn in hay.”
So when you live on a small little island of only 1578 acres above the high-tide line, and it’s considered not just an off-shore island but an Atlantic isle, then you’re always concerned about the weather. It affects everything you do, but especially whether you can go fishing or leave the island for the mainland to make that long-awaited doctor’s appointment or that annual visit to the cinema. Perhaps the most qualifying line around Cape Clear comes right after boat times are quoted: “today’s ferry departs at nine, weather permitting.”
At First Blush
“Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to,” Mark Twain quipped. His humour takes me back to not long after World War II was over. There, on the northwest corner of a U-shaped front porch some forty feet back from one of New York State’s small Finger Lakes, under a wren’s twiggy nest in the corner, ten ancient women chatter away. Well, ancient to me then. They constitute what they called the Fortnightly Club, or what my grandfather and father and all my uncles called the Tuesday Girls, and on this particular occasion my grandmother, the host, holds court amongst them.
Some sit in metal chairs that have a springy give to them; some stretch primly in squeaky porch swings and gliders and chaise lounge. They talk and eat and talk. A buffet’s carefully spread on a nearby table, both drop-leaves up. One of the women will present a paper on some local historical topic later in the afternoon.
Gramma spots barefoot me running up the shale path from the point and calls me up the wide steps and over to her amidst this formidable group. I’m frightfully aware that Mrs. Noble and Mrs. Pulsipher, Mrs. Tryon and Mrs. Taber, and other names I’ve forgotten, are all staring at me.
Obediently, albeit shyly, I go to Gramma. I’m seven or eight, maybe nine. She cuddles me. I’m suddenly the center of attention and don’t think I like it. In front of all her friends she asks me, the oldest of her nine grandchildren, a question I experience as huge: “Chuckles, what do you think of your old Gramma?” I feel her warmth, her welcoming bosom, the crinkling of her undergarments, and I turn my head against her and look up, wondering how she could ever have been a tennis player and the pitcher on a boys’ baseball team back in the 1890’s, and have had an 18 inch waist at her wedding, and I say in my piping little-boy’s voice, wishing to please her, “Gramma, you’re not as soft as the goat, but you smell better.”
The ancient women come to young life, laughing, laughing harder, slapping their elaborate skirts, holding their flopping stomachs. At last my grandmother’s laughing too. Peal after peal of laughter. Yet, amid the merriment, I know I’ve done something right that’s wrong, I’m to blame for something good, but I don’t know what, because I just paid her the nicest compliment I could imagine.
So, ashamed, I dart away. I go hide in one of my favorite spots, up in the top of a towering Scotch pine with a thick crown and a crow’s nest hidden in it, a spot from which I can look down on the house and the parking lot and the abandoned tennis court and the whole four-acre point, and the woods all around, and remain unseen. No one in the wide wide world will ever find me here. And slowly, with a gentle breeze coming off the lake, I feel my hot blush fade and realise that it’s time to go feed my goat.
Flickers of Light
First stop, the Mount of Remembrance, Yad Vashem, Israel’s main memorial to the victims of the holocaust. We enter a photographic museum. Once in, I discover, you can’t turn back.
Most of the photos I’ve seen before, though here they are enlarged to life-size, or, rather, death-size. Suffice it to say that we eventually make our way through what I experience as an indictment of mankind. When I come out into the fresh air again, I need to be by myself. To gulp in huge lungfuls of air. To drink in the hills around me where delicate white villages nestle amongst light green olive groves.
And then my group abruptly disappears while I’m peering into the relaxing distance. Five minutes later, I make my way to where they vanished and encounter the entrance to what looks like a cave. I enter, am by myself in utter darkness, suspended in the blackest, most infinite of space. As I stumble along, gripping a handrail that I can’t see, little points of light, stars, delicate flickering candle flames, begin to appear in the black space of the universe. As my eyes become accustomed to the dark, I realize that in every direction I look, up, down, left, right, I can see only these flickers. And then, as my ears become accustomed to the quiet, I become aware of a gentle monotonous voice. The first time I hear it, it speaks in German, gives out a name, a date, a country, another place and date. Several seconds later I hear it again, but this time in French. The next time in a language I don’t recognize. It finally dawns on me that I’m looking at 1,500,000 points of light, one for each of the children murdered during the holocaust, that I’m hearing their names read out one by one, carefully, emotionlessly, in the language of the countries of their births. The simplicity slowly overcomes me as I walk round and round this pure planetarium.
Catching up with my group, I soon watch the bus park outside the Damascus Gate and we enter the Old City, move two abreast, when possible, through crowded streets. Our Jewish hostess takes tight hold of my arm as we make our way through the Arab quarter. She assures me it probably isn’t dangerous but never relaxes her grip. Soon we’re seated in an Arab restaurant that has been expecting us. I notice that our little back room is out of sight of passers-by.
I sit opposite Benjamin, our elderly guide, ask him a question that’s been bothering me: “Have you any Arab friends?” “Yes,” he assures me. “Good friends?” I continue. “As good as friends can be,” I hear. “And have you ever been inside their homes, or they inside yours?” I ask. Benjamin hesitates. “No,” he says, looking down, and adds quietly: “He’d be a traitor were he ever in my home, or I in his. He could be shot, knifed.”
After lunch, after a time against The Western Wall, or what non-Jews call the Wailing Wall, we board the bus again, speed up hill and down dale, around the hilltop Hebrew University of Jerusalem, finally coming to a halt at – of all places – a spanking new, architecturally spirited Mormon University. Nearby we see the Mount of Olives. Across the valley, centered in the low sun, the golden Dome of the Rock resplendent, the walls of the Old City cast shadow on the ancient cemeteries and ruins below. As we watch the sun set, an organ fills the Mormon hall with a rich Bach toccata.
My childhood winters centred around our Auburn home, which sat smack across the blustery top of a steep dead-end street two hundred crow-flyin’ miles northwest of New York City. Surrounded on three sides by what was once an Indian burial ground, our house faced straight down the best sledding hill in the heart of the peaceful Finger Lakes. Well, peaceful except in winter. The roar of giant snowplows filled the pre-dawn countryside for two to three months a year.
Even when we had no blizzard, six foot drifts often formed overnight and closed certain exposed roads simply because of “the lake effect”: winds swept up the snow lying on the ice covering the open expanse of hundreds of square miles of glacially dug lakes, and then dumped the white stuff wherever it would grip.
Auburn was one of those “gripping” places. Especially around our house. Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and late afternoons on school days, there’d be as many as thirty kids – much to my mother’s delight – sledding from in front of our place. Starting early December, and lasting into February, this cul-de-sac became our primary playground. On a school day alone, we might get in a dozen runs before 6-o’clock supper.
Around five o’clock, when intensifying flakes eddied in spheres of riffling silver light beneath each street lamp, when on each trudge up the hill our footprints from the previous trek had disappeared, and when the snow refused to crunch under our boots because of the cold, then we happily knew winter to be in earnest.
At the very foot of that self-same hill, just six years ago, while looking out the foyer windows of a Centre for the Elderly one winter morning, an alert staff member spotted a resident flopping about with seeming helplessness in the newly fallen snow. She grabbed a stretcher and a nurse and rushed to the poor creature’s rescue. As they bent over the old gal, whose arms and legs were in a flurry of motion, they took careful note of her apparent agony as they prepared to slide her onto the stretcher. It was then that she, sensing their presence, opened her eyes, stopped her motions, smiled up at them entreatingly, and said: “Please don’t interrupt me. Can’t you see I’m having fun? I’m in the middle of making a snow-angel.”
That woman was my mom.
As far back as she could remember, and she was then 84 years old, every winter, come that first serious storm, she’d go out and make angels in the snow. And this particular winter, her first in an old folks’ home, she never thought of informing the staff of what she was about to do. After all, for many years she herself had been the director of the place and she knew how things worked.
In fact, when she entered the Centre, she’d made a resolve not to give up a number of her old habits, such as writing a story from her rich memory lane instead of buying a present when one of her grandchildren or her great grands celebrated a birthday, or spending as much of the temperate summer as possible in her family home beside the shore of Owasco Lake, or, come the first blizzard, flopping down in the virgin snow and creating a snow-angel.
My mom, now perhaps an angel herself in a region that’s not too hot.
A Rare Visit from an Old Friend
During spring of 1998, for the first time in 356 years, the Timoleague Chalice overlooked Cape Clear’s South Harbour. There, like a miniature pillar stone, it seemed not so much placed as grown, not so much ship-wrecked refugee as denizen. On the seawall in front of the priest’s house, the gleaming Chalice stood.
When the chalice first arrived on Cape, in 1642, 7 years before Cromwell landed in Ireland, the Timoleague Friary has just been torched by Lord Forbes and his English army. With a box full of vestments and the Chalice, two friars escaped in a small boat. By the time they were found drifting on the high seas by Cape fishermen, only one friar remained alive.
The men brought the boat ashore. Islanders nursed the friar back to health, gave burial to his companion. When well enough to depart, the friar thanked his carers and instructed them that the mysterious box, which he was leaving on Cape for safekeeping, was strictly not to be opened until he himself returned and Catholics could again freely worship in Ireland.
Some two hundred years later, in 1851, when the Parish Priest of Rath and The Islands, Father Leader of Clonakilty, visited Cape to conduct stations in the townland of North Ballyieragh, he asked what was in that box in the alcove up over the fireplace and learned that no one knew more than that it had rested there by priestly bidding since penal times.
Father Leader ordered that the box be opened. Someone replied, “You’re not the right man” to give that order, that another priest had promised to come back, but Father Leader prevailed. The vestments, on being lifted from the box, crumbled. But underneath them, a chalice was found as hail and hearty as on the day of its escape from conflagration. On its base, beside a crucifixion scene, is inscribed: “de Thimolaggi”.
Father Leader consequently returned the chalice to the Parish of Timoleague, where it now lives -- except when a priest such as Father Donal Cadogan, a relation of the island family known as “the Cadogans of the Chalice”, gains permission to bring the Timoleague treasure to Cape, as when he celebrated an Open Air Mass inside St. Ciarán’s Cemetery in 1996, fifty years after his ordination, and in 1998 when he was the special celebrant at the youth hostel’s stations.
Father Donal gave the seaside stations a special seal of approval not only by drinking wine from the historical Chalice. He also brought with him a delicate altar cloth which he draped affectionately over the table. The lacework, created by his mother Kate, depicted The Fastnet Lighthouse and a sailing ship captained by his Cape forebears. And on the wall of the room where we gathered he hung an oil painting showing one of the island’s old ships under full press of sail, the Fastnet in the background.
In this atmosphere, during Mass, we sang the “Cape Clear Hymn”, which includes the lines: “We Your loved children, sing out our praises, From this jewel in the ocean, to Your throne on high.”
When Mass was finished, I, a lapsed Presbyterian and perhaps a Quaker, felt as though centuries of sacrament and island tradition had been woven together and condensed into an event as simple and pure and suddenly accessible as the Chalice itself.
Out behind the back shed, as my wife prepared to feed Mildred and Wilbur and their first farrow, an incongruous movement caught my eye. A frisky tail. Not a corkscrew flag flipping lackadaisically up and down but a swishing, swath-making tail powering side to side. Not a happy tail in our lower pasture but an inexorable tail below in the harbor. Its massive owner didn’t feed on Sow and Bonham Meal, apple peelings and the occasional banana skin – but on plankton.
I ran for the binoculars.
For the next three hours I watched the twenty-five-foot basking shark quarter Cape Clear Island’s South Harbour. To and fro he prowled, turning in circles before the priest’s house and the Adventure Centre, cutting diagonally across the inner harbor on a sudden whim. His triangular dorsal fin reared three feet out of the water. A goodly distance behind it the tail swung steadily back and forth, back and forth. Occasionally the shark would excitedly swivel round in his wake, fins knifing through a bubbling sea.
I remembered my first experience with a basking shark, back in 1989 in the same harbor. I’d my eighty-year-old mother with me in a dinghy. A neighbour, with a ten-horse kicker on his punt’s patched transom, moseyed alongside and offered to tow us across the outer harbor to view the creature. We formed a raft and motored beside the shark for half an hour. He was a whopper, some forty feet long, larger than many whales.
That Christmas friends shared a card from my mother. She wrote them about having visited Ireland – and of my having taken her out into the middle of a shoal of sharks. I called Mom to tease her about her exaggeration. “Don’t you remember?” she said. “One was off the bow, another alongside, yet another off the stern. A shiver of sharks.” When I explained that it was all the same shark, she made it clear she was glad I hadn’t clarified matters then.
That day I hadn’t fully appreciated the visitor. This recent day I decided I’d savor all I could of him. I donned a life jacket, snatched a paddle, descended to the pier and launched my kayak.
With respectful trepidation, I approached Mr. Shark. All I could see were two fins and occasionally a mammoth nose, which created considerable disturbance. Having read that basking sharks are not only vegetarians but basically peaceful, even bovine creatures not easily aroused, I neared the monster. I could hear the water passing either side of his slicing fins.
I was merrily keeping the bow of my kayak some forty feet from him when he turned, came at me. I didn’t know if he was irritated, or just plain curious. Would he ram this interloper or merely swat me with his tail, like a cow a pesky fly.
He didn’t so much surge forward as charge. His massive gill-raker head grazed the kayak’s bottom. For a split second I saw black dorsal fin to my right, red plastic bow straight ahead, tail fin to my left. Rocking, holding the paddle unconsciously poised in air, I watched and listened to him pass, heard the water trailing from his swishing tail.
I began to breathe – and to absorb my foolhardiness. And Mr. Shark cruised calmly on, continued to quarter the harbor. He’d discerned that the rash intruder was not only harmless but insufficiently microscopic to be on the daily menu.
I paddled meekly to the sidelines thinking shark skin against human flesh would do little in the line of cosmetics.
Concluding I’d exceeded protocol in interviewing Mr. Shark, I thanked him for his generosity, dragged the kayak up the stone steps, stowed it under the cliffs and went to check the pigs.
Moving to remote Cape Clear Island from cosmopolitan Zurich, Switzerland, involved nothing as straight-forward as a door-to-door removal van. The day before our departure a call from our cheery transport company announced all was in order, have no fear, but the international container scheduled to arrive the next day was now replaced by a canvas-covered, open-bed truck to be off-loaded in Rotterdam piece by fragile piece into a what I was assured was usually a water-tight container.
On a rainy Tuesday we waited in Zurich. Three hours late, the truck pulled in, a laid-back young man at the wheel. Our only remaining helper, a portly German movie director, became the CEO of our loading, for he had the necessary executive experience: once, he boasted, he’d shifted frozen kangaroo meat into a truck in Philadelphia and unloaded it in Boston.
On Thursday, after 26 years in neat and tidy Switzerland, our family raised, we departed by car. On Friday, at midnight, our ship set sail for Ringaskiddy from France. On Sunday we came "in" to Cape -- and felt the world could end, if it had to, right then, for neighbors were saying what no one had said to us since we were kids in the States: "Welcome home."
Monday we called the shipping company. Yes, a storm had held the container ship in Rotterdam. Three days later we heard that the ship had left -- but with destination Dublin, not Cork.
Were we being had? All our life’s possessions? We of little faith. Nine days behind schedule the goods were suddenly underway to Baltimore. We caught the mailboat from Cape for a ten o'clock rendezvous with our shipping agent. A healthy west wind gave us visions of half a ton of water-logged books, of chairs and tables thrashing about in Roaringwater Bay, of bed linens bedecking distant cliffs. The unloading of the container was done in a jiff, everything well packed in Rotterdam, not a glass broken, not a book spine cracked. Our agent, perhaps cavalier with containers and schedules, was a man of his word.
The master of the Cape-bound vessel, the Dun na Riogh, had loaded everything except frozen kangaroo meat and oversaw the operation. By two o'clock, the tide full, we tucked a dingy green tarpaulin about the goods towering from the open hold. Bits that could survive spray we piled about the deck, stem to stern. The Dun na Riogh looked more like a flea market than a ship.
We embarked. Black rain squalls backed around us. The wind veered fifteen degrees north -- and those few degrees were full of mercy, for now we didn't have to buck waves. The skipper kept the engine at low throttle, but at one point the engine overheated. He went below to flush kelp out of the cooling system, motioning me to hold course. Neophyte hand on wheel, I watched the temperature gauge hover at boiling, then drop. Ten minutes later we sailed into Cape as peacefully as a gull into nest of a calm summer's evening.
Then we started the last leg -- the most arduous though the shortest, the half mile from harbour to hillside home. How could we have so much junk? What’ll our neighbours think when they see us so revealed, an awkward two cubic meter antique loom (a thoughtful going-away present, like an albatross around a certain mariner's neck), four 300-year-old doors, 2000 odd books, nine car tires, a life-size papier mâché pig?
An island tractor skillfully and steadily alternated drawing three trailers. By 9:00 p.m. our house was stuffed like a Thanksgiving Turkey, each box a breadcrumb, each chair a fruit slice, each table an onion. And when we crawled into our old bed that night, we gave thanks to be home, safe and sound, ready to feast on our dreams, the Irish adventure beginning.
WAVES & SEALS
On the morning of December 29th, 1998, aware of a mad roar, I ventured outside to scan Cape’s mile-long South Harbour. I failed to spot landmarks. It was as if I’d been transported, the scene alien and alarming.
Against the cliffs to the west, mountains of sea exploded, shot booming cataracts across cliff face, over scrub land and pasture. Giant white ghosts tripped across the island. In the middle of the harbour, waves rose forty feet, collided with each other, white plumes reaching skyward in sudden dazzles of sunlight that broke through black squalls. Then these monsters began breaking, cascading down, but, as they approached the shore, they’d rear up once more and crash over all before them.
Standing next to our kitchen garden, the Brussels sprouts blackening in the wind, I glanced north, down onto the inner protected portion of the same harbour, where small punts lie at anchor through summer months. The breakwater for the pier in front of the Old Telegraph House was as effective as a wicker fence at halting a stampeding bull. Waves curled the length of the hundred yard pier. A maelstrom of waterfall rushed along the pier’s surface, a truncated Niagara Falls alive and well on Cape.
The shingle before the priest’s house tumbled and turned in Pandemonium. As a wave charged up the beach, I saw an incongruous movement in the turmoil, discovered that part of the iron mast to a coaster that went aground here in 1940 was being levered up and down. In twelve years I hadn’t known this embedded hunk to budge one iota. Now it flopped about like a piece of flotsam before finding a deeper resting place.
Below the island school, walls of water rose high into the air, their lower bulk washing over the road, their upper bursts rushing on, rising over the Adventure Centre, swamping its chimney pots.
Hours later, night fallen, tide out, the waves crashing a hundred feet down the beach, a lone island lad called for me to take a look. “Sea otter or seal?” he asked.
Sure enough, heaving her way up the beach came a young seal. She leveraged herself onto the final bank, crossed the road, entered the priest’s yard.
Just then, a passing farmer, who’d spotted the seal in his headlamps, climbed out of his banger. As there’d been no ferry this day, he carried a brand-new yesterday’s paper. Thinking the seal should, for her own good, go back to the sea’s edge, he began to herd her as though one of his cows, swatting her debatable hindquarters. Sure enough, he drove her hissing and snarling back across the road. But then the pup suddenly bit his paper, snatched it out of his hands and tossed it into the wind where, in a fraction of a second, it opened and, unread, blew away.
I stood there, caught in a gale of laughter. A wild day had come to this, had become concentrated into this event. He too was laughing. And his daughter, who’d watched the scene from behind the wheel. One great helpless laugh together.
The seal stayed down on the beach, but safely back from the waves. And the next morning on my way to the ferry, the sea having abated and us with a mainland wedding to attend, I checked. Sure enough, the pup had disappeared back into a friendly sea.
In 1948 Great Grandmother Grace travels all the way from the rodeo-wilds of her western Colorado ranch to rural six-shooterless upstate New York to pay us a grand visit. She’s 90 the day she arrives, I’m already 10. We all call her GG.
Born in 1858, not long before the American Civil War broke out and the very year that the Blessed Virgin Mary is reported to have appeared at Lourdes, GG places her hands on my skinny upper arms and, looking straight at me, tells me, the oldest of her son Georgie’s nine grandchildren, of other miracles: that she grew up in the days before electricity, before the horseless carriage, before the Bell telephone, the wireless, the aeroplane, the atomic bomb; she grew up, she whispers, in the days when most everybody outside cities kept horses; she has, she says, in a lifetime that’s almost spanned a century, seen the world transformed.
Her voice and breath have a wispy, foxy, papery quality. Grey hair twisted into a tidy bun, GG holds court on my grandparents’ roofed but open front porch beside Owasco Lake, some forty relations clustered about helping her celebrate becoming a nonagenarian. To me, my parents are already pretty ancient, into their late thirties — they don’t run anywhere, or roll on the grass, or go barefoot. So GG, almost three times their age and shrunk to half their size, has lived as good as forever.
She doesn’t look anything like her oil portrait, which hangs pride of place in my grandparents’ winter home, eleven miles away. In the picture a mop of youthful red hair cascades to her ankles. And now, with her ninety this mid-summer day, I notice she still has left in tact our family’s characteristic big nose – and that makes me feel a special kindred, since mine’s sprouting like Pinocchio’s.
What I remember best of the family reunion is not GG but the vanilla ice cream. It arrives in a two-foot-high cardboard drum. When it melts just enough to slip out, Granddad parades it about like an icon. A crowd of us barefoot kids stream behind him like a motorboat’s wake. We pour through the length of The Big House and out onto the front porch, some forty feet from the lake. The mountain of melting deliciousness Granddad then places on the drop-leaf table, everyone free to scoop out any size portion they wish — and I wish a lot.
As the proud possessor of my first camera, a Baby Brownie, I finally step back from the festivity to the two hammocks swaying at the lake’s edge. From that vantage point I squeeze everything into the distorting viewfinder: I watch as my relations fill the chaise lounges, the bouncy metal chairs, the twenty-foot-wide front porch steps. I centre my focus not on GG but on the biggest hunk of ice cream I’ve ever seen. Click, click. Now I know I won’t forget.
We’re All Blow-ins
Born on Cape Clear Island in the year 1900, Dennis Cadogan sailed as first mate on a voyage from Ireland to the Falkland Islands in 1926. Later, Captain Cadogan plied the northern coast of Australia for thirty years before retiring to the island of his birth. The last time I talked with Din, as we called him, at the tail end of the dry summer of 1989, he was meticulously and gingerly scything grass in an awkward corner of one of his island pastures. When Din died later that autumn, I could not but recall the first time I’d had an extended chat with him.
In the summer of 1986, noticing that my wife and I were setting out on yet another walk around the westerly, wild side of Cape Clear, he invited us to drop in on our homeward leg for a "cuppa". Two hours later, we knocked on his door. He had everything ready, biscuits, tea, maps.
But first he gave us a tour of the house. In the parlour he pointed out soot-darkened oil paintings of tall ships with heavy press of sail his fathers before him had captained in keeping with Cape tradition. I especially liked one of the George Henry, the Fastnet Lighthouse behind it. Din said wistfully that he himself was the end of a long line of ship captains. He soon sat us down at the kitchen table and piloted us through a welcoming if iconoclastic history lesson.
The maps were layered, the most recent on top, then a 19th century ordnance survey map, and, finally, the prize from 1710. On the smudged and tattered parchment we lingered. We studied first the townland where our present farm is located. Our lonely barn appeared as one of a cluster of seven small dwelling houses. Having read that Cape Clear once had a population of 1800 souls, rather than its present 140, we suddenly had some tangible proof. Well, after pouring over every spring and bog and shed on the townland where we now live, we shifted our focus to the rest of the island: the ancient map divided the island up into fourteen townlands, each with its owner’s name on it -- except three: instead of a family name, each was labelled, simply, “papist”.
Din saw that we were properly flabbergasted by such blatant post-Cromwellian discrimination. We started to bombard him with questions. He chuckled, added that he couldn't tell us much about the islanders, as his family was of comparatively recent origin: his forebears hadn't arrived on the island until just after the time of this map's publication, and consequently, he insisted, he was still considered a blow-in!
Whether he was indulging in hyperbole or simply having a little fun pulling our leg we weren't certain. But we were sure of Lesson Number One: We’d always be blow-ins on Cape if his family had been labelled such since 1710!
In the middle of writing a poem, I hear the phone ring: “Killers whales, twenty of ’em. More. Leaping about between Cape Clear and Sherkin Island.” I ask, “Best viewing point?” “Cliff edge below the ruins opposite the new Keenleen road.” Off I charge, grabbing tripod, telescope, camera, lenses, wife. Well, to be honest, when she hears what’s up, she’s out the door before me.
We drive our chariot to the island’s north side, park, set off cross-country. Before we reach the cliffs, we’ve seen clusters of the whales, or dolphins, we aren’t certain: their frolic seems dolphin-like, though their size is considerably larger than that of the Common Bottlenose.
No sooner have I mounted my telescopic lens than the Naomh Ciaran II, the island ferry, stern a quarter full of tourists, sails into ken, nears the path of the playful creatures. I wait for the boat to enter my viewfinder so that I can capture two varieties of mammals at once.
Two pals Paul and Edmund suddenly are standing beside us. After a few more pictures and telescopic examination, we make a quick decision, set off for North Harbour, where Paul moors his boat.
Within five minutes of departure from Cape, we position ourselves, motor off, in the path of one of the pods of these sea creatures.
They rhythmically break water, arc, leap about, disappear.
We slap the sea with our hands. And sure enough, curious, they surface, approach. Disappear again. Sometimes we spy a milky shape streaking along just below the surface of the sea.
Two hundred yards away they suddenly show themselves. In almost every direction, five to ten start re-surfacing, revealing long white bellies, flukes. Several times they swim directly under our boat, their blue-white bodies distinctly visible in the almost windless, summery late-spring day. Bottlenose Dolphins. Around thirty of them.
We hear them breathe, hear them blow and snort.
A quarter of a mile off, five of them start breaching, time after time, perhaps ten times each. When they come down, a resounding, thumping wham-bang echoes over the sea, an exciting splash rises up, and in seconds they’re leaping straight heavenwards once again.
While their lobtailing feats may have been child’s play to them, they make us feel like kids, children on holiday. The scene has such fresh wholesomeness about it, such a sense of carefree, happy-go-lucky, honest playfulness, that we feel included, privileged, the mysteries of the deep leaping around us, sharing with us.
As we watch, the bottlenose dolphins pass along the north coast of Cape Clear, heading east. They finally frolic through the fearsomely tidal Gascanane, disappear from sight.
Returning to North Harbour, I realize that my camera’s of little communicative use. The scenes we’ve just witnessed are for the heart to photograph and store.
Only later, puttering in the garden, do I discover that I’ve still never yet seen a killer whale — and I shrug, happy as a king. I know my little poem’ll surface again tomorrow. Today, after all, we were smack-dab in the middle of somebody else’s seaside lyric.
TWO CHEERS FOR DEMOCRACY
It was 1973,and 2 days after arriving in Athens to attend an educational conference, I awoke in a war zone. From the hotel roof headmasters, headmistresses, department chairs and career guidance personnel heard the unambiguous sound of machine-gun fire, the clatter of tank treads, the soft spooky thunk of exploding tear gas canisters in the heart of the divine city.
Near the downtown polytechnic, communists joined rioting socialists, and the edgy right-wing army had all the excuse it needed, quelling not only the uprising but effecting a coup. President Popodoupolus fell. In a classic textbook case, the military shut down airport, train and bus stations, took command of all radio and TV centres. I couldn’t telephone my wife to say “I’m OK.”
On the way back to my hillside hotel from an early afternoon meeting, the sidewalks and thoroughfares suddenly emptied. Curfew time was earlier than we’d been told. I bustled alone along a narrow street. Hearing the ominous clankety clank of what I suspected a rapidly approaching tank, I dove for cover, tumbled into an underground park garage. An armoured personnel carrier roared past. When the noise and dust disappeared, I dashed the quarter mile to my digs.
Warned that machine-gunners were nestled into the hill above the hotel, I took the elevator back to the roof, stepped out and scurried around the corner. When I reached the far side, I heard bullets whizzing overhead. Now and then a tracer burned bright. But the top of the concrete elevator shaft gave protection.
From the seventh floor roof, I looked down over the ancient city. Scattered plumes of smoke rose from between buildings. From distant squares and alleys came sporadic, staccato bursts of gunfire, the familiar metallic roar of armed personnel carriers. Then a different kind of noise, a vibration of the air. I looked up. A helicopter was making a bee-line for me, probably assuming me a sniper. I dropped beneath a deck chair, its opaque curve of flimsy canvas perhaps hiding me from the chopper.
The whirlybird approached, hovered a hundred feet off. If it sinks any lower, I thought, my cover will be literally blown. Like a bird of prey, the chopper suddenly swooped toward the city centre. I stayed put until dark.
Two days later, the curfew not in effect until six in the afternoon, a small group of us prowled the streets. Around the polytechnic every sidewalk sapling had been uprooted and wielded as clubs. Storefront windows and telephone cabins were smashed to smithereens. We heard first-hand from colleagues how troops had fired indiscriminately on a crowd in Harmonium Square. The junta-controlled press reported to the world that only 17 people died. We knew otherwise.
The next morning, in the dawn’s early light, I peered out my window over the city toward the Acropolis. Resplendent in the sunlight where I’d seen the Parthenon my first morning, I saw now, silhouetted against the sky, the long cannons of tanks.
After breakfast six skeptical American educators went to the roof. All quiet on the eastern front. While the machine-gunners were still ensconced in the hillside behind us, no bullets whizzed. Far to the south we could see a United States destroyer berthed in Pireaus, colourful flags festooning its turrets. Three of us then took a walk. We visited the university area. All windows mended. New saplings planted. Phone boxes replaced. All traces of fighting eradicated. It was as though nothing had happened, nothing at all.
Ah, I thought, here I am, in Athens again, birthplace of Socrates, cradle of democracy. I called home.
THE SEA HAS MANY VOICES
Late Autumn a young, twelve-foot Minke whale washed up on Inbhír Bheag, the small shingle beach at the head of Cape Clear’s South Harbour. Two marine biologists, thinking he might have been shot, investigated his bulk, but found no tell-tale wound. They then wondered if he might have drowned while ensnared in some massive net, but could distinguish no signs of struggle anywhere on his jouncy flesh. At a loss, they concluded that he’d simply died of an undiagnosed whale disease.
The Minke more or less stayed put, especially once a spring tide literally stranded his carcass high up on the north-eastern corner of the beach. This whale might recently have been, as D.H.Lawrence wrote, “dreaming with strange whale eyes wide open / in the waters of the beginning and the end.” Now he lay at a less timely terminus.
For the first couple of weeks poor Minke attracted tourists. But with October over, along with the best time in the year for sighting rare birds, the tourists disappeared, the Cape settled down to its long winter nap, and Minke began to yellow, to darken. Indeed, in certain winds, an at first ambiguous aroma, then an unseemly bouquet, could be nosed from the harbour road.
Mid-winter Minke lost his head and tail to an intrepid gardener seeking natural artifacts. But the bulk remained. The scent had become alarming. By January, with a single whiff of the poor fellow’s misfortune, you feared you might irreparably damage your sense of smell. Walkers on the harbour road turned their heads aside and scuttled like crabs out of range.
The last day of February, out collecting pony droppings to bestow upon this year’s garden beds, I heard an unfamiliar growl through the howling wind and scanned the harbour. To my astonishment I spotted a yellow digger, on treads no less, down at Inbhír Bheag, a total anomaly there, like the plastic that washes in, except the digger dwarfed the beach. A glistening pile of black stone grew beside the roaring machinery. I ran for my camera.
I arrived at the burial service minutes before the corpse tumbled into its grave, a ten-foot-deep hole awash with fresh water from a brook that normally vanishes beneath the strand. I imagined a priest of high poetry intoning the eulogy: “There flooded into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.”* Yes, the sea has many voices.
I doubt if I’ll ever walk that strand again without hearing the digger, remembering the essence of whale, and wondering when those vertebrae will eventually surface, wash back out to sea.
AROUND THE FASTNET
When invited to tag along on a sea-watch around the Fastnet, I accepted without hesitation. Soon, on a sea of long slow swells, the boat circling the lighthouse, we were delighting in the labyrinthine remains of old stairways and living quarters. We imagined what life must have been like there for the rotations of lighthouse keepers from 1854 until 1989, when the lighthouse was automated -- but not demythologised.
Suddenly, a fellow sea-watcher, scanning the waters way south, spotted a dolphin leaping fully out of the water, right on cue. Off we sped, throttle open wide.
Shortly we entered dolphin country. Hundreds of them. To intensify the scene, flocks of seabirds milled about. Black-backs, Manx shearwaters, fulmars and kittiwakes. The occasional storm petrel. Now and then mackerel schooled. And everywhere about us, dolphins. Engine off, we could hear the playful dolphins breathing, blowing, snorting. Occasionally, as if a ballerina on a different kind of stage, one soared above the water.
After an hour, we were still enraptured: "Look what's right next to us; come to port, quick, here's a flock gambolling like spring lambs, look there, and there." Our leader, a marine biologist, stood nearby, feeding us scientific background information on what we watched.
Mysteriously, as if on command, the sea went flat calm, the swells disappeared, the dolphins too. We motored further south. Someone accidentally peered directly below our bow. Dolphins were playing in the bow wave. Half a dozen dolphins taking turns riding the water we pushed ahead. We stood on the bow deck looking down on dolphins four to five feet from us. We peered down sphinctered blow holes.
As we cruised close to Cape Clear's western cliffs on our return, someone recalled a story heard thirty years ago. A National Geographic photographer and his assistant visited the Aegean to investigate the ancient account of a dolphin saving the life of a boy. They went to a headland where dolphins were frequently seen, rented a rowboat, waited. A day or two later, half-a- mile off shore, they spotted the telltale fins breaking water. They put their backs into the oars. When amongst the dolphins, according to plan the assistant jumped overboard and thrashed about, crying for help. A dolphin came up to him, nosed him carefully to shore, the photographer in the boat frenziedly snapping and rowing away.
Afterwards, as the men were congratulating themselves, the photographer noticed that, in all the excitement, he had failed to remove the lens cap from his beloved but old camera. They wondered what to do and just then saw a herd -- perhaps the same herd -- of dolphins. Off they went. Your man jumped overboard, as before, and pretended he was drowning. But this time a dolphin came up to him and thumped him repeatedly, resoundingly, with his tail, knocking the stuffing out of him. The herd swam off.
Never cry wolf? Never cry dolphin.
Jerusalem as Gift
Ten years ago seven international storytellers travelled by chartered bus from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. First stop, to their utter surprise, the President’s residence. There they met up with their Israeli counterparts, including Druze, Bedouin, and Arab storytellers, and together they told stories of peace. Suddenly President Chaim Weizmann entered the room. In no time he was telling stories in slangy English. Friendly, witty, low key. The formal room filled with relaxed laughter. And then, as quickly as the sun shines and departs from the magical white and green hills surrounding Jerusalem, he had to leave.
Laura, an American storyteller, suddenly squeezed down beside me, shaken. I asked what was wrong. She whispered, "I don't know what to do. I was looking at my rings, fiddling with 'em. The one I most like I began turning. The Arab beside me noticed and gestured. I slid the ring off and handed it to him. He put it on, bowing his thanks. What shall I do?" "Be glad he didn't ask to sit behind the wheel of your car." "Be serious," she whispered. I shared a story about how an American Indian had given an early settler a peace pipe. The settler later hung it over his mantle piece. When the Indian dropped in a year later he was displeased to see the pipe ensconced and took it back, giving rise to the pejorative term, Indian giver. But in some cultures, gifts must circulate or they stop being gifts. Take them out of circulation, possess them, and you destroy their spirit.
That afternoon Laura and I went to the Jaffa Gate and entered the Old City. We walked through the souks as if in a dream, overawed by the sensation that here, despite twenty centuries of suffering, was a city of soul. We turned a narrow corner and were standing before the storied Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Guides pressed themselves upon us. Street urchins sold us postcards. Vendors ran past carrying trays of steaming drinks and falafel. But all I could see were the quiet tan and light brown blocks out of which the church had been constructed over thousands of years. We prowled up and down wide stone staircases; into candle-lit, four-foot high burial chambers; alongside fourth century frescoes; into tiny, incense-filled caves lined with relics. I found myself in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb; I was standing feet from where Jesus had allegedly been crucified on Golgotha; I was deep below ground level seeing where the rend to the veil of the temple had descended unto the foundations.
Toward evening, winding through the labyrinthine streets whose names I realised I already knew, like Via Dolorosa and El-Wad Road, we happened upon columns that were 20 feet below street level. And then, with those columns in view above us, we dropped by modern stairs another 20 feet below the earth, from where we could simultaneously view large chunks of architecture from the time of the crusades, and from Roman days, and from the 20th Century -- B.C.
And then, not far from King Solomon’s Temple, I sensed part of the problem with Jerusalem: it’s so lovely, so tragic, so full of holy promises, that different religions wish to possess it. I wondered, standing there, what if they could experience Jerusalem as gift, a gift bustling with the contradictions and paradoxes of jostling cultures, a gift not to be possessed but circulated, like the peace pipe or Laura’s ring, or stories, even the stories that well out of the bowels of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Yes, I thought, Old Jerusalem, I must pass you on.
CHRISTMAS ON CAPE
“That’s fine and dandy you live on Cape Clear during the summer,” say mainland friends, “but year round? Gale season? Christmas? No thank you!”
Having spent twenty-five Christmases in Switzerland, and my first twenty-eight in the States, I sympathise with this imagining. But our first Christmas on Cape wasn’t our last. While we wouldn’t want to eat wind as a steady diet, nor shave daily with salty scud, nor try to sleep with hail and sleet and howling storms hassling the reindeer, a new era was born.
That first Christmas season, seldom did the wind drop below Force 8; seldom did it gust over 60 miles an hour. Between squalls we took daily walks up top, well back from the cliffs, having heard tales, once judged apocryphal, of how sheep can be picked up and tossed easy over, like eggs in a skillet, by that bleating gust.
On our lighthouse perambulation, the wind blew so hard that -- with mouths tightly clamped shut -- it found odd openings, our nostrils, and blew in fiercely, creating drafts down our throats and activating secretions of phlegm. Never have I been blown off course so regularly, sometimes unable to luff for twenty-five stumbling feet through furze and heather.
Waves mountainous rushed by the island, house-high, day after day. Slates from our cottage roof, joined by those of a few other exposed houses, decided to vacation in the Scillys. Tightly sealed windows became sluices for freely-flowing canals of horizontal rain. Hail stones suddenly pounded down, the roof and windows their night-time bodhrans; if you were caught out, all you could do was huddle down, turn your back, pull the anorak hood up, and hope the stones didn’t grow into golf balls.
What did we learn? First, the weather’s the weather; you go with it. And last, to respect “the draw”. We’d often heard reference made to the draw, but we never quite believed in it, having often, in summers, paddled our canoe around headlands and in an out of caves. Occasionally we witnessed a tidal current running into the wind and creating a stretch of loud choppy water, but no draw.
Still, we listened to the stories about the draw and gradually came to sense some mythical beast. Well, its “hour” came “round at last” that December. We finally saw the draw rushing in and out of North Harbor. We heard it shift the stony shoreline, heard it toss rocks onto the road. We watched the shallow-drafted mail boat do battle when it bravely chanced a quick run out to Baltimore and back. The hardest, most dangerous part for the boat was not out in the giant seas, but in the harbour itself -- where the white water created by the draw was like a raging river in spate in conflicting directions. Slowly we came to understand that the draw was rushing water created not by tide but by atmospheric depression.
Back home, we put our feet up, pulled the chairs closer to the fire, and heard stories from neighbours about, of course, the weather, and the banshees of Christmases past, and the lobster that was bigger round than a large loaf of brown bread and able to leap up out of a bucket of water if you made the mistake of passing your hand over it in the dark.
If Cape Clear doesn’t suddenly submerge, we’re there for all our future Christmases. We’ve fettered sea anchors to our legs. There’s no place we’d rather be, no better time to be there. And we’ll burn candles in our battered windows every Christmas Eve.
GUNS & CULTURE
Henry David Thoreau believed every country lad should be given a rifle -- in the hope he'd put it down by age twenty. Grampy gave me my first rifle at age ten, in 1948, and promised a penny for every pesty house sparrow I picked off. I confess that rifle nothing more sophisticated than a hundred-shot air gun, but it made me feel a resurrected Billy the Kid.
I roamed our isolated environs seeking fair game. Soon word got out that I needed a talking-to. Grampy collared me before I could decimate my first buffalo herd. He imparted strict instructions: "Never any bird except crow, grackle, house sparrow, nor any animal except woodchuck, red squirrel, fox, marauding 'coon. If I ever hear you've shot grey squirrel, wren, or robin redbreast, I'll have ya skinned, then drawn and quartered."
At 12 I received a single shot .22. Spent hours stalking crows. No Annie Oakley, I couldn't hit them on the wing; alight, their sentries spotted me before I them.
When I turned 16, Uncle George gave me an over-and-under 16 gauge shotgun to hunt deer. One day, toward dusk, I waited deep in a gorge thinking, if a buck doesn't come along quick, I'll have to call it a day. Just then, upwind, I spied a red fox daintily balancing himself on a fallen tree that stretched high across a brook. I watched the fox, smelled the fox, sighted, squeezed the forward trigger. The ravine reverberated. I dropped Mr. Fox deep into the snow. I raced over to him, examined his left shoulder. A small hole the size of my thumbnail. I rolled him over. The slug had pancaked while passing through. His right shoulder was missing. Around us an enlarging circle of red. I cut off his brush so that I'd have proof to collect the $25.00 rabies scare bounty from the sheriff's office. But I couldn't cut off his memory. I still see him nonchalantly stepping out across that bridge, probably going home to his mate and cubs. Rabid fox my foot.
One winter's day, long skeins of Canada geese trailing across the sullen sky, their honking barely audible, I came down to a cliff top. Below an expanse of open water, the rest of the lake frozen. I waited. Dusk fell. An increased honking, the bell-beat of wings. Flying in lower and lower circles, a flock of five hundred geese approached. When the honkers were half-settled in the open water, I led the closest goose, aiming about a foot ahead of him. I couldn't believe his bold beauty. I held off, took in the full sight before me. I felt as if I were a secret member of this flock. I could almost touch them. In the air over my head, at eye level, filling the open water below, they settled down for the long night, I privy to their doings. Next thing I knew, I'd broken open my gun, pocketed the Number 2 shells.
I struggled through drifting snow back to my car with my best bag ever: empty pouch, full heart. I still feed on the memory of those geese. I gave up guns and started toting cameras. Thoreau became my brother-in-arms.
And now, thinking of firearms, inner city violence, I unholster a quotation that's grown on me: "When I hear the word 'gun' I reach for my culture."
For our first eleven years across the lane from him in rural Switzerland, we had no neighbours except bachelor farmer Franz, his nine cows and a sow. When he needed someone to help rake hay, he called our kids. If the sow was littering, a cow calving, he invited us up. When a troop of piglets paraded about, sometimes crowding under our car, we had a chuckle together.
Franz used our telephone. He'd rattle away, holding the phone well out front and yelling in its general direction. Now and then he asked us to trot out the world atlas so that together we could see the size of his homeland, then compare it to the US. In his fifty-two years he'd managed the 30 kilometers to Zürich once, so his tiny Switzerland, where even farmers speak of the square meter rather than the acre, seemed immense.
Then Franz had a phone installed, a TV. He stopped going to the pub to play cards: easier to switch on the set. His pals stopped driving to his house: handier to give 'im a ring. Gone the ritual visits to use our phone and gawk at the world; gone the swapping of home remedies for collywobbles and head lice.
One fall, at daybreak, a shot rang round the valley. "Another rabid fox bites the dust," one of us mumbled. We rolled over for that last sweet hour, then gobbled breakfast, piled the kids into the car, dashed off.
When we returned home that evening, outside Franz's bungalow two men wrestled with a chest. We strolled up. The strangers couldn't manipulate the chest through the front door and narrow hallway. Franz wasn't about. Then we realized the chest was a coffin.
The strangers explained. Late last night Franz had finished milking and leaned over a cow. The cow, spooked, sent Franz flying. Pelvis shattered, he dragged himself back to his bungalow. The next morning he managed to milk the cows, muck out the barn, lug the milkcans to the roadside, brew some coffee, sit down, position the muzzle of his regulation Swiss Army rifle in his mouth, place his bare right big toe on the trigger. The mug of coffee rested untouched beside him.
The men rigged a plastic stretcher, weaving him through the narrow space and into the coffin. His stiff right arm stuck straight up. The strangers pushed the lid gently down. It rose, cranked up by a very visible arm. They tried again, with the same result. And a third time. We imagined Franz waving farewell to his neighbours. Then one of the men grasped Franz's arm. The next time the lid stayed closed.
Later that evening two plainclothes detectives knocked. Where had we been when the gun went off? Had we witnesses? We related how much less we'd seen of him the last year, since his purchase of TV and phone. We began to realize that Franz had unwittingly cut himself off. And when he experienced the agony of shattered pelvis, he saw no future. He treated himself with the same stern compassion he'd bestow on a cow he judged terminally ill.
We still see his hand waving good-bye to us, see a flock of piglets under our car, see that we didn't see enough. We were part of his circle. But the circle became too intersected. A small community, like children in a ring, stopped holding hands, and, as Yeats put it, "Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold."
The Story of the Cape Clear Stone
Strong cosmological patterns -- three spirals and circumscribing zigzags -- on the Cape Clear Stone have long suggested that an accompanying passage tomb should be somewhere on this southernmost of Irish islands. On June 20th and 21st, 1993, Patrick J. O'Leary, West Cork archaeologist, made a discovery that has national and international implications, and which logically locates where the stone was originally erected five millennia back.
The story of the stone, now housed in the Cork Public Museum in Fitzgerald Park, deserves telling.
In 1874, two island labourers, while clearing a field, found what came to be called the Cape Clear Stone. The owner passed the stone on to Father O'Leary on nearby Sherkin Island. The father planted the decorated stone in his garden. When he became a canon, he left Sherkin, but the stone stayed -- until 1945, when the curator of the Cork Public Museum rediscovered it. It was then presented to UCC and passed on to the museum. The discovery, written up in the 1949 Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, had as its thesis that "Passage Grave Folk" must have landed and lived on Cape 4500 years ago.
In 1984 the curator of the Cape Heritage Centre wrote the director of archaeological surveys and persuaded him to survey Cape. Four archaeologists visited Cape that April. They discovered that St. Kieran's pillar stone had a panel within the borders of which faint Celtic interlacings could be detected in certain evening lights. They theorized that the stone, when Christianized, had had the pagan symbolism dressed out of it.
Atop Cnoc Caraintin, the island's highest point at 533 feet, they also discovered prehistoric ruins laid out in a circle. The circle had come to include a cairn built in the 1840's for the Ordnance Survey. Near the cicrle's centre, the sleuths discerned a small chamber demarked on three sides by vertical slabs, or orthostats. Toward the northeast, and in line with the opening of the three-sided chamber, they further discovered five stones which form a line pointing in the chamber's NE orientation.
When I telephoned Paddy O'Leary to confirm his most recent discovery, he advised me that I should keep various points in mind: up until now, the discovery of ancient stones with spirals and zigzags has always occurred in connection with passage tombs. Passage tombs are always on the highest points of ground in an area, with a roof box over the door so that light can enter at sunrise or sunset, or moonrise or moonset, and be at the same level as the chamber's floor. Always there are proven orientations. For those passage tombs oriented toward sunrises, and thus open to the northeast, all have been blocked off on three sides. On the horizon to the northeast is a geologic morphology that permits a precise, calendrical dawn sighting.
One of the four who made the 1984 survey, Paddy has, since then, on the night before the summer solstice, often slept at Cnoc Caraintin to see what happens. But until June of 1993, the sun was obscured at every relevant dawn. Not so in 1993.
On June 20th, 1993, Paddy was ready and waiting. And, like celestial clockwork, at last, there it was, in a cloudless golden dawn: on the horizon 5 miles NW of Rosscarbery, in the V formed by Carrigfadda and the next hill north; there, in the valley between the two hills, and at the end of the five marker stones, rose the solstice sun, manifesting itself in the lowest point in the gap.
Perhaps we'll never know how many centuries of cultural accretion went into the building of these tombs. But at least one question has recently been answered: Paddy's nine year's of detective work confirm that Cape has a passage tomb with a solar orientation.
As Paddy explains it, two schools of thought swirl around the significance of the orientation of the little chamber. One has it that passage tombs came to the Boyne region first. Initially very large stones were used. Later, small stones. The other school holds that the little stones along Ireland's west coast preceded the structures of the Boyne. If the second school of thought is correct, then the Cape passage grave is older than the Boyne's 3200 BC tombs.
Needed is an excavation and carbon dating. Cape may prove one of the oldest -- and most religious -- spots in Ireland, home not only to the earliest of the four pre-Patrician saints, St. Kieran, but to the earliest neolithic folk in Ireland as well.
In a letter to me, Paddy elaborated on the meaning of his finding: "The discovery of the tomb and of an orientation on the Summer Solstice rising sun is of great importance. It is important nationally in that it is the first authenticated Passage Tomb in County Cork; it is important internationally because it further re-inforces the growing belief that all our Passage Tombs do have astronomical orientations. When we realize that New Grange Passage Tomb is the oldest astronomically oriented structure in the world, and that the other Passage Tombs in Ireland are generally regarded as contemporary with it . . . , we can see that there is . . . a high degree of knowledge about, astronomy in Pre-historic Ireland at a very early date."
Are Cape's picturesque site and modest tomb earlier or contemporary with "earliest" Newgrange? Are there artifacts within the tomb that could shed light on our ancestors? As I speculate on what a team of trained archaeologists will find, I muse that we could do worse in this world than spend time and energy, as the ancients did, to orient ourselves properly. Perhaps passage tombs are but stony metaphors meant to remind us of true directions.
Penelope, (Molly Bloom), & Nancy New
When the 567 foot USS Yorktown steamed in to Cobh this fall, Nancy New, wife of the Yorktown's Fire Controlman Petty Officer First Class Michael New, landed unannounced at Cork Airport, her first time in Ireland. She had an unprecedented chance, after nine years of marriage, to be with Mike while he was on a cruise, albeit a short one of 2 1/2 months rather than 7, like that following Desert Storm.
Granted three days -- and nights -- shore leave, Mike caught up with Nancy at our farm on Clear Island. And since Nancy's my niece, I had a privileged opportunity to learn about the stay-at-home working spouse's side of a Homeric marriage. Two months after the knot was tied, for example, Mike shipped out on a 5 month I/O cruise (naval slang for Indian Ocean). When he returned, he reunited with Nancy in an apartment he had never before seen and together they celebrated Christmas -- in February.
Three-month cruises they manage easily, but 6-month cruises up the anxiety level: Have I changed, worries Nancy, have I gained too much weight, has he changed? Will the kids remember him? Has anything happened that could come between us? Are we growing apart?
It's delicate work to keep such a long-distance marriage balanced. When Mike comes home, Nancy wants to go out, since between her full-time job and two young girls she has little leeway. And Mike, who's been leaving behind him world-girdling wakes, wants nothing more than to be a homebody and cozy up with Nan and the kids. The secret is, confides Nancy, that because of these different urges and expectations, "we must communicate a lot. Also, when we're together, the times are special, have extra meaning. We don't have a chance to get into boring routines. And he's a 'big player': he does loads of work around the house. He cooks with pleasure. I clean up after dinner, he bathes the girls. We split everything."
"You see," she continues, " there are pluses to this kind of marriage. The marriage can't go stale. We've always something new to talk about. But while he's away, I have to be careful I don't make him into a scapegoat. Sometimes I write him letters full of the myriad problems, auto repairs, house maintenance, day care for the kids -- I release all my tension on him. Thank goodness I don't always mail those letters."
"The hardest thing to deal with? Well, when things come up and he's gone, you have to assume all responsibilities. And you can't share your frustration with the kids -- you can't let them see it, 'cause that's not fair. Yeah, the divorce rate's high in the navy because many can't handle the strains of extended separation. They get overwhelmed, don't learn to stand being alone."
In weak moments, she sometimes wishes she had someone at home all the time, but then she remembers that when Mike's home, he radiates all he's seen: Romania, Turkey, the Panama Canal, drug busts in the Caribbean, family life in northern Russia, initiation ceremonies when crossing the equator or the Arctic circle for the first time, the cliffs of Scotland, the streets of Singapore, the Persian coasts, the magic of Israel. "I'd go to Israel in a heartbeat. Mike's not a religious man, but when there he sent me holy water -- with which the girls were baptized. Another time he mailed me a giant rosary, gotta be 6 foot, and I worried for a minute that he'd changed completely, got religion. He sent me all kinds of religious artifacts, candles. That's not like him. I thought, man, he's changed. I don't know him any more. But then I caught his enthusiasm for Israel. It's contagious."
The loneliest times when he's gone? "In the evenings. When the kids are settled in bed. I'll read then -- which I don't do when he's home. And I write letters to him nightly, mail them weekly."
Chelsea, almost five, comprehends time, can count the days until daddy's back. But Charlotte, twenty-one months younger, has no inkling of time. While Nancy doesn't go to wave the ship off, finding it too hard on herself because it makes the absence feel so permanent, she talks about Mike with the kids every day, especially at nighttime. That's a special "daddy time". When home, Mike always plays bedtime games with the kids; when he's away, the girls ritually take a picture of daddy to bed.
When Mike arrives home at the end of a deployment, it takes a while before the kids become comfortable with him. Chelsea goes through a shy period. Little Charlotte acts aloof. For them he's a stranger those first days. They know he's their dad, but he has to be careful of being too familiar too quickly, for he could scare them ... with his love.
The next time I read the Odyssey (not Ulysses, where poor Dublin-cruising Bloom fails to reunite with his stay-in-bed modern Moll), I'll keep a weather eye on the ending, the homecoming, the reunion. On an epic scale, Penelope and Odysseus blaze the trail for our secular Nancys and Mikes. Imagine the complexities in the reunion of those crafty ancients, together after his 19 year naval cruise -- after her 19 years of stay-at-home, keep off the suitors, bring up the kid. The Mikes and Nancys may not have it easy, but they're part of an ancient, intricate tradition.
The Perfume of Suffering / A Knock on the Door from Another World
February, 1992, a month before our move from Switzerland to Cape Clear, I heard a knocking at midnight and called out from the living room, “Come on in! Herein, bitte!”.
In stumbled a swarthy post of a man. His blotched face, covered with grey stubble, jerked about in multiple tics. A stench filled the house. He was breathing fast, almost gasping. We’d never seen him before. We motioned he sit down, discovered German our language in common. Did we know where he could spend the night?
When we learned he was a Yugoslav, we suggested he talk to some of his fellow countrymen, our only neighbours, who lived in a tiny barracks and performed seasonal road work and gardening. Ah, our guest’d already talked with them. They’d suggested he come see us and regretted he couldn’t sleep with them because if they were caught housing someone unregistered, they’d be thrown summarily out of their jobs – and out of the country.
Slowly we pieced together his story. He’d hitchhiked non-stop for the last four days from Yugoslavia. He’d crossed all borders illegally. To enter Switzerland from Italy he’d hiked mountain passes at night. He’d no belongings with him, no money.
We made up a bed in the living room. Because of our forthcoming move to Ireland, the upstairs bedrooms were stuffed with banana boxes, the beds dismantled.
As he drank his tea he talked. Two weeks earlier he’d been father of six happy children and grandfather to one. But sectarian fighting had erupted. One of his sons, a captain in the Bosnian army, had been ordered to fire upon a crowd; when he refused, he was carted off to prison.
Mislim’s eldest daughter had been in a crowd indiscriminately fired upon. Because she gave assistance to one of the wounded, she was taken off to prison after being machine-gunned in the legs. That’d teach her to interfere with justice. Another daughter’d been thrown in prison for reasons unknown. All in the last two weeks.
To get these three children out of prison he needed money, 1000 Swiss francs to hire a solicitor, another 1000 to pay the customary bribe to the judge. The only place to raise such sums, he knew from his experience working aboard German trains, was well-heeled Switzerland.
During the next week Mislim slept in our house. I took him to an international school and he related his story to advanced history classes. Current affairs live. As further horrendous details of atrocities committed in his region came out, listeners became skeptical since the international press had, at this point, carried next-to-no coverage of the turmoil in rump Yugoslavia. Surely it was preposterous to think that a family of ten, in the heart of Europe, didn’t have, for example, enough milk to last another week.
The school gave Mislim 100 Swiss francs. But, cautioned the headmaster, maybe it was all a scam. I hadn’t thought of that. I’d watched Mislim forget to breathe.
A tiny Baptist church where I’d a minister friend who travelled Eastern Europe for Amnesty International, raised 300 francs. He recognised the story as authentic.
Mislim began visiting churches in other parts of Switzerland. He travelled discreetly, underground, worried the police would nab him. The more we heard from him, and the longer he lived off and on with us, the more we knew he was genuine.
His tics didn’t improve. He’d so fixated on his family’s suffering that he didn’t, couldn’t, think of himself. We made him eat. We begged him to sleep.
At last he learned his eldest daughter’d been freed. He’d paid over 1100 Swiss francs to the judge and solicitor before effecting the release.
We haven’t heard from Mislim since he set off to hitchhike back to whatever was left of his family. He was a Muslim convinced that Karadzic and Milosevic would deprive him of all he loved but determined not to die until he’d given every ounce of himself to his loved ones’ plights.
Two weeks after he left, and we had completed our move to Cape Clear, we could still smell his presence as we unpacked the banana boxes. It was, we realized, the perfume of suffering.
SHALL I COMPARE THEE TO A SUMMER'S DAY – OR TO A WINTER'S TALE?
Cape Clear's an island of stark contrasts, not only from minute to minute -- as when you witness half a dozen rainbows of an April afternoon -- but from season to season, century to century. Compare its peak population of roughly 1800 in the 18th Century with its 140 today; compare a halcyon summer's day with a January gale; compare the heralded arrival of the mailboat in mid-June with its ghostly appearance in January.
When the Naomh Ciaran berths of a sunny summer Saturday afternoon, North Harbour has all the makings of a festival. Cars, tractors, trailers line the pier. Young children splash about in the shallow water out from Trakieran; the older kids learn lifesaving techniques, their swimming master shouting instructions in Irish on how to effect a rescue; the offspring of yachtspeople dart about in dinghies; a local transport ship unloads twenty tons of sand onto three trailers. It's not just a time to collect the week's groceries, the food supplements for the cattle, a new bathtub, and visiting friends; it's a time to people-watch and chat with neighbours.
Some islanders are content to enjoy the hullabaloo from the comfort of their bangers; others stand next to a neighbour, who's already standing next to a neighbour, and thus a natural line of islanders forms well back from the mailboat's summer berth. As the "Naomh Ciaran" docks and unloads, the chaos and the fun begin -- if you're not in a hurry, that is.
Two local lads leap to the pier from beside the wheelhouse before the boat has been made fast. Once the ropes have been looped over the bollards, pulled taut and cleated, a mate unbolts the starboard stern deck door, and out file the hodgepodge of passengers, up the concrete steps, into the mass of vehicles, several idling. Visitors and islanders alike thread their way off the pier or climb into one of the cars and wait for the traffic jam to untangle.
Out step locals back from errands in Skibbereen, the elderly assisted by one of the mates; German youth, half helmeted, wait to be handed their bikes from off the bow deck; Irish musicians carry their precious black cases, ready for an all-night gig; birdwatchers alight, binoculars dangling from around their necks, telescopes, tripods, and luggage draping their shoulders. Out walk the eager parents of Irish college students; the young set with their tents and sleeping bags wonder where the campsite is; an assortment hope An Oige isn't full-up; day-trippers, with their prams and picnic baskets and shiny shoes, emerge from the passenger saloon. Out pour groups speaking Duutsch, cockney, Brooklynese, Irish. It's hard to distinguish islanders on these days, except maybe the farmers, recognizable by their boilersuits and weathered complexions.
Finally, a large "box" is swung to the pier by hydraulic hoist. The friendly ferreting begins. The process has a ritual quality and can't be hurried. Never certain how many cartons their telephone-ordered goods will be packed into, islanders must examine the label on every box; thus they can't leave until the last message has been claimed. Everyone awaiting supplies figuratively, and often literally, bumps into everyone else, greetings and banter flying.
The boat came in at 3:00. The crowd has dispersed by 4:20.
Cape bustles in the summer, what with students, tourists, regattas, lifeboat days, visiting friends and relatives, hay-making. In the evenings, the pubs become so chockablock that some islanders forego their weekly chat and pint.
But the mailboat come in of a Wednesday in January -- assuming there's no Force 10, no white-water draw to render the mailboat as good as rudderless. A half-dozen denizens along the pier climb in and out of cars to have a natter and keep warm. Periodically they scan the sea for the first sign of the boat's antenna.
Instead of docking in the outer harbour, the boat is deftly manoeuvered past the Bull's Nose to the safe harbour, where it's secured with hawsers six inches in diameter, ropes so heavy when waterlogged that the hydraulic hoist has to heft them. Since there are no stairs built into the pier here, the mate and a bystander wrestle an aluminum railed gangway into position. It balances on the edge for a moment, like a teeter-totter.
Four local lads disembark, ignoring the gangway. They step onto a bench, its back, the ship's rail, up onto the pier. One had his hair cut while out. Because of the forecast, the trawlers on which two work won't be sailing this week.
Up the gangway walks an intrepid birdwatcher and a UCC professor in to monitor the effluent from the turbot farm. Everyone's well bundled up; a few wear oilskins. Two middle-aged women emerge. A couple who spent a week in Dublin are back from holidays. An elderly woman, her hair in a kerchief, is handed up the gangway, since it's steep and slippery. Then those waiting descend for a dozen cartons of food, two tubs of weather-shield paint. The gangway's retrieved, half-hitched to a metal ring. The mate lowers the securing levers over the doors to the saloon, the captain locks the wheelhouse, checks the moorings again.
At 3:15 the boat came in; by 3:35 the pier's empty.
That night seven islanders sit around the fireplace in Cotter's discussing the forecast, telling stories of a shipwreck in the 1930's. The pub's empty by half twelve. At 4:00 the next morning the captain shifts the boat to the outer harbour so that at 9:00 it's not aground at low tide.
Summer may be more festive and fun, winter more typical and full of cozy confabulation. When asked which I prefer, well, I choose both!
Why Settle on Cape?
After 20 expatriate years in Switzerland, we visited Ireland for a lark, a major mistake. We accidentally hit upon just where we had to live, come taxes or high water: Cape Clear Island, the southernmost inhabited tidbit of land off the south coast. 1578 rugged wind-swept acres a 45 minute ferryboat ride from Baltimore. 130 permanent residents. Not everyone's cup of tea, perhaps, but there's no tea we'd rather drink.
Cape neighbours ask, Why do you want to live here? How did you happen to find us? And just how crazy are you?
Early summer of 1986 we were walking in the boiling sun from the Cork airport vague direction southwest. For the first time since our early twenties, we stuck out our thumbs. A priest picked us up, then a farmer, an insurance man, an elderly artist, grandparents with two young children.
Three hours later we were in Baltimore, wandering about and feeling that here was a gentle honest one-street town, with a thriving low-key kid-centered harbour, but not quite what we were looking for.
So we tramped nearby Sherkin Island. One place caught our fancy, a small headland that shot due south. Every day we picnicked there, rain or shine, watching the breaking swells. But after three days, we were back in Baltimore, about to begin hitching north, when we saw a Land Auctioneer's sign, and decided -- as far as one can decide to do anything -- to tell him that if that point ever came up for sale, to let us know. Ger said, "I know a piece of land out on Cape quite like the headland on Sherkin, though larger. I'm going in to Cape on the 2:15 mailboat; join me; I'll show you the property. Should you decide not to go, good luck to ye and no harm done."
On the journey in to Cape, something happened, something magical, something for which islands are renowned. I was on the starboard side swapping sailing yarns with Ger; Nell on the port side exchanging bringing-up-children stories with his wife, Margo. As we entered North Harbour I peered around: there was a picturesque twelfth century ruin of a chapel, a stark homely cemetery, a holy well. In the middle of hearing a yachtsman's tale, I felt a rush of feeling, my eyes wet, I had an ebullient sense that here, dead ahead, was a place where I could die. I went on listening to my host's tale.
A few months later, back in Switzerland, life savings now into the unexpected purchase of an island property, someone asked me how I knew Cape was where I wanted to be, and I told the story of my first entry to North Harbour. Nell looked at me, not having heard my story before, told hers. She, she said, happened to look up as we entered North Harbour, saw a crumbling chapel, the modest graveyard, the Virgin Mary statue by the well, and felt a rush of feeling come over her, bringing tears: she knew that here was a place she could die happily. She went back to listening to a story about bringing up fourteen-year-olds.
I should add that neither of us is particularly anxious to die, nor are we particularly lachrymose. But having lived in Switzerland for all of those years, we failed to develop any sense of connection to its earth. Somehow, for us, the very order of the country has killed its spirit. We don't like park benches in the middle of woods or on mountain tops, nor doggie-do boxes with plastic bags at the ready alongside a country road. It's too civilized by half. We prefer raggedy Ireland to manicured Helvetica.
Some live wherever they happen to be or to have been brought up, some choose their location, and a few have no choice but to go to where they are called. Nell and I discovered we had no choice, for better or for worse. So that's our story of how we found Cape Clear, Ireland -- or, perhaps, of how it found us.
AN ISLAND FOR THE BIRDS
Imagine Romeo at the break of day exclaiming on the song of 3500 larks. Had he been on Cape Clear Island, West Cork, Ireland, instead of in Verona, Italy, and on October 22, 1990, instead of Michelmas, 1303, he'd have had his loving ears full.
3500 skylarks sighted on one day; 280 species of birds recorded on Cape over the last thirty years; and all on this rugged wind-swept island of three pubs and 1500 acres, smaller than a small farm in North Dakota.
On the day I took possession of our island cottage, I threw the door open, struggled with a few windows, and then, upstairs, heard the dry sound of rat's feet on thin floorboards. I grabbed a rod used to hold a window tight against gales, and climbed the narrow winding bright-blue stairs. In the master bedroom, hopping about nonchalantly, was a bandy-legged little creature different from any I had seen before. His legs were stilt-like, his miniature chest oversized in relation to the rest of him, his attitude proprietary. I was more amazed at his presence than he at mine. I felt a brazen welcome emanating out of the assured behaviour of what I later learned to be a common European robin. I'm used to robins the size of a fat thrush, but this wee gentleman had chutzpah -- and gave a right royal welcome.
At first I gently shooed my new friend down the stairs and out, but since he was back in faster than I could say Jack Robinson, and as curious as I, we explored the house together.
He, and some of his friends, have become regular visitors. Unfortunately they leave stacks of visiting cards, so we have had to become a trifle more strict.
A few days after the welcoming committee chairman's visit, I came upon a group of men rushing back and forth along a narrow by-way, and draped with considerable paraphernalia. I asked what was up. "A Marsh Harrier, that's what's up, mate," I made out through the Dublin-Aussie accent. I looked about for some relation to a golden retriever chasing waterfowl in a bog. Then I realized that that hawk quartering the terrain with disdain for us onlookers, was himself the quarry. I had been in on a famed sighting. Why, I then asked myself, is this island such an ornithological mecca?
I met with Dave Bird, warden of the observatory, who believes, "In all of Ireland, there's no place better for birds." I learned of significant feeding areas, thanks to the nearby continental shelf where upwelling waters carry nutrients to the surface. These support plankton, which support fish, which support seabirds. And for habitat Cape offers a freshwater lake, bogs, inaccessible cliffs, derelict buildings, places ideal for nesting, over-nighting, R&R.
Occasionally a phone call is made to London or Dublin: We've spotted a Serbian Thrush; a yellow-bellied sapsucker; the Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler. Within a day lines of bird watchers advance over Cape's dry ditches.
A skinny ten-year-old boy, I was asked by my grandfather to climb out of his Model-T and "take a last gander" at an American Bald-headed Eagle perched high in the crown of a mature elm. I walked gleefully across the field. The bird began to grow as I approached. He became my size, bigger. He swooped towards me. I froze like a rabbit, remembered orcs who carried off children. His wingspan was seven foot, his body massive, his beak cruel, his talons dangling. He flew low straight over my head, and on off, never missing a beat. I felt shaken, initiated.
Eagles, robins! My life, I begin to realize, has been punctuated by birds, now Irish rather than American. Here's to a few more exclamations! -- and mad dashes -- before the final period alights.
We Learn from Schooling Mackerel
A wizened Cape Clear islander, his black beret perched debonairly on his pate, his baggy black wool pants secured with twine, saw me looking wistfully out to sea, teased me with some Irish words, and, quietly in English, added, "Can you smell them?" I waited, lost. Luckily for me, and politely, he continued this enigmatic conversation. "Sometimes you can tell they're here by the calm streaks in the water -- from their oil. But ye look as though ye've a good nose. Some of the old men, the old men with gray beards who knew everything about the sea, they could be smelling them from anywhere, even the middle of the island." Still lost, I had to ask for help. "Ah," he exclaimed, "I thought ye were a fisherman: I mean the mackerel."
The mackerel. Yes, I had been thinking of going fishing; I was wondering if mackerel were about; I wished I knew the signs; and this man, whom I'd never seen before, could read me the way he could read the sea.
The first mackerel I ever saw I didn't know were mackerel. I grew up on fresh water, familiar with the ways of small-mouthed bass, pickerel, perch, rock bass, pike. One day I came across a picture of a boy with a string of fish hanging from each hand. I thought, What beautiful fish! That picture was recovered from the floor of the Mediterranean, perhaps from Atlantis itself -- and was roughly three thousand years old.
Well, the first time I ever went fishing from Cape Clear, I cast out into the hypnotic sea. An hour or two later I had caught nothing, and didn't care, when suddenly I felt a lovely tug, and reeled in my first fish. I didn't know what it was. Then I remembered that picture from thousands of years back. Here was the same fish. I cast again, and again, and again, and each time, to my astonishment, I pulled in long thin magically green fighting slivers of fish.
Since that introduction to mackerel, I've feathered for them from my canoe, with a plastic bucket clamped between my knees so that the six hooks don't fly everywhere when I've pulled up a full load, and also so that the flopping mackerel don't become immediately familiar with the contents of my pockets.
One hot calm summer's day, gravelly-voiced, gentle Father Kelly saw me return, bucket full. I asked if he'd like a few, and he nodded affirmatively, but asked if I'd slip them through the open window, since he was on his way out. I walked to his house and reached through the window to place the fish on his counter. I gave a good shove to make certain they'd be safe, and they shot along the counter, ricocheted off the kettle, and came to rest smack in the middle of the kitchen floor. Since the door was locked, there the fish would patiently wait until his unsuspecting return. We later had food for another laugh, relieved that the multiplication of loaves and fishes hadn't occurred in that kitchen that day.
Another day I was in a dinghy with a Swiss visitor, when I saw mackerel shooting out of the water. A seven-foot blue shark was slicing through a shoal, mackerel scattering. We shipped our oars, frightened of the rather frisky torpedo slashing by, gorging on twenty mackerel at a snap. We came to have not affection but admiration for the efficiency of the shark at high tea.
My fondest memories of mackerel are from the summers. Sitting in our garden, we watch hundreds of feet of surface water suddenly sparkle, turn dark blue-green as though hit by a gust. Swaths of water explode. We hear thousands of mackerel striking the water. No wonder the Brits speak of "mackerel boil".
Mackerel schooling on a placid summer's day, gulls flocking in to spear sprat, islanders watching the natural slaughter from the harbour wall, French yachtsmen anchored wondering at the hullabaloo, my wife and I wait for evening. Our friend with the black beret shared a recipe: tonight it's mackerel, marinaded in vinegar to cut the oil, grilled over the open coal fire.
PS And should you like to hear me read some of these, visit Sunday Miscellany’s website. Just Google “Sunday Miscellany” and “Chuck Kruger” and you should arrive there.
Address: Chuck Kruger, Cape Clear Island, County Cork, Ireland;
phone/fax: +353 (0)28 39157; E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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