THE WAY THINGS ARE
By Colette NiReamonn Ioannidou
When you grow up in a fishing community the sea is ever present, whether contemplating it on a warm summer day as its surface turns into a king’s ransom of sparkles and spangles or watching it beat over the pier walls in a fury of whipped white foam, its sound the music of your youth or the tragedy in which lives are lost.
Back then, the Baily Lighthouse on its craggy dinosaur promontory had a fog horn whose mournful blare could be heard warning shore-blind boats of the rocks around the peninsula on which vessels had floundered. I loved its call, it was somehow reassuring that someone in that solid building was watching over the men at sea, and us safe and warm at home. Another sound rang out from time to time, the thwack of a flare. For the young it was exhilarating as we waited to see if two more would follow and the excitement it gave us when a third flare hit the sky. For older folk who came to the doors of their homes to watch and listen it was a time of anxiety. One flare signalled alert, two, get ready, and a third meant move! Doors slammed, Wellington booted feet stampeded down the streets, bikes rattled towards the harbour as we waited for word to filter through as to who or what needed the assistance of the brave volunteers that, in a simple craft unlike the sophisticated boats of today, rushed to the rescue.
A friend had a prankster brother who would sneak onboard a boat anchored in the harbour and send out a distress signal, just for the fun of seeing the resulting action. He was caught eventually but not before he had sent the lifeboat men on several useless forays. On the promenade stands a monument on which the names of those lost at sea are written and remembrance services are held yearly in their honour. These were not men who fished in calm waters; they were wave-riding warriors whose vessels were tough-washed and walloped by the moods of the salty Irish Sea.
Some names stand out for me. Liam was a good-natured man with a head of rich dark hair, a warm smile and gentle eyes, my godmother’s son. He loved playing billiards and had a drawer full of brightly coloured billiard balls I was allowed to play with; I can still recall their cool smoothness. Then later there was Steve, a handsome blond lad still in his teens whose remains never came home.
French fishermen used to come in from time to time and Jacques, who became my pen pal, was there because his boat ran aground. What was left of it lay for a very long time and became a landmark. Its huge bulk created such a hole in the sand that on sweet summer days it gave us a sheltered swimming pool as we dived off its tilted side. The skipper had radioed for help and the boat was being towed ashore when a strong wind swept it away and drove it up on the beach.
Then there were the gulls. My mother always threw leftovers on the roof for them. Their raucous cry used to wake me in the mornings. My cousin May had two pet gulls that came to her, eager for titbits. Gulls today are considered by many a scavenging nuisance; I loved them. Our peninsula was once an island joining two more offshore. Lambay where the Vikings first made landfall is still inhabited today. Ireland’s Eye may have once hosted a monastic community, bones were found near the small ruined church. Should you ever get to visit the amazing, lofty library in Trinity College, Dublin, you will not only find the famous, beautifully illustrated Book of Kells, but also a smaller yet significant little book that came from the Eye. It’s an ancient copy of the Four Gospels called The Garland of Howth. Much has changed over the years but the haunting loveliness I knew and store in my mind will never fade.