Rolling across the water from somewhere in the distance I could hear the sound of bells. Under the water’s surface the luminous dial of my watch showed six PM. So. The Angelus Bells, the Catholic call to prayer. Sound travels far across water. It must be coming the whole way from the church in Fenor village at the top of the mile-long road to Kilfarrasy, rolling down the shallow valley and following the boreen to the beach, spilling across the water like a faint fog of sound.
The Angelus still peals from many churches in Ireland, even from the national broadcaster primary television and radio channels. That sound speaks nothing of who we are any more as a nation, and is not without an occasional reminder of the unveiled depredations of the Roman Catholic behemoth. Long mechanised and automated, at noon and six of the clock nonetheless, they remain, flooding across fields, the peals carried from the spires of Catholic Churches to subjugate the peasants and remind them of their fealty to the Holy Emperor and the magic and power from across the sea. Of course, that’s not how many see it, just this one apostate. “We’re still here” they toll, the sound deep and clangerous in the distance, not the raucous cry of the muezzin: “We’ll wait. You can’t get rid of us. A government, a decade, a generation are nothing to us“.
At Samhain, the gates to the demesnes of the Aos Sí, the mansions of the daoine Sídhe open. The clocks go back, stealing an hour that you think you will regain the next year but never really do. If possible I’ll swim the last day or so of October, demarcating my yearly calendar between the Dark Half, the seven month long winter and the shorter northern latitude summer, enacting another private ritual.
This year I’d headed for Kilfarrasy, which I never swim between December and May. I would say goodbye to the summer and Kilfarrasy in one short swim. I would have time to swim out to and around the miniature archipelago of Burke’s Island and reefs. The Sun would set just after five PM and the remaining light of dusk would be failing when I returned to shore. The final moments of my personal seasonal delineation, likely the last glassy sea for months as the first of the winter storms had arrived only a week past, spent as best I know, swimming by myself on the Copper Coast.
The western cloudless sky was a barely noticeable pallid puce and mauve shade. The gibbous Moon, which had arisen that morning, was just visible above the horizon in the south-west, sinking toward Mine Head, thirty kilometers away and invisible in the dusk, origin of the “Mine Head Calling” Coast Guard bulletin. The reef necklace which stretches either side of Burke’s straining to reach the land and enclose the inside of the small bay was well submerged and posed no hazards while the reefs around the island itself are large, visible, steep-sided and all their locations something I know without being able to articulate.
The shapes of these reefs and the spaces between them have in turn shaped me, and given me space. The little archipelago looks like a homogeneous mass from the shore, but in my mind I can visualise the gaps and channels, the steep sides and keyhole arch, the cave and passages.
I parked facing the seawall above the beach, no-one else here at the end of the long boreen road down to the beach. I was quickly down at the water, the almost-high tide covering the steep beach. After five, the Sun below the horizon, I gingerly stepped over the submerged shingle to enter the water and stroked away out towards the leeward side of Burke’s Island intending a clockwise traverse of its seaward side. I’ve always liked mountaineering terminology for open water swimming; traversing the water, reefs and rocks, using my shoulders and arms to belay the surface, my hands as pitons on the face of the waters.
The landward side of the island is fourteen minutes swimming away at high tide. All these markers, these times, this personal annotated internal map I carry around from years in these waters. All these people who live and work on the Copper Coast, how few of them have a hint of the experiences I’ve had here? Only Mick the kayaker, the inshore fishermen, the farmers who patrol the ramparts of the cliff tops…and one alone swimmer. When I am no longer here all this experience will be lost, until someone comes and creates their own map, but even then, their map will be new and different. I write my stories afresh on the water surface each swim, and they are erased as I move on. My hand-pitons leave no sign, the water is trackless.
As I stroked out south-south-east I wondered how this coming winter would affect this coast. Most of the Copper Coast is Old Red Sandstone, fighting a brave defence against the sea. But Kilfarassey is clay. Since I started swimming Kilfarassey a decade ago, the soft cliffs have receded about ten metres as storm erosion causes landslides almost every winter. Until the last of the stone walls I photographed only six years ago are now almost all gone, only a couple of metres of futile cliff-top crenellations remaining, soon to fall, maybe even this coming winter. How long since Burke’s Island was connected to the coast? How long since Kilfarassey was a coastal lagoon? How long since the line of reefs was above the water, a causeway out into the sea, rather than a submarine ridge? The map from 1888 shows reefs stretching most of the way out the island. Just 20 years of aerial photos show the destruction of cliff above the Black Door, the gap separating the west and east beaches.
To the south-east I swam, the shadow of the island wiping out the lingering light of the drowned Sun, the water drinking the dusk, except for that underwater highly diffused light that one can only see when your eyes are under the surface, the ink-black water’s surface that terrifies so many people disappears. It’s a ghost realm, faint and nebulous but not total. Around the island, the shags, guillemots and gulls were subdued in the gloaming, no diving-bombing me this time. Through the south-east gap I swam behind the island and the beach disappeared. A hundred metres across to the west channel. I stopped where I could see the westward coast, Mine Head Light’s faint sparkle glinting red and white, the two and a half second pattern invisible as I breathed left three strokes, then right three. Out here, outside the archipelago, all my beloved Copper Coast opens left and right, east and west of me.
I reached out toward the westward Channel back to the beach and dropping my head into the water, the low frequency murmur of the bells carried under the water, not the song of whales or the whisper of the sea’s shifting sand and shingle. Anachronistic, misplaced. Out of place and time indeed. The sound synced with every sixth stroke, sinister not dexter, my poor technique side, what we swimmers call our bad side, because we know we have weak sides, and us swimmers must remember our bad side on every second breath.
The reefs reached above me, the island now a flat dark cutout on the sky, the westward reefs on my left and I headed north to land. Swimming north, when you think of it, is a strange destination for those of us who live on a south coast in the northern latitudes. It’s only possible by leaving land, leaving home. North is the direction least swum, as so few swim directly south and offshore, next stop Africa. I breathed, stroked, breathed and stroked, using the island as navigation. Many stroke cycles along I finally decided to look forward as a sighting precaution. A reef rose in front of me.
What reef? This was the channel west of the island. The channel is navigable through the gap, especially when I’ve swum it a hundred times. I treaded water. What reef is this? A high dark tapering stack. A monolith, no, more like an obelisk. No, more like a needle. Or a spire. A spire? Like a spire? How could there be a spire? It was a reef. It was a spire. I couldn’t see a reef, I saw a spire. In the fading dusk it’s flat, two-dimensional, no texture.
Maybe a reef split. Maybe a reef split off the island and somehow slid into the water, and the heavy end sank or tilted over one of the submerged reefs and the splintered narrow end tilted up toward the sky. It was deeply darkening, the Sun long gone and the Moon touching the horizon. This coast changes. Faster than other coasts. There was that storm last week, who knows what it did. I made myself see a reef, a new reef.
Then back through the channel between the reefs, past the island cave, and a straight line back to the beach. The light was almost gone, the Moon was now holed at the waterline and, glinting faint silver in my eye on every bad-side breath, would soon founder and drown. The bells were still tolling, the mechanics obviously broken, I thought the locals would get soon fed up of it. I hadn’t left sandals, because I knew they’d be impossible to see. I minced my way across the shingle above the sand, reached the concrete and my car, opened the key lock, the boot, grabbed my towel. I turned to look out to sea, to the island while I dried and dressed.
It was too dark, I could only see the outline of the island, not even the large reefs which are partially occluded by the island even in daylight.
Then I noticed someone looking out over the wall, almost invisible darkly-dressed as he was, no car lights, a local on an evening walk down the long boreen to stare at the sea, to breathe it in, something I’d do if I lived closer.
I murmur “evenin” as he turned toward me.
“Powerful swimmin” he said, an older gentleman, “wurra, how d’ye manage de cauld? You mus’ be made of irn!” in a slow deep brogue, the accent reminding me of Ring, and of Galway’s Gaeltacht, the areas where Irish is still spoken in everyday life. Similar comments I’ve often received, though whatever I think is always overwhelmed by embarrassment and natural Irish disinclination to boastfulness, and I gave my habitual response, “just practice, anyone could do it if they were stupid enough”.
I mentioned the clement evening weather for the time of year, the calm sea, the clear sky.
“Aye” he replies, “a good clare night. And de old church spire visible out dere”.
The digraph was utterly obliterated from his speech, resulting in the distinctive Irish d substitution which we don’t even notice and so many foreigners mistakenly think is funny to imitate.
Pulling on my jumper, and tugging a fleece from the car, I wheeled around in surprise. “Spire? I thought it was a reef. I’ve never seen a spire or any ruins. I’ve been out there so much. How is a spire out there? What church?”.
The man glanced back at the sea before turning to me and said “it shlid into the sea hundur fifty year ago”.
There is no sound in the English language that thrills me like the sound of native Irish speakers saying words beginning with s, or even with s within the word. A following h is added, a new digraph offering to the world for the one we ignore, and in that sh sound I hear thousands of years of our history. It’s what I miss most about living out west, or as it would be said “out wesht“, across the Shannon. It’s Irish, gaelic, celtic, whatever. It’s decried by the south-Dublin set with their mid-Atlantic DART and television accents, but it’s musical, lyrical, undeniably Irish and most of all, authentically beautiful. I would love to say it, but it would be affected, not my natural speech. You couldn’t do it and I can’t do it. In that elocution I know that we are a nation born to poetry and stories. but if we lose our accents for manufactured aspirational Americanisms, we’ll have lost part of our soul.
“I’ve never heard of it, nor seen a sign of a church before” I said. “Why is there no notice with the Geopark sign?”
“Ah, shur they want it gone, washed away, hidden under de sea. Never talk about it, never point to it, t’would be bad cess”. My dad’s word. “Bad cess on ‘em”.
I paused. I wanted to know more. “I’m Donal”, sticking out my hand. “Aye. Fergus” he replied, shaking my cold and clammy hands with his colder ones, putting the left hand over the top of mine.
“You’re de swimming lad”.
“Aye. I mean yes, I suppose I am. Not so much a lad anymore though”.
I couldn’t see much of him in the young night. Unkempt colourless hair, dark clothes. “Nor us all” he agreed.
“So…The church?“, I prompted and nodded sideways out to the island. I waited, hoping my silence would spur him on, though the continuing sound of the bells was an undercurrent around us. He looked out, staring through the dark.
Turning toward to me after a few moments, he said
“De parish see it as a shame you see, dough few who live in Islandikane now have family back ta den”.
(I knew Islandiskane was the townland name, townlands being the old Irish and yet still used way of identifying every single portion of our land).
“T’was de great hunger. An gorta mór. De famine. It fell here. Fell hard.
De shpud crop didn’t fail completely dat first year you know, dat only happened de second year,de people slowly starving. Shur all de land was owned by de De Poer’s, dem still up in Curraghmore, Lord come all ye Waterford.
Dey divided their fields you know, among de childer. De land Irish. A farmer worked on de estate or he was lucky ta have a couple shmall fields. But de Irish, de land Irish, not de big house English-Irish, didn’t ignore deir younger childer. Dey split what dey had. It got smaller even in good years. An’ den it failed. Half of little is very little. Eventually t’was half of nothing.
Ignorant, stupid Irish. Ha.”
There was no humour, only resignation in the sound.
“Dey ask why didn’t we fish. What was fishing ta de land Irish, who had no boats, no nets, no harbours, no time. No shtrength left. Fish de shky, I say.”
He spat a spittleless spit, a token of anger and dismissal.
“If we, if dey, had a harbour, an’ time, maybe dey’d have had dat shkill. Trá Mor ta Dun Garbhán, (as he slipped into the Irish names for Tramore and Dungarvan at either end of the Copper Coast), no shelter. Shtorms an’ rocks an’ cliffs. You know”.
He looked at me. I nodded. Indeed I did know, better than most. I was reminded of standing – barely, on the cliffs above Kilmurrin or Tramore in hurricane force winds and watching the sea assault the land. Winds that strong grind the waves flat, compress the awful force, hone it and drive it like a spike into the land. The ocean’s chisel. People think they know the sea, and they don’t because they forget its partner the wind. The piers now at Tramore and Boatstrand produced by modern concrete building techniques. Before those, nothing. Thirty kilometres of exposed brutal Atlantic coast, graveyard of ships.
“De shtorms here…“ He trailed off and paused.
Every winter in the storms people come to see the waves breaking in Tramore against the prom or on the cliffs. They take risks in the wrong locations, not understanding that the sea is alive, not understanding how to get near but stay beyond its reach. They go home wet, thinking they understand the storms and the sea.
“Dere was a small church below. De land shtretched out, out ta outside d’island. De church was dere, below de peak. Lookin’ for de Blessings of God on de coast, like we’ve looked for off dis coast fer tree tousand year.
It was a poor parish, like ’em all. What dey had dey fed de childer an’ de parish priest.
He couldn’t take it though, de priest. Dey had nothing an’ tried ta share with him what dey had left. A Connacht man he was. Land of shtones. Down here an’ a life of ruling an’ guiding dem, babbies ta grave, dey never asked for anything, expected anything, an’ dey’d never got anything. An’ now dey needed something, an’thing. An’ dey still didn’t ask. He asked dough. He begged God fer Blessings. He got none, saw none. Saw only God’s Piseóg on de land. “
He looked out to sea again, now full dark, and I knew then that I was in the presence of a seanachai. One of our great treasures, surely one of the last. A storyteller. Holder of our history, teller of our tales. A man with the power of words.
When the Irish had nothing, we still had stories. Our power and legacy is in our words and our stories and you can never understand the Irish without understanding our stories. Six thousand years of stories. The Egyptians were building pyramids while the proto-Celtic rejects of the Mediterranean were building piss-poor fields out wesht and six thousand years after the Pharaohs have gone, the Irish were still living in piss-poor stony fields and telling stories, and we still have more stories than the mighty Pharaohs and their descendents, more stories than you. Take everything, and you can’t take our stories. It’s why the Irish lasted when the invaders took the land, the food, the trees, the children, that bloody religion and even the language. Make your histories your stories and your stories your history, and it doesn’t matter if the peasants can’t read because peasants are eternal and they can read the land.
I’d never heard the phrase before. A chill ran across my brow, not just post-swim afterdrop. I’d never heard it before but I knew instantly what he meant. I remember my grandmother protecting her garden and chickens against piseógs, using her own piseógs. Piseógs, a curse of one Irish person on another, on their neighbour, begrudging what little they had. Backward spiteful peasants. I only have one chicken, why should you have two? Piseógs, the dark side of the Irish psyche. Psyche and piseógs in one sentence, no wonder Freud said the Irish were the only race who could never be psychoanalysed. God’s Piseóg. God, pissing on the Irish, pissing on what little they had and them thanking him for it. My heart rose, long forgotten anger at forgotten injustice, even imaginary injustice. And with the sound of bells my teenage dream arose of storming the battlements of heaven, kicking God in the balls and yelling, “fuck you, I’m taking over“, all impotent autistic rage and isolation. The bells and the words were like a sudden fever.
Jesus, the power of this man’s words overwhelmed me like that hurricane force wind.
“He was still one of dem you know, de priest. Came from peasants. Peasants. Fah! You tink dey taut of demselves as peasants or even Irish? Dey knew dey were de people of Fionn MacCumhaill and Oisín an’ all de pagan stories. No difference between De Lord of Hosts an’ Nuada of de Silver Arm. Dey were of de land an’ de sea, no seperate. Dey lived by Rome AN’ de old fairy forts. Piseogs an’ stone circles, churches an’ Latin. Is dere any difference between one language you can’t understand an’ another?
Oh, he knew it too, de priest. He was from dese people. Rescued by luck an’ de chance fer a family ta have a child enter Mother Church, rise demselves in deir parish. He knew de curses an’ protections, de piseogs, had fought against dem, preached against dem. An’ never saw dem weaken deir hold. Six tousand years on a land gives everythin’ a name. Every rock, tree an’ taut an’ action. An’ he knew dat dough he’d fought de superstitions, knew dat superstition in Irish was piseóg. De Irish were like all barbarians, dey’d taken what dey knew from six tousand years of de land an’ shoved it into de religion of Holy Mother Church. An’ he was one of dem. Come from dem”.
Fergus paused again. We listened to the waves on the shingle and sand and felt a rising breeze, fresh off the sea, and the sound of the distant bells. With the light now gone, the starlight faintly illuminated the sea and I saw his clothes were ragged.
“De priest went down ta de church dere. An’ he called. Called on God an’ on Mananaan Mac Lir an’ Lugh Lámh Fada an’ Balor of de Evil Eye. He shtood at de altar and called on de Sidhe, de Fair Folk, de Good Folk, fer help an’ succour an’ food for de people, deir successors an’ inheritors.
An’ food came. Not den, but soon.
A shtorm rose. A shtorm like de shtorm when you shtood shcreaming on de cliff above Kilmurrin.
An’ out of de shtorm came fish, de old symbol of Christianity. De sea an’ shky rained fish. De people gathered an’ ate. Fish are fish, you don’t need ta know deir names. You eat dem all when you’re hungry – if you can get dem. Dey ate dem raw fresh an’ later dey ate dem rotting. Some people lived longer dan dey would have, but fish don’t last an’ dey hadn’t de way or de know or de salt for preserving dem, dough de sea is just dere. Salt needs wood, an’ where are dere trees beside de bitter sea?”
His voice was rising, and so was the breeze, no longer a light wind, but still I could hear the bells, over, or under the wind.
“De priest cursed dem all. He cursed God an’ he cursed de Good Folk. An’ dat was his mistake. Not usin’ de Church fer his rite, but cursin’ God an’ de Fair Folk together, for his God was an angry God an’ de Good Folk are fair an’ vengeful an’ suffer no slights. An’ only fools think dere is any difference between powerful angry gods. An’ dat year, when dose of de parish who shtill had de shtrength met in de church for de Mass of All Hallows Eve, another shtorm rose, quicker dan a gull in a breeze off a cliff. It rose howlin’, (and at that word the wind rose about me,) de sea comin’ with the wind and whipped de doors of de church shut”.
His voice rose with the wind and I closed my eyes. I heard the wind, felt it surround me like a shroud.
“It blasted de shutter off de small window above de altar an’ poured sea an’ fish onto de altar an’ in on his White Horses rode Mananaan Mac Lir an’ his Wild Host an’ he trew down de walls, an’ de shpire an’ de whole rock on which de church was built. An’ he cursed de people ta live in his lands under de sea in cold an’ hunger an’ dey should never be warm, or cloth’d or fed, except on rotten fish, an’ come only ever forth ta tell deir story when de doors of De Undersea Mansions dat men call Hy-Brasil open once a year at Samhain, which the invaders and foreigners call Halloween and dey should shtay, ‘til all their parish from Islandikane east ta South was lost ta de sea. An’ de priest with them, ta tell deir story”.
And the wind howled and I was cold to the bone. Cold like a winter swim, cold like the rocks of the coast before the dawn and I was terrified, too terrified to look at him, too terrified to see if the wind was coming from him, too terrified to see his tattered vestments.
I’ve nearly died in the water twice, outside the water a couple more. Two times I was under the surface, not knowing how to get back to air. I involuntarily did a thing each time that I did then. I reached inside. With my whole mind I grabbed my guts and squeezed. I grabbed them in an imaginary fist, clamped down on them. I felt my racing heart, my frantic mind and forced my will on my recalcitrant body. I do not know about your life flashing to see if you can find a last solution from your life before you before you die, it hasn’t happened me but I know that something in me clamps tight, and a voice says “don’t panic” and I live.
I opened my eyes, and there was no wind and I was alone, alone in the dark by the sea and a faint sound of bells, fading away in the distance. And as I drove away, vowing an end to my last-day-of-summer ritual, I remembered something.
Kilfarrasy. Kilfarrasy in Irish is Cill Fherghasa. The Church of Fergus.