Today’s going to be a big day for me, in some ways. I’m intending to make a very important submission, one which could *crosses fingers and toes* turn into a wonderful opportunity; of course, it could also turn into nothing, but I’m not allowing myself to think that way. Not today. However, I’m not going to spend today’s blog post writing about that submission opportunity, or how I’m feeling about it, because it’s not what’s weighing most heavily on my heart this morning.
No. What’s on my heart this morning is something far deeper, something written in my bones. Something that, I think, is shared by every Irish person – in fact, every person who, like me, lives on a small island. Today, I want to write a little bit about the sea, and the power it has to make and break lives.
Yesterday, three brothers sailed out of Waterford, on Ireland’s south coast. Fishermen all their lives, they knew what they were doing as they set out to check their lobster pots and move them to sheltered waters in advance of expected bad weather. But, for some tragic and as yet unknown reason, their vessel foundered, and all three men were lost. These men, as I’ve said, were brothers; at least two of them were fathers. The news has settled a cloak of cold horror over Ireland, particularly over its coastal communities. Tragedies at sea always do; for some reason, they are keenly felt, and the sorrow of it goes to the heart of the Irish identity.
I am neither a person who makes their living from the sea, nor related to anyone who does. I did, however, grow up not far from the coast, in the same part of the country (more or less) as these three lost fishermen. I know the area, and it’s close enough to where I was born to feel like ‘home’. I have some idea how hard fishermen work, and how long and antisocial and gruelling their hours are, and how unrelenting is their struggle to make a living wage in the face of quotas and regulations; it’s easy to forget, under all this, that every time they set foot in their boat that they’re also risking their lives. Ireland has grown up hand in hand with the sea, and our relationship with the ocean, in some ways, defines us as a people. We’ve eaten from it, set off across it in search of new lives, used it as inspiration for our art and our literature and our culture, gathered whatever it washes up on our shores – it sustains us, and when it turns on us to claim our lives, it feels like a betrayal.
At primary school, I had a ‘big girl’ – i.e. a child in a higher class than mine, who was given the task of looking after us at breaktimes – whose favourite saying when anything went wrong was ‘worse things happen at sea.’ At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about, and – frankly – it wasn’t much comfort if you were pushed over in the playground and had to limp off to the school nurse with your knee gushing blood, or whatever the calamity of the day was. But, for some reason, I still remember the saying. ‘Worse Things Happen at Sea.’ It’s true. If something goes wrong on board a fishing boat, time and perhaps the weather and perhaps equipment failure are all against you; even if you manage to get yourself from your vessel, you still have to cope with hypothermia, the surging power of the sea itself, and the trauma of struggling to keep yourself afloat long enough for someone, hopefully, to rescue you. If the unthinkable happens, as it did yesterday, it’s worse than a normal death – it rips the heart out of a community, and the ache of it goes to the core of those left behind. It lessens all of us. It reminds us all how fragile we are and how we’re really not as powerful and as clever as we’d like to think.
We make use of the sea (poor use, I’d argue, but this isn’t the time for that), but we kid ourselves if we think we’ve mastered her. The sea allows us to sail upon her and fish from her and whatever else we decide we need to do with her, but we are not in charge of her. It’s horrifying to think that these three men, hardworking and decent men, who were probably raised on the water, more or less, could be claimed by the same thing that had given them their livelihoods all these years, and something they loved. It just seems more than unfair – it seems obscene. Something which nurtures and gives such pleasure shouldn’t take a toll like this, but it happens. It happens all too often in Ireland. And it never gets any easier to take.
So, my thoughts today are with the families and community of these lost seafarers, and also the men and women of the Coastguard and the lifeboats, who struggled so hard in vain to save them. Without their courage, no doubt the toll claimed by the ocean would be higher still.
Have a safe, and happy, Thursday, everyone.