Tuesday 25 October 2016

Even in Arcadia, the cruel sea can claim anyone

It was an amble along a coastal path, something many of us do, writes Perry O'Donovan. And it led to horror and stomach-churning tragedy

Perry O'Donovan

Published 05/07/2015 | 02:30

Niamh O'Connor
Niamh O'Connor

When the summer is young, few things are finer than exploring the west Cork coastline: clambering over lichen-spotted rock-crops, ambling along narrow cliff-top paths or by hedgerows bursting with a rude profusion of colour and growth, banks of bramble, arrays of foxgloves, showers of blood-red fuchsia droplets.

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It is an idyllic setting indeed. But as the ancient Greeks knew about Arcadia, their own rural utopia, death always lurks somewhere in the background - Et in Arcadia ego.

In Baltimore and surrounds, the summer has been struggling to get going. Sea-mist blanketed Ireland's Atlantic seaboard for most of last week; knowing that the east of Ireland and the rest of Europe were enjoying record-making temperatures only helped to dampen spirits even more.

Tuesday - the last day of June - was the worst of it, with mist so thick it morphed into what was more like everyday west-of-Ireland drizzle, squalls of it coming all day through the milk-and-water atmosphere. And then, late on Tuesday afternoon, the sea - reports say a "freak wave" - snatched a young woman off the rocks at the mouth of the seaway leading into Baltimore harbour.

Niamh O'Connor (20), from Blossomgrove in Glanmire, near Cork city, was visiting her boyfriend, Barry Davis Ryan (21), of Rath, near Baltimore.

They went for an amble along the coastal headland, as you do. Walking out to the Beacon at Baltimore is something almost everyone in this area will do when they have visitors.

Barry's little sister Charlotte (13) was there too and his dad, Barry Ryan Snr (51).

And then, horror compounding stomach-churning sorrow, father and son are also lost in a heroic effort to save the struggling Niamh.

(Such rescue efforts are doomed, no doubt, but, honestly, in such circumstances how could good men not make a full-on effort? It would be to go against all that's best and good in us).

This is far from the first time we had one of these "freak wave" incidents in these parts. Perhaps the most written about was in August 1979 when Booker Prize winning author JG Farrell was swept off a crop of rocks near Kilcrohane on the Sheep's Head peninsula (west of Bantry). It was a calm sea that day too, and overcast; Farrell was fishing following a day at his desk. A woman and child near the shoreline at the time said the author was there one minute and simply gone the next - nothing especially to report other than that.

And Jim Kennedy of Atlantic Kayaking tells of how one day he was sitting in his vehicle in the car-parking area down at Trag, eating his sandwiches - a perfectly ordinary day, apparently - and with no whoosh or warning whatsoever on the slipway in front of him, a swell of an otherwise sleepy sea upended a woman pushing an infant in a buggy.

Old men who know the coastline well - landside and seaside - say that these freaks have to do with "the draw of the full moon": a full moon affects these high-water swells, they say, and, of course, we had a full moon last week.

In any event, with the unfathomable mass of 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean behind it - especially in bottleneck locations such as that between the Beacon headland and eastern side of Sherkin - even a perfectly calm sea can create a stealthy swell when the tide's in full flood.

Et in Arcadia Ego is the title of a number of paintings from the age of the Great Masters depicting wonderfully happy scenes, the most idyllic imaginable. But in the corner, or somewhere in the background, lies a whitened skull or an ancient tomb - a memento mori - a reminder that death shadows us all, even in Arcadia.

Sunday Independent

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