Tuesday 25 October 2016

You'd better light a candle, it's about to get very dark

As the Sun turns south on the longest day, it's time for us souls of the north to reflect on our humanity, says Miriam O'Callaghan

Miriam O'Callaghan

Published 19/06/2016 | 02:30

Who by fire: Jules Breton, La Fête de la Saint-Jean (1875), marking the feast of Saint John the Baptist on June 24, an important occasion in France
Who by fire: Jules Breton, La Fête de la Saint-Jean (1875), marking the feast of Saint John the Baptist on June 24, an important occasion in France

That afternoon, around half-past four, darkness falls. And we let it. No one runs out, arms stretched against the sky, to prevent its toppling.

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Outside, there's a new holly wreath on the front door threaded with a wide, black velvet ribbon. Inside, the darkness is killing the light. It will be the second death in the house that day. A tall candle burns as witness to the first. The death is of a man. My father.

Suddenly, we're dazzled. A table lamp switches on automatically. Seconds later, as if it's lit enough, seen enough, it switches itself off. It happens again. And again. It continues for the last three nights my father spends in his house. As we take our turns to sit with him, we know it's a signal. Only he knows what it says.

My father was an electric man. He touched a bulb and it blew, passed in front of the radio, it changed station. His head ached, muscles twitched before storms. The closed current scouring his body made his embrace pure vibration. At his last breath, my sister rang. On the motorway a pylon sparked, skimming a pheasant across her windscreen. "Dad's going, isn't he?"

He went, but didn't go. Not in that sense. I see him every day in my son. His double. And as a family, we keep his traditions, which, we see now were rituals, always connected to the light.

He loved these days, the longest of the year. They were proof of his heritage. No swabs, no DNA. Just a lawnmower. He'd go out to cut the grass white, return 20 minutes later mahogany. Confirming, if it were necessary, that Corkmen are true Mediterraneans.

Cut grass was one of his favourite smells. Though, I suspect if he had known that what released endorphins in him, was the grass's chemical SOS, there would have been no green carpet effect, no perfect borders. My mother would have spent her 51-year married-life in a meadow.

Every year, he would honour the Sun God on the June 21, though his invocations were distinctly Catholic in tone, reference. The Sacred Heart was always number one. Naturally enough maybe: June was His month and the Divine organ didn't beat, it blinded.

But there were also the go mbeirfimid beo ag an am seo intentions, a charm perhaps, before the litany of the O'Callaghan, Nolan dead. In two days' time, I will do it myself. As will my sister. Just as we did and do and will do, when the clocks change and we Fall back or Spring forward. As the sun sets, we will light the candle. At sunrise we will blow it out, knowing it has burned all night to protect our living, our dead, and all those who will be our people, in the time to come. People we will never know.

But we're not the only ones with a tendency to a vaguely spiritual pyromania. For the last few weeks, the country has been ablaze as families lit candles that Paul Durcan would 'come up', or TS Eliot wouldn't, or financial mathematics would make the desired exam appearance.

At English Paper One, I lit a candle for our friend who is Jewish. When my Muslim friend's brother-in-law was Disappeared by Shia militia in Baghdad, I did the same. Some years later, when his body, shot through the head, was found in a mass grave in Najaf, we lit candles again for him and his family.

There's my father's friend who sacrificed his brand new sports coat, to save the long hair and short life of a woman who leaned too far over a bank of candles to the Mother of Good Counsel. In 1980s Cork, 40 pounds was big money. The particular jacket? "Span new. Last one in the size. Massive. Nightlights? Don't talk to me."

And for years that's what they were: nightlights. Though you have to wonder what kind of 'night' it was they were lighting.

They illuminated an era when you could eat the altar rails for breakfast, commit your inconvenient sister to a laundry or the madhouse after a centre-loin chop and buttered swede for your dinner and with a bit of luck, you'd be home in time for your tea.

Once you'd wolfed your sliced ham, tomato and spring onion, you could kneel down for the rosary with all the trimmings, secure in the knowledge, the farm/house/pub/business was yours. Thanks be to God and His Blessed Mother. Now, a little drop to celebrate. And wasn't she known as odd or a strap anyway?

At the same time, the 25-year-old 'committee' looks in the face of the bearded 75-year-old opposite in the dormitory, sees the meaning of 'never' and 'forever'. In the chapel, where mostly unbearded ladies gather, she doesn't want to 'light a light' as they say. She wants to set fire to her 'life' and all who condemned her to it.

This year has been unusually incendiary: human bombs, exploding planes, automatic gunfire on Mediterranean beaches, in the City of Light, the 'capital' of Europe, last weekend in Orlando. Last Thursday, there was the murder of the wife, daughter, MP, campaigner Jo Cox. Candlelit vigils followed.

Yet, as Jo Cox knew well, in just three days in May, more than 700 people drowned in the Mediterranean.

Over 2,000 men, women and children have drowned to date this year. But there have been comparatively few public vigils with mourners tending the flame of humanity. Even fewer national flags at half-mast in solidarity. Maybe the death toll of the refugee crisis is less about the principles of politics and more about those of feng shui - water puts out fire.

For Europe though, the water of the Mediterranean functions as that of Lethe or Lourdes - offering oblivion or miraculous disappearance.

Unless it's the flotsam of a Syrian child and Twitter can explode for a week, a month, as world leaders are slack-jawed, silenced or stuttering and we knock each other out with our empathy - "Sleep Tight Little Angel". #Human.

But what of the thousands of 'angels' lying anonymously in four million cubic kilometres of water? Italy's Mare Nostrum - our sea - was better for any and all of them than the EU's Frontex, redolent of a chemical compound to whitewash a lighthouse or repel sucking lice, hoose or the sarcoptic mange mite in a herd.

The Mediterranean was created over two years when the Atlantic breached the mountain range between Europe and Africa, according to science writers "with the force of a thousand Amazon rivers".

Now it is from the bombed banks of the Euphrates, the Tigris, the Kabul that people set out across its waters.

In these Midsummer days, countries at its European rim ignite in the fireworks of Sant Joan in Barcelona, San Giovanni in Florence, France's le feu de Saint Jean.

At home we have Bonfire Night, keeping a pagan tradition. More northerly still, the solstice light will be celebrated fervently across Scandinavia. But not in the sea that is, literally, the middle of our earth.

If it rains at Midsummer, we can imagine what we smell is the earth after rain - petrichor - from the Greek petros for 'stone' and 'ichor' the golden fluid filling the veins of the gods, toxic to mortals.

But really, it will be the stench of putrefied corpse and conscience drifting up from the Mediterranean, where judging by mortality, all gods have opened their veins into its waters.

In Europe, we have put not Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's girdle around the earth, but a zunnar. Differentiating us and them. Again.

When I light the Midsummer candle, in my father's name I will remember all who are fleeing across the Mediterranean.

In the darkness of the Southern latitudes, lights over the water signal SOS. But it's further north the souls need saving. Not and never Jo Cox's. But our own.

Sunday Independent

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