Tuesday 16 July 2019

Slan abhaile, Captain, from Cape Clear


CONCUBHAR O Drisceoil, captain of the Cape Clear ferry Naomh Ciaran II, died last weekend at the early age of 54, leaving a wife, three daughters, a son, and West Cork to mourn him.

Many a morning he would greet me in Irish as he came up to La Jolie Brise for his breakfast after berthing at Baltimore. Many an afternoon, as I fished for pollock off Sherkin Island, his wash would rock my boat as he went by, his hand waving in the wheelhouse, like a blessing.

I would rather have a blessing from Concubhar than from a bishop.

* * *

LAST Sunday, the Naomh Ciaran II set sail from Baltimore, followed by a flotilla of six ferries. By the wish of his wife Eleanor, who stood beside it, Concubhar's coffin was carried on the open deck, where it rose and fell with the swell of the sea. As hundreds watched from the harbour wall, the flotilla faded into the fog on its way to Cape Clear.

* * *

CAPE Clear Island is the most southerly island in Ireland, with a winter population of 120. People have lived there for 5,000 years. Over the centuries, the Irish-speaking O'Driscolls, Cadogans, Cotters and Leonards created a vast volume of maritime, natural and human history. They also learned to live in a community.

When she got home on Sunday with Concubhar's coffin, Eleanor found her garden freshly landscaped, hedges strimmed, new plants put in, her house shining, and food to feed an army on the table. They needed it all because they waked him for two days.

* * *

TUESDAY morning, the whole of West Cork was trying to take the Naomh Ciaran II from Baltimore to 'In life Concubhar looked and behaved like benign Buddha. In death he gathered Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter on his deck'

Cape for the burial. But Concubhar had trained his crew to be strict on safety. When they reached the legal limit, they laid it on the line. A Radio na Gaeltachta team had to take another ferry.

* * *

IN LIFE Concubhar looked and behaved like benign Buddha. In death he gathered Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter on his deck. Reverend Bruce Hayes, the boyish new Rector of Abbeystrewery, represented the the Church of Ireland. Roman Catholic clerics included Fr Liam Hickey and an tAthair Tomas O Murchu.

But it was the Dissenters on deck, Jim and Myrtle Levis, who worship at the Gospel Hall in Skibbereen, who showed how widely Concubhar cast his nets of love. The Gospel Hall is where I go when I want to be with good people. The Plymouth Brethren are not decaff Dublin Prods but rural Irish Protestants of iron integrity. I wondered how they would manage the Mass in Irish.

* * *

THE Catholic church in Cape is a 20-minute steep walk up 30° gradient. But it was worth it. For a man who spent 27 years among the Muslims in Sierra Leone, Fr Peter Queally had a good blas. But he had to give ground to Concubhar's sister, Gearoidin, who read from Tobias - after translating it into flowing Cape Clear Irish.

* * *

FOR the next hour Eleanor and her vibrant daughters, Verona, Aisling and Croiona, made us laugh and cry as they celebrated Concubhar's life. If I didn't have daughters of my own, I would ask these women to speak at my funeral. It wasn't from the breeze that Verona got her words, but from the wild Atlantic gales.

Verona told us her dad's spirit was at home with "farraige arda, galai gaoithe, barrac, ciunas agus draiocht na farraige". Crewmen Fachhna, Tadgh and Ted O'Driscoll, with Sean Cadogan, brought the keys of the Naomh Ciaran II, a book of tide tables and a steering wheel.

Aisling then addressed her father. "You would put your big strong hand on our backs, and give us a squeeze and say, 'I love when ye are at home'." Every father clenched his jaw.

Croiona began her verse:

"Dad the sailor man

Mam his first mate

Ye signed on together

And coupled ye're fate . . ."

But I couldn't hear the rest because my eyes were blocked.

Eleanor stood straight and elegant, and spoke the full of John Masefield's I Must Go Down to the Sea Again with a plain dignity of diction that reined in emotion and added to the artistic effect.

Concubhar Og made his seven words count. "Passengers on board: one. Over and out."

* * *

CAPE has mobile phones, computers, and children who go to college in Cork. But every toilet roll has to be be taken across the sea. Life is lived without caffe lattes or funeral limousines. So the crew spread a white sheet on the back of a battered red pick-up, put the coffin on it, and Concubhar Og and the girls climbed in and crouched around it. Eleanor sat in front. We followed it down to North Harbour.

* * *

ON THE way, Catherine Field told me how husband John had once been reprimanded by his Uncle Jack for using fine string on a big brown-paper parcel for Cape Clear. "That parcel has to go from Skibbereen to Baltimore, from there by ferry to Cape Clear, and then some poor woman must carry it up a hill. Strong cord, John, and make two good loops."

No wonder John Field has now the best supermarket in Ireland.

* * *

TEN parties of pallbearers were told off for the hard haul from the harbour up the other hill to the cemetery. The crew of the Naomh Ciaran spend their days stopping tons of steel on a sixpence without raising their voices. But part-time pallbearers sometimes need a touch of the leather. In the hush we could hear Sean Cadogan's steady commands: "Lift up! Lower down!"

* * *

ON CAPE, the family helped fill the grave. When the crew had lowered Concubhar's coffin, the fragile figure of Verona took a spade, dug deep, and sent sods to knock softly on her father's coffin. As I listened to them land, I finally found out what Aristotle meant when he said that tragedy purges our souls with pity and terror.

* * *

WEDNESDAY, I called to Levis & Sweetnam's in Skibbereen, where Concubhar bought his clothes. In his rich West Cork accent, Jim Levis recalled the day on Cape. And I realised he had followed most of the Mass in Irish. Jim smiled. "I had a good Irish teacher, Miss Roycroft."

I thought of how the Roycrofts had originally been Huguenot refugees from Catholic persecution. I thought of how Jim's evangelical forebears in the early 1800s had spread the gospel in Irish.

Jim Levis was a living link to another stream of Irish identity.

I looked at him. "Jim, did you have any word with Eleanor O Drisceoil at the graveside?"

Jim nodded seriously. "I did, I told her t'was many a fine shirt and strong pair of trousers I sold Concubhar."

"Did she say anything to that?"

"She did. She took my arm and said: 'He's wearing them today, Jim.'"

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