Friday, 8 September 2023

West of Ireland fiction


                                 The Anchor

                                                           (Ml Muldoon)


The winter storms had raged for six days and Father Tom was in the early stages of getting vexed with his Lord. Surely it was not right that an island be left without it's priest, by an act of God. He cast his mind back to those days in theology class long ago in that little town in Kildare where he trained for the priesthood. Much of what they taught him was never needed again, since the day he was ordained. He realised with a sigh that getting marooned in Galway was not as big a deal as he had been making of it. He knew that the wasted time and extra expense of having to stay in the little hotel near the dock was a bigger problem for the islanders than for him. His parish priest had advised him to stay elsewhere and to keep some distance between himself and his parishioners. Tom had ignored this .


M.V. Naomh Éanna leaving Galway docks. 

Yesterday he had great hopes of crossing on the C.I.E. ferry but the captain had informed the intending passengers, who had dragged themselves out of bed at 5 A.M., that the sailing had been cancelled due to weather conditions. His decision was greeted with scorn by some intending passengers who cast grave aspersions on the virility and parentage of him and his crew. This was his second cancellation at the dockside and the sailing before that had turned back when he felt the full fury of the Atlantic, as his boat nosed out past the shelter of Ceann Boirne, over twenty miles into the journey. 

There was nothing for the passengers to do now but to head back to Galway for another day of sitting around or drinking in the little hotel. Perhaps he would pass the afternoon away watching the latest Hollywod blockbuster "Ben Hur" at the Savoy cinema.

The next morning news had reached the priest that a small fishing trawler, which had just completed repairs in Galway, was due to head for home at midday. This was the chance he was waiting for and he thanked God for sparing him another night of torture in the small room he had taken in the little hotel. 

It had been a bad night for Tom. After watching the film he had visited a friend who had trained with him and had enjoyed a few welcome glasses of brandy as they talked of times in the seminary. They had been wild fun loving young men then but seven years in the seminary had instilled in many of them a fear and suspicion of things pleasurable. The faithful expected their priests to be more solemn than was Tom's natural instinct. His fear of his own sinful inclinations had robbed him of his natural impulsiveness and bent him to the will of authority. This was of course what the seven years were designed to do and on many occasions he had suspected as much. 


He had once fallen in love with Eileen, a lovely, laughing, dark haired girl in his own place in Mayo but he had determined that it would not come to anything. He was wracked by shame when he wondered what she would think of him if she knew the sinful thoughts that came to his mind when he thought of her. 

Sadly he would never know that the sinful thoughts he had for her, were nothing compared to the sinful thoughts she harbored for him. They had both attended boarding school in the little town of Tuam. She to the nuns and Tom to the priests. He had been a handsome and athletic teenager but desperately shy with girls. On the bus home at holiday time he would watch Eileen from the back but never could get past the casual "Hello".




He had returned to the hotel at about midnight and quickly made his way through the crowded bar. The clientele was made up of a mixed bag of humanity. A good part of the crowd were from the islands and Connemara with the rest made up of dockers, fishermen, actors, students, teachers and a few journalists wishing to soak up the irish language flavour of the place. It was obvious to him that a lot of the Lords commandments had been broken already and he feared that some more would be broken before the night was through.

Grabbing his key from the barman/receptionist he quickly made his way to his bedroom. The room was clean and cosy with a small single bed, which creaked when he sat on it. Having said his prayers he slipped into bed knowing that the racket downstairs would scupper all hope of sleep for some time.

 By 2 a.m. the noise had abated enough for him to finally doze off. He was awoken from his sleep by the sound of laughter which he determined was coming from the room above him. It was not long before he recognised the voice of one of his parishioners, Máirtín óg, a young lad of about nineteen years.

He had noticed him earlier in the bar as he made his way through and he could remember that he had been in conversation with a handsome woman in her forties and wearing a tweed suit whom he guessed was part of the theatrical group that used the little hotel as their local. From his animated state he was sure that the lad had consumed more porter than was good for him. After a hard weeks fishing it was only natural that a man would have one good night in town before heading home to the island .


The priest had also noted that the island's most infamous gossip, Maggie Mór, was seated on a storage heater sipping a Bristol cream sherry while gathering as much of the scandalous behaviour as her ears and eyes could absorb. No islander or indeed the priest was safe from Maggie Mór's lethal tongue and she was feasting on the scene before her as she gently rocked from buttock to buttock in order to avoid having her backside scorched. 

The priest knew that she would have plenty to report in a scandalised and hushed voice when she met the other women of the village after 11 o'clock mass. He hoped that Máirtín óg would not give her a priceless "nugget" that she could taunt his poor mother with as she feigned concern for his spiritual welfare.

Having listened for a while, Fr. Tom was in no doubt but that it was indeed Máirtín and that the other voice was in all likelihood the woman he had seen him talking to earlier. The woman was the wife of one of the county's leading irish language enthusiasts. She had been encouraged by her husband to "embrace" the gaelic tradition and to this end had taken to attending the Irish language productions in the local theatre. 

Her husband worked as a civil servant and native speakers had learned to avoid him in pubs as they recognised when they were being patronised as he praised and idolised their "culture”. They much preferred the teasing and mock insults of the English speaking townies and dockers in whose company they were more at ease .These types of “fior fior Gaels” were to be seen all over the country as they “honoured” native speakers with their company.

Her husband was particularly proud of the fact that all of his children had been conceived through Irish even if his poor wife had but a few words. He was the type of man who believed that the quintessential Irish person was a male, catholic, heterosexual, white, Irish speaking, pint drinking, hurler. 

On this evening the woman had come to town to attend the theatre with some of her friends while her husband stayed at home to mind their six children. Six gin and tonics later she had found herself in bed with a young fisherman who was but two years older than her eldest daughter. For a woman who had at best “nibbled” at life, tonight would see her for once take a huge bite. 

The memory of it could still bring a smile to her face more than 40 years later, when she sat in the dayroom of the nursing home, watching sky news on a loop. When he had encouraged her to "embrace" Irish culture, her husband could not have imagined just how enthusiastic she could be.

From the racket of the ancient bed above him Fr.Tom knew that the sixth commandment was in the process of being broken but he was powerless to do anything about it. Tom had been to Knock often and had even once visited Lourdes but he had never heard the words “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” said with more feeling or passion. For a moment he thought about going up to the room and banging on the door but he doubted that no matter how hard he banged, the couple inside were beyond hearing or caring.

He knew that Maggie Mór was in the room alongside and came to the conclusion that pretending to be asleep might be the best policy, as a report of the curate banging on a hotel room door would be like gold dust to Maggie. 

Poor Fr. Tom had, since his early teens, been tormented by impure thoughts and the racket from above had generated a mental picture that all the prayers in heaven couldn’t banish. A terrible thought now came to his mind. What if the floor above was to collapse and the town’s fire brigade had to rescue him and the couple of sinners overhead.

The thought of finding himself cheek to cheek with the woman without the tweed suit, only introduced some more unwanted impure thoughts. Tom had not slept much that night and only managed to nod off after hearing the heavy front door of the hotel shut as Máirtin óg cheerfully made his way back to his boat. He had looked out the window just to be sure who the sinner was and was just in time to see Máirtin helping himself to a loaf of bread, from a cooling rack , outside Jimmy Lydon’s bakery.

Photo by Raoul Lemercier

And so it was that Fr. Tom found himself next day aboard a small trawler that was heading home for the weekend. Word of its departure had spread and there were about ten islanders now aboard. Some had gone below and would sleep their way home. A few were crowded into the wheelhouse while a few more were standing just behind the wheelhouse where they would have some shelter from the seas. 

The island skippers were never known to leave people on the dock, though on many occasions they dreaded having passengers who were not used to rough weather. Fr. Tom noted that one of the crewmen was the bold Máirtin óg from the night before and any negative feeling he might have for the lad evaporated when he saw the help that he gave to his passengers.

He had given his oilskin to Maggie Mor as she huddled just outside and he had greeted Tom in his usual friendly manner. In truth Tom really liked the lad and he could still remember the game of football they had played on the big sandy field, the summer before. Tom and Máirtin had been on the island team as they faced a team of visitors. The islanders had been very grateful to Tom whose powerful display had helped secure a great victory. 

 Tom wondered if Mairtin would be at confession next Saturday. It would be hard for him to give absolution if Mairtin confessed taking the loaf but neglected to mention the woman in the tweed suit. He need not have worried as he would never see the lad again after this week as Mairtin had a ticket for Chicago and this would be his last trip up the bay. 

If Maggie Mór had carried the details of the night before, Tom wondered if his authority had been damaged as everyone would know that he must have been aware of what was going on but had failed to stop it.

Among the passengers was the local Garda Maguire and his nemesis, Seamaí, the local drunk. Maguire was a notoriously poor sailor and had positioned himself at the rail near the stern in the vain hope that the fresh air would keep him from being sick. He was not a very popular man as it was said that he had ambitions to go all the way to the top and had an exaggerated belief in his own importance. 

He tended to look down on all around him and in particular his own sergeant who had only achieved primary cert status unlike himself, who had gone all the way to the inter . They say that a man with no brains who thinks he is a genius is annoying but a fairly smart man, like this guard, who thinks he is a genius, is dangerous.

He had confined his amorous adventures to visitors and had foolishly played with the visitors’ team in the famous football match from the summer before. He had foolishly attempted to “rattle” the “priesteen” not knowing that Tom had often faced down mountainy men who would enjoy flooring a priest, on many a Mayo football field. The end result saw Maguire being escorted from the field with a broken collar bone and Tom seeking forgiveness. This act, had for evermore endeared Tom to many of his parishioners.

As they made their way up the bay the wind had died down almost completely but the seas were still huge and made life most uncomfortable for those on board the small boat. The wheelhouse had warmed up to such a degree that it was almost unbearable to any but the strongest of seamen. Allied to this was the smell of diesel fumes and old fish. 

The unfortunate guard now found himself sitting on the deck with his head over the side keeping time with the bilge pump as they both emptied their loads. The guard had been surprised when his old enemy, Seamus the drunk sidled up to him and urged him in a gentle and concerned voice to “get it all up” and “you’ll feel better”

Maguire now began to regret drawing his baton on the night he put Seamaí in the “black hole”, as the islanders called the Garda cell. This episode had been made all the worse when he found out that the sergeant had no such problems on the many occasions he had escorted Seamaí home. Perhaps the sergeant was right when he urged Maguire to try and get along with people and not be always looking for confrontation. 


Seamaí’s kind words now had Maguire near to tears as he endured the tortures of seasickness. He was however brought back to earth by the next sentence from the drunk. “That’s it Guard Maguire, get it all up and if you feel something round in your mouth don’t worry, it’ll just be your arsehole”. 

They say that every dog has his day and today belonged to Shamaí. 

Seamaí had spoken the words in English which was his way of telling the guard just how bad his Irish was. He had also spoken the words in a loud voice which would ensure that the episode and his words would be repeated in every house and pub on the island, before the week was out.

The journey was near completion and the evening had begun to fade when a dense fog descended. In the days before radar nothing put fear into a fisherman quite like being near to shore in a thick fog. All talk ceased on the boat as the crew and passengers listened to the roar of the surf which was obviously very close. The old skipper sent Mairtin to the bow as they desperately tried to figure out where they were. The entrance to the harbour had a very dangerous bar to the north which broke in rough seas and which would have sunk the boat immediately, if it were to drift on to it. 


Because the wind had been from the south east it was quite possible that they were almost upon it. The old skipper had slowed the boat down to a crawl and was desperately trying to keep calm as all aboard waited for the dreaded sound of timber on rocks. At this stage, Fr. Tom, speaking in Irish, suggested that the anchor be thrown down. From the nods all around he could see that most agreed with him. 

The skipper never acknowledged hearing him and continued to stare ahead with a face as stoney as Bárr Aille. This was a first for Tom as it was unthinkable for a priest to be ignored. Perhaps last night’s escapades in the hotel and his inability to do anything about them, had fatally undermined his authority. Was he now a laughing stock to be forever treated as a joke?

After five minutes of slowly going astern and ahead Tom once again pleaded, this time in English, to throw down the anchor. Again there was no reply. 

Tom’s humiliation was now complete. With tension mounting in the wheelhouse, the Guard though about backing up the priest. However, he soon realised that a man with vomit all down the front of his jacket would be wise to stay quiet.

Thankfully, two minutes later Máirtín shouted that he could see the lighthouse and in no time they were tied up at the pier.

A skipper loses almost all power by stepping ashore and Tom waited on the pier before launching an unmerciful attack.

In the name of God why didn’t you throw down the anchor when I told you” he roared. 

The old Skipper, after a long pause, sheepishly replied,

I would have thrown down the anchor Father,.................if I had an anchor”.