The sea gets a taste for you: that’s what Old Road used to say. His eyes were creased above his red cheeks, almost winking, but he said it as plain fact. Like many other men who worked offshore for weeks at a time in the unpredictable waters of the Atlantic, he never learned to swim. If he ended up overboard in the middle of the sea, miles from shore, he figured swimming would be no use, and it would be better to drown quickly.
In the end, Old Road died not in the open ocean off the coast of West Cork, but under the arch of a bridge in Castletownbere which crosses a brackish stream just as it meets the sea. It happened four summers ago, on the night of his own brother’s funeral. He was last seen sitting on the wall of the Brandyhall bridge, where he sometimes waited for a lift home, up the steep gorse-lined lane of Upper Rodeen, also known as the Old Road – hence his nickname. His real name was Donal O’Neill.
On the bridge, he would have been facing the harbour, the lights of the town and the hulls of the trawler boats lined up against the pier. He knew their restless creaking.
My father, who came from Dublin, first met Old Road through a school friend nicknamed Snowball, who had grown up in Castletownbere. Dad and Snowball would drive down to West Cork to get up to no good. After my parents got together, they would go for weekends in Castletownbere with friends. Donal would invite them to stay in his house when he was working offshore.
When we arrived in Castletownbere on family trips, Donal would be one of the first people we met, if he wasn’t at sea. His belly bulged against his T-shirt, which he wore tucked into worn denim jeans, grubby from work. His forearms were tanned and tattooed. He drank whiskey with a glass of water on the side.
We were always excited to see him. To my brother and me, Donal was a pirate, a buccaneer. He called my father ‘horse’, which in his mouth was hybrid of ‘hearse’ and ‘arse’. When he met my brother, he dubbed him ‘pony’ first, and then changed his mind: ‘No, Shetland!’ He stuffed the front grille of our car with knotty bunches of heather, for luck. ‘If Bere Island looks close to you, the weather will be rough,’ he used to say. ‘If the moon is on its back, there will be rain.’ Once I had a toothache and he convinced a barman to give me a thimble of Irish Mist, telling me to swill the liqueur slowly over my gums.
Usually we met him in The Millbrook Bar, which occupied a three-storey house painted in a dusty pink, standing sentry beside the Brandyhall bridge on the outskirts of the town. This was Donal’s local. It had been his father’s local before him. We knew it as Breen’s. A short woman with cropped dark hair, Mary Breen had run the pub since taking it over from her father, who had taken it over in turn from her grandfather. Her family had grown up in the back and above the bar. She had always said she would quit once she put her daughters through college; but the last time I went back to Castletownbere with my family, in September 2014, she was still behind the taps. One daughter had gone to work in America and the other was working as a doctor in the town. She wondered who would take over after her.
We used to come in to Breen’s after the eight-hour journey down from Dublin. My brother and I would fall asleep on the cushioned benches of the bar, breathing the smell of smoke and dust ingrained in the fibers of the upholstery. Back then, Mary had jars full of pink and white striped marshmallows she would dole out to us, along with Tayto crisps and bottles of Cidona. One night I remember there was a sing-song; a woman in her eighties silenced the room with an old sean-nós piece, her bony frame shaking.
I knew the geography of the town through stories told over and over until they became lore. The pock-marked pavement outside the SuperValu on the main street was where my dad had been given the last rites by a priest as he lay, apparently dying. He had fallen out of a third-storey window, having mistaken the open window for the bathroom door. The SuperValu overlooked the harbour slip, where the car ferry departs to Bere Island. Opposite the old garage on the main square, lined with buildings painted pink, green and yellow, was O’Shea’s pub, where a friend of my parents’ had once escaped like a convict out the window of the gents’ toilet in order to keep drinking, after being told to go home and sleep it off. Two doors down from O’Shea’s, past the open space used for car parking and fishing-net repair, you were on the pier, where the trawlers lined up, their rusty hulls rocking impatiently against each other. My mother always gripped our hands tighter when we got close to the boats, warning us how easy it would be to slip and end up mincemeat in between.
On the road out of Castletownbere, there was a hard shoulder in front of the GAA club, right before a sudden curve, where I had flipped breach in my mum’s belly. She was six months pregnant and trying to sleep in the pushed-back passenger’s seat of a car after all the beds at Donal’s house had been commandeered. Too stubborn to admit defeat and pay for a B&B, my dad had pulled the car in off the road, although whether it was for the whole night or just a couple of hours is still hotly disputed. My mother said it was like a somersault, a great whoosh of movement inside her belly.
We would go down for the regatta, usually the first week in August. A marquee was raised near the square, a funfair set up near the harbour, carnival rides erected in the spaces where the fishermen would normally dry the nets. Our hands and the corners of our mouths would constantly be sticky from the marshmallow and Nutella crepe a German man sold from a small box on wheels year-round in the square.
One year I entered the swimming race. I never could swim in a straight line. But I launched myself off the slip and slapped my arms against the surface of the water until I emerged on the other side in second place, stumbling up through the seaweed and oil. The winner, a boy, came up to me at the carnival. It was the year ‘Maniac 2000’ was blasting out of speakers across the country, oogy oogy oogy, oi oi oi. The boy wanted to brag about his winnings, so I opened up my envelope and waved my own notes at him. Since I was the only girl in the race, I had won not just the second-place prize money but the girls’ first prize too. The boy retreated to the bumper cars.
Bere Island, which was reached by an old car ferry, was the site of a famous standoff, where my dad and Old Road nearly ended up in fisticuffs, each insisting on paying for the tea and toasted sandwiches. The Cascades was a peaty swimming hole beneath a waterfall, which you had to walk through fields of cows to reach; one time I found an animal’s jawbone on the bottom while diving for stones. In more recent years, on a scrap of beach piled with the rubble of oyster shells, I’ve watched my dad skip stones like a boy.
Old Road’s house was a bungalow at the top of Upper Rodeen. He built it from scratch on a plot of land owned by his family, one of a few on the ridge of that high road, with a wide view of the bay. It was near to the house where he and his brothers and sisters had been reared, twelve of them altogether.
When I was maybe ten years old, we arrived in Castletownbere late one might, just my brother and my mum and me, picking up the keys from Breen’s. Donal was out fishing. The house was damp and musty, with a framed photo of JFK on the mantelpiece. The kitchen window looked out over a fecund mass of gorse, brambles and the vast, prickly leaves of a prehistoric-looking plant no one would touch, that people called giant hogweed.
Despite the various states of disintegration the house fell into while Old Road was offshore on the trawlers, sometimes for weeks at a time, his mother’s room remained spick and span, as if she were still in residence. The lumpy bed was made up, the sheets tucked tightly under the cold mattress. A dressing table stood at the foot of the bed against the wall.
All three of us bundled into sleeping bags on the spare-room bed. In the early hours, while we slept, Donal arrived back and came into the room to welcome us, launching himself onto the bed and giving my mum a sloppy kiss on the cheek before asking to borrow her car. Get off, get off, she said. OK, OK, borrow the car. He grabbed the keys and was gone.
We set about cleaning the place, trying to track down the source of a rotten smell. For the rest of that day, updates on Donal’s location would come in through various people in the town: he’s been seen near Allihies beach; the car was seen over in Eyries. My mum wondered if he’d ever come back, but of course he did, the car in one piece and all. He had a black bin bag full of fish – black sole and mackerel, fresh off a boat. Later, when we opened the oven, we discovered the origin of the mysterious stench: a rotting bag of fish from the last catch.
People in the town worried about us staying in that house. A friend who called in brought her own coffee cup to drink out of. Gardaí showed up sometimes, asking if Donal was there. They had a warrant for him on some public-order charge. Whether or not he was around, they got the same answer. On the side of Hungry Hill, there was a shaded lane where sometimes he used to hide his jeep.
Donal would talk about the Spanish fisherman coming to ‘steal’ the fish, and this grievance seems to have been the catalyst for most of his problems with the law. I have a blurred memory of sitting in the back seat of the boxy Volvo estate my mother drove, Donal in the passenger seat as we pulled up near the harbour in Castletownbere. All of a sudden, he shouted for her to stop and leapt out of the car. He squared up to a man we didn’t know, but whom we assumed to be one of the rival fishermen. He might have thrown a punch.
When the guards finally tracked him down, the summer we were staying in his house, my mum signed for the bail and took responsibility for making sure he made his hearing at court, following behind his solicitor’s car as they sped around the bends of the Cushon gap. Back in Dublin maybe a month later, she got a call from one of the gardaí in Castletownbere saying Donal was getting in trouble again. She phoned Breen’s and caught him there and asked did he know the guards had been on to her. Yes I did, yes I’m sorry, I’ll mind myself, yes, I will.
Two Septembers ago, when my family went back to Castletownbere for the first time since Donal’s death, it must have been at least five years since we had last seen him. Someone had phoned about his passing in late 2012, months after the fact. It was strange to go back, knowing he would not be there. Many of the other people my parents had known were dead, too, or had left.
There was no functioning hotel in the town at the time, so we rented a holiday home just to the back of the SuperValu. The Cametringane hotel, where we had stayed a few times, was abandoned. It stood on a jut of land overlooking the harbour and the bay, from Dinish Island, where the fish factories work day and night, around to the walls of the port, where the trawlers are tethered in a line like cows jostling at a trough. We had pulled up there first thing after arriving into the town, wanting to let the dogs out for a piss and a run on the headland in front of the hotel, after the long drive from Dublin. The doors of the hotel were unlocked, so we walked in. I picked through the still-furnished rooms, linens ruffled as though the beds had been recently slept in, glass strewn across the carpeted floors, scarlet paint splattered and dripping along the peach-coloured walls of the hall. There were boxy TVs still on bedside tables and an old PC monitor broken up on a mattress, a roll of camera film splayed out on a carpet. Since then, it has been renovated and reopened under a new name.
At O’Shea’s pub, where my dad used to drink with Old Road, we met one of the younger fishermen who had known him. A few brandies in, my mum asked the question that had lingered in the back of everyone’s mind: whether, on the night of his brother’s funeral, Donal had slipped off the bridge or let himself fall. The fisherman was sure it was an accident, nothing more.
We went to pay our respects. At Trá Leathan, the wide strand, we found a gnarly bush of heather along the wall and tugged handfuls away from its wiry roots in the wet mist, near the slip, with the fishing boats moored out on the water. We looked for the heads of the two seals that used to bob in the morning as we swam.
Donal was buried in a small graveyard where you can smell the salt of the Atlantic, beneath a neat rectangle of black and white pebbles and a gleaming headstone in the O’Neill plot. The headstones around his marked the remains of mothers and grandmothers, some well past eighty. It seemed most of the men were put to ground earlier, many of them dying before fifty. Donal had made it to sixty. There were potted flowers, well tended, above Donal’s grave, a painting of a single rock in the waves on a grey piece of slate and a glass bottle with a ship floating inside it. On my phone there is a strangely kitsch image of us there, taken by my brother. My mum’s arms are crossed over the headstone, my dad standing awkwardly beside her in a padded, checked flannel jacket, me in a bright yellow scarf.
After the graveyard, we went to Breen’s. Mary was pulling a slow pint, her head and shoulders barely visible over the wood-panelled bar counter. ‘’Tis yourself,’ she said to my mum when she looked up from the taps and recognized us. She had been fretting over whether the front door of the house was closed or open, since there was a funeral procession passing that evening and tradition demanded the doors all be closed, as a sign of respect.
Like Old Road used to do, she measured the town’s fortunes by the number of pubs trading. In its heyday, there were twenty-two, she told us. Now only eight remained. ‘Oh it has changed, it’s a big reduction really,’ she said. ‘Everything’s there at the SuperValu, they can get cheaper booze and they’re drinking it at home.’
Mary had been very fond of Donal, and tried to look after him. She noticed any deviation from his usual daily routine, called the family if he went missing for a few days. ‘Donal, he had a retaining memory, he was able to go back in dates years and years, you know, everything he saw he retained it,’ she said. ‘He was a very interesting character. I knew him since he was a teenager, or younger even. Sure they didn’t live too far from away from us like, you know. I knew his sisters quite well. One of them went to school with me. She’s in England now. Donal would be younger then me, but I got to know him when he was coming into the bar.’
He had been very popular with the other fishermen, and a great cook. One time, when there was a football match on the telly, he came round the house with a bag of gourmet ingredients. ‘The commodities in the bag! I didn’t really know what to do with them, to show you how well up he was,’ Mary laughed. ‘Honest to God.’
Before he died, Donal had been in great form, she said, off the drink and living in a Portakabin on a plot of land on Upper Rodeen, near the bungalow he had built for himself. He had decided to sell the bungalow to make ends meet. I propped myself on a stool at the bar, near the door, the same place Donal had sat the last time I had seen him. He had been off the drink then too. He looked like a Buddha that day. He looked happy.
We asked Mary how he had been and what had happened the day he had died. She told us that after his brother’s funeral, his nephews had taken him to Breen’s for a drink.
‘Quarter to eleven in the evening there were men here and he was in great form,’ Mary told us. ‘There were a few fishermen here and he was talking.’
He didn’t turn up the next day in the bar and she said to herself, Thank god, he’s off the drink again. The day after that, while shopping in SuperValu, Mary was told by a man she knew that there had been a body found in the tide and they thought it was Donal.
She remembered him leaving the pub at quarter to eleven after a few drinks, but steady on his feet. The last time anyone saw him, he was sitting on the bridge; perhaps he was waiting for a lift. ‘He must have fallen asleep and that was it. It was very sad indeed,’ she said.
We spoke about better times, about how Old Road had talked about going to Montana, to be a cowboy. His father, a farmer, had travelled with his brother and sister to Butte when he was a young man. His aunt eventually became a nun there, and his uncle worked in the mines. When Donal’s grandfather died, his own father came home, to inherit the farm. The other two stayed on until they died and were buried there.
‘He always wanted to go,’ Mary told us. ‘I said, Save up a few pounds every week and you’ll get there.’ She had taken a trip there once and brought him back an ‘Our Ladies of the Rockies’ jumper. He never did make it to Montana himself.
‘Was it ye put it on?’ Sheila O’Shea, Donal’s sister, asked me, her voice wavering slightly over the unreliable Skype connection, when I mentioned the heather we had left on Donal’s grave. ‘I was wondering who did it, I notice these things.’
In the months that followed my family’s las visit to West Cork, I thought often about Old Road and what had happened that night on the bridge. I was living in New York at the time. On a slow day in Brooklyn, walking along the East River, my mind wandered back to his grave, to the port in Castletownbere, the frigid waters of the Atlantic between here and there. I wanted to know more about him.
In bustling cafés and my cramped sublet, I roamed Castletownbere on Google Maps, zoomed in on the Millbrook and walked across the bridge where Donal had last been seen alive. I searched his name and found a death notice online. I pulled up a news article about another man from Castletownbere named Donal O’Neill who had been caught with an accomplice tampering with satellite transmitters, so as to trawl for mackerel under the radar in waters off Cornwall.
I called Mary Breen, who suggested I talk to Donal’s sister Sheila, whom I had never met. It took a while to track her down, but finally, last September, a year after visiting Donal’s grave, I reached Sheila over Skype. By then I was working in Nigeria. The office was chilly from the aircon and the Lagos evening traffic jams were conducting their usual chorus of petulant horns. I had written out my questions, and rehearsed a segue from the pleasantries of talking to a woman you have never met to asking about her dead brother.
As soon as the line connected and we started talking, there was an immediate ease. It had been raining hard in Castletownbere. Sheila and her daughter had been putting together boxes of donations for the refugees flowing into Europe. It had been raining in Lagos also, heavy showers. I told her my memories of her brother. The heather, the nicknames, the lore about the sea: that was Donal, she told me.
Sheila had learned to use her laptop at the adult education centre, now closed down, to keep in contact with loved ones abroad. Three of Donal’s nephews are fishing now, she told me, but many of the young people in the town had left, gone to look for work in Australia and other places. ‘When the boom was here, there were houses going up, everyone was kept going,’ she said. Now qualified electricians were working as cashiers.
On her own time, Sheila does home help around Beara, providing support to people who are elderly or sick. One of the people she visits, an elderly man living alone, sits in the evening with the day’s newspaper and his old PC sending out emails. She and the other carers who visit him have no idea who he sends the emails to, but it keeps him happy. Sometimes transition-year students will do lessons for older people at the day centre near the hospital, she explained, but anyone needing computer skills outside of that now has to go to Bantry or Kenmare, three quarters of an hour’s drive either way.
A husband of a friend of hers is involved with the ambulance service, with a single ambulance serving the whole peninsula. ‘It’s tough,’ she said. ‘We’re very, very isolated.’
She and Donal grew up in a family of twelve, six brothers and six sisters. Only two brothers and five sisters are left. Of the boys who had died, John had succumbed at three months to pneumonia, Donal and his brother Michael had both died in the water, and Jimmy had died of a heart attack.
‘He is …’ Sheila started, then paused to correct herself. ‘He was a great talker.’
He could name any relative or event in the family history, she said – dates, times and everything.
‘He should have written everything down, but he didn’t,’ she said. ‘He intended to, for his own grand-nieces and -nephews and that, but he never got around to it. We miss that now.’
Fishing had been Donal’s life. He had started off in the fish factory at fifteen before going out on the trawlers. He was respected out at sea, where he never touched the drink. He worked hard and mentored many younger fishermen. But as the years passed, the industry that was his life was rapidly changing. Factory ships had been coming to Castletownbere since the 1980s. Donal spoke of them to me as a kid, huge boats that could stay out to sea longer, with seemingly endless holds and the facilities to prepare and freeze the fish on board.
An online dive guide of Irish wrecks lists a Spanish factory ship off the coast of Castletownbere, which sunk in August 1986 after striking rocks. In January of that year, Spain had joined the European Economic Community. The links between West Cork and Spain went back a lot further. A plaque in the town placed by the Beara Historical Society claims that Owen Mór, King of Ireland, having been injured in battle, left for Spain and returned with a wife, a Spanish princess called Beara. He named the entire peninsula after her. When I was a kid, Donal had seemed a roguish king of Castletownbere, and the Spanish fishermen a mysterious enemy dredging the sea. In reality, Donal would let drink get the better of him and ended up in fights that he probably should have avoided.
When I was younger, Old Road’s hostility towards the Spanish fishermen, as I understood it, was simple: the Spanish were stealing our fish, and he didn’t like it. There are a few things I know now that I didn’t know back in those days. Spain is Europe’s biggest consumer of fish, and its fishing fleet is commensurately large. The rivalry between the Irish and Spanish fleets operating in the north Atlantic has ebbed and flowed since the EEC established its Common Fisheries Policy in 1983 and Spain joined the EEC in 1986. Spanish boats are entitled to fish the waters off the Irish coast, but Irish fishermen operating out of Castletownbere and other ports have, at times, felt aggrieved by aspects of the European quota regime, by alleged aggressive behaviour by Spanish boats at sea, and by a belief that the Spanish fleet has not always adhered to the rules.
After Spain’s EEC accession, a local man became an agent for the Spanish fishermen in Castletownbere. Diarmuid O’Donovan, known locally as Derry and to the Spanish fishermen as Cornelio, had left Cork at the age of fifteen to join a Spanish Augustinian order, eventually moving to San Sebastián for nearly a decade. He left the order before being ordained and moved back to Ireland, opening his own business in 1970. In 2002 the Irish Times reported that O’Donovan and his wife had received a certificate of meritorious service from then Minister of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources for contributing to marine search and rescue, acting as translators ‘at any time of the day or night’.
In 1999, after a troubled summer, a string of charges brought against Donal culminated in a prison sentence. Two of those charges related to altercations with Derry O’Donovan. (I tried to reach O’Donovan to get his perspective on Donal, but he told me via text he thought ‘old stories are best forgotten’.) The files under Donal’s name in the local police station document a string of charges: larceny of a Union Jack from a boat, damage to a car, possession of a stolen gun. But his feud with the Spanish is what landed him in prison.
Fachtna O’Donovan, who retired as the local Garda sergeant last year, was on a first-name basis with Old Road. ‘I had great times with Donal, but he used to get himself into bother. It was more roguery than anything, but you see he went too far,’ said Sergeant O’Donovan, who knew Donal’s family and attended the funeral. ‘He used to drink whiskey and the guys used to be winding him up about the Spanish fishermen.’
For a while I thought my memory of Donal leaping out of the car and starting a fight with a man in the square was a figment of my imagination, but the police files that detail the statement he eventually gave on the incident and other charges brought against him in July 1999 support it. He refers to being in the car of ‘a friend, Roisin’ – my mother – when he spotted Derry O’Donovan on the pier and got out of the car.
I was sitting with my brother in the back seat. My own recollection of what happened next is too vague for me to pass judgment on the accuracy or otherwise of Donal’s self-exonerating account, but the gardaí evidently did not buy it. He was charged with assault, and convicted. The judge suspended the sentence and bound him to the peace. It was a condition of the bail that he must stay out of the town unless it was genuinely for fishing purposes.
In August, according to Donal’s statement, Derry O’Donovan had been unloading fish from a boat to a lorry; Donal had parked his van in between and left it there, breaching his bail conditions. Sergeant O’Donovan remembers meeting him on the pier some nights, after he had come out of the pub and was down near the boats, where sometimes he would cut the ropes of the Spanish fishing vessels moored there. ‘I said, Donal, you’re going to end up in prison,’ he explained. ‘He kind of laughed, he said won’t it be a holiday for me, Fachtna? He didn’t think he would actually be sent to prison. It was a joke to Donal and it was a joke to the other people in the pub, the boys that were sending him down to the pier.’
One evening he bought a crepe from the German man in the square. He said in his statement that he vomited because the crepe was raw, and went back to the truck to complain, but he wasn’t given another crepe. He then saw a girl being assaulted on the pier and went to the Garda station to report it, but there was no answer. He let out his frustration on the ‘green man’, an intercom system for people to contact district headquarters when there was no one on duty. He also smashed a window of the station.
‘You know he would do stupid things with drink on him,’ said Sergeant O’Donovan. ‘He was just a rogue, the thing was, if he just stuck maybe to drinking port or beer or something, but whiskey used to drive him loco.’
On the 10th of September 1999 he was called to court, where he pleaded guilty to the string of charges laid against him. He was sentenced to twelve months in prison. ‘I thought it was a long enough stretch, like,’ Sergeant O’Donovan told me. The fact that the man he’d assaulted was a Spanish honorary vice-consul looked bad in court, he added: an international incident in the town.
‘That’s my poor friend Donal,’ he told me over the phone. ‘He was put away for nine months, but even when he came back out, he didn’t hold that against me personally or anything, so I had good time for him that way. I had pity on him, because he wasn’t a criminal or anything like that.’
Old Road did his stint in Cork Prison. My mother took the train to visit him, standing in line with the other visitors to sit opposite him, the glass partition between them. She had brought him clean socks. It was an unfamiliar setting for them and they were both shy. Donal had managed to get work in the prison kitchen, which he enjoyed.
One of the first nights after he had been released from prison, he sneaked in the back door of the Millbrook. The bar was packed with people who had come to welcome him back. After working for a while in Cork city as a builder, he came back to Castletownbere, but it was never the same for him.
‘He couldn’t go beyond Mary Breen’s,’ Sheila told me. ‘That was heartbreaking.’ Mary, too, was under the impression that after he had served his sentence he was still subject to a barring order that prevented him from entering the village. Intriguingly, Sergeant O’Donovan told me that after Donal got out of prison, the ban was no longer in force. He wondered if Donal had been operating under a self-imposed exile from the town, or was perhaps still subject to unofficial barring orders from individual establishments. In any case, his world shrank to a small kingdom between the Portakabin and the bridge below. Even when his niece was married, Sheila said, he didn’t come to the church.
After he left prison, he went off the drink, kept out of the town and started growing vegetables. My mother went to visit him. ‘I went in and he gave me tea and we sat across the table from each other,’ she said. ‘Everything on his boat was pristine but his houses were always chaos.’
Over Christmas, when Sheila and her family would go to Longford to visit her daughter, Donal would stay in their house, which he had helped to build. When they came back, it would be spotless, two fires lit and the dinner on the table.
Despite his cowboy dreams, he never made it far from home. ‘I suppose the only time he ever went out was with his friend when they took the boat down around Portugal and that,’ said Sheila. She lived for a time in England, and he came over for Christmas on occasion, and for weddings. Her wedding anniversary was the first time she heard him sing, belting out the old IRA songs with their brother. ‘Fine voice on them both,’ she said.
‘There was no harm in him and he was very decent. He only did harm only to anybody, only himself, and what he did was his own foolishness,’ Mary had said to me. ‘Sure it’s all past tense now.’
I lit a butter candle for Old Road on that last family visit, in a copper candleholder with a dent in the round lip of its disk, at a Buddhist meditation centre a few kilometres outside Castletownbere. Prayer flags flew among unruly hedges and scrub, on the edge of a cliff overlooking miles and miles of sea, a flat, shifting stretch all the way to the horizon.
In the car park, my parents ended up in conversation with a middle-aged man.
‘We were talking about being invisible,’ my dad reported back. ‘He was talking about being invisible and about being gay, and I told him there were some fine girls in the café.’
My mum bought three books on Buddhism for beginners and signed up for an over-fifties retreat, a course to make peace with the ageing body and come to terms with death. My dad said he did his meditation in the sea.
The summer before Donal died, Sheila’s daughter was over from England and Donal had taken her and her family out fishing on the small family boat. She had a life jacket for uncle Donal but he refused to wear it, out of that same stark respect for the water.
‘My other brother who drowned never learned, a lot of fisherman never did,’ Sheila told me. ‘I think it’s compulsory now, that they need to be able to swim, they have to have the life jackets and everything.’
At the port in Castletownbere, where trawlers line up against the pier wall, the nets are laid out for mending. The boats vary in size and shape. Oily water gurgles between the hulls. Sheila and Donal’s brother Michael, who was also a fisherman, slipped somehow on the dock and into one of the narrow gulfs between boats, which my mum had always kept us back from as kids.
‘He slipped and hit his head and he had a massive heart attack, drowned and died,’ Sheila told me. His crew had come on board after, wondering where he was. It had been lucky one of them had spotted him. ‘They were saying, God, where’s Mickey, no sign of him, and one of the chaps whichever way he looked saw his body was floating in the water.’
When someone drowns, bringing the body home at least is a comfort. Sheila’s sister-in-law had lost a brother to the water, and his body was never found. She said it was lucky Donal’s body was found: another twenty-four hours and she reckoned the tide would have taken his body out to sea.
We spoke about the night Old Road had gone missing.
Their brother Jimmy had died on a Sunday morning in June, after suffering a heart attack at the age of sixty-two. After the removal of Jimmy’s remains, on the Tuesday night, Sheila had invited Donal up to her house, where people were gathering over sandwiches, tea and drinks. But he was off the drink. Her daughter Pauline, his niece, who Sheila said was his best buddy, had cajoled him into having a dram of hot whiskey, just to warm him. ‘Sure uncle Donal, have a small little hot toddy, it’s damp outside,’ Pauline had told him. ‘Another time he could’ve drank a bottle of it,’ Sheila said. But he had one hot toddy and that was all.
The next morning, before the funeral, Donal turned up at Sheila’s house, where he kept his suit and his white shirt.
He had quit the drink and he had quit the tobacco pipe. In church, during the service for their brother, Sheila remembers Donal telling her that he was still off the smoke, but kept his two pipes, one filled with tobacco and one empty, safely wrapped up in a compartment in back of the tractor.
After the funeral, the family had gone to a pub in town called Twomey’s for sandwiches and soup, but Donal couldn’t go in there. So his two nephews drove him over to Mary Breen’s and were going to collect him later that evening. Sheila went home around six o’clock and two of her children went in for a drink with Donal; but Mary said he had already gone home, that his nephews had collected him around five. At eight in the evening, Sheila rang her sister-in-law, who told her Donal was with his nephew and that they were taking good care of him.
The next day, Sheila tried to contact Donal. She wanted to wash and press his suit and keep it at the house as she normally did. She got no answer.
‘I was ringing and ringing,’ she told me. ‘It was absolutely piddling from the heaven and I was saying to myself now he’s probably had a good few drinks in Mary Breen’s. He hadn’t been drinking for a while.’
The morning after that, she was still trying to get hold of him. She had to drive to Cork for a hospital appointment, and her other sister was home from England. ‘I said for heaven’s sake will you find him and get his suit off him so I can get it dry-cleaned and hang it up again,’ she said.
They were about an hour away from home when her niece got the phone call to tell her Donal’s body had been found.
Sheila went to his house and found the two pipes exactly where he had said they would be. They buried him with the full pipe tucked into his jacket. ‘That is tradition,’ she said. The empty pipe went to a sister in England.
‘His body came home on the Saturday,’ she said. ‘I waked him in my house. That’s what he would have wanted.’
Sheila told me that afterwards, while giving his condolences, Sergeant O’Donovan had told Sheila that Donal should never have gone to prison, should never have been kept out of the town. I could sense the shrug of her shoulders over the phone: not much help to say it now. ‘He was a blaggard, oh definitely,’ she said. ‘But then, who isn’t?’
It was a big funeral. Fishermen he had known came from all around. What people remembered of him, she said, was that he had a good heart.
After the funeral, the family had suggested going to Twomey’s but Sheila insisted they go to the Millbrook. It was a dry evening with a clear sky and Mary put plastic chairs outside, with the view from the bridge overlooking the harbour in town. His nephews and nieces were there. ‘Even the canon,’ Sheila told me. He said it was his first time in the bar. ‘Well, you don’t live too far away from it,’ she had told him.
Last September, Sheila told me that before the inquest into Donal’s death, she had the nagging fear that he had let himself fall from the bridge on purpose. But the inquest reached a verdict of accidental drowning. ‘It came out quite clear,’ she said. ‘Was it a blessing or not, I don’t know. But definitely he did try to crawl out, you could see it on his fingers, we noticed that.’
The last night my family and I were in the town, a Friday, we went to MacCarthy’s, a bar off the square. There was a man with a guitar, playing ‘Black is the Colour’. Beside me there was a farmer on his own who had come to listen to the music. He was over six foot, a sturdy man in his fifties maybe. We mentioned Old Road and he told us he had seen him the night he had died.
He said Donal had been sitting on the bridge like he often did. Maybe he had stopped to take a breath before continuing the journey home.
When the farmer’s son had crossed not long after, the bridge was empty.
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