Where a Wave Meets the Shore
Ireland, Dingle Peninsula, 1952
On the day he met Brigid O’Sullivan, he caught her by surprise. That was hard to do, but Tom McBride wouldn’t realize that until later, when he knew her better. On that afternoon – a brilliant one, the sky bluer than the Virgin’s holy robe – he knew only that he’d happened upon the most beautiful girl he’d seen in all his twenty-two years, and that he’d frightened the life out of her.
In fairness, though, she’d startled him as well. He hadn’t expected to see anyone half so lovely when he’d set out on the water that day, ferrying a government officer over to the Great Blasket Island. The fellow had been at Regan’s the night before, arriving just as that evening’s session was getting underway …
In the low-ceilinged pub, it seemed half the town had gathered, in the way crowds often form – responding to one man’s opinion that grows to a rumor before swelling to the firm expectation of a mighty night. Regan himself was sweating behind the bar, serving out pints as fast as the barman could pull them. There was hardly the width of a floorboard left to stand on, but until a few minutes earlier, the space next to the door had remained empty, protected by an invisible boundary that few would dare cross. It was the musicians’ corner, and if you sat in it you’d better be planning to give out a tune.
Tom was planning exactly that as he squeezed in between the regulars and pressed his back against the unforgiving oak bench. He’d already lifted the fiddle to his shoulder when the stranger entered, a pudgy, round-faced man, punched through the door by a dose of the wind that had been blowing off Dingle Harbor all day.
The cold gust followed him in, but had no chance against the air inside, which had grown tropical with the collective breath and bluster of a packed house. It took a final swipe as it retreated, lifting the feathery hair on the man’s head until it stood out like the ruff of an orange tabby. Tom lowered the fiddle and stared.
“Will you look at yer jackeen in the suit.” His uncle Patsy’s gravel-edged voice rose to a squeak, as if an exotic zoo animal had stepped into the pub and asked for a pint. “That’s a Dublin man, and no mistake. I’ll wager a week’s catch he’s one of de Valera’s boys.”
Along with every man present, Tom reflexively tensed as he eyed the middle-aged stranger. He was clearly from the city, but it was hard to see how Patsy had connected him with their Taoiseach – the prime minister, Eamon de Valera.
“What’s he want with us?” Tom asked.
Patsy snorted. “What do they ever want? Our money and our tears.”
In this instance, the stranger wanted neither. He confirmed Patsy’s intuition, but he wasn’t there to trouble any of them. He was from the Irish Land Commission, and his business was with the islanders on the Great Blasket, which he intended to visit the next day. Tonight he was no government officer. He was Dan O’Brien from Tralee and he was there for the craic.
Dan was fond of music and stout in equal parts, and after several pints of the latter he proclaimed himself a dab hand with a pair of spoons. The musicians allowed him to sit in, providing he bought them a round and stopped trying to speak to them in Irish. Although game in the attempt, the Dubliner had only a schoolboy’s grasp of the language, and their ears couldn’t bear the unholy mess he made of it.
By the end of the evening they’d adopted him as one of their own. Nursing a final pint while the barman stacked chairs around them and wearily called “Time, please,” they took turns quizzing him about his plans.
“You’ll get no boat to the Blasket tomorrow if this wind keeps up, and that’s a solid fact.” Dennis O’Connell pulled a powerful sniff up through his prodigious nose, indicating no opposing view was worth considering. Patsy gave Tom a private wink.
“Who have you lined up to take you across?” Tom asked.
Fixing an eye on his own private horizon, Dan took a pull from his glass before answering.
Patsy hooted. “Nobody, is it? Sure you’ve done well, Dan. ‘Nobody’ is a fine sailor. You’ll be safe as houses with him.”
The remark prompted a unified roar of laughter, but Dan only shrugged. “I thought perhaps one of you lads might take an interest. The landlady where I’m staying told me this pub is crawling with fishermen.”
“I’d say you’ve left it too late,” Patsy said. “The fishermen are after crawling home to their beds, now.”
“Except for you, Patsy.”
All heads turned towards the piping voice of Donal “Tiny” Quinn, who sat wedged into a corner, pinned against the bench like a beetle under glass. At eighty-two, Tiny was still the best accordionist in all of Kerry, but now he pulled the cherry-red instrument around on a wagon, too small and too old to lift it on his own. For the pleasure of hearing him play, his friends were happy to hoist the thing onto his knees, but they sometimes forgot to remove it when the music stopped.
“Jaysus.” Patsy rolled his eyes. “Tom, pull it off him before he’s smothered.”
Tom was a step ahead of the command, hurrying to the rescue and doing his best not to laugh. “Sorry, Tiny.”
Ramping up the charm, de Valera’s man from Dublin aimed a smile at his target that could have lit the dark side of the moon.
“You’ve a boat yourself then, Patsy.”
“I do, Dan.” Patsy lifted his own glass. After draining it, he stood and stretched, drawing himself to his full six feet. “And I’ve been ten days without a day off, so I’ll not be putting a foot on it tomorrow, not even for a fine fellow like yourself, but Tom here will bring you over, so.”
“I’ll what, now?” Tom nearly dropped the accordion back onto Tiny’s arthritic knees.
“He’s only a farmer,” Patsy continued, ignoring his nephew’s yelp, “but he can manage a boat. He’s been out on the sea with me often enough, from the time he could walk.”
This was certainly true. Mixed in with the smell of silage and manure, Tom’s earliest memories included the oily reek of his uncle’s trawler – the first diesel-powered boat on the Dingle peninsula. With no interest in emigrating and limited options at home, his father’s six brothers had divided themselves between two equally difficult livelihoods – three had decided to fish for a living while the others stayed in farming. Most were scattered across three counties now, from Kilrush to Skibbereen, but Tom’s father had stayed in the area and settled on a farm above Ventry Harbor, and Patsy had remained as well.
“Go on, Tom.” Patsy’s voice trembled with laughter, enjoying his nephew’s consternation. “Do you not want to help this poor man get to his meeting? The two of you will have a great day out on the water.”
“Not if this wind keeps up … ” Dennis started in again.
“Oh, you shut up now.” Patsy waved him away, still grinning at his nephew.
Tom gave a noncommittal shrug, knowing the idea of a “day out on the water” would surely draw fire at home. Of his parents’ four sons, Tom had been the only one to remain on the farm in Ventry, and while this came as a relief to his parents, both were skeptical – for different reasons – that he was cut out for the life of a farmer.
“He’s a hard-working lad, but he hasn’t the strength for it,” his mother said to anyone who would listen. “It’s because of the asthma. It’s knocked him about since he was a baby.”
“It’s because he’s a dreamer,” his father insisted, often to the same audience. “The fiddle and the craic, that’s all he cares about, but a fiddle won’t hoe spuds or put his tea on the table, will it?”
Tom resented both arguments. He wasn’t nearly as wheezy as when he was a boy, and although the time he spent with the fiddle was the best part of his day, he never picked it up before the work was done. He loved his parents, but at an early age he’d known his mother’s anxious pessimism and his father’s materialism and pride were nothing he wanted to emulate. His own cheerful temperament tracked closer to that of his uncle, who’d taught him to sail and fish, and to play the fiddle.
As Patsy well knew, Tom was always ready for a lark. He wouldn’t mind bringing Dan over to the Blasket, but he wondered if it was worth the lecture he’d have to endure.
“I’m meant to be moving the cows into the back field tomorrow,” he mumbled.
“Sure I’ll be happy to go at your convenience.” Dan turned his smile in Tom’s direction. “I wouldn’t dream of interfering with your work.”
“I’m not sure how long I’ll be.”
“How’s twelve o’clock, Tom? Will it suit you?” Dan was starting to sound more like a government man, hearing only the things that helped him and ignoring whatever didn’t.
“I suppose twelve o’clock would be – ”
“Grand, grand. We’ll make it twelve, so. Now, where will I meet you?”