Ma quando disse: “Lascia lui e varca;
ché qui è buono con l’ali e coi remi,
quantunque può, ciascun pinger sua barca;”*
– Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 12, lines 4-6
Yours was the first low cadence of tides,
A rusted bawley now sent to the breakers. Who
Could follow you through soused everglades,
Your phantom still set on cataloguing the slew
Of uncharted alts, death-crooning mermaids?
And now the salty wonder-pill pushes away
The database of names you’d so fussily gathered,
Registries of men scuttled and unsung, the etymology
Of barnacled weather-rail and waving oleander,
The cut-glass Atlantic, washed fodder for history.
You organised Dun Laoghaire lifeboat station
Like a man aloft, standing watch for a glimpse
Of reef or risk, good and lost in the mirror-like ocean
Whose urges you knew to exalt. The oily lamps
Kindle half-measured miles, inked into a margin
Of your silver memory. This pebbly ledge
Whitens at dusk. The oarlock’s twirling glance
Acts on your hand’s biding, your ultimate voyage
Too far off for gales to gag your response
To our common and ignored heritage.
We islanders, oblivious to the cold blue element
That is needed and fuels our need, have dove
Past the porpoise’s inshore library, the green ferment
In an appendix of anemone, a luminous sea-cave
Immersed in plain-texts of sand, the acrostic hunt
For bass or mackerel flavouring our hook.
Your headstone, if you had one, would face the coast
As pilgrims face Mecca, no matter how deeply brooked,
How deeply moored in soil you’d be. An offshore gust,
Hard as the fact, bestows on us neither a look-
Out’s clarity nor strength enough to bear
The burden forecast or the grey churn
Of a maelstrom, our blindness made clear
To the global sea that binds nation to nation,
As you had always declared.
Your Argentinan hills bristle with uncut cypresses
And her dissolving sky, with scuppers of cloud,
Rams the rolling swish that calmed you, redresses
An anchor feted with the shame of rust and seaweed;
You are bound homeward, yet willing your mind always
To frigid depths where prosperity may yet be trawled.
© Daniel Wade, 2016.
Author's note: John de Courcy Ireland (October 18th, 1911 - April 4th 2006) was a sailor, teacher, peace activist, humanist, linguist, RNLI volunteer, staunch advocate of Ireland's maritime heritage and a true friend of seafarers who did who did much in his long career to promote and preserve Ireland’s maritime heritage. This poem was originally published in Coast Monkey.
*"But when he said, "Leave him, and onward pass,
For here 'tis good that with the sail and oars
As much as may be, each push on his barque."
- Trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.