By Liam Nolan
The gale force winds that slammed into Ireland’s west coast in November created great bursts of noise when the gusts hit the trees and bushes close to our house. They also made the grey lake on the edge of the town where I now live look even greyer, except when the waves generated by the wind were whipped into white horses.
Big noises outside the house, and smaller thumps and thuds and bangs on the inside of it punctuated our days and nights. Wind sounds came roaring down the chimney, and loud whooshings came through the louvered air vents high up on the walls of the rooms. Draughts came from sources I was certain were airtight.
But overall it was good to be secure indoors, what with the rain outside, the sleet, the hailstones and the wind, and the shorter number of daylight hours in bleak November.
In the harbour town where I grew up southwest gales screamed in from the wild Atlantic and lashed the town. As a growing boy I loved lying in bed on stormy nights with the window shutters closed, and the gale-driven rain hammering the glass panes.
I’d lie there in the dark bedroom wondering if any of the slates would be blown off the roof – an occupational hazard in exposed sea towns. Sometimes I’d tiptoe across the room and open the shutters, just a chink, in order to be able to look out across the unlit expanses of the harbour and see the lamps of the lighthouses flashing red in the night.
I knew about Grace Darling, and would try to imagine her and her father hunched in a pulling boat, rowing through a storm to rescue shipwrecked people who were clinging to a rock. Boy, I thought, she was so brave.
I’d close the shutters then, put the latch down, and climb under the blankets once more, sometimes throwing an overcoat over them for extra weight and warmth. I felt safe and secure.
I’d start thinking of the men who went down to the sea in ships, and I’d say Hail Marys for them, and ask Our Lady, Queen of Heaven and Ocean Star, to protect them from the violence of the ocean.
On stormy Sunday nights, the Gregorian Chant of Compline in the cathedral was sung to the accompaniment of distant door bangs in the sacristy, and the howling gale buffeting the 300-foot spire and screaming around the flying buttresses.
At the doorway afterwards, I used to pull my sou’wester tight under my chin and over my ears, turn up the oilskin collar to cover my mouth, tuck my trouserlegs tightly into my wellies and, bent over against the wind, go down Harbour Hill and East Beach to Lynch’s Quay. When small ships were moored there, they surged up and down against the piles, the old tyre fenders screeching as they were forced against the hard wet surfaces.
I’d leave the quay and go along past the CYMS Hall (the Young Men’s) and the old North German Lloyd Pier, past the Pier Head, and the Cunard White Star office, and the rotting black pier where the passengers for the Titanic embarked; past the Promenade, and the Naval Pier, and the Yacht Club, to the railway station; then out the Deepwater Quay and along the Five-foot Way (the Water’s Edge) towards White Point.
The few lights on Spike Island and Haulbowline were small fuzzy yellow blobs across the water. I struggled on, alongside the angry sea, full of fear, glad I wasn’t a sailor on the ocean on such a night.
During the war, you never knew what the wind and tide would wash into the harbour — everything from bodies to magnetic mines, from broken lifeboats to spars and oars and bits of ship’s furniture and life rafts, from sheets of soaked cardboard and canvas to lethal-looking packets and burst-open bales — the detritus of war at sea, the remnants of tragedies.
We had our own winter wartime tragedy in the harbour in December of 1942. The weather was indescribably vile on that night. Five men lost their lives when the blades of the Irish Poplar’s propellers sliced the pilot launch and the port control boat into pieces.
A pall settled on the town. It went into mourning. For many of its inhabitants, Christmas that year was joyless. Even today, over seven decades later, the memories are still raw.
Nowadays, living in an inland town, when wild winds come and howl and shriek in the old way, I peer across the lake at night and, in the distance, I see the lights of faraway homes. Then, in my mind, I’m back again to when I was a boy in that south coast harbour town.