Whether ancient legends or modern family tales, the stories of Ireland and Scotland have all played an important role in my life. They give me great pleasure and they help provide the income I need to raise my children. More than that, the wonderful tales of the two nations allow me a medium in which I can examine and express my feelings about the world around me. Two Irish stories in particular stand out for me and it is these I would now like to talk about. One is such a delight to tell that, apart from one year, I perform it at every opportunity. The other is a story that I rarely perform. I constantly find myself thinking of, but it is a tale that I find simply too powerful to tell on a regular basis.
The story I delight in telling at every opportunity is "The City beneath the Waves" which I sometimes refer to it as "The Axe, the Hook and the Long Sharp Knife." It is a story about the Claddagh fisher-folk and was first written down by the Scottish folklorist David Thomson, who heard the story from a Claddagh fisherman in the 1940s. The story tells of the adventure of three young lads who are caught in a storm. After many mishaps they find themselves in a great mansion miles beneath the waves. Inside the house the three boys must overcome temptations offered them by three beautiful and mysterious women. Only then can they return home.
Living in Galway I find it very easy to step into the colour and landscape of this tale, and have a lot of fun describing the storm and the three temptations. In my telling the story contains a lot of humour, but also the poignant sorrow revelation that the three boys are the only survivors of the terrible storm. It often happens after I tell this story somebody asks if it is true. The tale is so full of fantastical things that the answer seems obvious, but there are always people in the audience who will know stories of fishing tragedies: boats do capsize; freak waves happen; storms can blow out of nowhere. Many Galwegians are also familiar with the tragedy that took place in Galway Bay a hundred years ago, when eight fishermen drowned after their boat capsized.
But it is not only boats that can be lost at sea I tell my audience; entire fleets can be destroyed. In 1818 a disaster took place off the coast of Donegal, which may well have some bearing on the ‘City beneath the Waves’ story. In the nineteenth century the Scottish fishing fleet used to get its supplies from the northern Donegal fishing village of Dunfanaghy. In 1818 local fishermen warned the Scottish fleet not to go out as a storm was coming. The Scottish fishermen ignored the warnings and took their 100 vessels out into the Atlantic. Only one boat came back. The storm that erupted threw up waves that swallowed some boats and smashed others against the rocky headland. All the fishermen who manned those ninety-nine boats died.
So storms are certainly real, and fishermen certainly die in them. Having ascertained that at least one element of the story has some sort of truth in it, the discussion with my audience then twists and turns as ideas and suggestions blow back and forth. Often people will bring in other stories they heard of, or family tales, or descriptions of parts of Galway Bay further along the coast. One time some local students began talking about the legend of a small harbour where fisherman go to hang themselves. The death ropes, so it is said, are still hanging from inner wall of that harbour. Another time a fisherman told me that the sea can kill you even on dry land. He had been walking along the shore when he saw a giant freak wave suddenly rushing towards him. Throwing himself flat he dug his fingernails into a large rock and clung on. The wave pounded and roared over him, and then just as quickly receded again, leaving him soaked but alive to tell the tale.
The sea is relentless and often, as I learned in 2009, does not pause to let us tell stories about it. In that year I was giving a talk about ‘The City beneath the Waves’ to the RNLI College in Poole. As the audience and I left the lecture room, a whisper began. The terrible news was soon confirmed. Whilst we were busy examining a folk tale, two fishermen from Claddaghduff up in Connemara had drowned after being swept from their currach whilst checking lobster pots. It was a year and more before I was able to bring myself to tell again the story of the young three lads.
I guess what matters is not whether "The City beneath the Waves" is factually true or not; what matters is that it is an incredible story that contains very real truths about the sea and the lives of people who live off it. The sea is a source of blessings and sorrows, it brings food but it also takes life. It is a living thing, as represented by the three women in the tale, which can tempt fisher folk into foolish decisions. Ultimately ‘The City beneath the Waves’ is a tale about death and sex and survival, which truth be told is pretty much what every story ever spoken or written or sang is about, whether religious tales, great legends, or local folk tales.
Our span of life is short, we come from a dark unknowing and after our last breath we depart into a dark unknowing. The lives of we fragile creatures are brief and often touched by awful troubles, and yet as we negotiate the temptations and dangers we somehow become all the more wiser and fuller. Life may be short, but it is also an incredible breath taking journey. Stories that reflect the triumphs and failures, the temptations we face and the decisions we make in life are inevitably filled with truths, whether they be folk tales, sci-fi novels or our daily fare of jokes and gossip.
There is another curious aspect about ‘The City beneath the Waves’. It is quite a recent tale yet there are elements within it that are very old indeed. The three women who the boys meet beneath the waves all have different coloured hair. One has black hair, one has red hair, and one has silver. It may seem a minor detail, but there is a story in Irish mythology about three sisters who are offered up as wives to stop a civil war in the ranks of the Tuatha Dé Danaan. Niamh the oldest sister was dark, Aoife the middle was red haired, whilst the youngest Aobh was fair haired. The lord who had to choose which one to marry was none other than Lir, the Irish God of the Sea, whose palace according to legend was in Dunfanaghy, the town from where the doomed Scottish fleet sailed out from two centuries ago.
Stay tuned for the Rab’s next blog: Aoife’s Tale