'You look like the wreck of the Hesperus' was a much-used phrase in our house in Loughrea, 20 miles from the sea at Galway Bay. Boys, well you know boys, they never comb their hair, never wash their hands, wear the same clothes forever. . . . You know the type, and obstinately oblivious of their appearance. In Ireland, we had a weekly remedy for this. . . . Mass! Shoes had to be polished, hair combed and a bath. . . . Yes, the dreaded ablutions on each and every Saturday night, so, in fairness, we hardly ever got to look like said wreck, not that it ever crossed my mind where the phrase came from or how it was common in my house.
Roll on my 60th birthday this October and as we were about to head down to Donnelly's pub in Barna for a family dinner, my wife said it, in the exact exasperated tone my mother would have used. . . . 'Brian, you're not going out in that shirt, you look like the wreck of the Hesperus!' My son and daughters looked nonplussed, the phrase meant nothing to them, though they'd probably heard it before from me, about their attire. I made a mental note to myself to look up the phrase I'd heard and used for six decades without knowing its origin . . . and then I changed my shirt. Here we are on January 7, and I woke up around 6 a.m. . . . Yes, it's what older folks do . . . They pretend it's a healthy regime . . . but no, it's not, it's a pain in the . . . sphincter, probably, but a pain nonetheless. What woke me up? The mental note I'd made three months ago, about the etymology of the Hesperus. No time like the present, I said, booting up the laptop.
Imagine my surprise then when Mark Gorman's lovely photos of the wreck of the Sunbeam came up on my Facebook memory feed. He'd taken the shots 3 years ago on January 7, 2014, on the 110th anniversary of the sinking of the schooner Sunbeam, on its way from Kinvara to Cork, under ballast (look it up) when it was washed up on the reefs at Rossbeigh beach, Glenbeigh, County Kerry. You couldn't pick a more beautiful place to wreck your ship if you tried.
Back to the Hesperus. On a cold night in December 1830, during a huge Nor'easter storm off Gloucester, Massachusetts, the schooner Hesperus came to grief on the reef called 'Norman's Woe' and all the crew and her captain, and his beautiful red-haired daughter were drowned. He had ignored warnings of the impending storm and the pisheog about bringing a woman out in a storm, and he boasted about his ability to ride out any storm God could send his way . . . famous last words! His pitifully damaged ship sat on the rocks for days, torn and tattered sails flapping uselessly in the wind, the mast and spars all broken and smashed, the lovely lines of the ships timbers torn asunder by an angry mother nature.
The phrase came into popular culture when the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who lived a day's ride from Gloucester, wrote the ballad / poem 'The Wreck of the Hesperus' in 1840. The ship captain's pride and his doomed ship became the catch-call for mothers and fathers up and down the American coast when they admonished their children for being messy, or careless or looking disheveled, or worse, full of careless pride. No doubt our emigrant ancestors were thus described as they, poor, pathetic, half-naked, starved creatures, disembarked from Famine ships at ports up and down the New England coast in the years that followed the publication of Longfellow's poem. I am sure, like my kids, they had no idea who this 'Hesperus' guy was, nor if the phrase was derogatory or otherwise. They probably didn't even understand English. Can you imagine the Syrian refugees today, meeting an Irish navy rescue vessel on the Mediterranean, and one Cork sailor singing out to his mates, 'God luv 'em lads, they look like the wreck of the Hesperus!'
All I know is that the phrase crossed the Atlantic and by the 1960s was common or garden in my house in Loughrea, 3,000 miles from 'Norman's Woe.' I'd give a whole lot this minute to hear my mum admonish me once more for not looking the part, and, yes, I think I'd have a knowing smile on my little boy's face, finally understanding what the heck she was talking about!
"WRECK OF THE HESPERUS" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
All poem rights to H. W. Longfellow. The photo rights Mark Gorman and the words, all mine, Brian Nolan. Hope you enjoyed the read. For more stories like this, come with me on one of my Walking Tours - Galway Walks GalwayWalks.com.