Safe Passage – a Sestina
for my mother, Mary Phil Óg Rodgers-Molloy, a remarkable Inishkeeragh woman
The island calls you, mother,
from the mainland to your birth house
where you, the second of twins, a surprise child,
first drew breath. No doctor on your island; the midwife, a neighbour woman:
good with poultice, carraigín, cures from the sea.
Your sisters, brothers, cousins, minded by old men
while the soil was turned in lazy beds by young men;
setting March potatoes before the trip to the Derry boat. Your mother
rested an hour then sent the neighbour woman
back to her own work, to her own child,
to the old people in that neighbour house
guarding the fire, storm rising at sea.
Tides and weather ruled islanders’ lives on the sea.
When herring was plentiful, called the men
with their boats and nets, leaving your mother
without your father, a fisher-wife woman
praying for his safe return so that her child
would not know the sorrow of a widow’s house.
A generation later, your children witness a widow’s house
where your family settled on the mainland, a stone’s throw from the sea.
People gather, speak in hushed tones, men
sigh deep in their bones. And I watch you mother
say goodbye to my father. You, his woman,
his wife, his lover. Me, your first-born child.
We return to your island home, mother and child,
both grown-ups now, step into your roofless house,
a derelict shell, where, on airneáil nights, your mother
knitted geansaís, stockings by candle and firelight, while men
played cards, swapped ghost stories and tales of stretches at sea.
Your island where Sunday was ordained a day of rest, except for women
who had cows to milk, hens to feed, food to cook: the work of women,
while you played football with the lads on the Larais, cycled on soft sand as a child
below the twice-yearly, whitewashed-for-the-stations rows of houses,
along the sea wall that held back high tides, rough waters, storms off the sea.
Inishkeeragh where neighbour depended on neighbour, men
grafted and drank together, looked out for each other, honoured their mothers,
bent knees to flag floor each nightfall, prayed the rosary to our Mother
Mary, and Jesus, her infant child,
to have mercy on all in purgatory, and bless those souls claimed by the sea.
carraigín = carrageen moss
geansaís = sweater/pullover/jumper
ag airneáil = visiting with family/friends/neighbours
Larais = common ground
Inishkeeragh = island one mile south of Arranmore