Blessings

Mount Brandon, Watercolour sketch
Mount Brandon, Watercolour sketch
Mount Brandon

The Blessing of the Boats on Brandon Quay. A Christian event in what is, at its heart, an ancient pre-Christian tradition of Féile Lúghnasa (Lunasa Festival).

Brandon Quay is further along from Cloghane on a coastal road that ends at the sheer cliffs of Brandon Point (Srón Bhroin – ‘Raven’s Beak’ or ‘The Point of Bran’). If you travel along this road, you have to go back again and even then, if you came from the Dingle direction, you need to negotiate the Conor Pass. The pass is steep and narrow, single track in places and impassable in poor weather. Even on a fine day you may find yourself in the clouds up there.

The sense of tradition is strong in this vibrant but isolated Gaeltacht community, stretching along the coast under Cnoc Bréanainn (Mount Brandon). One of the central events of Féile Lúghnasa is a pilgrimage up the mountain. Herself is joining the pilgrimage today but I must miss it because my knee is damaged so I find a warm seat on Brandon Quay to witness the mass.

The quay folds around to protect the harbour. A slip, green with weed, rusted iron mooring rings and ladders, stone bollards, fishing equipment and a shower. A man fishes with a long rod, standing on the high wall on the seaward side, casting and reeling in, casting again. I don’t see him catch anything. Children in wet suits dive bomb from the end of the quay, the younger ones taking more time to pluck up courage for the long drop into the grey-green water.

A table with a white cloth and some Chrysanthemums sits in the sun where the quay juts out from the land. A man sets up the sound system. We get ‘Hallelujah’ from Leonard Cohen, some Irish jigs and then an advertisement for Harvey Norman stores. It’s RTE radio. He fiddles with the knobs and we hear Irish ballads this time.

Mass-goers begin to gather, mingling with the tourists eating lunch outside Nora Murphy’s Pub. Boats assemble, a few at first, then a few more rounding the quay. S454 ‘Michelle’, blue and white. ‘Cypher’ an expensive cruise yacht, skiffs and ribs. Upturned naomhóg line the slip ready for tomorrow’s races, their sleek, freshly tarred canvas skins shining in the sun like long black beetles.

Men stop the children jumping, Cypher needs to moor in their spot. She moves closer, drifts off and turns only to miss again. There is discussion between the men and the yacht, and much pointing and gesturing. She moves off to moor at a buoy further out. The children jump again.

A group of novice paddle-boarders assemble for instruction. They wobble away, one tumbles, re-mounts and tumbles again. The watching crowd applauds.

The mass begins, the priest’s white robes billowing in the breeze behind the white-clothed table, now an altar. A woman gives eulogies for the recently departed:

She had a smile to melt the heart…
He was the life and soul, we miss him…

The sound fades as names drift out to sea on the breeze. The mass goes on, and on, prayers and responses, prayers and responses. It means little to me, a low church Protestant turned atheist. The priest reads mechanically with no feeling but the sense of community and continuity in this place is moving and I find myself feeling unexpectedly emotional. A piper plays as the host passes amongst the crowd, a collection is taken and then we all turn to shake hands. “Peace be with you, peace be with you”.

The fisherman on the quay finally lands a catch. A blessing in disguise perhaps? But not for the poor fish.

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