On Inis Mór

Helen Sitler

Under strong winds in late October, the ferry rocks on the sea as I sail toward Inis Mór, off Ireland’s west coast. I look ahead to where gray sky melds into gray horizon and struggle to maintain my balance. Men wearing trousers and sports jackets, unlikely clothing for visiting an island of farmers and fishermen, congregate in small groups. Their low conversations hum under the grinding of the boat’s engine. They purchase coffee and, standing, sway with the waves.

            In Galway Cathedral on the day before Inis Mór, I lit a votive candle to remember my deceased husband Tom. The organist began to practice at that moment. A prayer of notes—deep, resonant, mournful— showered down around me. Overwhelmed, I sat in the pew and sobbed. Today my emotions are as raw as the elements buffeting the ferry.

            At the dock, I pull my coat tight against the wind. Island resident Deidre greets my tour group at the community hall. She speaks of the islanders’ ancient connection to the earth. Cycles of crop growth signal seasonal tasks. Changes in behavior among cattle and sheep and the movements of schools of fish relay critical information to residents whose livelihoods depend on the animals. In explaining the islanders’ deep-rooted understanding of natural endings and beginnings, Deidre also speaks of an ancient, nature-oriented spiritualism. It is the season of Samhain, the celebration of the Celtic New Year at October’s end, when, according to Deirdre, “the veil between worlds is thin.”

            She announces that she must leave soon to sing at a funeral of an islander, solving the mystery of carefully-dressed men from the ferry. Following centuries-long traditions, they will mourn at Catholic Mass, then celebrate a life with toasts and laughter in Inis Mór’s homes and pubs. And some, like Deidre, steeped in the island’s mysticism, will expect the spirit of their friend to cross through the veil for one final goodbye at this Samhain, or at one to come.

            I shiver at the possibility of the veil. Since my husband died, I have desperately wanted to feel him close again. His nearness, as Deirdre describes, should be a comfort. Instead the possibility only highlights what seems an unbridgeable gulf. As Deirdre steps to the back of the hall to share her funeral offering, I gaze out at the sea. Her slow, haunting, a cappella melody echoes from the plaster walls, the stone floor. How can I have heard this song so many times and never noticed the longing in the words? “Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling … It’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide.” My own loss roars back, despite the Celtic acknowledgement of a lost loved one’s closeness through the veil, despite the tide whispering of leave-taking and return. The notes climb inside me while the surf pushes up onto the shore, rolls away, pushes up again.

Before retiring in 2016, Helen Collins Sitler spent forty-two years as an educator, her closing twenty years in the English Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her academic articles have appeared in teacher education publications, such as English Journal and Language Arts. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine and in the local journal The Loyalhanna Review. Her creative nonfiction essay “Grieving Ceremonies” appears as a chapter in Western Pennsylvania Reflections: Stories from the Alleghenies to Lake Erie.

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