Miracles are not at all uncommon in this corner of Ireland. The great phase arrays of the material world seem prone to drifting off frequency a little, just for the craic of it. They feel their way along the dial to pick up fragments of messages in strange languages. Languages that everyone hears as familiar, but can’t quite place.
Yesterday we listened to whale blow. Smelt it even, when they came close to our little bobbing boat. As they come to the surface minke whales blow first and then their back slides up out of the water. There is time, just, to hear the blow and swing a camera at the sound and click. We want portraits of the dorsal fins so that we can try to identify and re-identify individual animals.
The minke have not come to this bay in the north-west corner of Ireland to visit us. They have not come to breed or to give birth. They have come to get fat. They have come because there are herring. This is a much bigger miracle than normal. Much bigger. Talk to the old men of the sea in the townships of Bloody Foreland and Roinn na Feirste and they tell you that the herring have been all but absent these fifty years. Before that the little silver fish were the blood of the place. Twelve boats here, fifteen there, half a dozen sheltered cheek by jowl in tiny harbours along the coastline. Year after year the tonnage. Then the bigger boats coming in from the open ocean. Then nothing. The face of the sea, the generous sea, turning suddenly bitter as she screamed a silence at the land and turned her back for half a century.
But then the year before last, and last year and again this – herring in November and December. Enough to boil the surface under a thousand gannets. Enough for Grey Seals to be full and to loll and burp and call for stories. Enough to tempt the gentle Harbour Seals out of shelter and into the bay. Enough for ten minke travellers to set up camp. And even enough for us to scoop up a basketful with an old crab trap and a twelve foot length of rope we found left by.
This little herring in my bloody hand. How can such a small fish bear the weight? How can it swim and dance and laugh its shining laughter with all those stories clamouring for it? How can it carry the meaning of the whole ocean on so delicate a flutter of silver and not fall into despair? I would sing to you softly, sweet fish, as I open you for my dinner and see if you have eggs or milt, as you have always sung for the gannets and the seals and the great barn door of the minke whale. As you sang for us once. But I do not know the songs. How did we lose the songs and do you have them still, kept safe for us? Until we are ready to sing them again? Oh fish with all your lessons, returned now, of all the hopeless times, to the shoreline off Cnoc Fola, to the bay by the Hill of the Saints and teeming around the abandoned Inis Oirthir. You, the basis of everything that lives in these seas, who came onwards to meet us, wave after wave, and came on and on until you were spent. The silver spent. All ruin. How do you return now, just now, and what have you to tell?