Excerpt from "The Secret of Roan Inish"

(originally "The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry")

by Rosalie K. Fry

1985

"It all started long ago when the cottages on Ron Mor were newly built, five or six there must have been then, right down on the shore of the only bay on the island, and a family living in each. They were fisherfolk for the most part, living on what they could get from the sea and the scanty crops they managed to raise on the thin soil of the island. Their life was hard, but not too hard for them to take an interest in one another's affairs. So it was odd that nobody ever discovered for certain where young Ian McConville really found his wife.

"Everyone saw him row out in his boat alone with the lobster creels, and everyone saw him come home again with the strange girl in the stern. And strange she was by all accounts, with great dark eyes and wild black hair blowing about her face -- it was easy to see that she never came from the islands. But when they asked Ian where he had found her, he merely replied that she came from the Ron Mor Skerry. Now that, of course, was nonsense, for the Ron Mor Skerry is only a rock off the end of Ron Mor Island. Nobody ever goes there at all except the old gray seals, and even they must leave when the tide is high, for then great waves wash over the rocks and the skerry is submerged.

"Well, of course there was much shaking of heads when Ian married the dark-eyed stranger. She was quite unlike the island women and some of her ways were so strange. Why, she'd go out on the rocks when the tide was low to talk to the seabirds and seals. Then back she would come with her hands full of shellfish and unknown seaweeds, which she'd simmer over a driftwood fire in a manner all her own. And wherever she went on the island the seals were always watching her from the sea while the seabirds wheeled about her, calling her in a Ianguage she seemed to understand, for often she'd call out a reply that would set them laughing the way gulls do."

"I think she sounds nice," observed Fiona.

"Aye, maybe,"' agreed Grandfather. "Anyway, the islanders had to admit that she made Ian an excellent wife, while their children were the bonniest on the island. When their first baby was born she asked Ian to make it a cradle.

"And it must be made from the timber of a ship that has sailed the seas.' she insisted. "That was a simple matter, for the only wood on the island was wreckage washed in from the sea and there was plenty of that.

"It will need no rockers' she told him next. "It will rock on the waves of the sea."

"That seemed a very odd thing to say, but Ian listened to every word and made it just as she wished. And when it was finished it was the queerest-looking thing you ever saw, carved all over with shells and fish and seaweed, and as to its shape -- well, it really looked more like a boat than a cradle and that's a fact. The islanders shook their heads when they saw it.

"But there was worse to follow, for what did the young mother do but carry the cradle down to the shore and set it afloat on the sea, moored by a rope to a great stone on the beach! And there, whenever the day was calm -- and even times when it wasn't -- the baby rocked on the water with the ripple of waves on the cradle's side for lullaby."

"Oh!" breathed Fiona dreamily. "How wonderful that sounds!"

At this moment there was a splutter and hiss as the tea boiled in the blackened can, splashing over, onto the fire. Grandfather scrambled to his feet and lifted the can off the flames. He poured half the tea into an enamel mug, which he handed to Fiona.

"There you are," he said. "I'll use this." And he took a long drink from the can.

Fiona's tea was too hot to touch, so she held the mug in her two hands, waiting impatiently for her grandfather to finish his drink and go on with the story. At last he put down the can and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

"That was grand," he remarked, nodding his head appreciatively.

"And now will you tell me the rest of the story, please?" begged Fiona. "You got to the place about the cradle."

"Ah, yes," said Grandfather. "But, hey! What's wrong? Your tea too hot? Like a drop more milk to cool it?" And he reached for the bottle.

"Oh, no thank you, it's lovely!" cried Fiona hastily, and she gulped down a scalding mouthful. It was so hot that it made her eyes water, but anything, anything was better than delaying the story again.

Grandfather went on.

"Well, that old cradle became a kind of family heirloom, passing on from one generation to the next, all down the years, every McConville baby sleeping in it in turn. I slept in it myself and so did you."

"Did I really?" exclaimed Fiona, thrilled to feel that she herself was a part of this strange story.

"And there was something else that passed down through the family too," continued Grandfather, "for although most McConvilles have red hair like yourself and Rory, a child would be born from time to time with the wild black hair and strange dark eyes of Ian McConville's wife. And when this happened the islanders would remark, Ah, another child of the Ron Mor Skerry!"

"Now, there was always something about those dark ones, you could tell it right from the first. 'Twas as though they belonged to the sea in some mysterious way. As soon as they learned to crawl, they'd make for the water and there they'd teach themselves to swim before they could even walk, and from that day, their childhood would be spent in the sea or on it all day long and never away from the sound of it day or night.

"And when they grew up the sea cast its spell on them still. Some of them became sailors and spent their lives afloat, but most of them stayed right here in the Isles, nor did they need to look farther for a living, since those dark ones could catch more fish in a day than the rest of us catch in a week. 'Twas some strange power in them, seemingly. And so it went on all down the years. Every time one of those dark ones was born he'd turn to the sea in the same way and spend all his life within reach of it, and 'tweren't no manner of use to try and change him. So it's no wonder the rest of us were uneasy when your dad made plans to take you all to the city -- for, you see, your little brother Jamie was a child of the Ron Mor Skerry!"

"Oh!" gasped Fiona. "I never knew! And they tried to take him away from the sea! Why, oh, why did they try?"

"Ah, that's just it," the old man mused. "Why did they try in spite of all our warnings?" "But where is he now?" urged Fiona. "The sea kept its hold on him and wouldn't allow him to go, so it surely must have kept him somewhere safe -- do you know where he is, Grandfather?" The old man shook his head.

"But you think he's safe?" she insisted. "And somewhere about the islands still?" For a moment the old man hesitated, and then at last he said slowly, almost reluctantly, as though scarcely believing what he said, "Well, there are those who claim to have seen him from time to time, sailing the seas in that old cradle-boat of his."

"Where -- oh, where? Have you seen him yourself?" cried Fiona, jumping to her feet in her excitement.

"No, I've never set eyes on him myself, but I know those who have -- or say they have -- fishermen for the most part, returning home in the half light from outlying fishing grounds."

"And what is he like?" whispered Fiona, sinking down again. She was trembling now with excitement.

"They say he's grown into a fine little lad, sitting up in the stern of the cradle like a fisherman in his boat. But the strangest part of it all is the way he sails that little craft through the tide rips and currents that race between the islands -- and he with never an oar or a scrap of a sail to help himself But maybe it's the creatures that guide him through, for they say that whenever he's seen there's always a group of those old gray seals swimming around in the sea and a crowd of seagulls wheeling overhead.

"But should the fisherman try to get near him -- och! It's then the excitement begins, for the gulls swoop around them, screeching, until they are quite bewildered, and by the time they come to their senses the cradle-boat is far away, heading out to sea."

Fiona sat for a while in silence, gazing across the water. Then she turned impulsively to the old man.

"Oh, Grandfather, will you take me out to Ron Mor in your boat one day?" she begged.

But the old man shook his head.

"'Twill be days afore this old boat's ready for sea," he muttered evasively.

"But when it is ready, will you take me then,?" she wheedled.

But Grandfather was making no promises.

"Maybe, maybe," was all he would say, and he turned away and picked up the bucket of pitch. Fiona's gaze was still away over the sea.

"Somehow," she murmured to herself, "somehow I've got to find him!"

As though in answer to her remark the herring gull rose from the rocks below, and, spreading her wings, sailed out over the sea with a long, wild cry.