The Lonesome Boatman

The ‘where were you when x happened…?’ awareness hangs over all bad memories. We all remember what we were doing when 9/11 struck, how we discovered a cheating partner, where we watched Thierry Henri’s hand ball and depending on your taste, how we heard the news of Trump’s election.

Memory is rooted in those moments in the past. I remember walking from the Vatican into a gelateria in Trastevere and seeing the planes hit the towers on a tiny screen above the counter. A few years later, back in Italy, I’d just left a funeral home after paying respects to a dear family friend when I got a call to inform me my boyfriend was hightailing it around Dublin with his bit on the side. I watched Henri’s handball with my next lover at the foot of a bed in Bewleys Hotel in Leopardstown. I stayed up through the night to watch that US election, then about 5a.m, when it became fact, I woke my family up to break the news before retreating to my room to write poetry and pretend it hadn’t happened.

The deaths of loved ones are no exception. Memory and emotion are intensified. Synaesthesia takes over and sounds and smells come back to us easily when we cast our mind back on the moment we heard the news. The view of the Abruzzi that I was enjoying so much when I answered the call to say my Grandad had passed away. The morning darkness of the room in a Salthill guesthouse that I woke in as a child, only to find my Granny passed away a few feet from me. The scent of lilies that filled the air for days after my Nanny Carroll’s passing.

Please don’t confuse this for an attempt to be maudlin – it’s not. It’s just that the stage and setting for bad news seems to live more poignantly with us, than that for good news. I was prompted to write this today when The Lonesome Boatman came on my radio. I wanted to write something in memory of someone dear who is no longer with us, our classmate, someone’s twin sister, everyone’s friend.

Her tragic and heartbreaking death struck everyone who heard of it with the deepest shock. That song was played as she was carried from the church and it never fails to bring me back to that bleak moment outside Aylesbury church, a family broken, a community in tears. But then, that cold feeling passes when I think of how proud she would have been to hear that melody played in her honour. Such a beautiful, passionate air that I think captures her essence perfectly.

A proud gael who loved her country and the people of it. Passionate, loyal, genuine in her own modest way. Native of Tallaght and daughter of Belfast. She couldn’t have realised in her living moments, just how much of an impact she made on people’s lives. The outpouring of support and grief, of shock and sorrow, of respect and love that followed the news of her death would surely have given her an indication of the high esteem in which she was held.

And I listen to it now in respect for the gift that it was to have known her. I listen to it not to remember her death, but to forget it, for in that song she lives on. Her kind and loving spirit is the beauty of every note, in every whistle sound, in the smoothness of the flute. Without lyrics or voice, she and the melody are at one in sending us a message on an altogether deeper level. To me, they speak passion, compassion, love and respect. They strike a chord within that will forever remind me that the finest gift in life is love. Love your family, your friends, your country, love life. In doing so, you are love. You become the smile on someone’s face, gorgeous verse, a beautiful air. You have truly lived and lived truly. Forever.

Dear Niamh, you left too soon but in song you live on.

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