Station Island

Station Island[1]



It was a close grey morning,
a reek of early summer
pith-life, rotted things,
reed-beds, thick young corn
hushed and water-blistered.

Something beat on iron:
a hurry of bell-notes
flew over sedge and iris,
an escaped ringing
that stopped as quickly

as it started. Sunday,
the silence breathed
and could not settle quite
for a man appeared
at the back of the hedge

with a bow-saw, held
stiffly up like a lyre.
He moved and stopped to gaze
at the shins of hazel trees,
then angled the saw in,

pulled back to gaze again
and moved on to the next.
“I know you, Simon Sweeney,
for an old Sabbath breaker
that has been dead for years!”

“Damn all you know,” he said,
his eye still on the hedge
and not turning his head.
“I was your mystery man
and am again this morning.

Through gaps in the bushes
your First Communion face
would watch me cutting timber.
When cut or broken limbs
of trees went yellow, when

woodsmoke sharpened air
or ditches rustled
you sensed my trail there
as if it had been sprayed.
It let you half-afraid.

When they made you listen
in the bedroom dark
to wind and rain in the trees
and think of tinkers camped
under a heeled-up cart

you shut your eyes to see
a wet axle and spokes
in moonlight, and me
streaming from the shower,
headed for your door.”

Sunlight broke in the hazels,
the quick bell-notes began
a second time. I turned
at another sound:
a crowd of shawled women

were wading the young corn,
their skirts brushing softly.
Their motion saddened morning.
It whispered to the silence,
“Pray for us, pray for us,”

it conjured through the air
until the field was full
of half-remembered faces,
a loosed congregation
that straggled past and on.

As I drew behind them
I was a fasted pilgrim,
light-headed, leaving home
to face into my station.
“Stay clear of that procession—”

he was shouting angrily,
“Don’t turn your back again.
Sooner or later, son,
you will have to face me
with both eyes open.”

But the murmur of the crowd,
and their feet slushing through
the tender bladed growth
was another scent picked up,
a drugged and open path

I was set upon.
I trailed those early-risers
who had fallen into step
before the smokes were up.
The quick bell rang again.

I was parked on a high road, listening
to peewits and wind blowing round the car
when something came to life in the driving mirror,

someone walking fast in an overcoat
and boots, bareheaded, big, determined
in his sure haste along the crown of the road

and I somehow felt myself the challenged one.
The car door slammed. I was suddenly out
face to face with an aggravated man

raving on about lying listening for
gun-butts to come cracking on the door,
yeomen on the rampage, and his neighbour

among them, hammering home the shape of things.
“Round about here you overtook the women,”
I said, as the thing came clear. “Your Lough Derg Pilgrim

haunts me every time I cross the mountain—
as if I am being followed or following.
I’m on my road there now to do the station.”

“O holy Jesus Christ, does nothing change?”
His head jerked sharply side to side and up
like a diver’s surfacing after a plunge,

then with a look that said, who is this cub
he took cognizance again
of where he was: the road, the mountain top,

and the air, rinsed clear after a shower of rain,
worked on his anger visibly until:
“It is a road you travel on your own.

I who learned to read in the reek of flax
and smelled hanged bodies rotting on their gibbets
and saw their looped slime gleaming from the sacks—

hard-mouthed Ribbonmen and Orange bigots
made me into the fork-tongued turncoat
who mucked the byre of those politics.

If times were hard, then I could be hard too.
I made the traitor in me sink the knife.
And maybe there is a lesson there for you

whoever you are, wherever you come out of,
for though there’s something natural in your smile
there’s something in it strikes me as defensive.”

“I have no mettle for the angry role,”
I said, “I come from County Derry,
born in earshot of an Hibernian Hall

where a band of Ribbonmen played hymns to Mary.
By then the brotherhood was a frail procession
staggering back home drunk on Patrick’s Day

in collarettes and sashes fringed with green.
Obedient strains like theirs tuned me first
and not that harp of unforgiving iron

the Fenians strung. And a lot of what you wrote
I heard and did. This Lough Derg station.
Flax-pullings. Dances. Summer crossroads chat.

And the shaky local voice of education.
All that. And always, Orange drums.
And neighbours on the road at night with guns.”

“I know, I know, I know, I know,” he said,
“but you have to try to make sense of what comes.
Remember everything and keep your head.”

“The alders in the hedge,” I said, “mushrooms,
dark-clumped grass where cows or horses dunged,
the cluck when pith-lined chestnut shells split open

in your hand, the melt of shells corrupting,
old jampots in a drain clogged up with mud—”
But now Carleton was interrupting:

“All this is like a trout kept in a spring
or maggots sown in wounds for desperate ointment—
another life that cleans our element.

We are earthworms of the earth, and all that
has gone through us is what will be our trace.”
He turned on his heel when he was saying this

and headed up the road at the same hard place.


I got back into the driver’s seat. Sunlight
moved apple-green over the hill farms,
a lough came clear, bog-cotton bowed its wet

grey head, dried white and raced the wind
that shook the car with its soft buffetings.
The airiness of being on high ground

lifted me, I let the brake off, ran
rumbling downhill without the engine,
got into gear and started and began

relaxing to the road and the car’s rhythms.
It was twenty years since I had done the station.
Busloads of students after the exams—

we were a credit, they could be proud of us,
those parents who sacrificed, those other
dour and threadbare founders in birettas

whose faces swam and faded: a road-block
swung into view as I took a corner
fluently at speed, so that I had to brake

and creep past soldiers flattened in the hedge
with guns cradled on tripods covering me,
up to three halted “pigs” under camouflage.

The tightness and the stillness round that space
when the car stops in the road, the troops take in
its make and number, and, as one bends his face

towards your window, you catch sight of more
in a field beyond, hunkering with intent
behind black pupils with a perfect bore—

it has all the pure calm of nightmare,
like standing throat-deep in a pool, your head
a severed head on a pane of water.

“Name, sir? Driving license? Destination?”
The light flotsam of his intonation
skimmed past me, like a bit part in Shakespeare,

Cockney as Keats or O What a Lovely War.
How different were the words home, Christ, ale, master,
on his lips and mine! “Just step out, sir.

Open your boot. And sign this document.”
Yet why should I fear him less than my own neighbour
in the khaki of his Ulster regiment,

his guttural “Where are you coming from?”
feral, staccato and familiar
as the muffled drumbeats of a July drum?

“This island, sir. We’ve had a lot to-day
heading across there. What’s it all about?”
“They’re pilgrims. It’s a kind of purgatory,”

I answered. He was handing back the license
but shouted to his mates up in the turret
of a “pig”: “It’s the bible-thumpers

we’re getting through this area. O.K.,
you can drive on now, sir.” Two riflemen
waved their rifles to motion me away,

a little emptier, as always, drained
bodiless almost, as if their armament
and insolence, natural or trained,

had flushed out of me everything I was
so all that was left was bone I had betrayed
and the steering wheel in my obedient paws.

But soon it felt like a fictional event,
the temper of the voice irrelevant
to blowing heather, cloud shadow, bent

thorn trees in the roadside, lanes to farms
I never entered but without entering knew
their dog-barks, chain-clinks, puddles and mildew.

To be at one with things. A piled-up cairn,
a ploughed field in Ulster white with gulls.
I began to roar, “I hate where I was born,

I hate my neighbour, hate everything that made me
biddable and unforthcoming.” And so
I drove for the border, a goaded shadow.


[1] Station Island is on Lough Derg in Co. Donegal in the northwest of Ireland. It is also known as St. Patrick’s Purgatory because there is a tradition that the pilgrimage which thousands of people still do there every summer was established by the saint. It lasts for three days and involves fasting, praying barefoot around stone “beds” and other various penitential exercises which make up the “station.” The nineteenth-century Irish novelist William Carleton wrote about it in his story “The Lough Derg Pilgrim.” These are the opening sections of a longer poem.