One day in the spring of my ninth year, my father tells me that he has a free Saturday, and we will take the train to Cobh to see the harbour. It’s a journey of about fifteen miles. Many years experiencing the vastness of Canada make me realize how short a journey that is in comparison to how magically huge it seemed then.
When the big day comes, we go to the small window in the station ticket booth to purchase our return tickets to what my father still calls Queenstown. Only recently has it been changed to Cobh (pronounced Cove), since the new republic has come into being.
The harbour, my father tells me, is so large that it could at one time contain the whole British fleet. He tells me of the occasion when he and a friend, both of them then sixteen, made this same train journey in January 1901, on the occasion of the death of Queen Victoria. A flotilla of British naval vessels were in the harbour, their flags flying at half-mast, all solemnly draped in black bunting.
Much of that wonderful day is forgotten, save for isolated moments that remain like old sepia-toned prints. My father is pointing to the mouth of the harbour, where two great forts guard the entrance. He explains that just beyond the entrance is the open ocean, and only a few miles along the coast is the sunken wreck of the Lusitania, torpedoed by a German submarine with great loss of life. The awe and mystery of such an event reverberate in my young mind. I am far away in the heaving ocean, the outline of the great wreck looming in the depths.
Sitting on a bench, still looking out across the harbour, we share the lunch packed for us by my mother. My father jumps up, points out to sea and cries “Look! Out there! As far as you can see!” On the very edge of our vision, we could just make out a grey shape moving westward above the ocean. “It’s the Hindenburg!” my father cries. “The big new German airship. It’s sailing to America!” We stand together, transfixed with excitement. My father acquires a new aura of high achievement in my eyes, as if he has personally arranged this amazing conjunction of the great airship and our train journey. All at once, we are in touch with the great world usually experienced only through our evening paper and the crackling voices of our home radio. Little did I realize that in a few days’ time we would be sitting by that radio, listening to the terror of the same proud airship exploding and crashing, sending its crew and passengers to their deaths.
There were, of course, many other memorable times with my father, like the first movies I saw with him. The very first was The Texas Rangers. I recall both my parents taking me to see Sanders of the River, the now politically so incorrect film starring Paul Robeson as the Nigerian leader Bosambo. A third—they are coming to mind thick and fast—was the utterly thrilling King Solomon’s Mines, Rider Haggard’s wonderful story. We went to an early Tarzan movie, from which I came home attempting to imitate the great Ape Man’s hunting call. My efforts were not met with appreciation! I realize now that my parents were very much into the then new world of movies or, as they were called, “the pictures.” They certainly ensured that I would become a film buff and remain so for the rest of my life.
I recollect most vividly those moments when my father pointed me far beyond my immediate world. Three times a week, the big blue and white ferry, the “Inisfallen,” would come from Fishguard in Wales. My father knew the captain, so we would sometimes go aboard. I learned of the train that met the ferry in Wales, waiting to take people further on to a shining, infinitely distant London.
Nowadays we speak of someone being a “techie,” able to do endlessly clever things on their iPhone and iPad. In those days, being a techie meant being adept in the still new world of radio. At times, I would share my father’s forays into the exciting world of short-wave broadcasting. Voices came to us from some infinitely far off part of the world, sounding tantalizingly near for a fleeting moment or two, only to be swept away in the whistling and shrieking of what we vaguely referred to as the ether, notwithstanding our frantic searches on the twisting dial.
Suddenly memory brings back the sight of something that was almost always on the wide kitchen window sill. There, close to the radio and Dad’s pipe and tobacco pouch (filled with Murray’s Mellow Mixture) and his chair, was the current copy of a magazine of that time, The Wide World. As that title suggests, it specialized in articles from exotic places combined with the adventures of explorers, mountain climbers, dare devil pilots, and the like.
I realize now that my father was expressing a longing to escape from the prison that his job had become. He lived with unrelenting stress, robbing him of his health and the energy to participate fully in the lives of his three boys. He loved his family deeply, which added to his sense of defeat and futility. I suspect that his great fear was that his sons would also become prisoners of a society that at that time held little opportunity for a new generation. I have always regretted that he did not live long enough to know that life became very fulfilling for all three of us.
Impression of the St. Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh Harbour, Ireland
Photo: Susanne Neumann
A NOTE FROM CANON O'DRISCOLL'S EDITOR, IAN ALEXANDER
Herbert O’Driscoll’s latest book – and perhaps his most eagerly anticipated after more than fifty previous volumes – is a collection of autobiographical reminiscences, entitled I Will Arise and Go Now. The subtitle is Reflections on the Meaning of Places and People. Altogether, there are almost a hundred short memory pieces, organized roughly chronologically, but ranging widely across both time and space. They cover his youth in Ireland, his student days at Trinity College Dublin, his four-decade ministry in Canada, his extensive experiences in the United States, and his later years of pilgrimage, especially in Holy and Celtic Lands.
The book was published February 17. The book (with a Canadian price of $26.99) will be available in local bookshops and online. It’s published by Morehouse Publishing of New York, an imprint of Church Publishing Inc. (follow the link). If your preferred bookseller doesn’t have it in stock, encourage them to order it from the Canadian distributors, Parasource: https://www.parasource.com/catalog/category/view/s/books/id/15/. Watch also for news of “virtual readings” at bookstores and parishes in various locations.
The preceding excerpt is from Part 1, entitled “Old Country.” It recalls a memorable, formative weekend excursion the eight-year-old Herbie made with his father.