Two men watched from the pub as disembarking cruise tourists were bussed away to the city.
Johnnie Moran who owned the Port Tavern spoke first.
“They were supposed to save the town, those big cruise ships,” he said nasally. “But instead, they let us do all the work, deepening the harbour and building the new pier. Then the tourists get whipped out of here as soon as they arrive. Most of them hardly see the town at all.
“I’ve invested a bloody fortune in this place on the back of all these thousands of visitors we’re supposed to get. Half of them don’t even get off the bloody boat.”
The other man, Colm Donagher, was silent. He remembered helping his father fix the nets when he was a boy, dreaming of the day when he would in turn skipper the family trawler.
He remembered too the day the crowd gathered to launch Johnnie Moran’s new freezer ship, the first of its kind in Ireland. He had stared in wonder while the man from the evening news stood in front of a TV camera on the pier and declared in an authoritative voice that Moran’s huge boat was the future of the Irish fishing industry.
Colm’s Dad had spat at the ground and said: “Don’t you mean the death of the Irish fishing industry? There’ll be no place in this future of giants for the likes of us.”
Moran had patted him on the shoulder and said: “Don’t worry, Donagher. There’ll be plenty of jobs for everyone on my new boat.”
Colm’s Dad shrugged him off and said: “I’ve seen how this works. They’re at it on the continent already. You give the local lads a bit of work at first, but every trip out you have a few extra foreign lads willing to work for next to nothing because they’re desperate. I wouldn’t mind if they were being paid a fair wage.
“Next thing you’re off getting a better price for the fish somewhere else, and even the hauliers go out of business. Places like this that are built around fishing are forgotten, and if the sea doesn’t swallow the men, then the whiskey surely will.”
The next memory that came to Colm was the memorial service. None of the bodies were ever recovered. He would have been on the boat himself that day but his father had insisted that he stayed at home to study for his exams.
The man from the news had come back to the pier with his camera crew after the trawler went down. This time he used a sombre voice. He talked about the risks taken by small-time fishermen, staying out longer than before, getting caught by changing weather as they vied for their share of the rapidly depleting fish stock. He went so far as to say that safety was often compromised on board because owners couldn’t afford proper upkeep.
Colm had been furious. His father wouldn’t risk the lives of his brothers and neighbours like that … would he?
A dying breed, the newsman had declared, gesturing towards the few small, wooden trawlers tied up beside him. Unable to compete, he told the camera sadly. He didn’t bother showing the empty shells of factories or the husks of men and women who once filled them with productivity.
But even the first freezer ship had its day. Moran and his ilk were soon pushed out by bigger and better boats that came right to edge of Irish fishing territories and sucked up everything for miles around.
Moran’s boat was repossessed by the bank and sold for a fraction of its value. It made headline news a year later when the company that bought it sold it on for nearly ten times what they’d paid.
Moran never got over his anger at the bank for not allowing him a private sale. Those who knew about such things whispered that he could have sold it himself anytime but he never believed the bank would call in the debt.
Colm was pulled from his reverie by the publican.
“There must be something really fascinating at the bottom of that glass,” said Moran. “You’ve been staring at it for the last ten minutes. I take it you’ll want a refill?”
Colm suddenly saw the scene as if he were looking down from above, as his father would see him from heaven, if there was such a place.
Here he was, fulfilling his dead Da’s unwitting prophecy. If the sea doesn’t swallow the men, then the whiskey surely will.
And there was Moran, still making money at the expense of his fellow townsfolk who couldn’t work out how to survive the irreversible changes that had come about in a single generation.
Colm didn’t want a refill. He left without a word.
Outside, he found that the clouds had cleared and the sea sparkled. Calling gulls flew overhead. Colm smelled cooking fish and saw that Tom Kelly from the cafe had set up a barbeque on the other side of the Square.
A few more tourists had ventured off the boat but the busses were long gone and a walk through the town took only ten minutes. Some of them were starting to head for Moran’s pub.
“Excuse me,” called Colm. “We’ll have entertainment starting here in a few minutes.”
He nodded in the direction of the barbeque, then sent a text message to his cousin.
“Get down to the Square quick and bring your guitar,” he typed. “We need to sing a few shanties for these cruise tourists.”
By early afternoon, a crowd had gathered on the square. A few traditional musicians had taken over from Colm and his cousin. Some kids coming out of school had dropped their schoolbags and given an impromptu display of Irish dance.
The tourists were delighted. Coins and notes were thrown into the open guitar case.
Out of the corner of his eye, Colm saw Moran place a sandwich board outside his pub with ‘Entertainment here tonight’ scrawled across it.
He waited till the publican went back inside, then said in a low voice to the man nearest him: “I wouldn’t go there, if I were you. Spread the word.”
Colm almost added: “The man who owns it is responsible for death of eight men in this town and the ruination of nearly all the rest,” but he bit his tongue.
The tourist he spoke to asked: “Is there entertainment going on anywhere else tonight? ‘Cos what we’re seeing here is great.
“Everywhere else we’ve stopped, we were hounded by people flogging watches and purses and sunglasses and no end of stuff that you really don’t want. Those folks don’t let up until you buy their rubbish just to make them go away.
“This, though,” he said, smiling towards a girl from the school who was singing a ballad, “this is really something. You’ve got some very talented people here in your village, sir.
“And you know what else would be really nice? If we could see some genuine Irish crafts and not that awful stuff folks bring back from the shopping excursions, you know the kind of thing – leprechauns with ‘Made in China’ stickers on their bottoms.”
Colm thought of the empty warehouse down on the pier. It had been cleaned out earlier in the year for a fundraising dance for a sick child who needed to go abroad for an operation. A few people working together could get it shipshape again in no time. His cousin would know who had set up the sound system on the night of the dance. The town’s only hotel had closed down but Colm knew all the furniture was still there. They could borrow tables and chairs, and maybe some crockery.
Colm spent the next few hours texting, telephoning, knocking on doors. By eight o’clock that evening, the farmer’s market had set up craft stalls along one side of the warehouse. Colm’s aunt, widowed when the boat sank, was explaining the significance of the various Aran stitches to a German lady.
Walls had been quickly hung with old fishing net and buoys, the sort of stuff that was lying in every shed and garden in the area. The parish council were serving tea with homemade jam and scones at the back of the hall. The first band was setting up on stage.
Every visitor had paid to get in – not a fortune, but enough that everyone involved would get some payment for their efforts.
Colm knew the evening would be a success, but the whiskey haze had worn off, leaving him with a dull ache and a desperate thirst.
He left the warehouse and walked along the pier, the water black now as darkness set in. He missed his father so much.
Colm turned his back on the water and headed back towards the town. He thought he might just check to see if any of his friends were in the Port Tavern.
As he walked through the square, an orange spotlight drew his eye to the memorial for the men who were lost at sea.
Colm stopped and traced his father’s name, engraved in sandstone, along with those of his two uncles, his cousin, his neighbour Pat and Pat’s sons.
He wondered what his father would make of his day’s work. He had a feeling his Dad would like that they had clawed something back for the community.
“I hope you’re fucking satisfied,” said Johnnie Moran.
Colm hadn’t seen him approach.
“What did you have to go and steal all my customers for?” asked Moran. “Can a man not make a few pounds in peace in this town without some gobshite coming along and taking it all away?”
Colm leaned both his hands on the memorial. He closed his eyes and began to count.
In the darkness behind his closed eyes, Colm saw, as he had so often before, a wooden trawler lying on the sea bed, the carefully applied blue paint flaking off and floating away. He heard his father’s voice telling him, when he was still very small, that he had to control his anger if he wanted to be a fisherman.
“A fight on a boat is a very bad thing,” his father said. “So when you feel like hitting a man, close your eyes, hold on tight to something, and count to ten. If you still need to punch him after that, then make sure and do it hard enough that he won’t hit back!”
Colm finished counting. He lifted his arm, looked Moran in the eye and punched him hard.
He went back to the warehouse and slipped in the back door to where his mother was drying cups in the kitchen. She soaked a tea towel in cold water and wrapped it round his hand, then gave him a cup of tea.
“I’m sorry Ma,” he said. “I should have been more support to you these last few years.”
“Ach, Colm,” she said. “Maybe it’s me that should have done more for you. But some days it takes all I have just to get from morning to night without going mad.”
She sat down beside him and they listened to the applause from the concert.
“I suppose this is as good a time as any for us to start moving forward again,” she said.