The white blackbird

The mystery for me was the way the folded newspaper packet felt. Not only was it impossibly neat and flat but it was also cold and a little damp on one side. When he opened it on the maroon deck at the bow of the lightship the worms were big and moved with a thousand legs, lightly covered in cool sand, they were green and brown and bright orange. I could identify their heads by two feelers that waved in the breeze. There were a dozen worms.

He picked one up and said

‘Be careful Jem, they’ll bite ya here’

He held the worm behind its head and showed me. Two hard black shiny pincers suddenly emerged from folds of green and blue worm skin, they moved forward opened and closed and then retreated, emerged again trying to bite. He stuck the bent silver hook into the worm and expertly threaded it along the body past the barbs on the point of the hook and up the shank, even onto the line. He left a little hanging off the bend that squirmed and twisted and a piece broke off and fell to the deck, it moved into a gap between the boards, twisting, a flake of blue paint stuck to it. He put another worm on a hook, showing me close and then I had to put the third worm on the paternoster

The paternoster rig was made from monofilament and brass swivels were attached at each end, one was fastened onto a flat circular lead with little cones that ran around it, it had a hole in the middle that I put my finger through. The other end was attached to a hand line of orange line wrapped around a wooden frame.

When I looked up there was a man at the window of the big room high above the deck he was looking down at us and then looked away as the train passed close along the quay. I had been in that room before, up the steps, and it had a round window that turned and spun quickly to keep the spray from big waves and rain off. The wipers on the other windows were broken now and there was red lino on the floor that was worn to black where you had to step over and into the room and around the places at the base of dead instruments. There were little timber steps of three painted black made for visitors to stop them tripping over the wave cill but they were never in place now.

You had to go down the steep steps backwards when you were leaving.

He pulled the line from the frame and it spun and fell against the deck rose and spun again until it was empty, the line was knotted to the frame and now lay in uneven coils about the deck.

‘Careful Jem’ he said ‘I’ll cast this for ya’.

He stood arm outstretched with the line over his finger pinched with thumb, lead dropping down, three worms dripping bleeding bubbles and juice, he made the lead pendulum, wider and wider and then as it swung higher than the gunwale he let it go. The orange line flew up and off the deck as the lead carried it into the harbour. His foot was on the frame and it moved slightly from under his shoe as the line tightened at the end and then stopped moving. He gave me the frame.  A sudden breeze blew the packet of worms down the deck, he caught it, and placed it under the giant black anchor chain. Someone recognised him from the quay

‘Heh Jimmy, howaryeh?’ –

He went to the other side of the lightship, hands on the wide rail, and spoke a few words I couldn’t hear, coming back laughing, he bent down to me

‘Hold it tight’ he said, ‘but dont pull it in until I come back, if you feel ’em bitin, pull hard, I’ll be up there with Jack’.

I couldn’t see over the gunwale but I could look through a gap at the hinges of what was a big door and I saw the line droop down to the green harbour water and disappear. I held the frame and I felt nothing. I pulled the line it rose and tightened and drooped again. I waited, holding onto the frame and watched him walk down the deck and into the lightship, he appeared again in the high window of the big white room, two men walking towards each other.

Somebody came across the gangplank and tried to get on board to vist the museum but the lightship was closed now. Where the wheels of the gangplank moved slowly with the rise and fall of tide a worn strip was carved in the timber quay, deep in the middle, and light at each end and sometimes you heard the wide steel wheels screech as the lightship rose or fell. Black tyres hung off the wooden quay as fenders and kept the lightship off. Cream soft ropes hung from the bow and stern over the old quay warps and the giant rudder was permanently placed to starboard. Grey fish hung in the tide between the hull and the green wooden piles sucking on mussels as floating shit passed them by.

GUILL1-3I felt a rattling pull along the line, it stopped and suddenly started again and then I felt another stronger pull. I pulled back, bent over looking through the gap in the gunwale seeing the line tight to the green water and moving now to my left. It started to rain a little.

Then I heard him beside me

‘Pull it in now Jem’, he said, ‘hand over hand, steady as she goes’

I retrieved the line hand over hand and felt of course the live things at the far end fighting in the tide, struggling and swimming against the pull of line. The line was over the handrail and moved left and right and then as it swung free from the tide there was a sudden dead vibrating weight at the end. I heard the lead hit the hull, twice.

‘Keep haulin sunshine’ he said ‘nearly there’ and then he grabbed the line laughing and lifted it over the gunwale onto the deck at my feet. There was an olive and silver eel on the bottom hook, tying itself in knots, snots of slime, trying to escape the hook, impossible colours of lavender and chartreuse shone on its white belly as it squirmed, tangling the line.

On the middle hook was a bright silver fish of about 12 inches.

I kneeled to look at the fish and saw ferocity in its eyes, an attitude of anger and fearsome bravery emanated from the fish. His gills were flared making him look bigger, a big set of spikes stood along the fin on his back, he was bent like a snake and he shook and flashed when I touched him. His back was chromed navy blue almost black running down, blending to a lighter dark grey and blue and eventually over to a bright white belly. I could see my reflection in his scales.

I reached to grab him and immediately felt a spike in my hand.

‘Watch him Jem’, my grandfather said, ‘show me’, kneeling beside me, I held out my hand and he muttered something about being twice married. It was raining heavy now. He took a bone handled penknife from his pocket opened it and cut the line at the hook where the eel was caught and flung him overboard. Reaching for the bass, his big hand surrounded the fish and he held him tight whilst removing the hook. There was some blood.

‘Too small Jem, he’ll have to go back’  and he threw the fish over the gunwale from his low position.

‘Come on outta this rain, we’ll go up to Jack and get a cup of tea’.

We went into the lightship and up the steep steps to the room where the instruments were. It was warm and smoky and there was a paraffin fire lighting, a box of cigarettes, with sailor on the front. Jack said hello and shook my hand and I stood up on a black box to look out the windows. I saw the newspaper packet of worms breaking  open in the heavy rain on the deck, some of the worms were washing out.

‘The rain will kill them’ said my grandfather.

‘Do you think I could go down and see the white blackbird?’ I asked.


18. Mar 2011 at 20:00 – From the archives of Wexford Camera Club

The Guillemot is being dismantled as we speak. I have heard a lot of comments about what a disgrace this is but it seems that the people who care about this do not have the money or the wherewithal to do anything to save it. I tried to find some information on line but there is little available. I found the following on the Commissioners for Irish Lights website.
Built 1921/23 by Cran & Somerville, Leith; length 102 feet, breadth 24 feet, depth 12½ feet; construction all steel; five watertight bulkheads; steel mast and fixed lantern; mizzen mast carrying day mark; masts for wireless; cost £17,700; sold in 1968 to Wexford Maritime Museum Committee. Towed by ILT Atlanta to Rosslare. Taken in tow over Wexford Harbour Bar. Moored alongside quay at Wexford. Subsequently moved to Kilmore Quay and set in concrete.
This is the only photograph I can find in my collection, to date anyway, showing the Guillemot moored on Wexford Quays. It is scanned from a colour negative.
This is the ship moored in concrete at Kilmore Quay. I am led to believe that she was bedded in concrete following a storm in January 1990 which did severe damage to the harbour and caused the ship to break from her moorings.
Vandalism is cited as one of the reasons why maintaining the ship at Wexford Quays proved untenable. It seems the local authorities were not in a position to undertake its upkeep.
According to press reports Wexford County Council had to take action on the grounds of health and safety.
So now the ship is being cut up for scrap. According to a local I spoke to earlier this week the steel is quite valuable. “Pre nuclear” were the words he used. I looked it up and it does exist.
So that’s it. No going back now.