Looking out for Kilkee
I first visited the seaside resort of Kilkee, Co Clare, one August, exactly fifty years ago.
The town and its people claimed my heart in a way that I still find hard to describe, and it has been part of my existence ever since, accompanying me on my journey from teenager through middle age to the present. I’ve probably written more about Kilkee than any other topic, and I continue to do so.
Maybe everybody has an affection for the holiday places of their childhood, but, from my own experiences, and reading the internet, Kilkee seems to exercise a firmer grip on the emotions than most places. Maybe it’s the beauty of its surroundings, its horseshoe bay, its cliffs and walks, its remaining Victorian splendour, or the ever present power and beauty of the sea upon which it depends for its existence.
I recently published a memoir of my times in the town in the 1960s, partially in an attempt to demystify its attraction – or at least to better understand it, and the answer I came up with – apart from personal memories – was the combination of its people and the sea – which shapes so much of its personality as a place of welcome, calm in the midst of such maritime majesty; a place where gentle waves can leave ripples in the sand, while, outside the reef, at the entrance to the Bay, the wild ocean gouges caves out of rocky cliffs, and belittles human endeavour in its eternal ebb and flow.
The year before, I published a novel, based in a fictionalised version of the town and extrapolating from a drowning in the bay which I had witnessed back in the early 1970s. It always seemed to me that the town and marine tragedy were inevitably linked – for all the decades of happiness the place gave to generations of holiday making families. The first place I hunted for sea life on my first morning in the town turned out to be called Edmond Point, in commemoration of a fatal shipwreck there in the 19th Century. Further on, out along the much loved walk to the Diamond Rocks and Lookout Hill, was Intrinsic Bay – with waters foaming at the bottom of sheer cliffs where another ship had been lost over a hundred years ago.
Yesterday, news sources showed lines of people on top of the cliffs by Intrinsic Bay, a familiar red and white rescue helicopter – 115 from Shannon – hovered overhead. In attempting to recover a fatality from an earlier disaster, a man who was a teacher from the inland village of Lissycasey, volunteer coastguard units from Kilkee and Doolin had been sweeping the area beneath the cliffs in RIBs. One of the inflatables had been overturned as it started to head back to base; there had been two injured and a fatality. Caitriona Lucas, from Liscannor, up the coast, a mother of two, whose partner was also a volunteer coastguard, had lost her life in the service of others, the first Irish Coastguard member to die on duty. When not serving the public as a coastguard volunteer, she served them as an assistant in various branches of the Clare County Library.
The sea around KIlkee had reminded us, as it all too frequently does, that its beauty is forged at a human cost.
My reaction came in a familiarly ordered sequence. “Disaster off Irish Coast” morphed to “disaster off west coast” and finally, through my mounting apprehension, to “disaster at Kilkee”. Knowing the spot, knowing the folk who live there, having watched as the local community fought to set up their own volunteer Rescue Centre, the awful news hit home hard. I don’t know many folk in Kilkee these days, but I knew many of their parents or grandparents, and, more than that, I know and feel for the community. It’s not too strong to suggest it is a community I love.
Later on the News came Manuel Di Lucia – a familiar figure throughout all of my connection to Kilkee, a man who, perhaps more than anyone, knows the seas around Kilkee, and has spent a lifetime promoting diving, boating, fishing and, above all, rescue facilities in the town. Although the public had no details yet, it was clear that he knew those involved in the disaster. He was visibly upset, but, as I had first witnessed all the years ago in the seventies, he exhibited the calm determination of local people to deal with what the sea had thrown at them, and get on with the business of supporting each other and seeking to learn from the latest calamity. That’s what they do in Kilkee – whether the sea sends them fish, seafood, storms, tourism, or death – they stoically continue their coexistence with their marvellous, awe inspiring, cruel and beautiful neighbour. They support each other and they live their lives circumscribed by a sea they can neither control nor fully understand, but for which they have respect and a kind of fierce love.
When I came to publish my memoir on Kilkee, it was the folk at Clare County Libraries, where Caitriona worked, who supportively gave permission for me to use an old Hinde postcard as the book’s front cover – a typically technicoloured beach scene from the mid sixties, with families on the strand and a flat sea lapping at seaweed and rocks. It’s a perfect cover for happy memories – but, looking at it today, I can see it only reflects one part of Kilkee’s story.
I never knew Caitriona, her family or friends, but it is easy to mourn for her sacrifice, for the loving and giving person she most obviously was, for the gaping hole left in her family and community, and amongst her brave coastguard colleagues.
But my deeper, and perhaps more legitimate, grief is for Kilkee, its people, and their knowledge that tragedy has visited paradise once again. I wish them continuing strength, that strength they have always shown, in accepting that the sea’s beauty brings the sea’s sadness.
So many folk around the world will be grieving for them and with them today.
I hope they can feel that love.