EYEWITNESS (© Words by Paul F. Cowlan)

Brother Mernoc heard it first,
a rattle on the thick slates,
as it might be crows and sea-birds battling together.
That was his first thought.
Or, as Brother Caílte remarked,
in mind of his pilgrimage to Rome,
a marten, or somesuch creature.

Near Pisa that was,
up on the guesthouse roof at pitch of midnight,
rumbustical as the Fiend himself; and him in a sharp, uneasy temper,
rummaging for a disremembered fire prong!
"Perdition take him." barked the landlord,
when all of us were roused and wishing to know the cause of it.
"God rot the beast and his tile turning."

Heaven be his bed! Good Brother Caílte.
As far-faring a man as ever walked the world.
Only he vexes the abbot with his levity.

But this was quite other, as the brethren will confirm it.
Directly here, at the rivers’ confluence;
Brosna, Blackwater and Shannon.
At Clonmacnoise.
Here on this very spot.
It’s all down on white calfskin in good Latin.

And what it was? The rattling?
Ah, that’s as you may or may not credit.
We hurried out, the abbot leading,
out of the church into God’s bright air,
and for a full breath we were dumbstruck.
Unable to take in the sight we saw there.

A looming keel was over us,
full-beamed and low above the Lord’s own roof-tree.
A cog or carrack, I'm no sailor,
but a fine ship certainly from all that I could see of her,
yawing above the altar, anchor-stone tattling at the leads.

I confess it freely, we all took to the crossing of ourselves.
But out of wonder mostly. Somehow there was nothing sinister in it.
And after just a moment, then the rope paid out again until the anchor grounded.
And the boat was eddying and sidling in the wind.

And what should follow but a face at the gunwale,
and his both hands making as if to pull the ring-stone up again.
I believe he would have done so too,
only it lodged under the eaves and stuck there like a frostbitten apple,
for all that he was tugging and straining.

And this long while never a word spoken, if it wasn’t a murmured ‘Mercy on us!’
when the face leaned out and showed his shoulders,
sort of heaved himself up, hesitated,
and swung both legs across.
Certain as I’m speaking with you, this was how it happened!
"He’s going to jump!" I cried out. "He’ll be after breaking every bone of him."

But jump he did,
rolling stiffly in the air to point his head down, and kick with his heels,
pulling towards us, eyes fixed and breath bated.
It’s only that I saw it myself I can credit it.

To be sure, he was intent on the wedged anchor,
and as he threshed round to be at it
his legs were hanging within a swipe of the ground.
So, quite without thinking, I laid a hand to his ankle.
"Come down won’t you then?" I called out,
"Sure, yours is the queerest anchorage here this many a Whitsun."

I meant no harm by it,
but the poor man twitched and twisted in a frenzy.
"Don’t! Don’t drag me down!" he gargled,
mouth bubbling and out of shape, as he tucked up the stone
and windmilled for the boat as if Behemoth was at his back.

He was no sooner tumbled over the thwarts
than the sail bellied and the prow swung south-eastward,
lifting close over the tower’s cone.
You could hear the warp and clip of a trailing cable on the ashlars.
Then the vessel heeled and made away over the sky, fleet as a hare on dry pasture.


Gloss

The bare bones of this supposed incident were recorded in the Norwegian ‘Speculum Regale’ seven hundred years ago, and in a later Irish chronicle; both naming Clonmacnoise. Gervase of Tilbury too - that thirteenth century skunk who damned a Cathar girl to death without a ripple in his randy conscience - tells the same tale. Only he sets the scene in Bristol.