‘I feel the sea’s power like a deep-blue thread, binding me to my ancestors’

Catherine Doyle’s The Storm Keeper’s Island draws on her seafaring ancestors’ stories

 

On a clear day in Galway Bay, the sea is endless and blue. The waves glisten, and I know I could sit for hours and watch them. It is a quiet kind of magic.

I have always felt the ocean’s pull. Perhaps it is a consequence of growing up on the west coast of Ireland. Of a childhood steeped in oceanic lore; nursery rhymes and sailor songs, ornamental shells pressed tight to little ears, waves echoing in the din. Perhaps it comes from summers spent on brassy beaches, stones skimmed and crabs caught, a thousand footprints stamped on the promenade wall. Perhaps it is the taste of sea-salt on the wind, or the tang of seaweed in the air.

Perhaps I inherited it.

My grandparents grew up on Arranmore Island, off the coast of Co Donegal. It is breathtaking in its ruggedness, eight square miles scooped out of the waves and held in the ocean’s palm. It is the kind of place where myths are made, where rolling hills give birth to ancient gods and towering cliffs plummet towards the Wild Atlantic Way. Arranmore made mariners of my ancestors. It made a sea captain of my grandfather. It followed him to the Great Lakes of America and home again.

When my grandparents returned to Ireland, they settled in Galway, a stone’s throw from the ocean they grew up on. Arranmore was never far from the stories they told me when I was a child. Back then, it was as mythical a place as Tír na nÓg, the realness of it as foreign to me as the idea that my grandparents were once children at all. I didn’t understand then how places can be just as important as people – how they can have the same power over you. I didn’t understand how the sea can settle in your bones and make its home there. How a steady tide can soothe an anxious mind or dull the frantic beat of a worried heart. I didn’t know how deeply it could shape a person’s identity.

Last year, between finishing the final novel in my Young Adult trilogy and beginning a new project, I found myself on a ferry to Arranmore Island. Although I had been before, first as an oblivious child, and later as a disinterested teenager, this was a different kind of journey. It was the first time I truly saw my grandparents’ island for what it was – the beginning of them, the beginning of me.

For a week, I taught creative writing at the local secondary school, to students who looked to the sea for their inspiration, found plots and characters buried in its waves. In the evenings, I visited cousins who opened their homes to me and shared their own island tales. For the first time in years, I undusted the stories from my youth, and in them, I discovered the missing pieces of my grandparents. I explored their settings. I found the lighthouse and the lifeboats and the cliffs and the lakes. The cottage where my grandmother was born, the pub where my grandfather grew up. The school where they met, the beaches they walked, the boats that brought them to and from the mainland. I walked the pier and looked out at the endless swathe of blue. The sea was everywhere. It was in every story, but there was one, in particular, that I could not forget. A feat so incredible, it inspired my next book.

It was the rescue of SS Stolwijk. In the winter of 1940, during one of the worst storms on island record, a Dutch cargo ship ran aground on rocks several miles off the coast of Donegal. By the time the distress call reached the island, 10 Dutch sailors had already perished in the icy waters, and 18 more were hanging on for dear life. The raging storm had precluded any chance of their rescue by more adequately-equipped British vessels, and the weather showed no signs of yielding. There was but one hope left. On the morning of December 7th, the small Arranmore lifeboat crew found themselves facing a daunting decision: to volunteer for an impossible task in a savage storm, or to stay and count themselves lucky. Nine men were called upon, and in the end, nine men went, my great grandfather, Phil Boyle, among them.

The crew departed the pier in a hurricane, knowing the chances of perishing at sea were higher than succeeding. Their modest lifeboat went over one wave and through the next, lost to the raging wind. All day, the islanders watched the angry sky, waiting for news of their fathers, brothers, cousins, sons. All day, the storm hung over them like a dark veil. Finally, late that night, the lifeboat returned to Arranmore, weather-beaten but still afloat. The volunteer crew had succeeded in rescuing the remaining Dutch sailors over a period of several gruelling hours, before returning them to Burtonport on the mainland. In the aftermath of the rescue, the crew were awarded gallantry medals from both the RNLI and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands in gratitude for their brave service. The story, like the medals, was kept safe, passed down from generation to generation. It was a memory made to share, and like so many others, it belongs to the island and its people.

I returned to Arranmore Island to teach the art of storytelling, and left with a new story unfurling inside me. I wanted to pay homage to my grandparents and their island home. To weave the threads of their ancestry with strands of Irish mythology and find a story in the tapestry.

The Storm Keeper’s Island is the story of Fionn Boyle, a sea-fearing boy from a sea-faring family who returns to Arranmore one summer to find it has been waiting for him. It is on this enchanted island, where magic sings in the wind and rumbles in the earth, that Fionn relives the daring adventures of his mariner ancestors and discovers the ancient destiny that has been waiting for him. It is a story about magic and memory, courage and sacrifice, and nature at its wildest.

Arranmore Island is the beginning of Fionn’s story. In many ways, it was also the beginning of my own.

On a clear day on the island, the sea is endless and blue.

The longer I look at it, the wider it becomes. I sense it calling to me. I feel its power like a deep-blue thread, binding me to my ancestors, and I embrace it, this quiet kind of magic.
The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle is published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books on July 1st

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