When Paie Cregeen married Gorry Karran in Rushen Church she thought she was the happiest girl in the Isle of Man. Gorry was one of the crew of ‘The Morning Star’ and in summer he would be away with the Port St Mary fishing feel off to Kinsale for the mackerel and later in September they would fish off the shores of the Island for ‘the lil’ silver fellas’ as they called the herring.
Paie and Gorry went to live in a bit of a cottage in a snug little hollow on the cliffs beyond Port St Mary. There was an apple tree in the garden, a bed for Paie to grow gilvers and pansies and just enough space for a plot of Gorry’s potatoes. From the garden a path led down to the beach below where Gorry had a small boat that he’d made himself.
Paie had been born and bred in a croft on the mountain so you might say she’d grown up with her back to the sea. Not a thing did she know about it, but with Gorry to tell her she soon learned about its wonders and about Gorry’s days at the fishing.
“There’s no roads or paths on the sea,” he would tell her, “but in sight of land the mountains and the rocks are our fishing marks. When we can’t see them, the winds and the tides and the stars in the sky are talking to us you might say.”
On May Day he called her out into the garden. “See Paie, the sun is shining on the apple blossom. That’s a sign of a good summer. We’ll have luck at the fishing.”
Once, when they were going into Port St Mary, he stopped outside a cottage and pointed to a plant with green leaves growing in a corner of the garden. “Look at that Paie. That’s the herb that brings good luck at the fishing. I’ll get a piece of that from Mistress Teare before we go off to Kinsale.”
There was sea language he told her. “There’s land words you mustn’t use at sea. Any man that forgets and uses land words instead of sea words can bring back luck to the boat.”
All the things Gorry told her seemed wonders to Paie but the greatest wonder of them all was his story about the Island under the Sea.
“Just out yonder in the bay it used to be,” he would say, “till Manannan went to live there. Him that used to rule the Isle of Man in the old times, wrapping it round with a mist cloak the way his enemies wouldn’t find it and up to many another trick and caper. He was driven out in the end though and all his spells and tricks with him. And if he didn’t use the last spell he had to sink that bit of an island under the water the way he could pass the rest of his time there in safety!”
And there underneath the water it had been ever since, except that once in every hundred years on a May Eve it rose to the surface. Any person that saw the island and could sail out and land there would be happy indeed. There were fields there where the grass was always green and there were orchards of apple trees. These were no ordinary trees like the one in their garden, for there the fruit and the flower hung together on the branches. All day long birds sang in those trees and you could hear music in every part of the island. There were no sick people or poor people or sad people on that island and no person was every cold or hungry or in any kind of want.
Well, the time went on and the time went on and at last a boy was born to Paie and Gorry. He was born on Christmas Day so they called him Ullick which is the Manx for Christmas. You might say Ullick was born with one foot in the water, for before he was one year old he was playing with the toy boats his father made for him and as soon as he could walk he was down at the beach with his father, and in and out of the water all day. When there was a bit of an age on him he would be out in the small boat taking a turn at the oars with Gorry and learning to row.
Then one summer’s afternoon, when the sun was shining from a cloudless blue sky, Paie took Ullick down to Port St Mary to see his father set out for Kinsale in ‘The Morning Star’ with the rest of the fishing fleet.
They’d hardly got back home when the sky grew black as ink, the wind got up and made such a ran-tan and roar round every corner of the house and tugged at the thatch and whistled so loudly in every cranny, that not a wink did they sleep all the night.
Just as sudden as it got up, the wind died away and all was quiet, but the damage was done. Of all the fleet only three boats came back to Port St Mary, the rest were sunk with all hands – ‘The Morning Star’ among them.
Paie did the best she could to bring up Ullick. There were plenty of others in the same trouble and they all helped each other for as the man said before now, “When one poor man helps another, God himself laughs.” There was always work to be done in the fields and a bit of money to be earned setting potatoes, weeding turnips, helping with the hay and corn harvests. When there wasn’t enough food for two she gave it all to Ullick. She patched his jersey and trousers till they were all patches and if he went barefoot, he wasn’t the only one. Ullick picked up driftwood on the beach and when they sat by the fire at nights she would tell him about his father and especially about the island under the sea.
“Plenty to eat and drink there, child. Shoes for your fee too. No going barefoot yonder. That’s where we should be.”
Ullick liked the story and time and time again he asked her to tell it to him. On May Eve they would gather primroses and celandines and put them on the doorstep to keep away the good people, for that was the night they had full power. Then the pair of them would sit at the window and look out over the water. But the island never appeared.
The years went by and Ullick grew tall. With his black hair, his blue eyes and his face and hands and arms tanned by sun and sea, he was the image of Gorry. When he left school though, in spite of all Paie could say, nothing would do, he must go to sea. He had a spell at the fishing first and was off to Kinsale like his father before him. Then one day at the end of the summer he came home and he said, “Mam, I’ve made up my mind. I’m not going to Kinsale anymore. I’m minded to see a bit of the world, America and such places, so I’m going sailing foreign. But I’ll write to you and in time I’ll be back. So be easy about me.”
A year passed and another then another. Ullick was a poor hand at the letters but now and then one would come over, maybe once or twice a year. Paie would read it over and over to herself and then read it to her neighbour when she came in.
“Look on that now!” her neighbour would say. “I tell you he’s sailing the seas of the world and saying Africa and America and Australia the way you and me might be saying Cregneish or Ronague or Port Erin.”
“Aye true enough,” said Paie. “But when will we see him back home again? That what I’m wondering.”
Each year as May Eve came round Paie would put flowers on the doorstep and watch for the island though she had no heart in it now that Ullick was far away.
One night Paie was busy in the kitchen thinking as usual of Ullick and wondering when he would come home when all of a sudden she remembered it was May Eve and she had put no flowers at the door.
“I’ll go out for a few in minutes,” she said to herself. “But I’ll have a bit of a rest first.”
As she sat, suddenly a mist crept over the sea, and from out of the mist she seemed to hear music. Many’s the time she’d heard the blackbird of an evening and him whistling a stave from the apple tree in the garden and thought it was the sweetest music in the world. Many’s the time, in the long summer days, she’d listened to the seals and their music drifting up from the rocks below and thought it the strangest music she’d ever heard. Yet never in all her born days had she heard music as sweet and strange as this.
After a moment the mist rolled away and out in the bay she saw cliffs and a beach with a path leading up to green fields and a garden. The trees in the garden were thick with pink and white blossom and the red and gold fruit that put all earthly flowers and fruit to shame for colour. Over all the garden there was a brightness, a brightness that had the gold of sunlight and the silver of moonlight and yet was neither sunlight or moonlight nor any light of the earthly world that Paie had ever seen. Across the water, as though carried through the air by the music, came the scent of apple blossom.
It was the island! The greatest of the wonders that Gorry had told her about, where the grass was always green, where the fruit and flower came together on the tree and there was no sadness or want or unhappiness for any person. There it was at last, after all these years of waiting! She could go out now yet she knew she didn’t want to because Ullick was not there to go with her.
Then suddenly he was there, standing in the room, but the island was there no longer. He was talking to her.
“I’m back Mam. Like I said I would come. Here I am after all these years. Don’t you know me?”
“Are you really there boy or am I dreaming?”
“I’m here. Too true I am.”
“Oh! If only you’d been here five minutes sooner. We could have sailed out to the island together.”
“Sail out to the island? You’ve been dreaming again!”
“It was there boy. I saw it as plain as I see you now. And I could smell the scent of the apple blossom.”
“It was the apple blossom on our old tree there you were smelling.”
“But we’ve missed our last chance boy.”
“No matter Mam. You don’t need to worry. I’m here to take care of you now.”
While she made his supper he got out the presents he’d brought her: a piece of stuff for a dress, a fine shawl for Sundays, a workbox and a purse with money in it, more money than she’d ever seen in her life.
Ullick was as good as his word. His mother never did want again. The bad times were over for her. But she never forgot Gorry’s story about the island. When Ullick married and had children of his own, she told them about it because as she often thought to herself, “There’s wonders in the world yet, and it’s a pity people wouldn’t know about them.”
(source: ‘Saint Bridget’s Night’ Stories from the Isle of Man by Kathleen Killip; artwork http://bit.ly/1kWez34)