Four Hundred*

Lough Doo was not meant for this
blue forgetful levity,
sun shining.
Lough Doo is best seen as I first saw it:
the vast, steep amphitheatre
a dichromatic study in black and silver,
drifting mist penetrating the joints,
water from a thousand water-etched runnels
flowing into the lough,
a hungry water;
the silver-sinuous road
clinging to the mountainside
lest it slip
and relinquish the divide between
one element and another.

The only sound here is as it should be:
water and wind:
sighing, seeping.
Now and then bird or sheep noise
reminds you that you are not
the only creature that lives.
Driving out of dailiness from Louisburgh
you are drawn into and down
a cavernous quiet mouth
of long water.
It is a place for solitude and silence this,
where only stone decodes the immanence.
Stone not bread tells of hunger
and cull:
a cross of stone
roughly hewn
with words that ricochet off the hills.
They make no concession
to a reader’s ignorance:
you are meant to know
the power of this as the power
of a great myth.
These words
do not
they proclaim.
If you did not know,
had you perhaps not heard,
you will, after reading, still only know
that the place weeps,
that the lough water is deep
with a resonant sorrow,
that it is
the deepest water in the world.
Being none the wiser you will be wiser.
And should you go from here as I did,
not knowing until later about the four hundred
for whom there was no oracle
of foreboding or favour,
clemency a vain hope,
It will be enough in that time
to have read the hallowed stone
and to know
that pity has made this water
as black and eloquent as ink.
When you reach Leenaune
you will need as I did to sit alone
gazing the length of Killary Harbour
and sip hot black tea from a white cup,
and be glad to be breathing the steam
as it rises from the tea.
You will watch the rain weep
down the cross-paned window,
and as you sip,
what were their names,
the four hundred ?

*In 1849, four hundred men, women and children died by Lough Doo, County Mayo. In search of help at the height of the Irish Famine, six hundred had walked the twenty miles or so from Louisburgh to Delphi where a meeting of local authorities was being held. They were turned away. Four hundred died on the way back. The name Lough Doo derives from the Irish dubh, meaning black.

This poem won the Max Harris Poetry Award in 1998.