Dan Boyle: Ourselves Alone


From top: The Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin on Tuesday; Dan Boyle

Among the many jobs that my Dad had,  possibly the one he enjoyed the most, was when he was a merchant seaman. For a number of years he worked on the Great Lakes between the US and Canada.

The rest of the family had moved from Chicago to Cork. We got to spend Christmases together. For the rest of the year we would make and send cassette tapes for each other to remind ourselves that we were a family.

My Dad was a gregarious man. I’m sure he would have had many friends on board the ships he worked. Nor would he have lacked for company. Despite knowing that I always imagined him being mainly alone in his berth.

One Christmas, and possibly by way of compensation, he brought me home a ship’s radio. It had five short wave bands. It was to become my window to the World.

Sometimes that World could be quite narrow. Police and ambulance communications could elicit a certain thrill, but that novelty would soon pass.

It was the global battle of the airwaves that fascinated me. Competing doctrines that would demand my attention – Voice of America, Radio Moscow, Radio Prague, Vatican Radio.

Like I imagined my Dad to be, I too was alone in my room. With my radio though. It allowed me to feel a citizen of the World.

Another present I got from my Dad seemed a lot more prosaic. It was a book, more of an instruction manual, called ‘Know Your Flags’. The book outlined the use of flags and their importance in seafaring.

It hardly thrilled me. My Dad did try to impress on me why he thought it important. He would explain the pennants that would be hoisted when a ship had docked, highlighting the status of the ship.

He tried to sell me on the value of semaphore, the visual Morse Code of the high seas. My short attention span and low boredom threshold would never have had the patience of reading messages made up of words where each letter had to be spelled out.

It took me many years later to realise that my Dad was trying to impart a life lesson to me. As I have come to understand it was never to be short of ways to communicate, especially if you find yourself alone and isolated.

There will be others on your wavelength waiting to connect.

I will always be grateful for that homespun wisdom of his. I miss him. This summer it will twenty years since he passed away.

With our current predicament I suspect he would be in his element. He might even be building a nuclear bunker. Partly because of his need to keep himself constantly busy, but also as an exaggerated response to the problems we are facing.

Besides a bunker mentality would have come from those many years he spent alone in his berth.

He was loud in voice. That sometimes had others ascribe an overconfidence in him. He spoke loudly because of hearing loss. I suspect this began from a time when he worked as a dynamiter at an uranium mine in Canada.

Loud of voice. Hard of hearing. Fond of flags. That was my Dad. It took me so long to get him.

Could do with him now to learn from what he might tell me of how we should survive this time of being apart from each other. How to let each other know how we feel. How to use whatever means we have to convey that and other messages.

Maybe I should start learning semaphore?

Dan Boyle is a former Green Party TD and Senator and serves as a Green Party councillor on Cork City Council. His column appears here every Thursday. Follow Dan on Twitter: @sendboyle


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13 thoughts on “Dan Boyle: Ourselves Alone

  1. Pip

    What a beautiful and eloquent tribute to a man of many parts.
    Let’s hear it for the collective memory.

    1. Paulus

      That’s a remarkable coincidence here.
      Nice memories Dan.

      I was a Gordon Lightfoot fan back in the late 70s and I remember the debate about Christy Moore’s “Back Home in Derry” having the same melody as the Edmund Fitzgerald.

  2. Pip

    The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
    Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
    The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
    When the skies of November turn gloomy
    With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
    Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
    That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
    When the gales of November came early

    The ship was the pride of the American side
    Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
    As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
    With a crew and good captain well seasoned
    Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
    When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
    And later that night when the ship’s bell rang
    Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?

    The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
    And a wave broke over the railing
    And every man knew, as the captain did too,
    T’was the witch of November come stealin’
    The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
    When the gales of November came slashin’
    When afternoon came it was freezin’ rain
    In the face of a hurricane west wind

    When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin’
    Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya
    At seven p.m., a main hatchway caved in, he said
    Fellas, it’s been good to know ya
    The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
    And the good ship and crew was in peril
    And later that night when ‘is lights went outta sight
    Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

    Does any one know where the love of God goes
    When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
    The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
    If they’d put fifteen more miles behind ‘er
    They might have split up or they might have capsized
    They may have broke deep and took water
    And all that remains is the faces and the names
    Of the wives and the sons and the daughters

    Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
    In the rooms of her ice-water mansion
    Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams
    The islands and bays are for sportsmen
    And farther below Lake Ontario
    Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
    And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
    With the gales of November remembered

    In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,
    In the maritime sailors’ cathedral
    The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times
    For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald
    The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
    Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
    Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
    When the gales of November come early

    1. Pip

      It’s so interesting, and vital, to know that we have ancestors who lived such different lives.
      My dad’s cousin dropped fire on people from his Lancaster.
      The great-uncle fought at Ypres, and went on to be a vicar.

  3. Dan Boyle

    I am surprised I have yet to see any comment from Bisted accusing me of having a parent in three different jurisdictions….

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