AUDIO READING FROM THE COLLECTION: ‘A LOCAL TRAGEDY’
The Horse’s Nest builds on the achievement of her first two critically well-received collections. The keynote to this new collection is a compelling and painful candour. Whether writing about the sinking of the Princess Victoria off the County Down coast in 1953, the loss of parents, the joys of love, and the small betrayals and disappointments underpinning domestic life, Donaldson brings to her material an intimate understanding of the connections between the personal and the public, the past and the present, the local and the universal.
A Local Tragedy
Because I was a small child and impressionable
when my mother told me how they stood
at the door and watched the ambulances go past
I felt I’d been there too,
Saw the tense faced me,
Felt the lashing rain, the wind that would blow you
off your feet it was that strong. I heard the sirens
clanging from Ards past the farm at Drumhirk,
fading on through the Cotton and Ballyvester
to Donaghadee and the Imperial Hotel
where they brought the survivors
and the bodies, the day of the Great Storm,
the day the Princess Victoria sank in the waters
around Mew Island, within sight of shore.
It happened years before I was born, the story’s
not mine at all: yet I come back to it as if it is.
There was nothing to suggest this crossing
would be different to any other, even with
a storm blowing up as the ship slipped her buoy.
They met the first big sea just past Cairnryan,
waves that smashed the steel doors of the car deck.
A catalogue then of fear and desperation,
mistakes, misinformation, the SOS in Morse
as the radio operator stayed at the transmitter,
the passengers in top deck lounges
and smoking rooms where walls had become
floors when the ship listed onto her beam ends.
Life jackets donned, rafts filled with the women
and children, splintered in the waves, lifeboats
launched from Donaghadee and Portpatrick:
while the sea took its course and the ship rolled over, sank.
This was the sea I paddles in, ankleted by tiny fish:
where wavelets shushed the shore and seaweed
drawn aside, revealed a sideways scuttle of crabs.
Limpets and periwinkles in salty rock pools,
the bloom of sea anemones, harvest of dulce
all the teeming childhood summer – where now
in dreams I saw the drifting faces of the dead,
and heard across sleep the great tenor G
of Mew Island foghorn, sounding mortality.
The bodies washed ashore for days along
the Scottish coast, the Isle of Man, Port Luce, Hango
Hill, Kentraugh, Castletown and Arbory, one hundred
and twenty eight drowned, thirty three survivors.
Reports name only a few, Captain James Ferguson
who went down with his ship, the politicians, Major
Sinclair, Sir Walter Smiles; a handful of the crew.
The others, our ‘fellow citizens’, aren’t singled out
but imagine just one, one woman, or man, or child,
as mouth and nose and lungs fill with the icy cold.
From my bathroom window, every seven seconds
I see the clear white strobe of Mew Island light.
It illuminates the land between me and the sea,
between me and the child I was
a landscape out of ordinary time,
where years slip and reshuffle,
the under layers rising into white
light and dipping beneath again.
Small details and swathes of history:
who knows what will be thrown up
and what is mine?
In Francis Street my grandmother,
opens her eyes to another day.
Her sister Maggie’s there to help
and upstairs, wee Jack is snuggled up
in bed with his five brothers.
Betsey hitches her father’s horse
to the block wheel cart to follow her lover,
sets off from the Six Road Ends to meet
death on a battlefield in Ballynahinch.
Glaciers sweep across, gouging out the crag
and tail of Scrabo Hill.
Vikings sail the lough, bury their battle dead
on the beach at Ballyholme.
Mrs McCoubrey’s little ginger dog
barks at me through a hole in the hedge
as mummy calls me in for tea and bath
Comgall rises at five am to pray,
my daddy rises at five am to go to work.
I watch the bones of history settle to dust
and rise again to walk, to speak –
make room for memory of us,
our ordinary extraordinary lives
made up of moments just like this and this and this.
‘I have been told that his morse code was immaculate
until the very end.’
Radio Officer Number R 218736,
David Broadfoot, 53,
employee of the Marconi Wireless
Telegraph Company, calmly
amidst the chaos and the noise,
despite the angle of the listing ship,
the pitch and roll, signalled
so that others might live.
At 13.30 hours the order came –
abandon ship. At 13.58
the last message was received
… – – – …
At 14.00 hours she sank.
Of course the ship was not seaworthy:
an enquiry found the owners negligent
on at least two counts …
There are no accidents
say the bones
and sometimes I hear them
all at once, asking
On Boxing Day TV
I watch a woman run
not away but towards the wave,
towards a cliff of death,
towards her family.
REVIEWS OF THE HORSE’S NEST