The Brassbounder

The Brassbounder

By David W Bone

First Published by Duckworth and Co. London, 1910.

SPRING in the air of it, a bright, keen day, and the mist only strong enough to soften the bold, rugged outline of Knocknarae, our sailing mark, towering high and solitary above Sligo Harbour. The strong west wind that we had fought and bested at the Stags turned friendly, had blown us fair to our voyage's end, and now, under easy canvas, we tacked on shore and off, waiting for tide to bear up and float our twenty feet in safety across the Bar.

At Raghly, our signal for a local pilot was loyally responded to. A ship of tonnage was clearly a rare sight in these parts, for the entire male population came off to see us safely in- to make a day of it! Old pilots and young, fishermen and gossoons, they swept out from creek and headland in their swift Mayo skiffs, and though only one was Trinity licensed for our draft of water, the rest remained, to bear willing hands at the braces on the chance of a job at the cargo being given.

'Old Andy' was the official pilot- a hardy old farmer-fisherman, weazened by years and the weather. He had donned his best in honour of the occasion- a course suit of fearnought serges, quaintly cut, and an ancient top hat, set at a rakish angle. Hasty rising showed in razor cuts on his hard blue jowl, and his untied shoes made clatter as he mounted the poop, waving a yellow time-stained license. An odd figure for a master pilot; but he made a good impression on Old Jock when he said simply "...but bedad, now Cyaptin! Sure, Oim no hand at thim big yards ov yours, but Oi kin show ye where th' daape watther is!"

The ship steered to his liking, and all in trim, he walked the poop, showing a great pride of his importance as a navigator of twenty feet. Suddenly- at no apparent call- he stepped to the side where his boat was towing.

"What-t," he yelled. "Ach, hoult yer whisht! What-t are yez shoutin' about? What-t? Ast the Cyaptin f'r a bit av 'baccy f'r th' byes in th' boat! Indade, an' Oi natt ast th' dacent gintilman f'r a bit av 'baccy f'r th' byes in th' boat! What-t? Ach, hoult yer whisht, now!"

Joining the Captain he resumed the thread of his description of Sligo Port, apparently unheeding the Old Man's side order to the steward that sent a package of hard tobacco over the rail.

"... an ' ye'll lie at Rosses Point, Cyaptin, till ye loighten up to fourteen faate. Thin, thr'll be watther f'r yes at th' Quay, but..." (Another tangent to the lee rail) ... "Ach! What-t's th' matther wit' ye now. Be m' sowl. It's heartbreakin' ye are wit' yer shoutin' an that-t! What-t? Salt baafe an' a few bisskets, bad scram t' ye, yes ongrateful thaaves!"

We are homeward bound; the beef and biscuits go down. After them, "a tarn sail- jest a rag, d'ye moind, t' make a jib f'r th' ould boat"; then, "a pat av paint an' a brush"- it becomes quite exciting with Ould Andy abusing his boat's crew at every prompted request. We are beginning to wager on the nature of the next, when sent to the stations for anchoring. Ould Andy, with an indignant gesture and shake of his fists, turns away to attend to his more legitimate business, and, at his direction, we anchor to seaward of the bar.

The wind that has served us so well has died away in faint airs, leaving a long glassy swell to score the placid surface of the Bay and set a pearly fringe on the distant shore. The tide moves steadily in the flood, broadening in ruffling eddies at the shoals of the Bar. On a near beacon a tide gauge shows the water, and when sail is furled and the yard in harbour trim we have naught to do but reckon our wages, and watch the rising water lapping, inch by inch, on the figured board. From seaward there is little to be seen of the countryside. The land about is low to the coast, but far inland blue, mist-capped ranges stand bold and rugged against the clear northern sky. Beyond the Bar the harbour lies bare of shipping- only a few fishing skiffs putting out under long sweeps, and the channel buoys bobbing and heaving on the long swell. A deserted port we are come to after our long voyage from the West!

"That'll be the' Maid o' th' Moy, Cyaptin," said Ould Andy, squinting through the glasses at smoke stack on the far horizon. "Hot-fut from Ballina, t' tow ye in. An' Rory Kilgallen may save his cowl, bedad, f'r we'll make two fut av watther yet before we get acrost. Bedad"- in high glee- "he'll nat-t be after knowin' that it's twinty faate, no liss, that Ould Andy is bringin' in this day!"

With a haste that marks her skipper's anxiety to get a share of the good things going, the Maid, a trim little paddle tug, draws nigh, and soon a high bargaining begins between Old Jock and the toughen, with an eager audience to chorus, "D'ye hear that-t now!" at each fiery period. Rory has the whip-hand and knows it. No competition and the tide making inch by inch on the beacon gauge!

For a time Old Jock holds on manfully. "Goad, no! I'll kedge th' hooker up t' Sligo Quay before I give ye that!" But high water at hand and no sign of wind, he takes the tug on at a stiff figure, and we man the windlass, tramping the well-worn round together for the last time.

Leave her is the set chantey for finish of a voyage, and we roar a lusty chorus to Granger, the chantyman:

"O! Leave'r John-ny, leave'r like a man,

(An' leave'r John-ny, leave'r!)

Oh! Leave'r, John-ny, leave'r when ye can,

(An' it's time - for us - t' leave 'r!")

A hard heave, and the tug lying short. A Merseyman would have the weight off the cable by this.

"O! Soon we'll 'ear the Ol' Man say,

(Leave'r, John-ny, leave'r!)

Ye kin go ashore an' take yer pay,

(An' it's time - for us - t' leave 'r!")

"Heave, byes," the gossoons bearing stoutly on the bars with us. "Heave, now! He's got no frin's!"

"O! Th' times was 'ard an' th' wages low,

(Leave'r, John-ny, leave'r!)

Th' v'yage wos long, an' th' gales did blow,

(An' it's time - for us - t' leave 'r!")

Check - and rally; check - a mad rush round- the anchor dripping at the bows, and we move on across the eddies of the Bar in wake of the panting tug.

A short tow, for all the bargaining, and at Rosses Point we bring up to moorings- the voyage at an end.

"That'll do, you men," said the Mate, when the last warp was turned. "Pay off at th' Custom House at twelve tomorrow!"

"That'll do!" Few words and simple; but the meaning! Free at last! No man's servant!

With a hurricane whoop the crew rush to quarters to sling their bags for the road.

Then the trafficking with the shore. The boatmen reaping a harvest. "A bob th' trip, yer 'anner, on a day like this". The doors of the village inn swinging constantly, and the white-aproned landlord (mopping a heated brow at royal orders), sending messages to ransack the village cupboards for a reserve of glasses. And when at last the boats are ready for the long pull up to Sligo town, and the impatient boatmen shouting, "Coom on now, byes! Before th' toide tarns; byes, now!" The freemen embark, and we, the afterguard (who draw no pay), are left to watch them set off, and wish that our day were quickly come.

For a time we hear their happy voices, and answer cheer for cheer. Then the dark comes, and the last is a steady clack of rowlocks, and the men singing "Leave 'r, John-ny... like a man!"

Two days later, on deck of the Glasgow boat, I gazed on my old ship for the last time. At the narrow bend we steamed slow, to steer cautiously past her. The harbour watch were there to give me a parting cheer, and Old Jock, from the poop, waved a cheery response to my salute. Past her, we turned water again, and sped on to sea.

It was a day of mist and low clouds, and a weakly sun breaking through in long slanting shafts of light.

Over the Point a beam was fleeting, playing on the house-tops, shimmering in window glasses, lighting on the water, on the tracery of spar and rigging, and showing golden on the red-rusty hull of the old barque- my home for so long in fair weather and foul.

An original letter from David Bone