Jeremiah's Catch

by Patrick Whitehurst

Publisher's note: We ran this in Fine Travel, but it seemed so soaked in the sense of Ireland and the sea that it deserved space here.

I love lobster. Actually I like almost anything that comes from the sea. . . but particularly, I love lobster.

For me there is more than that wonderful feast. There are the memories of Bantry Bay, County Cork, Ireland, and the dozen happy years I lived there.

Whenever someone special came to dinner, and someone special was anybody, lobster was the answer. Irish lobster is much like our Maine Variety, but sweeter. Perhaps made so by the trip to Jeremiah's jetty.

Jeremiah was a fisherman. A lobster fisherman among other fishing things. He was a striking man, and at the same time was curiously out of the ordinary. He was tall and very thin, but the thinness didn't detract from the impression of strength. He was burnished a glowing copper color that a life at sea seems to paint on the people who make their living on the water. His eyes, blue as autumn mist, were keen with a bird-of-prey intensity that was disarming.

His hands were large and salt roughened. His clothes were sun blanched and tattered and strained at every seam.

I never say him without the same old knit cap on. It was as much a part of him as were the yellow foul weather gear and his black rubber Wellingtons.

"Someone's coming to dinner!"

That announcement meant that a very special day was in store for me.

I'd look out over Bantry Bay. I'd check the sky and the tide clock. I'd calculate to the minute the time that Jeremiah would return to his jetty with the day's catch. I would plan my departure with military precision.

And I would be wrong. I would always be wrong. I knew this. It was part of the adventure. So, just in case, I would stick a book in my pocket.

The road from "Killeen North," my home high above the bay, was little more than a borheen; two lanes of broken and potted macadam with a center path of grass and heather sheared and cultivated to three inches in height . . . the exact clearance of my old Mini station wagon.

Compared to the tract that led down to Jeremiah's jetty that old borheen was a masterpiece of modern highway engineering. The tract was dangerously steep, the result of centuries of foot traffic, weather, and neglect. It was a treacherous thing not fit for even a donkey's sure foot, but it too was part of the adventure, a challenge to my driving skills and to the endurance and stamina of my tired old Mini.

Only when all hope of survival was abandoned would the track level out and glide smoothly onto the jetty.

The old stone jetty was a tribute to the skill and craftsmanship of some ancient mason. How incredibly old was this stone works that waded into the sea? How had the first stones been laid below sea level?

I'd contemplate things like this as I waited for Jeremiah and my lobsters.

The jetty was more than just a masterpiece of masonry. It was a nautical museum. All kinds of things from the sea, or from the efforts of men making a living from the sea, cluttered every inch of space. I could never see a reason for saving most of the things there. But, they must have been important, because they were there.

There were stacks of nets. There were crab and lobster pots of woven willow, clumsy and worn, tied together with bits of cord. There were handmade dredges for the clams and oysters. There were boat parts that someday would be useful again . . . perhaps. There were floats of clear green and red blown glass, and other more modern floats made from plastic bottles artfully sealed and strung together.

Then there was the other stuff; wooden boxes with Spanish words stenciled on their sides, and plastic fish crates from every sea-bordered country in Europe. There were wine crates, complete with empty wine bottles. Was it the crates or the bottles that were important?

There were motor parts and broken tools, oar locks and rotting life preservers. There were piles and twisted heaps of decaying line.

"Why save all this junk?" I wondered, but never had the courage to ask. These things were important to Jeremiah and that was all that mattered, I suppose.

On a clear day I would make a nest for myself in the bales of nets. I would snuggle down to make a bed that fit my body perfectly, a barricade of cases behind me to break the wind. I'd dig out my book and my glasses and settle down to wait for Jeremiah. I'd turn the dog-eared page I had left and read meaningless words. The words meaningless because there were so many more important things to be aware of.

Watching the ocean, any ocean, is more hypnotic than watching a hearth-fire. The ocean is more than just the ocean. It encompasses the sky and all that is in it. The ocean gathers its mood from the sky. One day it will be bright and sparkling with long deep comforting swells; the next an ominous gray-green, the wind whipping it into a crashing frenzy.

Fall was always a special time for me at the jetty. It was a time of rainbows. I would watch a squall gather strength as it blew in from the open sea and marched down the length of Bantry Bay. I could watch and delay my retreat to my Mini until the squall was near and then emerge as the sun reappeared, brighter and more radiant than before.

I would turn my back to the warming sun to savor that most glorious of nature's gifts . . . a rainbow! A rainbow that curved a bridge of bright perfection across the foot of the bay.

If I was lucky I would see a double bow -- the lower one more gently hued, less aggressive in color than the upper one that seemed to be protecting its timid sister below.

I never had time to read my book. Unexpected, I would hear a soft bump and scrape and Jeremiah's boat slipped up on the jetty. I always missed his approach. One moment the bay would be empty and in the next, there he would be.

"And here y'are his--self," he would say. "Just wastin' away to buy m'whole day's catch."

It was part of the game we would play each time I met his boat..

"I've thirty brilliant fish here." To Jeremiah lobsters were fish. "Take 'em all and I'll make it like a gift t'ye. An' to me, so."

"I only need six, Jeremiah," I would say apologetically.

He would grunt and mutter Irish profanities under his breath, then from somewhere under the jumble of pots and lines and tattered tarps he would uncover the most beautiful antique brass, hand-held scales and weights I have ever seen.

"And I suppose each will be a pound and a quarter as always. With huge claws, of course, of course."

From his catch we would sort out and weigh six perfect lobsters. Each one fighting mad. I insisted on this.

"And why not this big beautiful monster here?" He would always ask this of some huge torpid lobster. It too was part of the script we had developed, and I would explain, for the hundredth time, that the perfect weight for the perfect lobster was one and one quarter pounds.

"I'd not be knowin' that," for the hundredth time. "I've niver eaten one of the ugly crathers, and niver to me dyin' day will I. So it is."

I'd sit with Jeremiah then and we'd whittle tiny willow pegs to pin the lobster's claws. We' chat as we worked. "A bit of the crack," as this kind of light chatter is called in West Cork.

I would pay him then and wonder why he seemed embarrassed to take my money when it was he who had worked so hard, and perhaps had risked his life to the sea to provide me and my guests with six perfect lobsters.

On the way home I would rehearse my entrance lines. I would talk a lot trying to cover for a four hour trip that should have taken less than an hour. Yes, I love the lobster, and the dinner guests, and the road to Jeremiah's jetty. I love Bantry Bay and the clear, clean skis, and the rainbows; the sharp tangy smell of tarred line and the sweet-sour scent of the sea.

Yes. I love all these things, but especially, I treasure the memories.