‘How are ye all west along?’ That was Wally’s salute the first time I met him. I had arrived in Union Hall with three crewmen. We were on our way to Brittany from Dingle and it was a given that we would spend a night in the west Cork village before setting sail south for the Scilly Isles off Land’s End, which would act as a stopover before the final leg of the journey to the north coast of France. I had been calling to Union Hall regularly prior to that in the summertime and had become aware of Wally and he of me. It was a natural development that we should eventually connect and have words since we were both men of the sea and had that commonality which draws seafaring folk together.
Wally was a large-framed man who gave the impression that he was awkward in the field of manoeuvrability but he always seemed to get by. A stiffness of gait didn’t seem to inhibit the end result of his mechanical motions in any way. He could be described as never being in a hurry or as someone who possessed an acute awareness of the maxim that when God made time, He made lots of it. In his sixties, he had jet black hair and the skin on his square-jawed face was smooth and tanned all year round. No doubt he possessed genes from long-forgotten ancestors who hailed from Andalusia or farther afield. He spoke with a mix of a west Cork, musical accent and an imported twang of indiscernible origin. His attire was invariably a fisherman’s jumper with shirt collar protruding and dark-coloured slacks, which in part concealed the wideness of his girth.
Wally was mostly interested in serious conversation relating to matters on land and sea. He could talk authoritatively about local events and give a knowledgeable account of the historic lay of the land. He knew several fishermen from ‘west along’, including some from the fishing town of Dingle. We both discovered that we had common acquaintances on the periphery of Dingle Bay. But Wally also liked a bit of ‘gaff’. His humour was mostly matter-of-fact and he was often hilarious unbeknownst to himself. I could tell him a tall tale and have him enthralled most of the way until he’d say, ‘By God, O’Connor, you must think I’m an awful fool. Ye Kerry fellas think we are a right bunch of “luadramáns” down here.’ We had many a good chat and playful banter over a pint in J. Moloney’s pub. That was in the day when people went to the pub to socialise and meet friends in a convivial atmosphere. The pub was three doors up the street from Wally’s and was the centre of the social life of the village. Inside the door to the right was Wally’s berth. There he commanded his corner and was in a position to oversee the general comings and goings of the place.
Wally had a boat, a twenty-six-foot half decker with a scant wheelhouse fitted aft of the deck on the starboard side, which he used for some small-time fishing around the coves and inlets of Glandore Bay. The boat’s engine had a distinctive sound, like the one from The African Queen: the chug-chunk, chug-chunk announced its coming long before it became visible to anyone expecting its landfall at Union Hall Pier. Its commander could then be seen standing to the side outside the wheelhouse with his long arm extended inside to manipulate the wheel. During one of his excursions around the bay, Wally acquired an orange-coloured rubber dinghy which was washed up on the shore. I subsequently saw this in the backyard of Wally’s house when once invited to partake of tea, which was duly poured from a wide-based aluminium teapot that would have been an ideal example for explaining the inverted cone frustum in one of my geometry classes. It happened that I was in the market for a tender for my own boat at the time and the orange dinghy fitted the bill perfectly. I broached the subject with its newfound owner over a drink and he suggested that I call to the house on Sunday for dinner and that we would strike a bargain in an atmosphere of dining and relaxed companionship. In other words it was to be a working lunch on his home turf.
On a fine sunny day in late July I arrived in Wally’s kitchen, which was to the front of the house and looked out onto the main street of the village. The dining table was directly inside the front window. I sat facing the window and my host fitted into a well-worn chair in the left corner that backed onto a painted kitchen dresser. The stove was to the left of that. On the table a plate was heaped with boiled potatoes with their skins cracking smiles and revealing white furry insides. The bacon and cabbage was on our plates, already served from a pot on the stove onto large plates. A red and yellow floral pattern circled the food. A jug of milk and two sturdy mugs were placed strategically and Kerry Gold butter in its foil wrapper, with an ivory-handled knife piercing it at an angle of forty-five degrees, stood at the ready. A bottle of YR brown sauce completed what was on offer.
We dug into the meal and chatted amicably like long-time friends do. People were passing the window, throwing shadows across the table, which prompted Wally to remark: ‘By God, there’s a lot of traffic out there today.’ I imagined that my bachelor host often sat in the corner chair as he dined alone while passers-by intermittently broke the solitude of his day. Though he didn’t exude an aura of lonesomeness – if anything, Wally came across as having great independence and confidence. I got the impression that he valued good company and the exchange of ideas and stories.
‘I suppose one hundred, maybe one twenty, would be a fair price for the dinghy, Wally,’ I ventured as we were into the meal proper.
‘Eat up there awhile, John.’
The food was good Sunday fare. I could have done without the milk though. The buttered spuds were pure heaven.
‘What will you let it go for Wally? And remember we are old friends.’
‘I suppose it’s worth two hundred and fifty easy, John, and eat up them fine potatoes. You need a bit of fattening, you know.’
‘I didn’t expect that you’d be asking that much, seeing as you kind of found it. What about one forty?’
‘’Tis hard to beat a good plate of bacon and cabbage and good company while you’re eating it. What do you think, John?’
Wally lopped more potatoes onto my plate and reached to the pot on the hob with a long ladle to scoop up more cabbage for the two of us. We munched for another while, each waiting for the next instalment of the bargaining process.
‘I’d probably go as far as one sixty just because it’s you, Wally, and especially seeing that you invited me round for this wonderful dinner.’
‘You’re a wily one alright, O’Connor. There’s no cobwebs in ye lads from west along.’
And so it went on. Whenever I made a lowly offer, Wally countered with quips about the quality of the meal and the effort it took to bring it to table. We had an enjoyable thrust and parry and finally agreed on a price, which was sealed over two mugs of tea so strong that they would put a wrinkle on a pig’s back.
A few years later Wally became scarce around the place. I’d been told he wasn’t well. Then one year I found that he had died since my previous visit. I visited the graveyard on a sparkling summer’s day and was hit with the realisation that I never knew his surname. In fact I didn’t know his Christian name either. It was an incredibly stupid dilemma to be in: not knowing the name, or date of passing, of the one you had come to seek out. I lingered awhile and looked to the sea from the elevated place of rest. A yacht was heeled over by the brisk southerly wind and a fishing boat was heading for home, ushered in by a cloud of seagulls. A groundsman carrying a scythe entered and began to cut the high grass between the graves. I explained my predicament and he guided me to Wally’s last port of call. I thought that he would approve of the location; above the sea with the cry of the gulls and even the distant sound of a boat engine chugging along the coast. I said my farewell to Wally and as I made to go the man tending the graves said: ‘Ye were friends, you and Wally?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Wally and I were friends.’
Excerpt from More Than a Voyage – Union Hall and Wally’s Dinghy.