Swim To the Bottom and Wait
The Irish are a people steeped in legend. Surrounded by the sea, and so often the inhabitants making their livings from the sea, it's inevitable that legends and myths would grow up around it. Perhaps the most popular is the story of the Aran sweater. The seas in the west of Ireland are notoriously rough, and the fishermen who worked those waters did so in a small leather boat called a curragh, which though incredibly seaworthy would sometimes capsize, throwing the fishermen into the sea. Now fish are ruthless creatures, and generally tend to feed first on the face and extremities of a drowned person. So the legend went, that on the Aran Islands off the coast of county Clare, the women would knit sweaters in a familial pattern, so that their drowned loved ones could be recognized by their clothes.
This is of course just a myth, for the purposes of marketing, invented by one Heinz Kiewe. Ireland feeds on mythology, and there's nothing wrong with myths, though it's always disappointing to find them of a more recent variety, and simply to sell products.
Irish fisherman were known to take a small pot of homemade liquor with them, known as potcheen. Perhaps in respect to the sea, or perhaps just not to be wasteful, when the cork was popped on this jug, it was thrown overboard. The idea was that you never knew when your number would be up, so the pot must be finished before returning to shore, and throwing away the cork ensured that.
It's also said that Irish fishermen never learned to swim. This wasn't as stupid as it sounds. To be thrown overboard in the Atlantic during a storm leaves very little chance of survival. Perhaps you can fight drowning for a while, and if so the cold will take you, slowly immobilizing you till you can no longer kick, no longer swim and exhausted, you sink beneath the waves.
It's said that the wise man swallows a couple of lungs full of sea water and swims to the bottom and waits. For it's not the drowning that's hard, but rather the struggle and panic that precedes it.
In Brittany, there is the legend Ys, a city built below sea level and protected by a dike. Satan, either in his treachery or in some stories, instructed by god stole the keys, opened the flood gates and the city was flooded. Everyone who lived there died, and the souls of the dead children were swallowed by the sea as punishment, for the city had become decadent over time.
The fear of drowning is very real for those of us who live on an island. As a child I once visited Hawaii with my parents. It was the early days of cable television, and the hotel which we stayed offered movies. You could rent a movie and watch it as many times as you wanted for a full day. My parents chose the Poseidon Adventure, not the best movie for people on an island, and as the weather was bad that day, we spent most of it watching the film over and over again. As a result, I've always had a fear of tidal waves.
A few years later on a vacation in Florida, we went to the cinema to see Jaws. The last day there, just up the beach, a fellow had his leg bitten off by a shark. On that same trip we went deep sea fishing, only to be caught on the ocean in a storm. All I could think of at the time was Gilligan's Island ... a three hour tour.
And now I find myself surrounded by the sea, just a few blocks from Long Island Sound. I feel an attraction to the water, and still feel an intense fear of the darkness and depth of the sea. But I know what to do if it swallows me up. Dive in, drink deep, and swim to the bottom and wait.
And the strangles will take me
Down deep in their brine
The mischievous braingels
Down into the endless blue wine
I'll open my head and let out
All of my time
I'd love to go drowning
(From the Ocean Doesn't Want Me Today, lyrics by Tom Waits)
aranatlanticBretonBrittanyDrowndrowningfamilyfishermanfishermengodIrishoceanportraitpotcheenSatanself portraitsweaterThe ocean doesn't want me todaytom waitsYs