The Great Wave

by Mary Lavin

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 835

An Irish Roman Catholic bishop sits in the stern of a currach, a small skin-covered boat, wearing his robes and carrying his stiff ecclesiastical vestments inside out in order to protect them. Because he travels to this island only once every four years for a confirmation ceremony, it is fitting that he come in full pomp. His vestments are exceptionally beautiful, including a cope, a capelike garment made with threads of gold, which he commissioned from a convent in Switzerland.

Privately, the bishop, who was born on this poor island, marvels that he has ever learned to appreciate the beauty of these garments. He is mildly irritated that the hem of his robe is wet from water in the bottom of the currach. The rowers warn him that his crosier, the symbol of his office, may also get wet. Although his secretary, hard-eyed Father Kane, offers to hold the staff, the bishop tersely declines.

As he notices the island church perched near the top of a cliff, the bishop becomes nauseated, perhaps by the roughness of the waves, but he says nothing. Instead he recalls how, when he was a boy, he begged to go out fishing with the island men, but his mother would not allow it, having lost her husband to the sea. Worse, she made sure that none of the fishing crews could be coaxed into taking him.

In a flashback, the bishop remembers the day when his friend Seoineen, a young seminarian, returned to the island for a leave before his final year of study for the priesthood. Headstrong Seoineen was the pride of the island, for after many years they would give one of their own to the church. When Seoineen arrived, he jokingly predicted that the herring would spawn the next day. The superstitious islanders marveled at his wisdom.

Next morning, the herring were indeed spawning. The fishermen immediately set out in their boats, but Seoineen’s father was too ill to go. His currach, the only one left ashore, had just been tarred. Seoineen declared the currach dry and ready for what appeared to be a huge catch, and he urged young Jimeen (as the bishop was called as a child) to come with him. Because the islanders believed that Seoineen, so near to the priesthood, was under God’s special protection, Jimeen’s mother was finally persuaded to let him go. Only after the boat was well away from shore did Jimeen realize that the tar on the bottom of the currach had not dried. Seoineen, the future priest, had lied.

To Jimeen, the sea appeared strange, the waves too smooth, like great glass rollers. The fish in the sea were packed so tightly they were near suffocation. Seoineen was elated by such incredible bounty. They cast their nets and began to haul them in.

As Seoineen prepared to lower the nets again, they heard a terrific clap of thunder, and the sky turned black. They could see nothing, but shouts from another boat warned them to let go of the nets or be pulled under. Jimeen’s swollen fingers were caught in the heavy mesh, and he could not free himself. Seoineen cut the boy loose but stubbornly clung to the teeming nets. “I’ll show them a man is a man, no matter what vows he takes!” he cried. “I’ll not let go this net, not if it pull me down to hell.” Though he was aware that Jimeen’s life could be lost as well as his own, he did not seem to care.

Suddenly, Jimeen saw rising up before them a huge wall of water, a great wave. Sliding down that wall were hundreds of dead fish, and within the wave itself he saw a corpse. He remembered nothing more until he found himself with Seoineen, thrown clear of the sea and lying on the grass atop the island cliff. Jimeen believed they had been saved by a miracle because of Seoineen’s presence.

In fact, a massive tidal wave had swept over the island, drowning all the inhabitants as well as those fishing in the boats. Horrified, Seoineen bemoaned his greed; his life had been saved but, with his ruined hands, for what? His dream of the priesthood was swept from his grasp along with the nets that had crippled him. He asked the same question of Jimeen: Jimeen’s life had been spared but for what?

Coming back to the present, the bishop prepares to disembark on the island. He thinks of his friend Seoineen, who lives apart from the new village and whom he has not seen since that day. The boy Jimeen, now the bishop, has taken Seoineen’s place as the island’s offering to the church. Refusing to put on his coat in spite of the cold, he takes care to display his vestments in all their magnificence so that Seoineen, who he knows is watching from the cliff, can see that he has been faithful.

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