The Rua it was named because of its rusty colour when it gnashed and roared in flood, pouring through the valley’s slopes to finally consummate with the sea at the mouth of Ballo Harbour.
On the first day of November in the year of ’84, that enduring river turned on the town of Murn. You will remember it if you were there: clouds gathered overhead like great black cattle, the sun dimmed and the air was charged with augury, a sense of the imminent, the never-heard-tell-of close at hand.
The things of nature sensed it first. Rats could be seen ferrying their young further up the incline of the bank. Horses were skittish, dogs chewed their leashes. No birdsong could be heard – even the wizened, weird old herons had disappeared. Spiders climbed the branches of the trees to spin new webs, cocooning the leaves with silver gauze. And down the banks a boy gathering insects in a jar stared mesmerised as worms emerged winding from the soil.
The rain began. Spots of water smacked off the paths and then the downfall quickly thickened to a deluge that within an hour flooded the gutters and left the roads slick and gleaming. All day long rainfall flogged the grass and stones and beat down the sycamores and stripped the cones from the stands of pines. The current picked up speed and the river swelled to the lip of its banks and churned muck turned it claret. And now the siege was on.
The hard men and the horseshoe-throwing boys smoked and spat and kept watch on the river’s rise from the doorway of the saddlery, making wagers on when the swell might gain the quay. Two more days of steady downpour it took, and then that renegade Rua breached its embankments and almost at once the promenade was a lake that rose and kept on rising until landmarks were submerged. One entire oak, old and rotten but still a mighty oak, was pulled from its moorings and upended completely, and then drifted off like a toppled god. There were landslides on the railway track, all services suspended. The handball alley filled with dirty sluicewater, rubbish floating on the surface like bits of shipwreck. Local radio issued flood damage updates on the hour. Everywhere was besieged and soaked as that bloated old river conquered the valley slopes and threatened the town’s worried heart.
Nearly a week of this before the rain eased off and the sky began to clear. On the morning of November seventh, the first full day of pale sunlight following six long days of gloom, the body of Iggy Ellis, a twenty-six-year-old security guard with an address at New Larkin Park, was found washed up some three miles downstream. Some said he’d been seen in Hyland’s the night before, throwing shorts down his neck as if to douse a fire.
Two days after that, the centre-forward for the under-twenty-one hurling team, Owen Cody, was recovered by a dredging crew clearing silt from the river’s bed – some said he’d stormed out of a training session after a row with the trainer Tommy Lennon.
That Sunday night, twenty-five-year-old single farmer Isaac Miller got up from the breakfast table, filled his pockets with stones, went for a walk and did not return. Then the remains of an unidentified male were found floating in a still pond under the railway bridge at the end of the promenade. And on November twelfth the body of fifth-year student Nicky Wickham was recovered at Marlhole Point.
The number of those drowned or reported missing continued to rise as the flood ran its course. Townsfolk were called down to the morgue to identify bodies, some relieved when they couldn’t verify the deceased, others when they could. Television and radio crews appeared and reporters thrust out microphones and questioned locals about this drowning epidemic. The locals clammed up or stammered if you please to be left alone.
By now the floodwaters had begun to draw back within the river’s banks. Waterfront residents readied themselves for the dismantling of floodgates and sandbag dams as plumbers and electricians poked through debris. The riverfront was a jumble of furniture, ruined books, skips filled with sodden bits and pieces. Restoration of quayside properties would run to many thousands, the wireless said. But the world beyond Murn continued on: reports of nuclear power protests and the latest on the miners’ strikes, fallout from the Brighton Hotel bombings, famine in Ethiopia, four more years of Ronald Reagan.
On the morning of Sunday November eighteenth, eighteen days after the rain began, the parish priest Father John Callaghan approached his pulpit in St Cecilia’s church. His face that day was gaunt, and his eyes were clouded as they searched and beseeched the faces of the congregation. He spoke into the microphone and the church resounded with a single word.
They sat in rows, the survivors, the plodding on, heads bowed and hands clasped between their knees, both embarrassed by the priest and for him, because they had no answer to the question. The only one who knew was God, and no one would presume to speak for Him.
The priest invoked the Great Flood in the Bible and wondered if their earth so offended the sight of Our Lord that He would smite them with another deluge, and that the river would steal away so many.
He voiced disbelief that the town of Murn could have affronted God so grievously that He would renege on His promise – rainbows our reminder – to never again destroy the world with water. Next time, He had promised, it would be with fire.
‘Is our wickedness so great? Is mankind beyond redemption?’ the priest demanded. ‘I say that we are not. If we are to be saved, however, we must petition Him. We must raise our voices in prayer and let our virtue shine to the heavens, that He might see our goodness and spare us this affliction. The cursed folk of Egypt once marked their doors with blood so that the spirit of death might pass and spare their firstborn sons. We will not mark our doors with blood. We will confront darkness with light. We must put candles in the windows of our hearts, lit by the fire of the Holy Ghost.’
At this point he came down to stand among the congregation, and even now, without the benefit of amplification, his every syllable was heard.
‘I do not know whether this flood is God’s will or Satan’s,’ he said. ‘My name is not Noah and this church is no ship all covered in pitch. But we can make it our ark. We can shelter here from the flood’s wrath and take refuge in prayer and hymn and wait until the first bird returns with the leaf held in her beak.’
With this he swept back up the aisle and regained the pulpit and stooped so close over the microphone you could hear his every breath.
‘Until that day,’ he said, ‘when a new rainbow lights up the sky, we must be vigilant. Because we know neither the day nor the hour, nor whom the river will next take.’
And now he turned away from the congregation. The front rows all sat with faces ashen, aware that many friends and relatives of those lost were present, still raw with grief. Even the bovine old boys at the back of the church smelling of pub and wet dog, their overcoats fuming as they leaned against the radiators – even these old duffers shuffled with discomfort.
The priest’s words were answered by the river. That week she returned three more bodies. On Monday November