Foraging along the deserted banks of the River Moy, beneath the silent Cathedral belfry, life as normal continues for the piping waders, deaf to the struggles of the human world.
The beeping of car horns is momentarily replaced by the plaintive ‘beep’ of the oystercatchers as they suddenly take flight moving overhead with quick-flick wing strokes in a radiant sky.
In this unreal world of lockdown, the migrating oystercatchers in their black and white plumage, settle on the roof of the riverside Manor Hotel to survey an eerie scene from their lofty perch.
Like the Vikings raiding for slaves over 1,000 years ago when Holy Day gatherings of defenceless believers were easy prey, an invisible foe, Covid 19, has without warning “invaded” all our lives.
Along the footpath, passing walkers and joggers, relieved by the global pandemic of the daily grind, but burdened by the uncertainty of a post-Lockdown world, cheerfully observe social distancing with a jaunty sidestep.
An empty town centre, apart from passing lorries busily hauling vital supplies, recalls the quietude of lazy summer Sundays from long ago; the enforced holiday an opportunity to re-trace childhood trails.
In a lottery for where to spend Lockdown, Ballina would be a jackpot prize with its beautiful riverside walks, parks and woodland.
Under a painter’s sky, my walk takes me south along the river, beside the Salmon Weir pedestrian bridge, where a lone angler is casting for the first salmon of the season. In normal years, the unfortunate prized fish would have already made the local headlines.
It’s a beautiful blue-sky Monday morning and in the riverside housing estate laughter sails over the garden walls. The joyful voices of children are another momentary distraction from the constant vigilance needed to stay safe from the dreadful Coronavirus.
Walking past St. Michael’s 18th century Church of Ireland, the soaring spire of St. Muredach’s Cathedral comes into view giving a striking perspective of two of Ballina’s places of Christian worship set against domes of cumulus floating in a northern sky.
These are days like never before when for the first time in 1,600 years since St. Patrick celebrated the first Easter in Ireland, believers were unable to congregate in churches to celebrate one of the holiest times in the Christian calendar.
Church Services and benediction are relayed by webcam and TV, as are family-only funeral services; the church bell silenced; its solemn hourly chime part of another world before Covid 19.
In The Windings of the Moy, Rev. James Greer recalled that the original bell in St. Muredach’s Cathedral could be heard tolling for 10 miles around.
“On calm Sunday mornings in Enniscrone, the Cathedral bell in Ballina often told Protestants in Enniscrone the time to set out for Divine worship.”
Writing almost 100 years ago, Rev. Greer lamented the fact that the old bell was replaced.
“Far out in Killala Bay it could be heard and its dying fall brought consolation to the heart of many a lonely fisher. There are now many bells from sea to mountain, but none with the sweet and solemn tone of that old bell.”
Kerry-poet, Brendan Kennelly, in his poem, The Bell, might have been thinking of the bell of St. Muredach’s tolling above the River Moy when he wrote:
Under the bridge, the river calmed
Its lifeblood towards the sea;
Touched by the bell the river kept
Its depth for company
As the Moy estuary widens into Killala Bay, a few kilometres north of Ballina (out of bounds for now), two other places of worship, on opposite banks of the river, are separated by the vicissitudes of history and the meandering Moy.
Rosserk, one of Ireland’s best-preserved 15th-century Franciscan Friaries, stands silent at the river’s edge, its medieval rectangular tower in vivid contrast against the backdrop of the slender spire of Killanley Church of Ireland, perched on a lofty hilltop across the river.
Everywhere the silence is thankfully filled by the joyous sounds of birdsong in springtime, more audible now.