Lough Swilly holds many dark secrets. This enticing Lake of Shadows, claimed my
mother’s eight-year-old sister, Brigid.
This is her story.
A fisherman found her in the tidal part of the Crana river. Her long hair was
entangled in an old salmon net ‘she was like a little doll floating,’ Dan said. They had
to cut her hair to free her.
In late summer, luscious blackberries grew along the riverbank, and Brigid must have
slipped attempting to gather them.
No one saw her fall in, but for Dan’s dog barking she could have floated out with the
next tide. When they pulled her out they laid her on an old blue door and four men
carried the makeshift stretcher up the silent main street of the seaside town. As it
passed, people blessed themselves for it was the youngest drowning known to the
Two of the neighbours ran ahead to warn Mammy. I was in the hall playing when I
heard the loud knocks.
“It’s not locked,” Mammy called. The two neighbours entered, drying their eyes.
“Mary!” one called.
My mother came from the kitchen cupping her floury hands. She looked at her
“What’s happened?” she asked very quietly. I watched as the sunlight from the
landing window caught her auburn hair, making her fine hairnet look like a halo. Dust
floated in the sunbeam as Mammy looked from one to the other and waited.
“It’s Brigid- the river.”
Mammy clenched her hands and moaned, “Sweet Jesus,” before she fell against the
wall with her arms stretched wide, like a crucifixion. The flour left a residue on the
pink roses wallpaper.
The men stopped outside our door and as Mammy rushed forward the women tried to
hold her back. I squeezed by them and looked up at a battered door but my mother
saw it all at first glance. She turned, gave me a gentle push and said, “Keep an eye on
wee Michael, good girl,” then she sank to the ground as the men laid the door
carefully down on the pavement. Mammy’s whole body trembled when she brushed
Brigid’s hair away from her face.
I ran back to Mammy and squeezed her tightly. Over her shoulder I saw Brigid’s face
and I knew then that she was dead. With a huge effort Mammy rose and held my
They lifted Brigid very gently and carried her into the parlour. Wee Michael was
crying with hunger and Mammy went over to the nursing seat beside the stove in the
kitchen to feed him. She rocked and I could almost feel the deep silent sobs as the
baby began suckling at her breast. I scrambled up on her other knee and did what she
often did to us when we were hurt. I kissed her face and said “Let’s say a prayer to
make everything better.” I started saying the words ‘Angel of God my Guardian
Michael slept and Mammy covered her breast then touched my cheek as she joined in
the prayer. Her smile was sad but she whispered,
“I love you, my beautiful child, God will get us through this.”
I snuggled, listening to her heartbeat and felt a moment of perfect intimacy in the
midst of the that terrible sadness.
Now, years later, as I nurse my own baby daughter I feel my mother’s love enfolding
us. I look into my baby’s face and say “I love you” just as my mother did the day our
Brigid drowned. I touch her face and experience my second, perfect intimate