The Lonely Sea and Sky.

Dermot Bolger.
New Ireland Books, 2016.

I finished Dermot’s book last night just one month after attending his reading which launched the book on Sunday 15th May at Collins Barracks where he is writer in residence.

Before I review this fine novel let me tell you a little about myself. I went away to sea in 1968 at the age of 18, as a qualified Radio Officer. I stayed for 12 years and experienced Atlantic storms on my first trip, the only time I became seasick. My principal job was looking after the Safety of Life at Sea and I served on all types of vessel including the British India migration vessels Sirdhana and Dumra which plied from Bombay to the Persian Gulf taking deck passengers on the migrant trade to ports in the Persian Gulf and we also stopped at Karachi to pick up pilgrims doing the hajj, their once in a lifetime trip to Mecca. I saw at close quarters crowded decks where over 1,000 people milled about. This trade died out by 1970 as jumbo jets could carry these migrants in a few hours rather than the 10 days it took to get to Basrah calling at Karachi, Oman, Doha, Dubai, Bahrain and Kuwait on the way. In my time at sea I went through the eye of a hurricane and as that ship was an OBS (weather observation) vessel was able to relay the exact centre of that hurricane off the Cuban coast. I often read a book in a day or two, novels by Alister MacLean, Nevil Shute, Wilbur Smith etc., and books like the Cruel Sea, Citizen Kane and Sand Pebbles. Nowadays it takes me 3 to 6 months to read a novel as I like to read it line by line to get immersed in the characters. I have been trained to speed read but this scanning technique is more suited to research. So a month to read Dermot’s novel was good going with other calls on my time.

This book follows in the tradition of some of the authors and novels I have mentioned above but it is much more as it is a tribute to Dermot’s Dad. His Dad did not talk much about his wartime experience and in the end was stricken by Alzheimer’s so I am sure he did not talk too much at all but Dermot has through memories and research got into his persona and tells a huge tale that will find a place for everybody from children to Grandparents. To those who have been at sea it will help you relive episodes in your life. They won’t be the same as those in the book but it reawakens whole passages of time.

I have only met Dermot twice the second being at the book launch where I offered to review his book. I first met him about 8 years ago when I attended the launch of a BSc in Personal and Professional development at All Hallows College where he was poet in residence at that time.

I asked him if he ever considered doing a degree. He told me he was busy looking after his Dad and it would have to wait. In the meantime I was very sorry to learn of his wife’s tragic demise and his Dad passing in 2011.

The book covers less than one month from 14th Dec 1943 until early Jan 1944. It tells us how young Jack is forced by circumstances to seek employment at sea as a cabin boy even though he is too young. He needs to support his recently widowed mother and three younger siblings and there is no work at home. We get immersed in his life, his family and his first love.

The 10 fictional characters are based loosely on the real crew of the MV Kerlogue a sister ship of the one on which his father was drowned. The vessel itself has been recently repaired after an attack by an RAF fighter aircraft. Each character comes to life on the pages of the book most especially his mentor Mossy a neighbour from his home town of Wexford. Dermot paints these as very believable characters who each have a job and a function on that ship where they all pull together which is strangely ironic when you see how two of the Engineers get on.

Cardiff and particularly Barry Island and Tiger Bay is a bleak place for Jack to visit as his first port and he uses his wits to escape from a street gang who take exception to this young Irish lad on their turf.

Lisbon is a different story. It is bright and inviting and on his first foray ashore he meets Katerina who enchants him and is the centre of his attention for the next couple of days. In that time he gets a huge insight into happenings in Lisbon, a neutral country, which is faring much better than Ireland because it is being used as a stop off for trade with America during the war.

The journey home comes across a scene from hell when they are directed by a German war plane into an area where three destroyers have been sunk by the British Navy and how they spend over twelve hours rescuing 168 of these men.

Dermot excused his non seafaring background to me but I found no problems with how he dealt with all the terminology that a ship at sea can present.

I can really recommend this book for its authenticity, learned from his Dad, its vivid detail of the poverty set against the wealth of parts of Lisbon which was an escape for some of Europe’s rich during the war and a route of escape for many others. It was full of double dealing and spies and this visits the book in a big way in one passage.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

Well done Dermot and I am sure your Dad would be proud of how you have portrayed him.

Joe Ryan, Irish Coast Guard (retd).