One spring evening in 1957, I stood on the road outside my grandmother’s small house in Clonfert, county Galway. It was my twelfth year and I was waiting for my first glimpse of the Arend- Roland comet which was returning to our night sky after millions of years travelling the far-off regions of the Solar System. I had travelled down from Dublin with my parents for the Easter weekend and was now waiting with trembling excitement to see the celestial visitor.
I have loved the stars since I was ten and always wondered at their great beauty and mystery. They have a great way of making a person feel small. As small as they really are, which is as big as God meant them to be. The great elm tree that stood in front of the Rourke’s house, and facing me, was beginning to lose its winter look and its leaves were starting to bud. Daffodils were lining the road like yellow-headed pixies in the growing twilight and the Easter devotions were in full swing.
As the sun was setting and the evenings dimming, far off in the distance I could hear the lonesome drone of an aeroplane, a rare event in those days. I knew it was on its way to America from Shannon, or Rinnana, as it was known then, and probably taking exiles, sick from their smallpox vaccinations, and their loneliness, on their way to an aunt or a brother in the Bronx, or Queens, or Brooklyn. Maybe to return one day wearing a Yank suit and big coloured tie, or, maybe never, like millions of Irish before them.
In the stillness of the evening the sound of the great Super Constellation faded beyond the trees, to be replaced by other sounds; a bucket rattled in a haggard, a woman called to her cows, a man coughed in a field, something rustled in the ditch. These were all the sounds of a country evening and they filled me with a great peace.
As I stood there, I suddenly became aware of a dark figure standing behind me. The smell of Sweet Afton in the air told me it was my uncle, Sonny. He was a small, quarrelsome man who never married and slept in a settle bed on the cement floor of my granny’s kitchen, under the statue of the Sacred Heart and the headless Child of Prague.
He was well known for his tall tales, his embellishment of the truth, and jokes we never laughed at. He always wore the same three- piece suit, in hail, rain or shine, and at mass, in the pub, or in the bog footing turf on a hot shimmering afternoon. For all I knew, he wore it in bed, too.
What always fascinated me about him was his glass eye, which he had as a result of a childhood illness. Because of this, he was entitled to a free radio.
I remember the radio was only switched on for the news and the All Irelands. And once, long ago before I was born, the Eucuristic Congress of nineteen thirty two.
He wore spectacles that had one clear lens for his good eye, and one cloudy, always dirty one, for his glass eye. I think he only saw me through the glass one!
I remember one day, standing beside the wash hand-basin watching him shave, with his cut throat razor in his hand and his false teeth on the window sill before him.
He was wearing a collarless shirt and his braces were hanging down the backside of his crumpled, baggy trousers. He ignored me as usual and went on shaving. He knew I was watching him and for badness he suddenly popped out his glass eye, rinsed it in the shaving mug, and popped it back in again, never batting his one good eyelid! I never watched him shave again, ever. And I always kept my distance from him after that, until this one spring evening.
Anyway, there we stood, in the twilight, and looking up at the dimming sky, him seeing as much with one eye as I with two. “Well, John Mac”, he said after a minute, “Are you looking for the star with the hairy tail?” I was stunned, because he never ever spoke to me, and I didn’t think he even knew I existed.
“ It’s not a star, Uncle Sonny” I said, knowingly, “It’s a comet, a big chunk of ice and rock that’s come from millions of miles in space, and its tail is made up of gas and dust, blown away by the solar wind. And it’s on its long journey around the Sun”, I said breathlessly, in my eagerness to impress him with my great knowledge on the subject.
“Well now”, he said, after a moment. “Isn’t that a caution?” And then, turning on his heel, he was gone, leaving a cloud of Sweet Afton trailing behind him like a ghost at evening time, and me alone with the bats and the universe.
When he had gone, I turned and looked up. The shadow of the night had crept over the land and the birds were now silent in their thin sleep. The sky was ablaze with thousands of twinkling stars, some brilliant white, some icy blue diamonds, and some fiery red, like the ruby eyes of a great dragon.
They seemed to be dancing in the chill, clear evening air and, as they danced, the Milky Way wound its misty way through them, on its way to some far off shore over the horizon, to the end of time.
And there, high up in the sky, was the Arend – Roland comet, hanging like a great blue and yellow scimitar sword over my head. I had never seen anything so beautiful and awe-inspiring in my young life, and I knew that moment would remain in my mind’s eye for the rest of my life.
As I watched, a great feeling of my own mortality crept over me, although I did not know what that was back then. It would be many years before that feeling would leave me.
Yet the comet, in all its magnificence, was like me: only a tiny part of the great universe, and for all its splendour, it too, would one day die, like all things in the universe
Soon it would kiss the Sun and begin its return journey to the place where it was born in that far off distant and silent space from whence it came.
As I stood there in wonder, the great vault of the heavens revolved slowly above me. And as I watched, the comet slowly followed the setting sun and disappeared bellow the distant horizon. And I knew in that moment that I would never see it again.
One day, in the long away future, the comet will return. And I often wonder, when that day comes, will there be a small boy standing on a lonely road, somewhere in the west of Ireland, looking up in wonder and saying to himself, “Well now, isn’t that a caution.”
Of course there will.