I have heard too many funeral bells this winter. I have donned my funeral coat more than I wished to. I have shuffled along funeral lines and proffered my sympathies to trembling hands, damp from the tears dabbed momentarily. I have accepted sympathies too. I have been in the lines and among the lines. I have said goodbye to people I loved and respected. I have hugged colleagues and friends who shake with sadness and shock. I have had the obligatory cup in my hand at wakes, picked at fruit cake baked by the loving hands of saddened neighbours.
I have hoped that with the coming of spring and the stretching of the day that the low peal of the funeral will become an uncommon sound. I remember ringing it as an altarboy, slow and deliberate, not the rushed 25 peals of the bell eight minutes before Sunday Mass. No, for the impending arrival of a cortege, when we tugged at the rope that led all the way to the bell in the tower, we took care to ensure that the clapper would hit the inside of the bell once, in a low meaningful but subdued way; to go out across the sky and tell all that a death had taken place, that a moment of reflection should occur, to ensure that even when the sound stops that you would hear the echo of its lone ringing in your heart. It would go out through the evening sky to stop people in their tracks, to disturb people’s lives and tell them that someone in their community is mourning.
The low ring of the funeral bell has been heard across far too many communities over the past few months. There have been tragic accidents on land and at sea that have resulted in the funeral bell stopping many in their tracks. Each peal a reminder of death, but perhaps more so of the fragility of life, a sort of aural elegy from a country churchyard going out across the fields.
When we think of life and its preciousness, we have to remember those who risk their lives so we can live ours. Next week marks the second anniversary of one of the worst tragedies to befall the emergency services — that terrible morning at Blacksod Bay when Rescue 116 and its four-person crew was lost. It was a truly shocking event that reverberated most along the coasts where there is so much interdependence between those who work the seas and those who mind those who do.
The crew of Rescue 116 truly represented all that is good about mankind as they left their base that dark night on a mission to help. And yet, if they had returned safely to their beds the next morning, we would probably have never heard of the task they were deployed to fulfil.
Because this is what they do without the headlines.
And the same applies to all of our emergency services. We hear of what they do at times of crisis when what they do makes the news. This morning as you read this, there are fire crews, lifeboat personnel, gardai, ambulance crew, coastguards, mountain rescue crews, medical teams who are recovering from a night of extraordinary achievements that we will never get to hear about. Locally and nationally, they put their lives at risk so that we can be safe, so that loved ones can be recovered.
The hardware deployed in the saving of lives is complex and durable. It has to be hardy and complicated to withstand the terrain in which our heroes find themselves day after day, night after night. In the next decade, we may see the use of drone technology in situations which now require human deployment. Maybe they will take some of the risk out of the job they do, but they will never replace the need for bravery and endeavour, the likes of which are displayed every day and night in our name.
This morning, as we reflect on the loss of the crews of Rescue 116, spare a thought for their families, their heads and lives still in turmoil. Send some virtual energy to them to help them through the reminder of that awful accident. There is an emptiness in all their hearts this week that can be helped in a small way by our taking the time to appreciate the role they played in our country. Heroes forever.
And when you do that, remember the local heroes in all our communities who do what they do so that the funeral bell may not peal as often across the fields of our mind.