In The Cursing Stone, Tom Sigafoos has written a richly historic novel with authentic Irish maritime roots. Inspired by a real life incident, The Cursing Stone ingeniously blends fact and fiction around the sinking of the HMS Wasp: a British naval gunboat that foundered off Tory Island on September 22, 1884 with almost all hands lost.
Sixteen year old Tory Islander, Ruairí Mullan, feels the call of the sea: that ‘surge in his heart […] when he had seen distant ships sailing beyond Toraigh into the foggy North Atlantic waters.’ He is caught between his longing for adventure and the pull of the land under his feet. Then he suffers a terrifying, life threatening injury gathering gull’s eggs off the island’s precipitous cliffs. On an island mythically linked to the one-eyed ancient Irish warrior Balor, Ruairí is an altogether sweeter presence. Like the Norse god Odin, the loss of one eye strengthens Ruairí’s inner vision, allowing him to see with compassion and nimble intelligence into the flawed hearts of his fellow islanders and those who ply the seas around Ireland’s coast.
Through Ruairí’s conflicted journey towards adulthood we experience island life in granular detail; the extended family and social politics of a remote island community. Its fidelity to the Irish Catholic church alongside older beliefs in an ancient cursing stone. The lonely essential chores of a lightkeeper deep in the grip of alcoholism brought about by the unremitting solitude of the job. There are inner conflicts too for the island schoolmaster, coerced by the authorities through his need to protect his detained brother. And there is the island wisewoman, Eithne, blessed with the gift of healing, and cursed with the foreknowledge of the awful consequences for her community, and for her neighbouring islanders, if she does not use the darker powers available to her to prevent the evictions that the HMS Wasp has been ordered to help the authorities carry out.
Ruairí’s future is seemingly settled when the island priest, Father Hayes, considers the one-eyed boy an ideal candidate for the seminary in Maynooth, thus redeeming the disgraced and exiled priest with his Bishop. But fate has other plans for Ruairí, first through a naval school of mapping, and then in the hulking shape of Sub-Lieutenant William Gubby, the HMS Wasp, and its inexperienced and gruesomely incapacitated Captain John H. Russell. Once aboard, Ruairí discovers a crew of uncertain loyalty and even poorer seafaring abilities.
The pleasures of this novel are its precise evocations of what life was like aboard ship for a naval ‘powder-monkey’, the seediness of an Irish port town in the 1880s, the skills required of map makers, the cruelty of mass evictions, and the heartless reporting of the sufferings of the native Irish in the newspapers and journals of the day. The sure rendering of historic detail adds grist and ballast to a novel that builds inexorable to a tense and vivid climax. Can Ruairí successfully navigate the challenges and obstacles destiny puts in his way, or will he too founder with the ship that takes his young life full circle back to the unforgettable and tragic beauty of Tory Island?
May 4th 2021