Those words from the song "Galway Bay" evoke a yearning to be by that lovely, salt-sprayed seaside. Having visited Galway this past summer, I can fully understand why.
The west of Ireland is filled with charm, and nowhere more than Galway, where each year, on a Sunday in mid-August near the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, a crowd gathers at the Claddagh pier for the ancient ceremonial blessing of Galway Bay and its fishermen.
This is the start of the herring season, and it's traditional for the fisherfold to ask the Lords blessing for a plentiful harvest, and ask His help in bringing them safely home after each voyage.
The ceremony itself is a simple one. Early in the morning, a fleet of boats gather in the Bay - currachs and the traditional Galway hookers - and at the pealing of a church bell, they form a circle around a boat carrying altar boys, a choir from the Galway Church, and a Dominican priest.
A passage from the Gospel of St. John is read:
'And he said unto them, cast your nets on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. And they cast threfore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes. And Simon went up, and drew the net to land full fo great fishes, a hundred and fifty and three, and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken.'
Following this, the Benedictite calls on all creation to give glord to God. Another gospel, this time from St. Luke, recalls the weariness and frustration of St. Peter:
'Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing; nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net. And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake. And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships.’
Another blessing asks God's mercy on the fisherfolk:
'We ask, O Lord, your mercy on us. Even as you multiplied five loaves and two fish to satisfy the hunger of five thousand, so now multiply for the use of the men the fish that are generated in these waters that we, experiencing your benevolence, may give thanks and praise in your Holy Name.'
At the end of the blessing, the white-robed priest calls on Mary, Star of the Sea:
'Mary, Star of the Sea, intercede for your children, and when they are tossed about among the storms and tempests of life, look to the star, and call upon Mary.'
The Magnificat is sung, and the sea is sprayed with holy water. The last action of this charming ceremony is a Sign of the Cross over the fishing fields, an appeal to God to bless them and the men who fish in them, as well as their boats, tackle, and their labors.
The blessing over, the boats will make a short circuit of the bay before heading homeward. While on the outward journey, hymns and the singing of the Rosary can be heard, on the way home group songs sound a lighter note, always including the singing of "Galway Bay."
Today, trawlers have replaced the black, brown-sailed hookers in the bay, but the traditional Galway fishing boats still play an important part of the pageantry of the blessing of the Bay.