In some parts of Ireland, when a cow becomes dull, refuses to take food, moans, and gives other indications of suffering peculiar pain, the farmers will almost immediately conclude that “she’s shot,” or, as is expressed in Irish Gaelic, “id sidithte.” The phrase suggests the involvement of the ‘sidheoga’ or fairies, and the belief is that they have shot the cow, and there are certain symptoms that appear to be peculiar to this condition. These symptoms point unmistakably to the observer that the cow has been shot, the chief symptom is a swelling of the body and painful moaning.
When such a condition arose, however, only the village’s ‘cow-doctor’ could tell for definite if the beast had been shot by the fairy folk. My great grandfather spoke one time of these ‘cow doctors’, whom he had often seen diagnosing such things. He told how he had even helped these men to perform the curing ceremony which is one of the strangest I have ever heard described.
The ‘doctor’ stood to one side of the cow, while his assistant stood at the other. The assistant takes hold of a pair of tongs to grab a glowing ember of turf and slightly burns the “the Sign of the Cross” on the hair of the cow’s side. When this is complete, he hands the tongs across, under the cow’s body, to the ‘doctor,’ who burns the “Sign of the Cross” on the other side and afterwards passes the tongs over the cow’s back to his assistant again. This ritual is repeated three times, and the first and principal part of the ceremony is concluded by making the “Sign of the Cross” with the ember on the cow’s nostrils.
The second part of the ceremony appears to be more a ‘test’ than a ‘cure.’ The doctor ‘measures’ the cow with his arm from ‘elbow’ to the ‘point’ of his fingers, beginning at the cow’s tail and going towards the horns. The ‘measurement’ is also repeated three times, and if the cow is to get better, the second measurement should be shorter than the first, and the third measurement shorter than the second, &c. Should the attempted ‘cure’ fail, which will not happen if the cow suffers from ‘shot’ and the doctor is called in time, the owner is asked that, in order to prevent the beast’s death, to ‘Tabhair do Mairtain,’ meaning ” Give her to Martin,” namely St. Martin. The owner usually agrees to this measure, and then a “nick” is cut in the animal’s ear. Blood flows from the wound and the death of the cow is averted. In most areas of Ireland, the animal can never be sold after this, but must be killed and eaten as a feast on St. Martin’s Eve, though not necessarily for many years afterwards.
In the north of Ireland, where I live, the practice was somewhat different. The owner is not barred from selling the animal, and instead of giving it to “Martin,” some member of the family, who is thought to be “lucky”, was presented with it. It was no uncommon thing to see several animals, particularly cows and sheep, at fairs with nicks cut in their ears, or a piece cut out. If there were many nicks it is regarded as a sign that the animal was of a delicate constitution, which naturally resulted in there being a reduction in the price. The number of incisions showed to all the number of times that an animal was in danger of death.
I have recently had a message from a gentleman called Michael Hegarty with reference to this bit of folklore. He informs me that he once” saw a cow cured of ‘Red Water’ in similar circumstances without the need of getting a vet.” When asked to expand, Mr. Hegarty told me, “I was a kid at the time and the cure was to stick a pin in effected manure and say a prayer to St. Martin … It worked right away.”
Thanks to Michael for this piece of folklore. If anyone has similar experiences or stories please let me know by commenting on the Blog.
The breeze of that cold March day blew harshly as I walked steadfastly across the wide windswept fields towards the old burial-ground that rested in the townland of Killygann. On reaching the remains of the ancient church, I sat down for a moment upon the grassy bank that enclosed the cemetery. Taking a moment or two I contemplated the ground that lay before me and my mind wandered, thinking upon the generations of men that had taken the road to this place over the many years of its existence. In this place they had been buried to spend an eternity waiting upon the judgement of God, for whom an altar had been raised on this spot so many long years previously.
If you didn’t know what was inside this grassy enclosure, you would never have guessed that it was indeed a place of burial. There were, however, little hillocks here and there on the surface, which were about two or feet long, and defined by a stone. They were tombstones, marking the little graves that were the last resting-places of unfortunate babies that died in the act of being born, or who been born and fated to live but a short time before uttering a brief cry of pain, and going to sleep for eternity. These innocent, but unbaptized, children were never permitted to mingle with the baptised Christians and were always placed in these long disused cemeteries. In this old churchyard had not received the body of a baptised person in many decades, and its presence was almost untraceable beneath the long, rich green grass that flourished there.
It was said that the grandfather of the present landowner had decided to plant the entire area with fir-trees, which flourished in the rich soil formed by the decomposed bodies that lay many feet below. The trees, themselves, had grown to a very unusual size, and demonstrating to all that no man is totally useless, even in death. When his time is finished, and his labours are ended, a dead man’s body may still enrich the ground that is so often impoverished by his greed. In the meantime, among these tall, sheltering trees, a colony of rooks had established their airy city. And, while the young settlers to the place busily built their new nests, the older residents of the grove were engaged in repairing the damage their homes had received from the storms of winter. The air itself was busy with the shrill discordant voices of the black horde as they seemed to be mock those that sought sleep in the lower branches.
As I sat upon that grassy bank, reflecting upon the old graveyard before me, I noticed a man walking along the same path that I had followed. He appeared to be very advanced in years, but he a tall figure of a man, who supported himself with a long wooden staff. Against the chill of the March wind the old man was wrapped in a blue-grey coat that folded close under a belt of string, and a woollen hat that was drawn over his face, as if to screen it from the sharp blast of a cold-wind that rushed toward him. He suddenly stopped, then fixed his eyes on a spot in the burial ground where a wind-blasted and branchless whitethorn stood. This ‘fairy tree’ looked as if it had become part of the fabric of this ancient, lingering as it did over its grass-grown foundation. The old man then raised his eyes heavenward and sank to his knees, while his lips moved as if speaking some silent prayer. His actions at that place fuelled my imagination as to why this old man’s deep devotion, at such a place and time. I was confident that it was not from some ordinary motive that the old man had felt the need to pray. There must have been some reason, or some tradition connected with this ancient place, that had caused the old man to pray with such enthusiasm. So, as the old man rose from his knees, I approached him and said, “My friend, I hope you will pardon me for intruding, for your sudden and impassioned prayer has awakened my inquisitiveness.”
To my surprise the old man answered me in Irish and explained, “I was only begging mercy and pardon for the souls who in the close darkness of their graves cannot help themselves and I begged the good Lord to cease placing the guilt of their fathers upon the children. This spot caused me to remember a terrible act of sacrilege that my forefathers had committed. For this great sin their descendants continue to suffer, and I did not think for one moment that someone other than God had seen me.”
“Perhaps,” he continued, “as you seem to be a stranger in these parts, you have never heard of the Bald Berrys, and the blessed Whitethorn of Killygann. It is a very old tradition, and you might even say it is just a superstitious legend. But there is the whitethorn, blasted and decayed from the contact of my ancestors’ unholy hands. And here, before you, stands the last of their name. I am a homeless wanderer, with no other inheritance than this mark of the curse and crime of his race.” Removing his woollen hat as he said this, revealing a perfectly smooth head, upon which there was not one single hair.
“That old heads should become bald, is not a rare thing,” I told him, “and I have seen younger men whose heads are as hairless as yours.”
“My head,” he replied, “from my birth to this moment, never had a single hair upon it. Sadly, my father and grandfather endured the same fate, while my great-grandfather was deprived of his long, thick hair in one tearful moment. I shall tell you the whole story as we walk along together, if you are going in the direction of this path.”
As we walked together, he told me the following story. The old man spoke in such a poetic and energetic way that I wish I was able to infuse these qualities into my translation. But, for a wider audience I have had to write in English, which is a much colder language than Irish and fails to do justice to the wonderfully poetical language of the story.
“Many a biting March wind has passed over the heads of men since Colonel Berry lived at Lisnarick, whose veins had the true blood of one of old Strongbow’s chiefs, who became a sovereign prince in the land. His forebears had formed strong alliances with the ancient owners of the land, eventually renouncing any Anglo-Saxon connection and name. This noble family subsequently gloried in the title of McCoille and the colonel did nothing in his life that would bring shame on his forebears. He kept open house for all comers, and every day an ox was killed and consumed at Lisnarick. All the influential men of note in the province came there to hunt, fish and hawk. To feast and lodge there and enjoy the hall, which was always crowded with harpers and pipers, rich men and beggars, and jesters and story-tellers, who came and went as they pleased, in constant succession.” Then the old man let out a long sigh, “I can recall some of these good old times, but now they are vanished and gone for ever. The great hospitality that was so much a part of the chieftain’s hall has gone now and the hall has become a hovel on the moor. The wanderer now turns from the great towers of a Lord’ home, seeks the shelter of the peasant’s shed!
Davey Berry and his seven brothers lived with McCoille and held his name and family. Whether McCoille went hunting on horseback, or took the opportunity to shoot, or moved among the high and titled families of the land, they always went with him. They acted like a sort of body-guard, share in his sports or helping him assert his will in any quarrels. At that time, on the banks of the Bann, near the ruined tower of Shanlieve, lived a man named Edward Berry. On his farm there was a thick and thorny thicket that, for many years had been the hiding place for a fox. This, however, was no normal fox. This fox was famous throughout the Province and was celebrated for the extraordinary speed and prowess that he had shown to those many men who had tried so hard to hunt him down. There had, indeed, been many gallant and noble huntsmen sought the honour of bearing that fox’s tail as a trophy. But all efforts had been in vain and after exhausting both hounds and horses in the arduous pursuit the fox invariably returned every night to his favourite sanctuary. To outsiders it seems that a treaty of peace existed between Edward Berry and the fox. Edward’s poultry for several years, whether they sought the banks of the Bann or the barn door, never suffered because the fox was nearby. It would mix with Barry’s dogs and spend an hour or two playing with them, almost as if he belonged to the same species. Mr. Berry gave his wild crafty friend the same protection and freedom that he permitted his own domestic animals. The fame of this strange union of interests was widespread and even to this day the memory of Berry’s fox survives in the traditions of the country.
One evening as McCoille and his followers returned from a long and unsuccessful chase of Edward Berry’s fox, their route lay by the ruins of the ancient church of Killygann. Near this sacred spot a whitethorn tree had stood, and its beauty and bloom were talked about by every man, woman, and child. The simple prayerful folk who poured their petitions to God beneath its holy shade believed that the hands of guardian angels pruned its luxuriance and developed its form of beauty. They believed also that dewfall from heaven was sprinkled by angel hands to produce its rich and beautiful blossoms, which filled the cold winds of December with many tokens of holy fragrance that welcomed the heavenly coming Him who left his Father’s throne to restore to the sons of Adam the lost inheritance of heaven. McCoille was so enamoured by the beauty of the tree and caring little for its sanctity or the superstitious awe that was attached to it, he was firmly resolved to move it to his home at Lisnarick. He wanted his lawn to have that rare species of thorn which blooms in beauty when all other trees in the field are bare and barren.
Next day, when McCoille made known his intention to remove the sacred whitethorn of Kilygann, his people were astonished at his blatant lack of respect for tradition. In response they all declared that they would resist until death any attempt to commit such an audacious act of sacrilege. Now, McCoille was not a man who would permit resistance to his will and had always been accustomed to his commands being obeyed immediately and without question. When he found that his men were now refusing to obey him he exploded with uncontrollable anger. He cursed and damned all those who were standing around him, shouting, “Traitors! You have all eaten at my table and enjoyed the hospitality of McCoille, and you have all sought and been given my protection. Yet, there are none you who are grateful enough to abandon your superstitious nonsense and carry out my commands!”
“Here, my Lord, are seven of your own name and Clan,” cried Davey Berry, “men who are sworn to stand or fall together, who obey no commands but yours, and acknowledge no law but your will. The whitethorn of Killygann shall leave its sacred place, if their strong hands and brave hearts can manage its removal. If it be a sacrilege to disturb the tree, which generations have revered, the curse for this sacrilege does not rest on us. Even should McCoille command us to tear the blessed gold from the shrine of a saint, we would not hesitate to obey him. We are just carrying out the will of our legal chieftain.”
They sang McCoille’s praises as they marched to where the tree had stood for many centuries, and they immediately proceeded to desecrate the spot that was made holy by those who had revered it over the ages. Such was the reverence shown to this holy whitethorn that a mystic circle surrounded it, within which no mortal foot may go. But, men have committed many wrongs and salved their consciences by convincing themselves that they acted in obedience to the commands of their leaders, and that a prayer of contrition will purify their souls.
That same evening McCoille saw the beautiful whitethorn planted in his garden and many were thanked for bringing it to him. Gold and rank were his rewards to those faithful men who had risen to the challenge and overcome the terrors of superstition to carry out his commands. But, McCoille was very much surprised when Davey Berry interrupted his morning sleep and announced that the tree had disappeared during the night. Confusion when he told his chieftain that the tree was again planted where it had stood for ages before, in the ancient cemetery of Killygann. McCoille was convinced that the tree venerated by the people had been secretly taken by them during the night to where it formerly stood. He immediately sent his most trusted men bring it back and stand guard until morning.
The Berry brothers obeyed the call of their chief and brought the whitethorn back. They replanted the tree, carefully covering its roots with rich mould, and made ready to watch over it all night. It proved to be a long and dark night, and they were wide awake. The night-breeze had stilled and all of nature appeared to have been mysteriously silenced. In this strange quietness a deep and undefinable feeling of dread crept into the hearts of the guards. These were men who had been tried and tested in the heat of battle but were now frightened by this fearful calmness. Their normal steadfast obedience to the commands of McCoille could not still their hearts against the remorse they began to feel, and there was talk amongst them against the sacrilege he had committed. As the night advanced their fear increased and they spread out their watchful circle around the mysterious tree. Davey, the eldest and bravest of the brothers, finally fell asleep. But, his short and fitful dozes were disturbed by wild and indistinct dreams. Then, as his sleep settled down and those vague images disappeared, the following vision came into his mind –
He began to dream that as he was keeping watch by the sacred whitethorn of Killygann, there stood before him a saintly man. This man’s radiant features and shining ancient clothing illuminated the entire area around him, piercing far into the darkness that surrounded him. In his hand he held a crosier, and upon his head sat a towering mitre. His long, white beard descended to the belt that encircled his rich bishop’s clothes, and he looked every inch the mitred abbot of some ancient monastery, which the rage of the English reformation had levelled to dust. The face of this saintly man, however, bore a fearfully severe expression, and the sleeping man fell to the ground, prostrate before the piercing eye that searched his inner-most soul.
“Wretched man,” said the shining apparition, in a thunderous voice, “ lift your head and listen carefully to your fate, and the fate that shall befall your sacrilegious brothers.”
Berry lifted his head in obedience to the instruction he received, though his soul sank within him, as stood before this dreadful voice and eye of terror. “Because you have violated the sanctity of this place” the holy man continued, “which has been consecrated to God, you and your family shall wander homeless ever more as beggars, and your heads, as a sign and a warning to future generations, shall suffer the pelting of every storm, and the severity of every changing season, unprotected by the defence that nature has bestowed upon all other men. This curse will last until your name and family be erased from memory.”
After hearing this angry denunciation against him the terrified man fell to the ground prostrate pleading for mercy, and he awakened with a cry of terror which alarmed the other guards. As he began to tell them about the terrible vision he had seen in his sleep, there was a crash of thunder, a flash of lightning, and the sweep of a whirlwind, which enveloped them all. As the new day dawned, the guards were to be found senseless, and at a considerable distance from the spot where they had lain the preceding night to guard the sacred tree. The thorn had also disappeared and, most strangely of all, the long black hair that shone like a raven’s wing, and was their pride, no longer adorned their heads. The fierce whirlwind, that had tossed them about, like the stubble of the field, had brought reality the dream, and removed their thick, long hair in its vengefulness.”
This was the story of the of the ‘Bald Berrys’ as it was told to me and I hand it on to you, the reader. I will make no further comment or note on this story, but I leave it to you to decide the truth of it. Some will question how an apparently cultured people can attribute the downfall of families, or the entailment of hereditary disease, to be caused by supernatural intervention. Others will remind you of an old saying –
Many years ago, I am told, there was a man by the name of Paddy Kelly, who lived quite near to the market town of Lurgan in the beautiful, ‘Orchard County’ of Armagh. One bright morning, as was his custom, he rose up from his bed when the sun was not much above the horizon. He had no watch on his arm and he was unsure about what time of day it was. A confusion not at all helped by the fact that the fine light coming through his window originated from a watery early morning sun. But, Paddy did know what day of the week it was, and that he had wanted to rise early so that he could go to the fair in town. There he had high hopes of being able to sell his young, healthy donkey, which he had raised from birth.
Paddy washed and dressed before taking his breakfast of porridge and toast, Then, as he finished his white enamel mug filled with strong tea, Paddy gathered his coat before he set out on his journey to the fair. He had not gone more than three miles along the road from his home that morning when a great dark cloud dimmed the light of the early morning sun, and a heavy shower of rain began to fall. Paddy looked about him and, about five hundred yards from the road, slightly obscured by some trees, he caught sight of a large house. Without a second thought he decided that he would make his way, as quickly as possible, to the house and shelter there until the rain came to an end. In his rush he was a little out of breath when he finally reached the house, and he was very surprised to see that the door before him was already opened wide. Thinking that maybe the owner had seen him rushing to the house in the rain, and opened the door for him, Paddy went into the house unannounced. As he entered he saw a large room to his left, with a grand, welcoming fire already burning in the grate. Paddy decided to sit himself down upon a small stool that stood beside the wall to await the house owner’s arrival. But, the warmth from the fire soon filled the room and rapidly began to make Paddy sleepy.
Then, just as his eyes started closing in sleep, he noticed a big weasel coming to the fire place and it had something very bright and yellow in its mouth, which it dropped on the hearth-stone before hurrying away again. Within a few moments the weasel returned with a similar object held tightly in her mouth, dropping it on the hearthstone before again disappearing. The weasel soon came back again with the same object in her mouth, and Paddy realised that it was a bright gold sovereign that she had. Once again, the weasel dropped the coin on the hearth-stone and scampered from his sight. But, she kept coming and going until, at last, she had piled a great heap of shining sovereigns on the hearth. When Paddy was sure that she was finally gone from the room he quickly rose up from the stool and walked over to the fireplace. Then, using both hands he rapidly bundled all the gold coins, that the weasel had piled up on the hearth, into his jacket pockets and, as quietly as possible, he hurried out of the house.
Despite his best efforts, Paddy was not as fast on his feet as the weasel, and he had not gotten very far before he heard the noise of the angry animal coming after him. The irate weasel was screeching and screaming loudly at Paddy, like a set of Uileann-pipes that were being played very badly. Filled with wrath the weasel quickly overtook Paddy on the road, where she jumped and twisted herself in the air, making every possible effort to get a hold of his throat, so she could tear it out. But, Paddy carried a good thick stick of oak and he used it to keep the snapping weasel from him. Then two men, who were travelling along the same road as Paddy, and in the same direction, came up to him. With one of these men was a large, sturdy dog that began snarling at the angry weasel and chased it into a hole in the wall.
Paddy continued along the road to the fair in the company of the two men and arrived there without any more interruption. Earlier that morning Paddy had headed off to the fair with the sole aim of selling his donkey and returning home immediately with the money he earned from the sale. By the afternoon things had changed and instead of coming straight home with the money he got for the donkey, Paddy went to a trader and bought himself a horse with some of the money he had taken from the weasel. He felt like a wealthy man and he wanted to come home just as a wealthy man should, proudly riding a horse. As they trotted along Paddy reached the place where the dog had chased the weasel away from him. Suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, the angry weasel came scrambling of a narrow hole in the wall. With great athleticism the weasel leaped up from the ground, catching Paddy’s horse by the throat and causing the terrified animal to bolt.
Tormented by the pain of the weasel’s bite the horse rushed off and Paddy could only keep his tight grip on the animal’s mane with the greatest of difficulty. Finally, blinded with agony, the poor horse took a huge leap that brought his rider and he into a big, wide drain that was filled with brackish water and black mud. Both horse and rider were out of their depth, choking and drowning very rapidly, until a small group of men, coming along the road from Portadown, saw the difficulty they were in and they managed to chase the weasel away from the scene. They also helped Paddy and his mount to exit the drain and put them back on their way along the road. Paddy, now in a very dishevelled condition, finally brought the horse home with him and put him into the byre, while he went to his bed and fell fast asleep.
It was very early, the next morning, when Paddy rose up from his bed and prepared himself to go out to the byre and give his new horse some fresh hay and oats. But, when he finally reached the byre door, Paddy saw the weasel scampering out of the byre with her fur completely soaked with a large patch of thick red blood. “Christ almighty! A thousand curses on you and may each one be worse than the one before,” screamed Paddy, “Satan’s polecat and killer of the innocent, what have you done now?”
Paddy hurried into the byre wondering what he would find. There, lying on the hay covered floor, he found the horse, two of his dairy cows, and two newly born calves lying dead in pools of blood. Shocked, upset and angry, Paddy came out of the byre cursing and swearing loudly, and he went immediately to his large farm dog, which was already fighting in its chains, barking and snarling at the weasel as it glared menacingly at Paddy. He now took hold of the chains, loosened them and set the massive dog at the evil killer. The dog snapped at the weasel, taking a tight grip of the struggling creature which, at the same time, took a strong hold of the huge mastiff. Although Paddy’s dog was an excellent farm guard-dog, and despite his size, he was quickly forced to loosen his hold of the weasel before Paddy could reach the battle site.
As the vicious weasel scampered off to make good her escape, Paddy kept his eyes on her movements. He followed her every twist and turn, through grass and bush, until he saw her slink into a small, disused and badly dilapidated cottage that stood at the edge of a shallow lake. Paddy, with the dog at his side, now ran rapidly to catch up with their fleeing enemy. When, at last, he reached the front of the small cottage Paddy took a tight hold of the dog, shook it violently to make the animal very angry and prepare him for the vicious fight ahead.
With his hound well prepared, Paddy sent him into the cottage before he would enter it himself. As the dog moved into the hovel it began to bark loudly and growl threateningly, which encouraged Paddy to go into the building after him. But, as his eyes became accustomed to the dark of the building, he noticed an old hag of a woman lurking in a corner of one room. Taken completely by surprise with the presence of the old woman, Paddy nervously asked her if she had seen a weasel running through the building.
“I saw nothing,” said she quietly. “Sure, isn’t it myself that is all destroyed with a terrible sickness that’s upon me. You must get out of this place as quickly as you can before you catch it and are destroyed yourself.“
As Paddy and the old woman were talking, the large dog quietly kept
creeping up closer to them. Unnoticed by Paddy the dog came to a point from which it suddenly gave a big leap upward and caught the old woman by the throat. With a piercing and terrified scream of pain the old woman cried out, “Paddy Kelly get your dog off me, and I’ll make you a very rich man.”
Paddy taking a tight hold of his dog once again, forced it to loosen its hold on the old woman. He shouted at her, “Tell me who you are, you old witch, and tell me why did you kill my horse and my cows?“
“First tell mewhy you stole away my gold that I had been gathering, throughout the hills and hollows of the world, for five hundred years or more?“
“I thought you were a weasel,” Paddy said, “or I wouldn’t have touched your gold.”
“And, another thing,” said Paddy, “if you have been living in this world for five hundred years already, is it not about time that you went to your eternal rest now.“
“I would if it were not for the fact that I committed a great sin when I was very young,” explained the old woman, “and now I can only be released from my terrible sufferings if you can pay the cost of one hundred and fifty masses for my soul’s salvation.”
“Where would I get all the money to pay for them? ” asked Paddy.
“If you would go and dig under a bush that stands over a little well in the corner of that field over there,” she pointed, “you’ll find a pot filled with gold. Just you pay the money for the masses, and you can keep whatever is left of the gold to yourself. But, I will tell you that there is a great stone that covers the pot and, when you lift the stone off, you will find a big black dog rushing out. This hound might look fierce to you, but don’t be afraid of him, because he is a son of mine. As soon as you retrieve the gold from the pot, buy the house in which you saw me for the first time. There is no doubt that you will get it at a cheap price, for it is well known that the house has a ghost haunting it. Then, look and you will discover my son down in the cellar of the house. He will not do you any harm, but he shall be a good friend to you. Then, in a month from this day, I will be dead and, when I am dead, I want you to put a fire under this little hut and burn it down so there is nothing left. Be assured that if you never tell any living soul a thing about me, you will have a great amount of good luck in your life.”
“Just tell me one thing before I leave, old woman; What is your name? ” asked Paddy.
“Maura Keown,” she told him.
Silently, turning away from the old woman, Paddy left her standing alone in the hut and went home. But, when the first dark shadows of night fell across the country, Paddy grabbed hold of a spade and took it with him as he went to seek the bush that was in the corner of the field, which the old woman had indicated to him. As soon as he had come upon the bush, Paddy immediately began digging with the spade, and it did not take him very long to uncover the pot. As he had been told, when he removed the large stone off the pot, a big black dog sprang out of the hole and ran off, with Paddy’s dog in close pursuit. Meanwhile, Paddy worked quickly to collect up the gold and brought it back to his home, where he hid it in the cow-house.
It was about a month after this episode that Paddy went up to the fair at Dromore. While he was there he bought a pair of cows, a horse, and a dozen sheep for his farm, much to the surprise of his neighbours. These people were very taken aback at Paddy’s new spending power and they wondered and discussed among themselves the source of the man’s new-found wealth. Of course, there were rumours circulating that Paddy had been granted a wish from the fairy folk, while others speculated that he had captured a Leprechaun and received his crock of gold as the ransom. Paddy, however, paid little attention to the rumours and speculations of his neighbours. Then, one day, Paddy dressed himself in his best clothes and set off toward town. He had decided to pay a call on the man who owned the large house where he had first seen the weasel, and he asked the owner if he could buy the house from him, as well as all the land that was round about it.
“You can have the house without paying any rent at all” said the owner, “but there is a ghost in it, and I wouldn’t like you to go to live in it without my telling you. However, if you wish to purchase it I must tell you that I cannot part with the land unless I can get at least a thousand pounds more than you have offered me.“
“Perhaps I have as much money as you require,” replied Paddy. “I can be here to-morrow with the money, but only if you are ready to give me immediate possession.“
“I’ll be ready,” the gentleman assured Paddy, who immediately went home to tell his wife that he had just bought a large house and a considerable holding of land.
“Where did you get the money?” asked the wife anxiously.
” Never you mind,” Paddy told her. “It isn’t any of your business where I got it?“
The very next day Paddy went to meet the gentleman again, gave him the money, and got possession of the house and land. Alongside this, the gentleman left him the furniture and everything that was in the house, as part of the bargain. Then, to confirm his possession, Paddy stayed in the house that night. After darkness fell he made his way carefully down to the cellar, as he had been instructed to by the old woman. In the cellar, to his surprise, he saw a little man with his two legs spread out upon a barrel. “God be good to you for an honest man,” said the wee man to Paddy.
“May God be good to you to,” replied Paddy, nervously.
“Don’t be afraid of me at all,” says the little man. “I will be a constant friend to you, if you are able to keep a secret.“
” I can be assured that I am able to do that. Sure, didn’t I keep your mother’s secret, and be confident that I’ll keep yours as well.“
“Maybe you’re thirsty?” asked the little man.
“I am indeed,” said Paddy, “just a little.”
The small man put his hand into the pocket of the coat he was wearing and took out a finely made goblet of gold material. He gave the goblet to Paddy, and told him, ”Draw some wine out of that barrel under me.“
Paddy took the goblet and filled it wine from the barrel, and he handed it to the little man. “You have the first drink,” the man said.
Paddy drank the wine and then drew another full goblet from the barrel, which he handed to the little man, who drank it.
“Fill up and have another drink,” said the little man. “I feel like having a good session tonight.”
The pair of them sat there drinking until they were both half drunk. Then the little man leaped down to the floor, and asked Paddy, “Do you like music?’
“Of course I do, ” said Paddy, “and I’m a good dancer, too.”
” Lift up the big flag-stone over there in the corner, and you’ll get my pipes under it.“
Paddy lifted the flag-stone, got the pipes, and gave them to the little man. He squeezed the pipes on the bag and began playing a fine melody. Paddy began dancing in time to the music until he had tired himself out. Then they had another drink together, and the little man spoke to him softly, “Do as my mother told you, and I’ll show you great riches. You can bring your wife in here, if you wish, but don’t tell her that I’m there, and she won’t see me. If you need a drink of ale or wine at any time, feel free to come here and help yourself. Goodbye for now. Go to your bed and sleep, then come again to me to-morrow night.“
Paddy went to his bed, and it wasn’t long before he fell fast asleep. Early the next morning Paddy went home, and he brought his wife and children to the big house, where they made themselves comfortable. That night Paddy made his way down to the cellar, where the little man welcomed him and asked him if he wanted to dance.
“Not until I get a drink,” said Paddy.
“Drink your fill,” said the little man, “that barrel will never be empty as long as you live.“
Paddy drank the full of the goblet, and then gave a drink to the little man. The small companion accepted the drink from him and told him, “I am going to the fairy castle tonight, to play music for the good-people, and if you come along with me you’ll see some great fun. I’ll give you a horse, for the journey, the likes of which you have never seen before.“
” I’ll go with you, of course,” replied Paddy, ” but what sort of excuse will I make to my wife. “
“There is no need for you to worry about that. I will bring you away from her side without her knowing it, when you are both asleep together, and then I will bring you back to her in the same manner,” explained the little man.
“That sounds like a good plan,” smiled Paddy, “but we will have another drink before I leave you.” Paddy drank goblet after goblet until he was half drunk, and then he went to bed with his wife. When Paddy awoke, however, he found himself riding on a huge horse near to the legendary fairy castle, and the little man was riding on another horse by his side. When they came as far as the green hill of the castle, the little man said a couple of words that Paddy did not understand. At that moment the green hill opened, and the two men went rode into what was a fine chamber.
Paddy had never saw such a gathering of people like of that which was in the castle. The entire place was filled with little people, men and women, young and old, and they all welcomed the little man they knew as ‘Donal the Piper’, into their midst with Paddy Kelly. From among the crowd the king and queen of the fairies stepped forward and said to them, “We are all going on a visit to-night to Knockmore, to the high king and queen of our people.”
At the king’s signal they all got up from where they were seated and went out of the chamber. There were horses ready for each one of them and a coach prepared for the king and the queen to travel in. The king and queen got into their coach, while each man leaped on his own horse, and Paddy followed close behind them. The wee piper had gone ahead of them all and began to play music for them as they rapidly rode off into the night. With the magic of the good people it did not take them long until they came, at last to the hill of Knockmore. As they arrived at the hill it opened, and the king passed in with the rest of his followers.
Awaiting them all were Finvara and Nuala, the High-king and Queen of the fairy host of Uladh, surrounded by thousands of their little people. Finvara came up to them and told them, “We are going to play a hurling match tonight against the fairy host of Munster, and unless we beat them our fame and magic will be gone forever. Our match is to be fought out on the ‘field of gold’ that lies beneath Slieve Gullion”.
The host of Uladh cried out in unison, “We are all ready for the fight, and we know that we shall beat them all.”
“Let us all get out there then,” cried the high king, “or the men from the hills of Munster will be on the ground before us.”
They all went out of the hill, with little Donal and twelve more pipers moving ahead of them, playing music they could march to. When they came to ‘The Field of Gold’ the fairy host of Munster had gathered in great numbers before them. For those who don’t know fairy lore, it is a requirement at such events, whether they are for fighting or playing hurling, that the fairy host have two live men beside them. This was the reason that little Donal took Paddy Kelly with him and, meanwhile, there was a man they called the “Rory Geary”, from Cork, who stood with the fairy host of Munster.
In moments the two fairy hosts had lined up their teams and the ball was thrown up between them. From that moment the real fun began in earnest. They were hurling away, and the pipers playing music, until Paddy Kelly saw the host of Munster was starting to get the upper-hand, and he began to help the fairy host of Uladh. The man ‘Geary’ came up and he made a move toward Paddy Kelly, but Paddy was the quicker of the two and turned him head over heels. It didn’t take long for the two opposing groups of fairies to abandon hurling and begin fighting. But, in a very short period of time the host of Uladh had gained victory by beating those from Munster. Defeated and deflated, the host of Munster turned themselves into flying beetles and, in revenge, began to eat every green thing that they came across. They were destroying the entire country before them until they came as far as the place where the Bann River flows into Lough Neagh. At that place there rose up thousands of doves from out of the trees, and they began to swallow down the beetles and, since that time, this place has been known to all folklorists as ‘The Sanctuary of the Doves’.
When the fairy host of Uladh had won their battle, they came back to the hill of Knockmore filled with a great joy. Finvara, the High King of the fairies, gave Paddy Kelly a purse of gold and, after the presentation, the little piper brought him back home, putting him into the bed beside his wife, and leaving him sleeping there.
Another month passed by, but without much happening. Until, one evening, Paddy went down to the cellar. When he reached the cellar the little man, Donal, said to him sadly, “My mother is dead, and it is time to burn the house over her.”
“I should have remembered,” said Paddy. “She told me that she had only a month of life left in this world, and that month was up yesterday.“
The next morning Paddy went to the hut and he found that the old woman was indeed dead. Just as he had promised, Paddy put a lighted coal under the hut and set it on fire. When he returned home, Paddy visited the little man and told him that the hut was burned according to his mother’s request. In return, the little man gave him a leather purse and said to him, “This purse will never be empty as long as you are alive. From now, you will never see me again, but in your heart always hold a loving remembrance of the weasel, because it was she who was the beginning and the prime cause of your prosperity.” Then Donal went away from view and Paddy never saw him again.
Thereafter, Paddy Kelly and his wife lived for many years in the large house and, when he died, he left a great wealth behind him, and a large family to enjoy it.
Lough Neagh is one of the largest and most beautiful bodies of water in the British Isles and lies in the centre of Ireland’s northernmost Province, Ulster. The waters of the lake are transparently blue in many places allowing you to see even small pebbles on the bottom, at a considerable depth. Near the southern end, a survey of the Lough bottom revealed cut stones that appear to have been laid in order, and careful observations have traced the remnants of the regular walls of a considerable sized structure. The Tradition of those who live on the shoreline tells us that this structure was once a castle, surrounded by a village, both of which succumbed to the expansion of the lake many generations past. In ancient times, it is said that the castle was owned by an Irish chieftain called Shane O’Donovan, who was noted for his bad character traits, such as being merciless in war, a tyrant in peace, feared by his neighbours, hated by his own family, and reviled by all for his inhospitality and lack of charity.
In those far off days, his castle stood by the bank of the lake, on an elevated promontory. It was almost an island, being joined to the mainland only by a narrow isthmus that stood at a small height above the level of the lake water. It is said that at one time an angel chanced to come into that part of Ireland, who had been sent from heaven to observe the people and to note their piety. Disguising himself in the clothes and body of a man, who was weary and footsore with travelling the country, the angel observed the castle from the hills above the lough and came down to boldly request a night’s lodging there. But his request was bluntly refused and, what’s more, the nasty and uncivil Shane O’Donovan set his dogs to bite the weary man. The angel immediately turned away from the castle, but he had no sooner passed through the castle gate than the villagers gathered around him and a contest began between them as to who should have the honour of entertaining the traveller.
The Angel made his choice and decided he would go to the house of a cobbler who was so poor that he had only one potato, and when he wanted another, he cut the one in two. Gratefully the heavenly visitor shared the cobbler’s potato and he slept on the cobbler’s floor, putting his feet onto the hearth to keep them warm. But as daylight dawned he rose, and called all the villagers together, led them out, across the isthmus to a nearby hill, and bid them look back. As they did so, they saw the castle and promontory separate from the mainland and begin to sink into the blue waters of the lough. Very slowly, almost imperceptibly, the castle sank, while the waters rose around it. But the waters stood like a wall on every side of the castle and did not wet a single stone from the highest turret to its foundation. After some time, the entire wall of water had risen higher than the battlements and, as the angel waved his hand, the waves suddenly rushed over the castle and its sleeping inmates, punishing the O’Donovan for his lack of hospitality. When all was done, the angel pointed to a spot close by, telling the villagers that they were to build and prosper there. Then, as the awe-stricken villagers knelt before him, the traveller’s clothing became pure white and shining wings appeared upon his shoulders, and he rose into the air to vanish from their sight.
If you ever chance to go to the County of Armagh in the Northern portion of Ireland, you would be reasonably safe in addressing a man as “Mr. McCann!” If that should fail to gain his attention then you could try Murphy, or Quinn. And if this does not give you a positive result, then there is still the surname of Wilson to fall back upon. But, I would certain that failure in using all these surnames is next to impossible! Niamh, however, did not have any of these names, although she lived with her maternal grandfather, who was called Hughes.
Niamh was one of those beings that the people call a changeling, and any of those people residing in the Parish of Derryhusk would tell you so. There were one or two people in the area who would smile when they told you this. Her grandmother, Catriona Hughes stated it as fact, and Catriona had been given the second sight, which allowed her to see more than most other people. Nevertheless, she was held in high regard within Derryhusk Parish because of her ability to see beyond that misty veil which mercifully hides the future from ordinary beings. The old woman had long said, almost from the day the child was born, that the girl was a changeling. Her daughter, poor Anna had died when Niamh was born, and her father Robbie O’Neill had been tragically drowned. It was, you can see, that the baby had been surrounded by great tragedy and sorrow from birth, and the ‘good people’ had stolen her away, leaving Isabelle in her stead. At least this was the story that was common among all in Derryhusk.
When growing up, Niamh had always been something of an odd child, Catriona had insisted to her friends and neighbours. She would tell all that Niamh, with her ruddy, tawny locks, and sloe-eyes, elfish and silent, would do the oddest, uncanny, unaccountable things, as her moods swung between bouts of sadness and bouts of happiness. As for Niamh, she grew up in the confines of Derryhusk, and had never displayed any wish to leave, though she had been given opportunities to do so. Instead, she lived with Catriona until she was nineteen, and helped her with her spinning and knitting. It was her duty to milk the cows, and to maintain the home for her grandmother. But, the young girl’s head was filled with her grandmother’s teaching, convincing her to believe in the existence of the fairy folk, although she rarely ever spoke about them. Often, her cousin Dermot would find her seated in the middle of the fairy-ring on the small hillock, that stood above the cottage, picking the green grass absently, and gazing blankly into the distance.
One day, she told herself. she would hear the tapping of fairy feet as they danced upon the stone path, or a tiny voice which would call on her to enter into a magical world that would be so very different from lovely Derryhusk. On several occasions she thought that she was on the brink of meeting the little folk, only for someone to come and interrupted the moment. There was one night as she came home over the moss from Ardee that all was quiet and the only sound she could hear was that of her own footfall. Nearby the narrow stream ran, richly brown with the peat over which it gurgled, and the air was filled with honeyed scents, while distant hills faded into the lovely purple of the night’s embrace. Niamh was sure she heard a voice calling her then, and she had wandered up amongst the furze bushes, her face eager and filled with expectancy. And there above her on the small grassy hillock, appearing to flit between the grey lichen-covered boulders, she was certain that there were tiny white figures, waving her to come forward. In her eagerness she began to run towards the top of the small hillock, but, just as she approached that place, Dermot’s voice called to her from the high road. “What are you doing there?” he asked. “Is it the way home?” Niamh almost burst into tears as she descended the hill once more. For she could see nothing near the boulders at that moment but the waving cotton-grass and furzes amongst the peat bog.
It was a lovely September, and the hill-sides were a splendour of tawny colouring, the fading furze and bracken, golden and brown, and orange, and gold, and dusky indescribable grey. The sunset came early, and tingeing and stained the nearby tarn, while the cragged rock known as “The Hound’s Tooth” stood out sharply against a rose gold background caused by a descending sun. Niamh had gone to fetch fodder for the cows, and the fodder was a great pile of pale yellow bracken, which she bound together and fastened on her back. Carrying this load, she moved along the road, pausing now and then to lean her load on one of the rough trackside banks that bordered the ‘moss’. It was nearing evening, and shadows were creeping over the moss, while the small stream became a dark and sullen-brown now as it began the hoarse song that it sings only in the dark. The deer in a nearby woodland hear and love this river-song and they creep down cautiously, light-footedly, turning startled graceful heads from side to side, and they pause a moment, poised with listening ear, before they bury thirsty soft noses into the cool rushing water. The deer paid no attention to Niamh’s presence for they seemed to know that she posed no danger to them, though it was scarcely dark enough for the deer to make an appearance. There was still light enough in the sky to see a passing tourist from Liscorr, coming from popular Corrig on his way home. Niamh paused to rest and laid the heavy load of bracken on the grassy bank, where the yellow fern made a lovely background for her tawny-coloured hair and dark ebony-coloured eyes. Along the track she suddenly spied two men approaching, and she waited for their arrival with some apprehension until she realised one of the men was Dermot McCann. He was her cousin, short, swarthy, black-browed, with a twinkle of cunning in his grey eyes, and a jolly lilt in his voice. The other person Niamh had difficulty naming, although she had seen him playing hurling in Liscorr. Yes, yes, she knew him and had admired his steady ‘puck fada’ on the field of play, and his name was Ruairi McFee. Oh yes, Niamh remembered Ruairi very well, and a little smile melted over her red lips, and lurked in the depths of her lovely eyes as Dermot made himself known to her. Ruairi had recently rented the small farm next to Catriona’s, and he had been invited by her to supper. It was time, Niamh decided, that she was at home.
Dermot did not offer to take the fodder from her, though he thought he was in love with Niamh and had every intention of asking her to marry him. He believed that the women of this county were used to carrying heavy burdens and left her to it. But Ruari McFee, saying nothing to the girl, began to untie the rope at her waist, and he swiftly swung the mass lightly over his own shoulders.
“Sure, there’s no need to do that!” Dermot said, while he thought to himself, “You are a ‘buck eejit!” (stupid idiot!)
“It is too heavy for a lass,” replied Ruairi, but his eyes did not meet Niamh’s eyes and they walked home together in silence through the creeping dusk.
Inside the cottage and by the red glow from the turf fire Niamh looked lovelier to him than ever she had. McFee, meanwhile, ate little and his mind appeared to be was in another place. Catriona’s remarks, and Dermot’s slow efforts at conversation seemed to fall on strangely deaf ears. He was a shy man, quietly spoken and found it difficult to socialise with people who were virtual strangers to him. Ruairi appreciated all these personality faults and yet could not quite understand what had come over him that evening. He asked himself the question all the next day, because, even as he threw himself into inspecting his new byres and out-houses, there was only one image in his mind and that was a picture of slim girl in a short faded green skirt, who was lying against a grassy bank, with her small head crushed against a background of faded ferns, and her shy lovely eyes looking into his face. It was Niamh, but she was said to be a changeling. “Nonetheless,” he told himself, “changeling or not, I have fallen in love with her!”
“It is no use at all to go against the girl. I have said so before now. And there are many girls in the district who are as good a prospect as she is, and maybe they’ll have a cow or two, or even a few pounds to bring with them. There’s wee Sheila O’Donnell and she could have as much as three hundred pounds to bring to the marriage!”
“As if I would look at a woman with a squint,” snapped Dermot as he furiously threw down the fishing-rod he was holding, “I will have none but Niamh, and if she will not have me, I will do someone an injury!”
In the meantime, Dermot’s mother deliberately continued peeling potatoes. “Ruairi McFee is stronger and bigger than you are,” she remarked. “And he has the eyes of a hawk, fists like jack-hammers. You’ll never take Niamh away from him by force. But perhaps, now, there might be a little plan; just a little plan, mind you.”
Dermot picked up the fishing-rod again and his cunning eyes grew intent. Catriona resumed, in her high-pitched voice, speaking without a pause as she peeled the potatoes. “The best thing would be that they would have a quarrel, and I’ll tell you a way this could happen. He doesn’t like to hear that they are all saying she is a changeling, and he doesn’t like her to talk about the good folk. When she told him the story of the kelpie that followed Robbie McVey over the moss, and finally drowned him in the ‘Black Pool’, he was angry, and called it all nonsense, and said that she should never again talk about such things. Niamh, of course, was not happy about that. She was asking me about the ‘Cave of Gold’ only yesterday, and when it was that anyone might see the fairies dancing, and if the tides would allow us to go. So, I told her it was on Midsummer’s Night at twelve o’clock, and she is just mad to go! Clean mad! But Ruairi was there, too, and I was listening at the door, after, and I heard him say that it was all just silly talk and nonsense, and that he would prefer that she did not go. He told her that it was too late at night, and that nasty squalls would spring up, and our boat was not exactly seaworthy. She begged and prayed that he would take her, and he said, ‘No’! Every time she pleaded he simply told her, ‘No’!”
“Very well, then,” Dermot cried out impatiently, as she paused in her story, “I suppose she is so mad with love that she gave the entire idea up.”
“She is pretty much in love,” his mother agreed, “and so she gave in to his wishes. ‘And I am going over to Ballygarvey, Niamh,’ I heard him say, ‘to see what Mr. Campbell, the land-agent, is wanting to tell me, and you will promise not to go when I am away because it is not safe for a girl like you to be out so late. Will you promise me?’ And she promised him. He told her that he would bring her a new brooch made of silver and marble stones, and they kissed each other before he left.”
“Very well, what then?” Dermot cried angrily. “I hear they are to be married when he comes back. So, what else is there for me, mother?”
Catriona had dropped her potatoes into the pot, and she swung it over the open turf fire, which was glowing redly in the dark little cottage. “Well, if I were you, Dermot, I would get out the boat, and I would offer to take her to the cave. And I will be telling her more stories to-night, when we are spinning. That girl is a changeling, sure enough, and she will go. When Ruairi comes back, he will hear the story, and he will be mad with her, and they will quarrel. You can go over to Liscorr that day, to be out of his way. They will have an almighty row, and will break off their relationship, and she will turn to you, in time.”
Dermot slowly considered the plan and agreed that it suited him perfectly well. He didn’t want a noisy quarrel, and no measuring of strength. He, too, remembered Ruairi’s muscles at the hurling match. But this secretly conspiring in the dark, while McFee was away, was much to his taste. He made up his mind now that his mother was a woman of great wisdom. He told her he approved of her plan, and that he would get her a little present the next time that he went to Ballygarvey. After this, her stories to Niamh about the cave were many and very enticing!
“Dermot, Dermot, but I’ve promised!” It was the next night, and Niamh stood before the cottage in her dark wincey skirt and green cotton jacket, her face turned up to her cousin’s. All last night, all through the day, old Catriona’s stories had haunted her every thought. The old woman had gone about her task in a cunning fashion and began as soon as they were both seated at the spinning-wheel and, in a rambling manner said that the next day would be Midsummer’s Night, when the fairies would be holding their dancing in the Cave of Gold. She said that only she was old, and frail, and feeble, she would have gladly gone to watch the festivities! Catriona had the second sight and could perhaps see what no other person could see and, she appeared to confident that the journey would hold no danger! How she would love to see the little folk dancing! At this point her voice fell quiet, and she looked around her into all the dark shadows of the kitchen, and up by the oak bench that stood near the window. She pricked up her ears in the hope of hearing the faint and far-off tune of Old Dingus Murray’s fiddle, for they said that the legendary sound could still be heard.
Feeling a little uneasy, Niamh rose from her seat, saying she would go and see if there were enough oat-cakes for supper, or see if that was someone outside. But, Catriona spoke sharply to her and told her to sit down again. She was determined that the girl would not escape her and then she asked if Niamh had ever been told the story of Old Dingus Murray and the Cave of Gold. Niamh admitted she had never heard the story and she sat down again, the spinning wheel idle and the soft grey carded wool lying in her lap. Catriona, spinning fast, and with the low vibrations of the wheel acting as a sort of accompaniment to her voice, began to tell the story. She was an Irish speaker, which makes it difficult to express in the English language the creeping, insidious fear and mystery of the tale. A tale about how the fiddler, Dingus Murray, fell in love with an O’Neill from Dargan, whose father would not allow him to woo his daughter until he overcame several foolish and impossible tasks.
One task required him to enter the Cave of Gold at midnight, on Midsummer’s Night, and play “The O’Neill of Dargan” as he passed through the little dancing folk and penetrated far into the mystery of the cave’s depths to where no man had ever been. Dingus, of course, took up the challenge, and with his long hair waving wildly in the breeze and his fiddle in his hands, he was seen standing at the shingly edge of the cave with his teeth gritted for the task ahead. The men who had rowed Dingus up to the cave saw him standing there, and they heard the first wild pealing notes from his fiddle drift in the wind. Thus, playing proudly and happily, he entered the cave with his dog at his heels, while they waited, watched, and listened. At last they heard one terrifyingly awful cry, after which there was silence except for the sound of the wind. Dingus had passed through the fairies, but “He never came home!”
Then, changing her tone, Catriona told the story of the only woman who had ever caught sight of the ‘wee folk’, and how, forever after, riches and wealth were hers, and she had never a wish that had gone unsatisfied! It was the going on into the inner caves that had undone the piper! The lass who had seen the fairies was a certain Eileen Curran, and “she married a chieftain, and went to live far away in another part of the country, and all her days she was clad in green silk. Yes, all her days!”
“How did she leave?” asked Niamh.
“In a boat, with a man. It is easy, if the man is strong. Finally, Eileen Brid’s great stone cross at Craigmore, and they granted her even that! There she lies near the saintly Brid, and all because she had seen the ‘wee folk’ in the Cave of Gold!”
“Grandmother, would you lend me the magical rowan branch if I were to go?” Niamh whispered. “Would you, grandmother?” Her own voice frightened her for a moment and she imagined she could see Ruairi’s face appear before her. But, the old woman got up without a word, and, going to her linen cupboard took something, rolled in a fine kerchief, from it, which had the sweet smell of bog-myrtle in its folds, and she laid the brown faded leaves and the red, dry berries on Niamh’s lap.
“There it is! But you will give it back to me safely? or else bad things might happen to us all!”
“I will return it to you safely,” Niamh assured her. In her pocket she had the rowan, but Dermot was tampering with her conscience and her promise now.
“It was a very foolish thing to promise,” he said craftily. “Besides, Ruairi was afraid of the squalls, that is all, and there will be no squalls at all! You can come with me, and see if there is anything, and if my mother’s stories are true. If not, there is no harm done. It is a lovely cave to see.”
Niamh gave in, just as Catriona knew she would give in. Would she see anything? Would the ‘wee folk’ be there? Before she could fully explore these thoughts, Niamh found herself in the little boat, and rowing towards the cave. Strangely, the night seemed to be only a paler day and they rowed close into the shore, until they discovered a place where the rock-face was split and showed a pale light within. There was just enough space for the boat to float in, passing through a low, overhanging archway. Niamh drew in her breath sharply and clasped her hands, as Dermot paused, watching her face, once they were through it. They were in a deep circular basin, where the water was a lovely pale green that darkened in the shadows. The rocky sides were cut, here and there, into long narrow openings, into one of which Catriona’s fiddler must have wandered. Here Niamh saw the water lying dark and mysterious, shadow-haunted. Bending over the edge of the boat, she could see the yellow sand far below and in bright sunshine her own fair face would have been reflected. Tiny jelly-fish edged with lilac spots, and with long white fringe, floated beside the seaweed, like strange jewels, and far above them they could see the pale yellow-redness of the summer evening sky, soft, and exquisite. Fringing the opening were ferns and heather, and tall fox-gloves, but the fairy bells did not stir in the breathless air. Were the ‘wee folk’, the ‘good folk’, lurking within she wondered? If she watched, would she see a tiny face peep out at her? She waited, watched, and waited some more and the time passed. “Dermot, I don’t see anything!” Niamh spoke at last, breathlessly, eagerly. She had forgotten Ruairi, she had forgotten everything but her desire. “Row me further in, Dermot.“
He pushed the boat forward, and Niamh sat with her dark blue eyes, which seemed black in the shadow, and strained eagerly forward, listening, waiting. But, nothing moved, except that now and then little waves would break with a plashing ripple against the boat. Far up on the rocks, a passing breath of wind now and then swayed the flowers and the grasses, but no fairy face peeped out from anywhere, there was no tap of dancing feet, nor any note of fairy music.
“Dermot, Dermot, there is nothing, nothing at all!”
The note of bitter disappointment in her voice upset Dermot. Once or twice he had attempted to speak, because he did not want to make this trip in silence, but Niamh had raised her little brown hand sharply. She thought that his manly voice might disturb the fairies. But, at last the silence had started to affect even her. In her mind she began to think that it was all of no use, for she could see and hear nothing.
“We will just be going home then, Niamh” Dermot said in a quiet, practical tone of voice, unconcerned for the disappointment that Niamh was feeling because, in his opinion, the entire thing was just simple “foolishness.” “Maybe they are not dancing to-night and we would be better just go home.“
“She said I would be sure to see them,” Niamh sighed with a sob in her voice. As Dermot pushed the boat out, Niamh crushed the rowans bitterly in her lap, and they fell into the bottom of the boat. She remembered Ruairi suddenly, as, once outside, she noticed that the weather had changed during her stay in that dark cavern. The light seemed obscured; there were white horses leaping in the distance; and the wind swept sharply into their faces as they looked seaward. It would, Dermot realised, now be dangerous to keep so close to the rocks, for a heavy groundswell had risen. He glanced around and voiced some strong oaths as he grabbed the oars. In the growing swell Dermot knew he would need all the strength he possessed in his muscles to row the clumsy boat to safety, and he would have to keep the boat out to sea to avoid the jagged rocks.
During the long row home, through the now angry waters, Niamh sat silently in the boat. When Dermot asked her to “Bale!” almost angrily she did so almost mechanically, realising the danger of an ugly leak that had suddenly appeared. There was no emotion, for nothing seemed to matter. There were no fairies and she would have to tell Ruairi that she had broken her word. Finally, they found a sandy, sheltered bay where they could land safely. Only Dermot knew how hard he had struggled against the wind and the tide in that clumsy and leaking craft. Niamh, however, did not see the tall figure that was waiting on the shore until she was preparing to leap from the boat. Then a strong hand took hers, and with a startled cry she saw it was Ruairi himself, standing there, grim, grave, silent, with a new expression on his face, which chilled her through and through. She wondered just how it was that he was there?
He helped Dermot to pull the boat up on to the shore, with a look of disdain on his face as he saw the boat when it was finally lying out of the water. “It is a pretty boat,” he said a little scornfully, “a pretty boat to take a lass out in, I’ll give you that, Dermot McCann.”
Dermot did not reply but called to Niamh sharply and all three walked up to the cottage in total silence. The night, which had grown gusty and wet, seemed to have changed as suddenly and mysteriously as Niamh’s life. At the door she paused for a moment and faced her lover, whose annoyed her terribly. “Well?” she said, “well?”
If she had pleaded with him. If she had been penitent, sorrowful! But, unfortunately, it was no penitent face which met his, and jealousy and wrath erupted within him, driving love aside. “Are you asking what I am thinking, Niamh?” he cried, “of the girl who promised me, and who broke her word, and went out with Dermot McCann? Well, I am thinking just nothing at all of her! I have warned her that the boat was not safe, and of the squalls, and that it was not the thing for a girl like her to go so late. She had promised, and yet she went! And this was the Tara brooch made of Connemara marble stones I have bought for you. But, it can go there!” He stormed as he flung the little packet remorselessly into the nearby bushes. “And as for yourself, I think nothing of you at all, everything between us is over. I am now leaving for a new life in Australia tomorrow along with John Campbell. He asked me some time ago, and I said ‘No,’ but I will go now, and will go to Derry this very night! Good-bye.“
He turned away from her then, in his fury. All of this passed as suddenly, swept up as unexpectedly as had the squall outside the Cave of Gold. Niamh stood as if dazed, staring straight before her. An Irishman’s anger is like a great storm against which one must bend, and this is what Niamh did now.
Ruairi did not look back. Dermot, in the doorway, saw him stride on to the road, through the little patch of potatoes growing in front of the door. He set his face towards the high road for Derry and a very short time the sound of his footsteps had died away and the darkness of the night had swallowed him. That was all right, Dermot thought to himself, “Australia! Sure, isn’t that the best place for him?”
“There follows a mist, and a weeping rain,
And life is never the same again!“
Niamh might have thought about these words, if she had known them, over the many days that followed. For Ruairi McFee was not the man sort of man to change his mind, nor speak it. He sailed from Derry to Liverpool and within the week he was believed to have boarded a ship for Australia. Many had gone before him and his many friends in Ireland believed he would vanish there. These were the days of sailing ships and slow communication, and Ruairi had never been the kind to write.
But Niamh did not marry her cousin, as everyone expected, including McCann. She told him “No,” gently, but quite doggedly, and nothing that he could say, or that Catriona could cause her to change her mind. Once the old woman muttered vengefully that she would never see the fairies, for she had lost her luck, and Niamh turned on her in a fierce temper. “It is all false,” she cried aloud so all would hear her, “for there are no green folk at all, and I do not care!”
The mystery and the charm of life had left her, for she no longer dreamed on the green grass circle, or wonder at the night-song of the burn. She no longer kept watch for the kelpies under the boulders, in the burns, or in the Rowan Pool. Her belief in the fairies had faded on the same night that Ruairi had left her, and only in that little white kirk on the hill-side, would you hear Niamh raise her voice in song. The joys that song can bring dies quickly on one’s lips when care and sorrow lie heavy on one’s heart. Years had passed since that fatal visit was paid to the Cave of Gold, Niamh never mentioned it, and she was returning, in the soft, golden haze of a September evening, from the castle. Catriona was growing feeble, and Niamh did everything she could for her, while the old woman only spun a little, and wandered out to gather sticks and twigs for the fire. The girl had been taking up carded wool to the castle and giving the great London ladies there a spinning lesson. But, before the cottage came into her view, with its surrounding field of poor and thinly growing oats and potatoes, she paused to look up the fairy knoll. There, on the top was the fairy ring and something suddenly made Niamh turn and mount the little hill.
The loch below her vantage point was tinged with red and the sky was a wonder and a glory. But, Niamh was not looking at the sky, or at the loch. She was thinking just how strange it was that she should go on living, and living much as usual, when all that was best and fairest in life was now gone. She sighed, looking down at the stream, splashing and leaping over the grey boulders. There was that story about the kelpies, but her grandmother rarely spoke of them now. Were there really no kelpies? No Fairies? And yet, …
A step behind her had made her stop quickly, and she gave a sharp cry. A man’s tall figure was there, not ten yards off, and the thought came to Niamh that perhaps, after all, it was all true, for this was a ghost! And if there were ghosts, why not wee folk and kelpies? “I believe it is Niamh, herself. Do you not know me, Niamh?“
He spoke in a clear voice. There was no hint of a brogue, only the politest English. He spoke easily, with a strange accent. And yet, she knew him at once! It was Ruairi! Ruairi, well-dressed, handsome, upright, with a different and more independent carriage, but Ruairi all the same! Niamh stood quietly for a moment before speaking, “You are a great stranger,” she said. “It is a very long time, I believe, since you have been in Ireland.“
He almost smiled. He was looking down at her intently. He wondered how it could be possible that she had changed so little, or had those five years been simply a dream? There, just as he remembered her, was Niamh, with the pale, clear, skin, the deep sloe-eyes, the ruddy crisp hair, and that characteristic little drop of her head! It was the girl that he had turned his back on, and been furious with, and had quite forgotten. Yes, he had quite forgotten her, though he had come back to this place, supposedly just to see how all the old folks were doing. “It is five years,” he said to her, “five years! Are you, are you married, Niamh?“
The girl raised her eyes and looked at him. It was getting dark, and the stream was beginning its night-song. Niamh had suddenly noticed that, and she began to remember just how the water used to sing. The lovely, indescribably fragrant breath of the nearby moor swept into their faces by the breeze. It was a sweet and enchanting smell that complemented the velvety depths of her eyes and that beautifully familiar mouth. He wanted to know if she was married and even repeated the question, but with a new and eager ring in his voice, and Niamh shook her head.
“Though there have been a good many marriages since you left. There was Marie McLean and Donald McNamee, and there was Colin – ” she began to tell him.
“What about McCann, your cousin?“
“He is to be married this year,” she said, “to an English girl, believe it or not.”
“So, you did not marry him, after all, Niamh?“
“Who said that I would?” she cried, as if she had been slapped. “You knew better than that! Who said that I would?“
“He did! And he said that you would go with him that night, if he asked you. And you did, Niamh! It was very cruel, but –” Ruairi paused for a moment before saying then, “But I am beginning to think that I was cruel, too. Was I?” He waited and watched her reaction.
Niamh nodded gently and spoke softly to him. “Yes, you were cruel, Ruairi, and you were very hasty. It is true that I was a foolish girl, but you might have given me another chance. I believed in my grandmother’s stories. I wanted to see the good folk.” She looked away, and sadness and disillusion crept over her face. “But I do not believe in them anymore. No, not anymore.”
“Poor little Niamh. Poor wee girl!” He began to believe that it could not be five years. It could not, and they had only parted yesterday.
“But it does not matter,” said Niamh, “and now perhaps you will call and see my grandmother? Are you on your way now?“
Ruairi did not answer that. “Niamh,” he said, “I was very cruel, and I was just as angry as a man could be, and for five years I have been mad and sore. But, deep down, deep down, I never forgot you. I hated him, but I loved you. I will come and see your grandmother, but first, first, will you give me a kiss, Niamh, for the sake of the old days?”
Would she? he wondered. Perhaps, after all, he did not need to wait for her consent. He had her in his arms, and they closed round her, and Niamh’s head fell on his shoulder with a little sob that was a summary of all the five years of sorrow and heartache. “My darling,” Ruairi whispered, “I love you, and when I leave here, you will come too, or I will be staying on here with you. You shall choose Niamh, you shall choose, and to-morrow I will buy you something better than the Tara brooch that I was cruel enough to throw away!”
Together, hand-in-hand, they walked down to the cottage, and Catriona, who was never surprised at anything, shook hands sourly with him. She heard his story in silence, and nodded consent when he told her that he and Niamh were to be married, after all. He could look after the place, she said, or he could buy Con McGill’s farm, just above, if he had the money. Would he have money enough? For Dermot kept her very close now. With a bright smile Ruairi laid a packet in her lap, and said he thought he had money enough.
The next morning, Catriona saw him coming up the road. Niamh ran to meet him, and together they wandered off to the side of the stream. They came back by-and-by, and Niamh stood smiling in the cottage door, her arms full of rowan branches and Ruari had a spray in his coat, and the red berries nestled under her chin. “I have brought you back luck,” the girl cried happily. “We found the rowans down by the pool. And Ruairi says that there are maybe good folk in the world, after all! Who knows, grandmother?”
Catriona’s peat-brown old face was bent over her wheel. She allowed there might be one or two, with a half-grunt of satisfaction.
You would never have described Jimmy Joe Cullen as being a young man, even if you were the most kindly of his neighbours. The same man, however, would not be at all pleased to hear any person describe him as being an old man. After all, Jimmy Joe was the youngest of three sons born to the Cullen family but, unlike his brothers, he had lived at home for all his fifty years. Quite recently, however, with the passing of his father, Jimmy Joe had inherited the home place and he made plans to improve his new-found status among the local population.
Jimmy Joe was already a well-known figure in the district, but many of those who knew him well were convinced that the man was not exactly the ‘sharpest knife in the box’. But, despite what others thought about him, Jimmy Joe had done well for himself in the world. Although he had no education qualifications, he had worked his way up the ladder from ordinary labourer to the position of Clerk of Works for the Housing Executive of Northern Ireland. But this post appeared to be the pinnacle of his career advancement since he had remained in this same post for over eight years. Despite his best efforts, and his constant attention to detail, it appeared to Jimmy Joe that he had now risen through the ranks and attained the highest level that he was ever going to achieve. He had begun to wonder if this was due to the low quality of education that he had or was it something else that was preventing him from taking the next step into higher levels of management.
Jimmy Joe’s father was one of the ‘old school’ fathers that filled Ireland’s homes and believed in the adage that says, ‘by sparing the rod you would spoil the child’. When his father was alive Jimmy Joe didn’t much like the man, but he respected him as his father and, now that he was gone, Jimmy Joe missed him. Nevertheless, with the old man’s passing, Jimmy Joe suddenly gained a new sense of freedom and was eager to experience that freedom by marrying the woman, who was the only love of his life, Nellie Maguire.
Just like Jimmy Joe, Nellie Maguire was no ‘Spring Chicken, and she wouldn’t tear in the plucking’. But, even though she was a lady of mature years, there were quite a few men who would who would agree that she had retained much of the beauty for which she was famed in her younger days. It was her beauty that had first attracted Jimmy Joe to her almost thirty years previously. There were many of his neighbours, however, who wondered what it was that she had seen in him. Although it was almost thirty years previously, Jimmy Joe could still clearly recall that night when he had finally plucked up the courage to ask Nellie for a dance at the weekly Parish Ceilidh. That night the local parish hall was filled with people from within and from outside the parish, and many were visibly shocked to see the very popular Nellie Maguire agreed, not only to dance with Jimmy Joe Cullen, but to allow him to escort her home when the Ceilidh had ended.
In her youth, Nellie Maguire, was a natural blond with her long, golden hair flowing over her shapely shoulders like corn-silk. Her skin was as smooth and unblemished as the finest porcelain, and her hazel coloured eyes were warm and inviting, like those of a well-known movie actress of the day. In fact, Nellie was so beautiful that there was not a man in the entire Parish who had not lost his heart to her at some time or other. At the same time, there was not there was not a woman in the district who did not envy Nellie’s beauty, as well as her popularity among the menfolk. Nellie, however, was a strong-willed woman who knew her own mind, and knew exactly what kind of man she wanted in her life. It seemed to all the neighbours that, so far, Jimmy Joe Cullen was the only man she wanted, from among the many men available to her.
For his part, Jimmy Joe could never have been described as an ugly, or repulsive man, but neither was there anything especially handsome about him. He was tall, with black hair and a face tanned by the sun as he worked outside every day on the farm, and the building sites. As was his habit, most days of his life, Jimmy Joe would wear his work clothes to go out and about his business. In fact, it was only when he went to Mass or the Ceilidh that he would change into his best suit, shirt and tie, and brogue shoes. But, even when the man dressed well and combed his hair tidily, keeping it in shape with a dab of ‘Brylcreem’ there was nothing that even suggested he could be a heart-throb to any girl. Even those people who knew both Nellie and Jimmy very well at this time were convinced that their relationship would not last very long. In fact, some of Nellie’s closest friends were of the considered her to be too fickle a person to tie herself down to one man. “Sure, that one will never go mad, that one. She’s never in the same mind long enough”, appeared to be the most popular comment among her friends at the time. They could not, however, have been more wrong in their judgement of her. To date the relationship between Nellie and Jimmy Joe had already lasted almost thirty years, and now there was talk of them getting married.
When he was a young man, Jimmy Joe was a shy and quiet type of boy, who felt awkward in the presence of women and didn’t quite know what he should say in their company. It was a trait that Nellie admired very much, which encouraged Jimmy Joe to accomplish greater things. They had begun dating and, after they had been dating each other for eighteen months, Jimmy Joe gathered every ounce of courage he had buried in his being and decided that now was the right time to propose. Dressed in his very best clothes he went walking with Nellie, and then suddenly he knelt on one knee in front of her. Taking her hand in his he nervously asked her to marry him and anxiously awaited her answer. While Nellie was genuinely overjoyed by Jimmy Joe’s proposal, she made it clear to him that she could not give him an immediate answer, because there were several items that she needed to have clarified before she could agree to marry him. Her main concern at the time was where they would both live after they were married. Jimmy Joe could not understand her concern because he had envisioned them living as a couple in the home place, with his father. But, it was Jimmy Joe’s father who was the stumbling block in Nellie’s mind. To his surprise and embarrassment, she emphatically told him “No!” to the proposal of marriage.
It was with a great sense of relief that Jimmy Joe was told that Nellie’s response was not a total rejection of his proposal. She told him that she would happily marry him, but she could not be a wife to him as well as a housekeeper for his father. She insisted that she would only move into the home place as Jimmy Joe’s wife when his father, Old ‘Joe Boy’ Cullen, had passed away.
Now, Old ‘Joe Boy’ was a very well-known character in the Parish and there were very few of his neighbours who had a good word to say about him. He was known for having a very bad attitude toward other people and treated too many of his neighbours harshly when it came to business. Noted for his miserliness and tardiness in paying what he owed others, ‘Joe Boy’ had been secretly accused by some of cruelly working his wife to an early grave. It was said that ‘Joe Boy’ had young when she died so suddenly and only a couple of years before Nellie and Jimmy Joe had met and fallen in love. Jimmy Joe, however, was sure that his mother would have approved of his choice.
Since his wife’s death, it seemed that ‘Joe Boy’s’ bad manners and habits had worsened, including his foul, abusive language and his rude behaviour to others. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that Nellie, when she heard that they would be moving into that same house after they were married, told Jimmy Joe, “If you think that I would live in the same house as that ill-mannered old blackguard, lifting and laying for him every day, and listening to his foul mouth, then you have another thought coming!” It was a blunt rebuttal, but Nellie didn’t stop there, and she added, “He is an ignorant, crude, drunkard of a man and I would not be caught dead in the same house as that old villain.”
When Nellie had expressed these problems to Jimmy Joe almost thirty-years previously he was neither shocked or annoyed by her bluntness. He simply placed the engagement ring on her finger and hoped in his heart that it might not be long until the day for them to be married. At first, Jimmy Joe thought that he might be able to change Nellie’s mind. He quickly discovered, however, that this woman was not about to alter her decision and that he would have to bide his time until ‘Joe Boy’ He swore to himself that when the old man was dead the coffin bearers could carry him out the back door, while carried Nellie over the threshold of the front door. There might not, after all, be too long until that day came. Jimmy Joe was convinced that the amount of alcohol his father consumed would most certainly kill the man sooner, rather than later. Not for one minute did either Jimmy Joe or Nellie consider that it would take so long to see ‘Joe Boy’ to grow frail and die. They were long and frustrating years for the couple. “That old ‘get’ made sure he got his day in,” said Nellie, “You would nearly think that ‘old goat’ had purposefully lived all those years to ensure that I didn’t get into the house and change it. By God, but that man was one big pain in the arse and it must be said that hell will never be full until he is in it.”
“In the name of God, Nellie,” her friends warned her, “Be careful what you say, for that old bastard might come back and haunt you.”
“Don’t you worry about him!” laughed Nellie, “I’ve got Bobby Lennon, the undertaker, to nail the lid down with six-inch nails and to wrap the coffin with two strong iron bands.”
Old ‘Joe Boy’s’ funeral took place on a cold Saturday morning with a mizzle of rain falling on everyone. There was little fanfare and only a few people that accompanied his remains from the house to the church for the funeral Mass.
Including the priest, Jimmy Joe, and Nellie there were only twenty-two people attending the Mass, and most of them were only there to make sure that the miserable old skinflint was truly gone. It could rightly be said that the entire Parish and district was in a state of euphoria to see the back of the curmudgeonly old devil. Then, the next day, at 10:30 Mass the same priest proudly announced that Jimmy Joe and Nellie would be married at the earliest possible moment.
Over the following three weeks the Church was booked, and the invitations sent out to the select few. At long last Jimmy Joe and Nellie were getting married after almost thirty years of courting and the event became the main talking point of the entire parish.
“The old man’s not yet cold in his grave,” said Sarah Gill, the village gossip. “Its all been a bit rushed don’t you think? I wonder is there any reason for the hurry? You know what I mean?”
Mary Jane looked at Sarah with complete amazement. “Hurried?” she asked with a laugh, “I think Nellie Maguire is just a little bit old to be needing a shotgun wedding!”
“Well, I still think that it is all a bit quick!”
“For Christ’s sake, Sarah! It has been nearly thirty-years in the making! That’s not exactly the speed of light, now! Is it?”
In the pretty lough-side village of Montaigh, which looks out over the waters of Lough Neagh, there lived an old man called Paddy Sullivan, who was a boat-builder of many years’ experience. Around the shores of the lough, Paddy’s reputation for building boats was unrivalled and the village was only renowned for being the place where he built his boats. But, because of the fame he became convinced of his own importance and often declared that if there were any man who could beat him in the design, construction and finishing of a racing dinghy, he would give up his trade. Other than designing and building boats, Paddy’s pride was centred upon the only other thing that he loved, and that was his daughter, Sally. He had every right to be proud of her, for she was a beauty, and many thought her to be the epitome of an ‘Irish Colleen. She was a true ‘Irish Rose’ with a pair of roguish black eyes, blooming cheeks, and rose-coloured lips that did not quite hide her two rows of the prettiest, whitest teeth that ever a man had seen.
In his small boat-building yard, Paddy employed a young apprentice upon whom he placed some of his most important boat building secrets. Paddy was very fond of this young man and planned, at some distant date, to place with him all the knowledge that he had gathered over a lifetime. He was called Danny Cullen, a fine-looking young man who stood just about five-feet and ten-inches tall, quietly spoken and polite to all whom he met. Danny was also an active young man, who enjoyed sports of all kind and had a very athletic body, which was admired by many young ladies in the district, including Paddy’s daughter. Sally Scullion, in fact, thought that he was a very handsome man and confided in her girlfriends that she thought Danny had the brightest pair of eyes she had ever seen, and loveliest head of brown, curly hair that any man had ever possessed. Danny, however, was quite speechless every time he encountered Sally, finding it almost impossible to fully praise all her good qualities, including her calm temperament and her warm, sweet, and merry laugh. Even the most neutral of observers could see that these two young, warm-hearted, and amiable people were very much in love with each other. Old Paddy, however, did not dream that the two most important young people in his life had such deep feelings for each other.
There can be no doubt that Paddy was very knowledgeable when it came to boats and had great skill in building them. But when it came to affairs of the heart he was as blind and ignorant as most Irishmen of his age. For instance, Paddy could not even imagine that his daughter’s frequent visits to the boat yard were due to anything other than a natural and genetic interest in the art of boat-building. Moreover, Paddy had a habit of not wearing his spectacles in the workshop and, probably, failed to notice the reddening of Sally’s cheeks, or the added sparkle in her dark eyes, when she spoke about Danny’s abilities and artistry in boat building.
It was at the beginning of May that a well-dressed gentleman came to the work-yard and ordered a racing-gig from old Paddy. At least once every week subsequent to the order being placed the buyer sent his agent, who was called Duggan, to report on what progress was being made on the boat. Duggan, however, was no ordinary man from the area, but had a great reputation as the best oarsmen on the Lough that he had earned from many races that the fishermen held during the summer. But anyone who had ever come to have contact with him was immediately struck by his prideful and conceited manner. He wasn’t a tall man, but he had strong arms and features. Furthermore, people recall that his most distasteful features were his peculiarly cunning expression around the eyes, and the strange sneer that was always on his lips.
Duggan had, of course, already heard of Sally Sullivan’s reputation as a famed local beauty and was convinced that he would make a good match for the girl. Undaunted by the age difference between them, Duggan was determined that he would win the girl over to him and, with her, the fortune that old Paddy would undoubtedly bestow on her. In the meantime, Paddy and Danny had laid the moulds down and very soon after the proposed race-gig began to take graceful form in the boat-yard. “How are you, curly?” called a voice from outside the yard, giving warning that Mr. Duggan was approaching.
He had come that day to give his opinion on the work that had been completed, and to give his input into what still needed to be completed. But, as he entered the yard, he immediately noticed Sally, sitting on a chair completely involved in some task or other. The one thing that ‘Curly’ knew for certain, however, was that this beautiful girl was not looking at him. She was fixed upon every move that young Danny Cullen was making as he busied himself on the building of this new and wonderful boat. Sally had, of course, seen ‘Curly’ Duggan enter the yard but did not want to suffer the stare of his wickedly leering eyes and decided to leave. Quietly excusing herself she gathered up her things and retired to her father’s neatly painted cottage. Even as she left, Sally could feel that heat on her back from Duggan’s lustful gaze. As for young Danny Cullen, he looked up from his work with a bitter feeling of jealousy filling his body as he watched the way that ‘Curly’ Duggan was looking at his love. From that moment on, Danny formed a long-lasting dislike for this self-opinionated oarsman.
“By the holy God!” exclaimed Duggan, “Sure, isn’t that the neatest and tidiest looking wee boat ever you saw? Now, my boy, what would your name be? For I see you looking closely at that pretty thing, the old man’s wee girl.”
“Yes, she is,” growled Danny,” and here we call her Miss Sullivan!”
“She’s a natural beauty, sure enough,” Curly sighed. “I suppose she has a heap of men chasing after her, boy?”
“How the hell would I know anything? I’ve enough trouble minding my own business, never mind someone else’s!” replied Danny angrily.
“Ah, now!” said Duggan. “Sure, I only asked a civil question and a civil reply would be nice.”
“Well, that’s the only answer I can give you,” Danny told him.
Curly never replied, but he began walking studiously around the half-built boat making snide remarks that demonstrated his complete contempt for Paddy Sullivan’s design and the way in which the work was progressing. “Would you ever look at that?” he smirked as he pointed toward the boat’s keel, “That’s a bloody disgrace! Sure, a barge could be turned quicker in the water than that.!”
Deeply annoyed by Duggan’s comments about the boat, Danny gritted his teeth and continued to concentrate on his work. After a moment or two he felt calm enough to respond to the man’s disparaging remarks. “Well, this is no barge, that’s for sure. So far as that keel is concerned, it will give her a sure grip of the water and make her hold her line.”
“Aye? And who would be able to judge that among tour lot?” Curly sneered.
“Some of the finest judges in any harbor on the lough!” insisted Danny Cullen. “Joe McGrath, Eddie O’Hagan, and Marty O’Brien, among others. Everyone of them will tell you there are no better men at handling an oar to be found in day’s journey!”
“Get away out of that with you!” scorned Duggan, “Sure I wouldn’t believe a word any of those boys would tell me. Your man McGrath is just a ‘gobshite’! Sure, I know more about deep-sea diving than he does gig-racing. McGrath couldn’t pull a bell rope, never mind an oar.”
“Well, I know little about deep-sea diving or pulling bell ropes, myself,” snapped Danny, “but I’ll tell you one thing for nothing; the four of us will beat your shambles of a boat in the race for the ‘Lough Cup’.”
“You’ve a bit of a mouth on yourself, wee man, but I’ll take the bet and you can’t go back on it,” laughed Duggan confidently, sure that he and his crew would win the prize.
“Don’t you be worrying about that,” Danny told him firmly. “I have never broken my word yet, and I can tell you that I am not about to start now.”
Curly now turned his attention back to the criticism of the boat and he said that he was totally dissatisfied with the project in Sullivan’s yard. His behavior was almost the straw that broke the camel’s back, but rather than cause a customer to walk out of Paddy’s yard he decided to get control of his growing anger. But Duggan had not long left the work-yard when Danny suddenly heard a loud shriek coming from the Sullivan cottage. Without even a second thought, Danny threw down the wood-plane that he was using and rushed to the cottage to see what was causing the disturbance. As he entered the building, he was shocked to see Sally struggling, with all her might, to free herself from Duggan’s arms as he tried vainly to snatch a kiss from the beautiful lips. “You dirty blackguard!” Danny screamed as he hurled himself at Duggan, gripping him by the throat and flinging him head-first to the floor.
Duggan was momentarily stunned, but when he recovered after a moment, or two, he raised himself to his feet again. He looked at both Danny and Sally with a certain menace in his eyes as the ‘red-mist’ of revenge filled him. “Take my word for it, Cullen, I’ll get even with you for this or the devil take me if I don’t! So, boy, make sure you keep your eyes open and your wits about you. As for you Sally Sullivan, I will just say good morning. Oh, by the way, Cullen don’t forget the race unless you are too scared to enter!” With these words Duggan stormed out of the cottage and left the work-yard. Sally, who had been very frightened, broke down into floods of tears. She had been terrified by Duggan’s brutality towards her and, after a while, she allowed herself to be consoled by Danny, who used all he knew about her to calm her down and dry her tears.
Not unexpectedly, advised by Duggan, the client rejected the new racing-gig and it was left with Old Paddy, who had no prospect of a customer for it. Naturally, Sullivan was upset at what had happened to his daughter. But he also regretted that he had been painfully struck down with gout, which he blamed for preventing himself from supervising the work and making the boat a model of perfection. Danny, stood by his work, and manfully faced all the negative remarks of neighbours. To comfort old Paddy, Danny also prophesied that, two days after the upcoming regatta, the gig would be sold at a large profit. So, when she was finished, launched, and christened ‘The Beautiful Sally’, after Paddy’s daughter, Danny helped the young woman fit a flag to the boat’s bow, which she had made from a remnant of white silk.
Now summer had arrived, and the sun shone in all its glory on the calm waters of the Lough. It was glorious July and the entire lough was busy with fishermen and boating tourists. The local regatta had been a great success so far and this was the last day of the festival. On the water a fleet of fairy-like yachts powered by a light breeze that swept over the lough’s surface forming tiny waves, through which the boats dashed, skimming like gulls over the water and creating a silver surf with their bows. The water’s surface blazed with light and the green hills nearby encircled the small cove, and the cloudless skies promised ideal weather to come. Larger boats rode at anchor with various flags and streamers fluttering from stern to bow. Several sand dredgers were also there and decked with a great number of fluttering flags and banners. Dotted over the lough were hundreds of leisure boats of all sizes and shapes, from the one oared punt to the family-sized whaler, or well-manned race-gig gliding from one place to another, giving great animation to the entire scene.
On the regatta quay by the lakeside there were crowds of people all dressed in the most elegant of clothes. Sailor outfits appeared to be the choice of most females but some of them did nothing to improve the look. Local notables of all sorts were also ambling about the quayside chatting to each other and smiling with those made up smiles that people use when they meet someone they would rather not. There was even a local brass band sat atop of a platform, which kept their playing of fine music and popular airs such that they blended beautifully with the hum of human voices, mixing with the soft murmurs of the Lough’s waters lapping the shore.
A little further back there were tents of every variety erected. In some of these beer and stout were sold along with numerous glasses of whisky. In other tents traditional music played and dancers skipped and clipped to their hearts’ content, competing in the local ‘Feis’ (Irish Dancing Competition). There were tents in which people could play hoops, throw darts, or try to hook various wooden animals to win a prize. Children sat before a ‘Punch and Judy’ show calling out when it was expected and laughing at all the correct moments. There were, of course, your usual mix of tricksters, encouraging the men and boys to part with their cash in a gambling game called ‘Finding the Queen’ or ‘Find the Pea’. But there was a lot of fun and frolic enjoyed by those who were in attendance, especially with it being the last day of the regatta. Everyone waited for the final rounds and the giving of prizes.
A warning shot was fired, and a fleet of small yachts drew up in a line close to the starting buoys. For a moment their mainsails flapped idly in the breeze until another shot was fired. With this second shot the jibs went up with other sails, causing these ‘Queens of the Lough’ to move forward in a cluster of snow-white canvas. In the beginning they seemed to be scarcely moving at all, but as the breeze caught their sails, they began to get underway and the waves on the lough were broken into foam. Meanwhile, Sally was sitting in the well-cushioned stern of her father’s four oared racing-gig, which old Paddy himself was steering.
Sally was wearing her best summer bonnet, sitting next to her broad-shouldered, honest old father. She looked as pretty as a pink summer rose that was blooming in the sunshine. But Sally was also becoming increasingly nervous as the time for Danny’s big race approached. She could see Curly Duggan’s boat and crew already out on the water and, from what she could see of the boat gliding through the waves, and the strong pulling of the crew, Curly’s boat appeared to be a certain winner. ‘White Falcon’ was the name that was boldly and decoratively painted on the outside of the boat’s prow. At her tiller stood one of the best oarsmen on the lough and he was proud of the muscular chests displayed by his oarsmen, and their powerful limbs with which they pulled the oars so swiftly. As the blades of the oars rose and dipped into the water, springing ‘White Falcon’ forward, his heart swelled in his chest as he imagined the great victory that they would all win together. “Sally darling,” said Old Paddy, “would you take the ropes for a minute, and watch what you’re doing, girl.”
Paddy stood up in the boat to see how the preparations for the race were going, but he had hardly done this when the bow of the gig came up against the side of a larger boat and the jolt left the old man sprawled in the bottom of the gig suffering from concussion. Sally began to scream loudly at seeing her father’s condition, although it was her who caused the boats to come together. She had taken the tiller ropes as directed by her father, but her mind was not concentrating on what she was doing. “Back water, old fool! Are you trying to sink us all? Open your damned eyes, eejit!” came cries from the other boat as old Paddy struggled to gain his feet again.
“Get away from this, you pile of gobshites!” Paddy shouted back. “just look out for yourselves, damn you all!” After this one word followed another. Both sides heaped the choicest of insulting words and phrases on each other until the boats pulled away, with both sides believing they had gained a victory.
“Come on now, boys,” Paddy urged his crew. “Heave ahead! Let us see if they are all getting ready for the start of the race.” A few moments later they reached the area where Danny Cullen and his companions were busily preparing the bottom of the new gig.
“Well, Danny, my boy, how’s it going? What do you think of her now? Isn’t she a beauty?”
“Aye, Mister Sullivan, she looks beautiful,” answered Danny, who was admiring Sally.
“Is the paint hardened, Danny?” asked Paddy.
“Paint? Paint her?” exclaimed Danny in disbelief and still looking at Sally.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Danny? I asked is the paint dry?”
“It’s alright, Mister Sullivan. Sure, it’s as hard as a rock.”
“That’s great, boy. Now see that the stretchers are at the regular length and well lashed down.” Although old Paddy received a positive response to this instruction, he was not totally satisfied until he had personally ensured that everything had been attended to by Danny. “Sure, it’s great now, Danny! I hope she’ll do the job!”
“Don’t you worry about that. If we don’t come in first, it won’t be our fault. By the way, did you not hear the good news, Mister Sullivan? A gentleman called into the yard on Friday looking at the boat and he has just come up to me and said if we won the race, he would give you the price you were looking!”
“Jaysus!” exclaimed Paddy. “That would be great news if we stood any sort of chance of winning the race! But we can’t do anything about that now, more’s the pity.”
“Well, Mister Sullivan, we will just have to do our best, won’t we boys?” smiled Danny confidently as he turned to his crew.
“We’ll try, anyhow,” the crew replied in unison as they lifted the racing-gig carefully from its resting place and gently floated her on the water.
“Danny, here’s the flag,” said Sally. “Oh! There’s the gun!”
“It’s the gun, sure enough, Sally. I’ll bring you home the cup! Come on, lads!” urged Danny, “Take your places, men. McGrath, be careful and watch the way you are standing on the ribs!”
“Run down a bit,” said old Paddy, “let me see your trim. Give the long steady stroke, for the breeze is freshening. Now, get underway and, Danny, my boy, make sure you win!”
They pulled away from the shore and, as they moved out quickly, Paddy could not help exclaiming with delight, as he noticed just how evenly the gig went under the stroke, and how regular was the time kept with the oars. But Paddy’s former concerns returned to him and he remarked to himself the problem the boat had when being brought around. Meanwhile, Duggan was dashing about on the lough, attracting every observer’s gaze toward the ‘White Falcon’.
“Clear the course! Course! Clear the course, pull out of the way!” bawled the racing steward, as bit by bit he succeeded in clearing sufficient space for the rival boats to line-up. “Take your places!” he shouted again through the megaphone.
Sally’s heart beat loudly as she saw the racing-gigs line up opposite the quay where the local dignitaries had assembled. She leaned against her father for support, as she observed the crews gently ‘backing water’ to keep on a line until the signal was given. “What side will you take?” asked the coxswain of the ‘White Falcon.’
“They’re all the same, boy! Just stay as you are,” Duggan answered in confident voice.
“Ready!” the starter shouted, and all oars were thrown forward, as the oarsmen bent, ready for that initial dash. “Fire!”
Almost at the same instant a gun shot boomed and the blades of the oars were dipped into the water together. “Pull, boys, pull!” the coxswain of the ‘White Falcon’ roared loudly.
“Heave away, lads, heave! Now for the start!” cried the others eagerly.
After about five strokes the ‘Falcon’ took the lead by a boat’s length from the ‘Sally’. A bitter sneer of triumph broke across Duggan’s lips as he took the lead. But, a few moments later, the powerful and steady pull of ‘Sally’s’ crew gained water until they came alongside their main competitor. For a very short distance the two boats were travelling neck and neck, exchanging stroke for stroke, as they made for a large buoy, around which they had to turn. The coxswains urged their crews to greater efforts as their oars caused waves to foam under their rapid strokes. Duggan’s crew pulled with a desperate vigour in order to gain the turn first, but Danny’s crew continued their same regular, even pull that kept them close.
“Look now, father! Is the white flag in the lead? Is Danny in front, daddy,” asked Sally excitedly.
“No, child. The ‘Falcon’ is leading – Wait now! – no she isn’t – Bravo, Danny! They’re pulling away from the ‘Falcon’!” It was true, for Paddy saw the ‘Sally’ pull almost six lengths ahead of the ‘Falcon’ and she was making more distance with every stroke. It was when they reached the buoy that the real difficulty began.
“Backwater, starboard, pull-pull on the starboard!” roared the coxswain.
“Heave, McGrath! That’s the way, O’Brien,” shouted Danny at the top of his voice, as he backed with all of his might.
“We’re catching them now! Pull, boys, Pull! Hammer into them!” bawled the ‘Falcon’s’ helmsman, his voice hoarse from his exertions.
Before ‘Beautiful Sally’ could get underway correctly after the turn, while the ‘White Falcon’ darted around the buoy and was quickly three lengths in the lead. “Dear God, they’re beat!” sighed Paddy as he sank back on to the cushions in despair.
“Don’t say that, daddy! Take another look!” Sally begged him.
“There!” cried the old man, as he took another look. “She’s clear ahead again! Well done, Danny! Stick to her, my boy! Aye, there she moves, the beauty! I always said there wasn’t your equal except for myself at building a gig! Now boys,” he continued, addressing his own crew. “Pull over a wee bit, boys, and we’ll give them such a cheer! Heave, my lads – that’s it; bend your lazy backs!”
The course itself was about two or three miles in length, from the buoy to the old sand dredger. It was around this dredger that the boats would have to pull before they made for the quay from which they had started, and which was also the winning line. The struggle between the boats was now a sight to behold as, from time to time, the positions varied from boat to boat. The crews, although tired, appeared to gain renewed strength from the cheers that came from the numerous boats which met them on the course. The increased long stroke employed by her crew helped ‘Sally’ to stretch her lead ahead of the ‘Falcon’ once again. She was speeding toward the old dredger when misfortune struck, and the bow-man’s oar snapped. There was now utter confusion. The ‘Falcon’ came on. But, at that moment, Paddy Sullivan arrived, and seeing the trouble that the ‘Sally’ was in he reached down for an oar and threw it within reach of the bow-man. “You have it now, my boys! Now Danny, pull ahead!” Paddy shouted, and the crew cheered him as their oars dipped into the water and charged after the ‘Falcon’.
Within thirty strokes the two boats were neck and neck again. They drove on at speed and the struggle was now to round the dredger first. ‘Sally’ continued with their quick stroke while the ‘Falcon’ continued to keep. The stern of the dredger was neared, with the ‘Sally’ five boat lengths ahead and the ‘Falcon’ pressing on gallantly in her wake. Both captains urged their crews to greater effort and then shouted out the orders to turn the boats.
‘Sally’ did not round the dredger very well and allowed ‘Falcon’ to catch up and, once again, the two boats were neck and neck. It was now time for the capabilities of the two captains and their boats to decide the result, as a breeze had sprung up from the west and was blowing against both. Loud shouts now greeted the gigs as they came to the end of their final leg, and the winning line. Old Paddy had once again caught up with the race and he began to loudly urge on Danny and his crew. Meanwhile, Curly Duggan began to foam at the mouth as he worked his oar in great desperation, because he could hear young Danny loudly shouting encouragement to his crew to pull. The men responded well to Danny’s calls and, despite all of Duggan’s urges, the ‘Falcon’ began to drop back as the ‘Sally’ swept on to the finish. Curly cursed and raved as the ‘Sally’ powered forward, but he knew it was in vain, for the high-pointed bow of his gig had caught the wind and no longer had the same power as his competition.
“Stand-by the final gun!” shouted the race steward. “Here they come with the ‘Sally’ well ahead! Fire!”
There was a loud bang and a flash of light and smoke as the finishing gun fired. In that same instant the crew of the ‘Sally’ tossed their oars high in the air as the boat itself proceeded gracefully ahead. Great shouts, cheers and applause rang out across the lough as the winning crew dropped their blades into the water and they rode the boat into the landing place to receive their trophy. Paddy stood with tears of pride and joy in his eyes, while standing at her father’s side in sheer delight at the victory. The race steward took the large silver cup in his hands and presented it to Danny, who was still breathless and excited from his exertions and eventual triumph.
The gig ‘Beautiful Sally’ was immediately purchased for its asking price, plus ten-percent, and old Paddy received orders to build two more identical boats. Meanwhile, Duggan quietly disappeared in the crowds, never again to race the course or approach Sally Sullivan or make good his threats against Danny. It is said that old Paddy was somewhat taken aback when he heard the true feelings that Danny and Sally held for each other, but he gave his blessing to them both, and they married.
Hugh John McClean was a perfect example of a rural Irish man; he was a good neighbour, a hard worker, and a man always on the look-out for an easier way to make his living. All of his life he had lived in a small country cottage, which was eventually left to him in his late father’s will. He had died quite unexpectedly when Hugh John was just a young man of eighteen years. In his father’s will, however, it had been stipulated that Hugh John’s mother would be ‘given her day’ in the cottage. In short this clause meant that the mother would be guaranteed to be able to live in the cottage for the remainder of her days. This was something, of course, which Hugh John was very happy to allow his mother to live in the cottage for the rest of her life, because he had no other person who would wash and iron his clothes, cook him hearty meals, or make his bed in the manner in which he had become used to.
It had been Hugh John’s father who had gained for him his first job in ‘Deeney’s Bacon Factory’, which stood about two miles from the family cottage and to which he could cycle his bike, both evening and morning, in just over fifteen minutes. Unlike his father, Hugh John was not exactly ‘the brightest knife in the drawer’ and he was, therefore, not suitable for many of the tasks available within the factory. His first job was simply to count the pigs that farmers had brought to the factory for slaughter. On those days when there were no pigs arriving Hugh John was given the task of keeping the yards and buildings clean, and for packing produce in preparation for delivery. Mick Deeney, the factory owner, took a particular liking to Hugh John, ignoring his lack of ability and often praising his work ethic. There was none who could deny that Hugh John worked hard from Monday to a Friday and socialised well at the weekends. On the occasional Thursday evening he would, however, gather with several local friends and fellow workmates to play a few hands of cards.
To the rear of ‘Wee Jimmy’ McGinn’s house there was a ramshackle hut that had been constructed from various bits of spare wood, packing cases, corrugated iron and many other recycled materials, all of which had been painted a deep red colour. The local men who had come together to build this ramshackle, but solidly constructed, hut decided that they would call it “The Pigeon Club” though it never covered one pigeon in all of its existence. It was supposed to be a private, members only social club although only one of its members kept a pigeon coop. The main purpose of this building was a social meeting place for the local men, where they could enjoy a game of cards and a few pints of beer. They had no license to sell alcohol but you could bring in whatever you wanted to drink on the premises quite legally. Each Friday one of the committee members would buy a hundred or more cans of various beers and a few bottles of whisky, brandy, rum and vodka. The members would then ‘ donate’ a certain amount of money each time they wanted a drink and by ‘donating’ avoided the illegal selling of alcohol.
The nearest public bar for this area of the country was four miles away and no one wanted to risk drinking and driving. Some would have called it a “Shebeen” (Illegal Drinking Den), while others referred to it as a members only club and its membership continued to grow. The local women would have avoided “The Pigeon Club” because it was seen to be mainly for the men of the district, who enjoyed the various gambling games that were played there. It was even decided to buy a television for the club so that they could watch the horse racing on television, betting on the races by telephone call from “Wee Jimmy’s” house. There were occasions, however, when the wagers placed could be quite high and the losses significant, especially on those nights when “the drink was in and the wit was out,” as people say.
One particular night Hugh John reduced his alcohol intake, drinking considerably less whisky and beer than some of the other members. It was one of those rare occasions when he came home from the club reasonably sober and with a considerable amount of winnings from playing cards. The very next day, Hugh John went into the factory and began negotiating with a colleague for the purchase of a small Honda motorbike. Several men within the factory advised Hugh John that he should avoid buying the motorbike, but he was not to be deterred and spent all his winnings on the purchase. He was determined that he would have a mode of transport much better than a bicycle to get him to and from his daily work.
The Honda motorcycle was black in colour and its chrome handles shone brightly in the afternoon sunshine as he rode it home at twenty miles-per-hour with the red crash helmet on his head that had been thrown into the deal for free. When he reached home Hugh John’s old mother was very surprised to see him on a motorcycle and marched up to him, telling him, “In the name of the good Christ Hugh John, what the hell are you doing on one of those modern contraptions.“
“Ah, Ma! Sure I’ll be alright once I get used to driving it,” he told her proudly and proceeded to park the vehicle at the side of the cottage.
On the first Saturday that he had the motorcycle Hugh John rode it into town, parking outside the “Bookies’ Shop”, where he always placed his bets for the week-end and had some craic with friends. Unfortunately, friends with much more experience of motorbikes chose this time to inform Hugh John’s Honda motorcycle was actually a Honda moped. When they pointed this out to Hugh John he felt a great disappointment, but this became anger when he told them the price he had paid and they laughed. In their experience they felt that the moped was worth far less than the amount of money that he had paid. Several of his friends came outside to examine the purchase and he was told that the engine on the moped was not sounding very healthy and would need to be looked at. Upset and angry, Hugh John rode home that evening and immediately rolled the cycle into the kitchen of the cottage and fetched his toolbox.
“Holy Jaysus!” said his mother when she saw him bring the cycle into the kitchen, “What are you doing now Hugh?“
“One of the boys in town said that the engine was running a bit rough and needed looking at,” he told her. “I’m just going to fix it.“
“Sure what do you know about these modern machines, son?” she asked. “And the kitchen is not the place to do that dirty work.“
“It can’t be that hard. Sure there’s not a great difference between a motorcycle and a bicycle, mother. There’s only a small motor and sure that can’t make much of a mess.“
Opening his toolbox Hugh John selected a set of spanners and began to strip the moped down to its most basic parts. This was the easy bit of the exercise and it did not take him long to complete it. But, as he looked at the many parts of his moped spread over the kitchen floor Hugh John became totally confused about what to do next. Putting everything back in place and in order was not going to be easy. Hugh John had never thought there would be so many individual parts to such a small engine and he wondered if he could return the engine to its original condition. In the beginning he was convinced that if he took the engine apart in a certain sequence then, by reversing that same sequence, he could easily reassemble the engine. Hugh John, however, did not have the talent for clear and organised thinking, falling quite easily into difficulty through ‘Murphy’s Law’. This unwritten law is familiar to all Irishmen and is quite simple to follow, stating “If something can go wrong it will!” Try as he might, Hugh John could not recollect the sequence in which he had dismantled the engine. He simply could not recall which piece went into, beside, through, or on top of another piece.
Quite a few hours later, lunchtime the very next day in fact, the moped began to resemble the machine it was prior to Hugh John’s efforts at repair with screwdriver and spanner. Unfortunately when Hugh John tried to turn the engine over there was no kick whatsoever from the moped.
“What’s wrong with that damned thing now?” his mother asked him.
“I don’t know Ma,” replied Hugh. “I’ve done everything that I can.”
“Then, what is all that stuff on the floor over there?” she asked him.
“That’s what is left over, after I had put it all back together,” he told her. “There was no room for that stuff.“
“Well, just you take that load of scrap, and that bike, down to young Geordie’s and get him to fix it. At least he knows something about those modern contraptions.“
“More money!” sighed Hugh John.
“You broke it, now you fix it,” his mother told him.
“Right, Ma!” he snapped like a child in a tantrum.
A day or two later Hugh John gathered the bike and the box of leftovers and wheeled them down the narrow country road to Geordies’ house and workshop. Geordie was a well known mechanic in the area who was fully employed in repairs of cars and motorcycles. It was said that what Geordie didn’t know about cars and motorcycles wasn’t worth knowing. For this reason Hugh John left the moped and all the spare engine parts with the man, asking only that Geordie didn’t “stick the arm in up to the elbow” when it came to price.
It took Geordie a few days to strip the moped down again and to put it back together in the right way, ensuring everything ran smoothly. While he was at it he increased the power output from the small engine, making it reach speeds that it had never reached previously, and delivered it back to Hugh John. When he started the moped Hugh John was not expecting the speed at which this small machine could travel, which frightened the life out of him. “In the name of Christ, Geordie, are you trying to kill me altogether!” he complained. “I almost crapped myself going down that road!“
The very next morning Hugh John rode the moped very slowly to work and offered it for sale and little Des Connolly jumped up and offered him his price immediately. “That is just the thing for me and Bernie to get about on,” he said. Bernie was his wife and, while Des was small and thin, Bernie was almost six feet tall and eighteen stone in weight. Hugh John did not choose to tell Des that the moped was incapable of carrying both of them at the same time. In fact he was concerned that the moped might not even carry Bernie alone. But, he shook hands with the man and the deal was sealed. A few days later he watched Des riding the motorcycle along the road with Bernie on the back, and the front wheel at forty-five degree angle in the air. Although Des did not confirm it, there was a rumour that the entire rear of the moped collapsed under the strain, coming home from church one Sunday morning and Hugh John never saw it again.
After the moped incident Hugh John, as is the case with most young men of his age, began to take a healthy interest in the female sex. Encouraged by his friends Hugh John began to attend the various dances that were held in the local “Calypso Ballroom”, but he did not actually dance very often. He would often be found near the soft drinks bar admiring the young ladies on the dance-floor, displaying themselves in their best dresses. Unfortunately for the young man he could never have been considered to be among the best dressed males in the area, and he would never have been considered a “Gene Kelly” on the dance-floor. The man had two left feet and the only foxtrot that he knew was the one a fox did after a farmer shot at him. At one time he spent a considerable sum in buying himself a “Teddy Boy” outfit with drainpipe trousers, long jacket and blue suede shoes with crepe soles. Rather than improve his reputation among the ladies he became known to them as “The Calypso Kid.”
Fortunately for the “Kid” not all the female attendees at the ‘Calypso Ballroom’ thought he was a fool. One night he was persuaded to ask a young lady to dance, while his friend asked her companion to dance with him. That was to be his first introduction to Winnie Lavery, who was a big girl in more ways than one.
Winnie had the build of a Russian weightlifter and the voice to match. Many people suggested that Hugh John only continued to date her because he was afraid to say that he didn’t want to see her again. When he danced with Winnie it appeared that Hugh John simply floated across the dance-floor, but it was more likely due to the fact that Winnie held him so tight the man’s feet never touched the floor. For a considerable length of time, Winnie had been seeking a man who just might make a good husband for her, and Hugh John McClean fitted the bill perfectly. He was a quiet sort of man whom, she felt she could dominate. He was a good worker, well-mannered and, best of all in her book, not too bright. Winnie had now set her sights on marrying this man and becoming Mrs. McClean and assuming control of his house irrespective of the fact that Hugh John’s mother, Mary, still lived there. Not surprisingly, with a woman so determined, within six months of their first meeting in the ‘Calypso Ballroom’ Hugh John had been persuaded to believe that he had met the woman of his dreams and, as she expected, he proposed to Winnie. She ensured that the engagement was a short one and they were eventually married in the local church and honeymooned in Dublin for a few days.
On the return of the happy couple Hugh John had little choice but to settle down into married life, while Winnie immediately gave up the job and began to make the house her own, much to the Mary’s resentment. Instead of involving the elderly woman in any of the changes she was making, Winnie began changing the furniture and fittings to a style of her own liking. By ignoring the feelings of the elderly woman, Winnie had stoked up years of animosity between the two women in Hugh John’s life and the years that followed could not have been worse for Hugh John. The happy life that he had thought he was getting when he married, suddenly became a nightmare.
The constant battle of wills between Mary and her daughter-in-law gradually wore the older woman down, causing the old lady’s health to deteriorate. When Mary eventually passed away some months later there were many of her neighbours and friends who were deeply saddened by the passing of such a generous, kind-hearted lady. Hugh John was particularly upset by his mother’s death and he never quite forgave Winnie for all the grief she had caused the old woman. From that day they continued to live as husband and wife in public, while they lived like strangers in private. Although Winnie quickly discovered that she no longer had the influence over husband that she once had, Hugh John did not prevent her from continuing to furnish the home. Perhaps it was this growing distance between them that the couple never experienced the joy of having a family of their own. Over the years that followed Hugh John spent gradually began spending less and less time at home. He preferred to spend much of his leisure time in the company of friends in “The Pigeon Club”, or in the public houses of the nearest town.
“McKeever’s” was noted in the town for quality of its draught Guinness stout and became the favourite drinking place of Hugh John, where he would spend two or three nights every week, drinking with friends and workmates. The bar was also noted for being the oldest public house in the town and attracted all types of people to it. There were, for example, quiet, easy-going types who enjoyed the occasional drink among good company. But, as is often the case, the bar also attracted the more boorish type of person who could not enjoy a few drinks without causing or encouraging trouble. One such visitor to the bar was a well-built young man called Jimmy Duggan, known to all in “McKeever’s” as ‘Mean Jimmy’ because he was the greatest bully in the town. Jimmy was so filled with well toned muscles that he always appeared to be ready to burst out of his clothes. Hugh John was a quiet peace loving man who had never given Jimmy any reason to confront him. But, one particular evening, something about Hugh John’s appearance changed everything. It was a typical Saturday evening in the bar when Hugh John walked in wearing his best suit and a brand new pair of brown leather brogues.
“Where are you going?” asked the barman.
“I’m going to Wilson’s wake,” Hugh John told him.
“Jaysus, I heard the man was dead. When is the funeral?“
“Tomorrow, after twelve o’clock Mass,” replied Hugh John as he took a drink from his pint of Guinness.
“Those are nice shoes, Hugh John,” commented Jimmy Duggan, interrupting the conversation between Hugh John and the barman. “I wouldn’t mind those shoes myself.“
“Thanks,” said Hugh John. “I bought them in the sale at Clarkes.“
“Good for you,” replied Jimmy in a quiet, but more threateningly. “You’ll be able to get yourself another pair easy enough, then.“
Hugh John laughed, “And why would I want to buy another pair?“
“Because, Hugh John, I want those shoes you have on your feet,” Jimmy told him coldly. There was no sign that he meant it jokingly.
“These?” laughed Hugh John. “Are you joking?“
Jimmy Duggan drew closer to Hugh John and told him, “I never joke. Now take the shoes off.“
“And what am I supposed to do?” asked Hugh John.
“Have you never been in your sock-soles? Now, just take them off before I rip them from your feet!“
Not one person in the bar saw where that punch came from. They only heard the loud crack as the fist connected with chin and, as they turned to see what had happened, they saw Jimmy Duggan’s body rise into the air. Hugh John had hit Duggan so hard that he was lifted off his feet and seemed to float, airborne, for several yards before he finally crashed to the floor. Jimmy Duggan lay unconscious on the floor of McKeever’s bar and from that moment Hugh John’s reputation in the town was made. He became a man with the courage of a tiger and the strength of a bull elephant, making him a man that nobody wanted to upset or trifle with.
Hugh John’s new reputation as a ‘hard man’ with great courage could have taken a very serious knock if news had been spread, about his fear of mice. Even Winnie, for such a large woman, could not her paralysing fear of these small creatures and she did everything she could to ensure none would ever enter their home. But, there is no such a thing as complete security in anything, and there is always “Murphy’s Law” that applies to most things in life – “If something can go wrong, then it will.” One morning as Winnie cooked the breakfast she noticed a mouse, scampering across the kitchen floor and immediately squealed, in her terror, “Mouse!“
That terrible squeal of anguish that echoed through the house caused Hugh John to run immediately to the aid of his terrified wife. But, when he heard the word ‘mouse’ he suddenly stopped in his tracks. “Just you hold on here, Winnie!” he called to his wife. “I will be back in a few minutes!!”
Hugh John left the house and ran the entire distance to Billy Robb’s shop and garage, which was about a quarter of a mile distant. Breathlessly he asked Billy, “Have you any mouse-traps?“
“I have,” answered Billy, “How many do you want?“
“How many have you got?“
Surprised by Hugh John’s question Billy pulled out a box from under the counter and, after a moment, he told Hugh John, “A dozen.“
“I’ll take them all!“
“Jesus, Hugh John, you must have a plague of the wee devils!” said Billy.
“No, thank God, just the one,” explained Hugh John as he reached into his pocket for his wallet.
“Twelve traps for one mouse?” exclaimed Billy. “Do you call it Houdini?“
“Aye, very funny. Just give them here,” said Hugh John.
Still laughing heartily, Billy handed the box of traps to Hugh John and took the man’s money. With a box of traps in his hands, Hugh John returned home and found Winnie just where he had left her, standing on the kitchen table shaking in fear. One by one Hugh John laid out the traps across the kitchen floor and just as he set the last trap one suddenly snapped as it was released. The spring in the trap had been tripped and the trap snapped on to the fragile neck of the little creature, killing it. A dead mouse, however, did not suddenly cure Hugh John’s fear of the creature and, despite Winnie’s continued for him to remove the little corpse, he would not go anywhere near it. Instead, he went outside and retrieved a long-handled shovel with which he scooped up both the mouse and the trap. Keeping his catch in the shovel she guided it through the back door of the cottage and disposed of it in the bin. With the terrifying creature gone, Winnie came down from the table still shaking and the domestic life of the cottage continued much as it had previously.
Just after his fortieth wedding anniversary Hugh John woke one morning to find that Winnie had passed away, while sleeping beside him in the bed during the night. Although Winnie and Hugh were no longer a loving couple, it was still a shock to him and he was a little sad that she was now gone. It may not have been a marriage filled with romance and good times, and Hugh John may have found it difficult to be in her presence for any length of time, or truly communicate, but he did retain a certain affection for her and he missed her when she went from his life. Hugh John was now left all alone in that small cottage, retired from work and with plenty of time on his hands. But, housekeeping and cooking were talents that Hugh John did not possess and the house began to quickly fall into a very untidy condition. Winnie’s sister, Bernie, was the first to pick up the courage to tell him that he needed to do something about taking care of himself and the house.
“You need somebody to do the cleaning and cooking for you, Hugh John,” she told him.
“Can you not do it?“
“Certainly not,” Bernie told him bluntly. “I have my own home, husband and children to take care of. Why don’t you advertise for help in the local paper?“
“Sure I wouldn’t know what to say, or pay,” he told her. “You do it for me, Bernie.“
After giving the matter some consideration Bernie placed the following advert in the local paper – “Young, single woman required as live-in housekeeper for an elderly gentleman. All interested parties please apply to 4 Damson Terrace.“
When the newspaper came out, the following Thursday, the news of Hugh John’s search for a housekeeper became widespread throughout the entire area. The idea of such a search caused considerable humour among the neighbours and several jokes did the rounds of the various public houses, many suggesting that Hugh John was searching for a new wife rather than a new housekeeper. There were quite a few of Hugh John’s neighbours who thought the old man should be thinking about his ‘plot’ rather than a young housekeeper, whose very presence might cause over excitement in a man who had been so deprived of female company for such a considerable time. One local, young man with a mischievous mind thought he could get some fun out of the situation if he was to dress up in female clothing and present himself for interview. He decided to put his plan into action on the Saturday morning, and encouraged several local people to observe the practical joke at first hand by secreting themselves at various observation points.
Tommy was the young man’s name and he convinced his sister, Mary, to assist him with his female disguise. She began by dressing him in a brassiere around his chest, filling the cups with tissue paper and couple of pairs of socks. Over a pair of football shorts, Tommy wore a brightly flowered skirt that stretched almost to his ankles. He borrowed a large woollen jumper and on his feet he squeezed a pair of black, patent-leather high heels. Once her brother was dressed , Mary sat him down in a chair beside her dressing table and began to apply make-up to his face. She applied foundation before applying eyelash and eye-brow make-up, and finally red lipstick. To add authenticity to this great plan of deceiving old Hugh John, Mary finally placed a wig of long, shiny, flowing black hair upon her brothers head. So complete was the disguise that, when Tommy left the house, it was virtually impossible to tell that he was a man and not a female. Those who witnessed the transformation were certain that Hugh John would not recognise the deception which was going to played upon him.
Tommy walked down the terrace of houses until he came to the entrance into Hugh John’s cottage and stopped. In his best female manner he opened the ornamental mental gate and walked up the path to the front door, which he knocked loudly. None of those watching the scene could be observed, but they could see all that was happening. Tommy was standing on the doorstep when the cottage’s front door opened and Hugh John came out of the house leaning on a walking stick. “Hello,” he greeted what he thought was a young woman standing before him.
“Hello, Mr. McClean,” Tommy greeted the old man. “I have come to apply for the housekeeper’s position.“
“Come on ahead in,” Hugh John invited the visitor cordially and Tommy went into the cottage. When the door closed behind Tommy, those who had been watching the action began to giggle and snicker at the thought of Hugh John being so easily fooled. But the laughter was quickly silenced when a loud scream of terror echoed from the house and all the neighbours waited to see what had happened. There was another loud scream and the sound of raised voices that seemed to originate from the rear of the cottage. Several of the neighbours now rushed to better positions that would allow them to see exactly what was happening and the sight that met their eyes was almost unbelievable. They saw Tommy, dressed as a young girl, running as fast as his feet would carry him across the field that stretched uphill from the rear of the cottages. Holding his dress up with his hands and having no shoes on his feet, Tommy was making good progress and putting good distance between himself and his pursuer. Behind him, Hugh John was limping after Tommy with his walking stick in hand and he was shouting at the top of his voice, “Come back wee darling. Let me show you just what I want you to do!”
Over one hundred years ago Britain still governed the entire island of Ireland. In many major county towns throughout the country the British Army had established barrack buildings and, through a variety of methods, continually made an effort to recruit young Irish men to the regimental colours. In fact, over the many centuries since the English Crown occupied Ireland, their military leaders had always looked upon the country as a fertile ground where they could recruit Irish blood into their ranks. The men and officers, who had been born and raised in Ireland fought gallantly on many of the battle fields that became an integral part of the British Empire’s glorious martial history. These men made up many world famous regiments, such as “The Dublin Fusiliers”, “The Connaught Rangers”, “The Munsters”, “The Inniskillings”, “The Leinsters”, and “The North Irish Horse”. Many other regiments, however, filled their ranks with brave Irish men from every strand of society, whose valour in battle could never be questioned. But bravery, heroism, fame and medals were never the main reason for such men to enter into the ranks of the British Army.
Ireland under British rule has always been a troublesome country. Over the many centuries there had been countless armed rebellions and protests that had cost many lives and divided loyalties. In general, in the two decades prior to the “Easter Rebellion” of 1916, anti-British feelings among the general population were actually confined to a small minority. It was, therefore, not uncommon to see the various British regiments organising military exercises, with marching columns of uniformed men and military bands, often accompanied by mounted cavalry in the rural towns and villages of Ireland.
It was not uniforms and pageantry that encouraged young Irishmen and For the majority of Irish men and boys to enter the army’s ranks. The major factor that persuaded most Irish recruits was that they was that they would receive a regular wage. Such was the poverty among working class Irish people, at this time, that the fact each soldier received three good meals each and every day was a great attraction on its own. In addition soldiers each had a clean bed of their own, an excellent pair of working boots, and a complete set of new clothes. In a time when there were often families of ten and more in a single room tenement, or cottage, sharing beds, sharing clothes, and being lucky if they had one small meal during the day, the attractions of the army were obvious.
There were, however, many men who preferred to avoid service under the crown’s colours, and these men did everything possible to evade the clever ploys of the nomadic recruiting sergeants. On many occasions young men and boys were very keen to sample the adventurous life promised by service in the army of the Empire. But, these young men and boys were, more often than not, prevented from acting on their impulses by their parents and other family members. One young man who could be numbered among this latter group was a certain Mick Farrell, whose mother had been raised in a family that had absolutely no love for ‘redcoats’, their triumphant trumpets, or their pipes and drums.
It began with rumours that the army was about to undertake a series of military exercises in the area, and the news spread like wildfire among all the young men of the district. Other rumours told that a detachment of locally based soldiers were about to leave their barracks and carry out several gruelling route marches along the country roads and tracks that surrounded the village of Killyconn like a geographical spider’s web. These exercises were an excellent opportunity for the local army commander to make an impression on the local male population with his fine men marching in unison, and dressed in colourful uniforms. This spectacle, however, was one that Mick decided didn’t need his attendance. He simply wanted to avoid further heartache and he decided that he would take a nice long walk and enjoy the fresh air. There was, to be honest, very few things in life that Mick enjoyed more than a good stretch of the legs through the fields and the peat bogs of the Killyconn district. Mick was certain that, because of the lack of roads in these places, there would be virtually no chance of encountering those ranks of marching soldiers.
Unlike many young men of his age, Mick preferred to avoid quite a lot of the pomp and ceremony that accompanied the soldiers when they were on exercise. This avoidance of the pageantry was not due to any dislike of the Army on his part, or the army’s presence in the district, but he had been totally humiliated when his mother had forbidden him to ever enlist in the British Army. The other villagers, however, would spend most of the day, standing or sitting, admiring the ranks of uniformed soldiers marching and parading with their rifles and bayonets resting on their shoulders. Many of the inhabitants of Killyconn, especially the young ladies, would seek out the very best vantage points from which they could see the soldiers, while also being seen by them. Naturally, being Ireland, there were some people who were opposed to, what they saw as, the occupation of the country by the British forces, and they protested the army’s presence in their area. This small group of opponents were all members of a recently formed republican organisation that had dedicated itself to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland, and replace it with the establishment of a totally independent nation for its people.
The commanders of various military regiments in Ireland were very much aware of just how valuable route marches, band parades and other ceremonial exercises were to the recruitment of men into the ranks. In rural Ireland, especially, these ceremonials often encouraged the young men to come forward and accept ‘The King’s Shilling’. But, the recruitment sergeants had not been able to enlist any big, healthy men from Killyconn area in many months. For this reason, the powers that be had decided that they should make some kind of effort to reverse this trend, and ordered the new exercises to be staged in that particular area. In response to orders from higher authorities all types of military formations were ordered into Killyconn district to undertake a variety of ceremonials and war-game exercises.
As the soldiers marched through the village and its environs they gathered large audiences of admiring followers that travelled from many miles away. Along all the various roads that criss-crossed this area there were large numbers of followers who had assembled to watch the spectacle, which was becoming a rare event and was always unforgettable to those who saw it. The army officers, of course, hoped that when all the exercises were completed, to the satisfaction of the audiences, many of the young men witnessing the great spectacle would be convinced that they were missing out on a new,special and exciting opportunity.
In the past large numbers of young men and boys had eagerly sought to put on the uniform and experience the life of adventure imagined lay ahead of them, but found themselves to be bitterly disappointed at the reality. Even the old men, the infirm and ladies felt a certain disappointment at their fate when the spectacle ended. They were, of course, aware of their inability to join the ranks of the army, but they were also aware of missed opportunities they had when young or in much better health. Thankfully, their disappointment never lasted too long because life in the countryside meant that there were always jobs to be done, and these would soon take their minds off any disappointment they might feel. Meanwhile, young and healthy boys and men would seek out the recruiting sergeant in the local pub. There they would sign their enlistment papers, and celebrate their decision with a few pints of beer, costing the shilling that they had just been paid. Those who could write their name and those who just made their mark, returned some time later that evening to their homes to face their parents, or spouses, without a penny left from the ‘King’s Shilling’ they had been given.
Mick Farrell was a broad-shouldered, healthy young man of less than twenty years, who had never been shy of doing a hard day’s work. The man was always in demand employment with local landowners and businesses in the district, and he had no pressing need to be enlisting in the army’s ranks. He knew very well that by enlisting his family would still be better off in some ways, but he would not go against his mother’s will. It was she who held who held sway over the family and she was very determined that none of her children would become ‘cannon fodder’ to enhance the glory of the Empire. Since the unexpected death of her husband, Mrs Farrell had worked her once pretty hands to the bone to raise her two daughters and two sons. To make ends meet she had taken in washing, and she had carried out other menial jobs at the houses of the more prosperous people in the district. Through hard back-breaking work she had managed to put sufficient food on the table and decent clothing on the backs of her children. Her eldest son, Barry, had gained a good position as a game-keeper for a rich English Lord, who had a great estate in the west of the country. The eldest daughter, Elsie, had done well to be married into a farming family and now wanted for nothing.
Mick, the younger of her two sons, was her favourite and she watched him work all the hours God sent, just to earn a wager. Being a casual labourer meant that there was no guarantee of work, of course, and regular wages often depended upon seasonal work, good weather, good harvest, and good prices for the crop. There were numerous occasions when Mick had gone, cap in hand, to seek jobs with local farmers and could find none. But, Mrs Farrell, was as stubborn as a rock and consistently barred Mick’s entry into the army with her obstinacy.
The colourful military exercises lasted the entire week-end, which ensured good crowds of people, who had been attracted to the various venues by the noise and clamour of the activities. On Sunday morning, just after Mass, Mick met his oldest and best friend, Paddy Brannigan. This was not an unusual meeting the two young men, but on this occasion, Paddy had come to an important decision and he wanted to discuss the entire matter with his best friend. Brannigan went on to tell Mick that he had decided to enlist, next day, at the regimental barracks, which did not really come as a surprise to Mick. But, although it wasn’t a surprise, Mick was filled with envy and a little angry that his friend’s had decided to enlist. To Mick, it was as if that almost all of his closest friends had now enlisted in the army, and he was worried that with Paddy’s departure he would be left all alone. Mick was angry because, although his mother had seen all of his friends go she still frustratingly and very stubbornly, refused every request by her son to join them.
With Mick encouraged by Paddy’s news and the fact that his friend would be at his side, Mick was re-invigorated. He confidently marched off, determined to persuade his stubborn mother to give in to his wishes. He was more confident than ever that on this occasion he could persuade his stubborn mother to finally change her mind and, with a certainty in his step, Mick and Paddy marched off. As expected they eventually came upon Mrs. Farrell standing at the kitchen sink and washing a few shirts. As the two young men entered the kitchen by the small cottage’s back door and Mick told her. “Get your hands out of the suds, Mother.”
Mrs Farrell stopped her work and turned from the sink to see her son and his best friend,Paddy, standing smartly in her kitchen. “Now, mother, salute the brave new soldier who has come this day to bid you farewell!” Mick announced with a snigger, and Paddy bowed politely, as if he was a gentleman. Mrs. Farrell, however, as she dried her hands appeared to be greatly confused by her son, Mick’s, announcement.
“Paddy is away tomorrow, Mother,” said Mick. “He’s going to enlist in the local battalion. This will mean that he will be stationed near at hand for a good while yet and we will still be able to see him regularly,” Mick said comfortingly.
“Sure, it’s congratulations I bid to you, Paddy Brannigan,” said Mrs Farrell. “I am sure your family will be proud of you, all dressed up in your uniform. The army is a good life for any young man, who has the inclination to be a soldier.”
“Thankyou, Mrs Farrell,” replied Paddy shyly.
As for Mick, he had seen his mother’s kind words as an opportunity for him to bring up his wish to enlist in the army, There should be no hesitation he decided, although he would not just approach the subject in a direct manner, but would first try to build up the life that a soldier could lead. “You know, mother, it’s a great healthy life for a young man like me, isn’t it Paddy?”
Paddy knew he had to be supportive of his friend and he nodded his head in agreement, confirming, “Oh it’s a wonderful life indeed, Mick!”
Armed with this positive response, Mick pressed home his argument, “There is no other life that even comes near to that of a soldier, mother.” Once again he looked to Paddy for affirmation.
The question caught Paddy a little off-guard. He coughed, stammered and stuttered for a few moments before he could manage a reasonably intelligible response. “Seven or eight shillings, at least,” he spluttered. You could tell from the tone of his voice that he was not boasting, even though this amount of disposable income was considerable for a young man of his age to earn. “Well, it could be a little more than that,” he added, hesitatingly. “All that money and I still get the best of grub and drink each and every day. Three good meals and a whole set of new clothes I get, and I don’t have to spend one penny unless I need something for myself.”
Brimming with confidence, Mick now turned to his mother and, with a large smile across his face,he said quietly,”Isn’t that great news Mother?”
But Mick had interrupted Paddy in mid-flow and, realising his error, he gave way to Paddy’s next positive point. “Wee Tommy Murphy was telling the other day that a few weeks ago he had business in the Post Office and found that the place was packed with soldiers. He said that these men, had just received their pay and they were at the Post Office to get some of those ‘money order’ things that they could send home. Murphy also told me that the Post Office was so full of them that he could hardly get old Sally, the postmistress, to sell him a stamp because her hands were so full.”
“Isn’t that great news to hear, Mother?” said Mick. “All these young men like us sending money home to help their families rather than spending it foolishly. And another bit of good news is that each of them only has to serve three years in the ranks before they are free to return home to their families. Now, three years is not a very long time, Mother.”
“Sure, that’s no time at all, Mrs. Farrell” Paddy reinforced Mick’s statement. “Sure it will all be gone in the blink of an eye.”
Mrs Farrell stayed silent and just continued to stare at the two young men. Mick , however, could discern a minute change in her expression, which began to cause him some concern. He was awaiting the expected verbal tirade from his mother, but still it did not come. Instead, Mick’s mother quietly explained that three years can actually be a considerable period of time for some people.
When there was no tell-tale sign of emotion crossing her face, Mick chose to take this as a positive omen. He began now to press his mother to abandon her objections to his enlistment. “Don’t forget,” he said, “that there is also a great amount of leave that a soldier gets. And he gets paid for it. Isn’t that right, Paddy?”
Once again Paddy had been taken by surprise with Mick’s question and did not answer at first. “Don’t forget the great amount of leave that you get in the army, Paddy!” Mick reminded him.
“Aye!That’s right, Mick” Paddy answered with a slight hesitation.
“Sure, isn’t it a fact that those soldiers appear to at home on leave more often than they are on active service. The army gives them all free travel and, sure you know yourself, that they are never off the trains and buses going to and from home.”
“Free travel passes, is that right?” She asked as she stared at Paddy.
“As true as I am standing here,” he replied, hoping to God that what he was saying was indeed true. “Every one of us is entitled to a free travel passes, Mrs. Farrell, when we need to go home on leave. Sure Mick would be able to nip home and see you whenever he has a mind to.” There was a new sense of excitement in Paddy’s voice, confident that Mick and himself were breaking down Mrs Farrell’s opposition. It was herself that had asked about the free travel passes, after all, and this was the first positive sign that she had, perhaps, given up her objections. But, typical of Paddy, he had jumped to the completely wrong conclusion, and he had used both feet without testing the water first.
“Mick?” demanded Mrs. Farrell with a deep scowl.
Her scowl made Paddy jump and he was taken aback so much that he had to gather himself by gathering a huge lungful of air. Now, Paddy realised that he had, perhaps, just one step too far. He now thought it would be better to back-track a little to try save the situation for his friend, Mick. “You know, Mrs Farrell,” he began. “I have been told that the Army will even arrange a special train for a man in case he needs to get home quickly. That’s the way the army treats its men.”
But, Paddy could not just leave well enough alone and went on to add, “What is even better, they will promote good, healthy fighting men from being just ordinary soldiers to corporals, sergeants and sometimes higher. Promotion would mean more money in your pocket and sure there is no limit to what a good man, like Mick, can achieve.”
He was on a roll now and Paddy decided to give his argument one final push. “Sure, it would be a special woman you would be Mrs. Farrell. In fact, I would say that any mother would be very proud to know that she stood firmly behind her son, and did nothing that would hinder his advancement in the world,” he told Mick’s mother. “And when it comes to the end of his army service, a man will receive a handsome pension that will give his family great comfort in the years that follow.”
“Aye, but, please God, that will not be for a very long time,” insisted Mick. “But, Mother, there is a very good living to be gained and great prospects for an ambitious man in the army.”
“And the food that they give out to their men is second to none,” added Paddy. “Those who have already joined the ranks have told me that the army only feeds them the best of everything, cooked and uncooked. There are joints of meat on the bone and off the bone, alongside plump chickens, juicy fresh fruit and vegetables, and all manner of fresh fish.”
Both young men now took turns to point out the good life that they could live when among the army’s ranks. Mrs. Farrell still made no reply, but listened intently as the two men before her tried their utmost to convince her to give her permission to Mick. But, while she listened, Mrs. Farrell continued her task of washing shirts, rinsing them in clean water, and then wringing out the excess water before putting them out to dry in the fresh breeze. In an almost robotic fashion she continued with her work, repeating each part of her task both silently and efficiently, until all the shirts were washed clean.
By her silence, Mrs. Farrell had led both young men to believe that she was prepared to agree that Mick could enlist in the army. There was no open show of celebration between the young men. Nevertheless, they did offer congratulations to each other with a series of winks, nods and smiles. Mick and Paddy, overjoyed with their apparent success, now left the house to stretch their legs in the afternoon air. It would be an excellent opportunity for both men to talk over what the future might just hold for them now that Mick’s mother seemed to be ready to permit her son to enlist. Sensible men, however, know that assumption is not the basis of fact.
Feeling extremely happy, and with a new spring in his step, Mick returned home that evening just as the sun began to set. Outside the cottage he saw his mother feeding the flock of excited chickens from a small pile of corn feed that she carried in her apron. The cottage in which they lived was the last of a small row of white-washed and thatched cottages that were sited just on the edge of town. Each of the small homes gave their occupiers a wonderful view of the valley that swept from one hill to another. Mick stopped for a moment to study the scene that was spread out before him, and the triumphant marching tune, that he had been whistling since he parted from Paddy, fell silent. As he looked at the chickens clucking around his mother’s feet it suddenly became apparent to Mick that at least one chicken was missing from the group. He doubled the speed of his march to the cottage and, when he came before his mother, he asked, “Where is the old speckled pullet? Has it gone off wandering the countryside again?”
When his mother did not reply to his questions he told her,”I will get myself ready as quickly as possible and go look for her after I get myself a drink of water. She’ll be hungry and will not be too far away.”
“There is no need,” his mother answered him at last.
“No need?” he asked in a puzzled tone. “Why would there be no need to look for our plumpest chicken?”
Mrs Farrell looked her son directly in his eye and revealed to him,”I’ve sold her!”
Mick was almost speechless, so shocked was he at his mother’s revelation and he wanted an immediate explanation as to why she had sold his favourite chicken. So, as she fed the remaining chickens she began to explain,”I have too many chickens to be looking after all by myself, Mick,” she said. Totally taken aback by this explanation, Mick chose to say nothing for the moment. “I sold that old hen this morning to Mrs Dunne, who lives below, and she gave me a good price for it!”
“But, you loved that old speckled hen, mother. It was almost like a pet to you,” Mick said.
“Well, Mrs Dunne will look after her now. She has been looking to buy that speckled hen this long and many a day, but I never had the heart to sell it until this very day.”
“But, why today?” he demanded to know.
She had now grown impatient at the manner in which Mick was questioning her decisions, and she curtly told him, ”The food required to feed those damned chickens gets dearer and dearer, and so I sold it.”
Shaking the remaining corn out of her apron, Mrs. Farrell turned to her son and told him, “Your supper is ready to put out. It has been ready for some time now and you had better eat it before it gets spoiled. Your sister isn’t home yet and there’s only the two of us, so come now and let’s eat.”
Mick now quietly followed his mother into the cottage and the familiar aromas of smoke from the turf fire mixed with the smell of fresh bread being baked on the griddle. Mrs Farrell now lifted the griddle from the range and brought it over to the kitchen table. While they were still hot she removed the farls of bread and, cutting one, she spread fresh butter thickly on the each slice of soda bread.
Any Irishman or woman will willingly tell you that there is nothing in this whole wide world that is as nice as rich, creamy butter spread thickly upon fresh-baked, still warm, soda farls, and the way that the butter melts into white, fluffy bread. Without hesitation, Mick reached out and took two thick slices of the soda farl, beginning to hungrily eat it and wash it down with a large mug of hot, strong, sweet tea. “Take some of that sliced cold meat with your bread and tea, son” Mrs Farrell suggested.
Mick, of course, did not require a second invitation and hungrily helped himself to several slices of cold brisket that his mother had laid out on a serving dish in and placed in the centre of the table. On many occasion you must have wondered at the way that fate intervenes in our lives, and causes changes in those ideas that we may have formed, or arrangements we have made. It feels almost like fate is making fun of our decisions and the plans we have made for the future. Even as Mick sat in the kitchen of that cottage he quickly came to realise that any hope he may have had for a future in the army was dead for him. When he was asked what he thought about his supper, Mick smiled at his mother and gave high praise to her culinary skills. Then, almost without thought, the young man began to describe various proposals he had for improving the small land holding that they owned.
“These are all good ideas,” Mrs Farrell said in praise of her son and they began to discuss each of his proposals while they ate their supper. She seemed to be very happy that the plate of cold meats and fresh-baked bread seemed to have helped remove all thoughts of joining the army from Mick’s mind. This, of course, was exactly what she wanted to achieve and with as little fuss as possible. Content in her own mind that her son would be staying, Mrs. Farrell sliced and buttered more bread, after which she refilled his mug with more fresh, hot tea. Her happiness began to show in her demeanour as she began chatting merrily with Mick about even the most frivolous of things. Mick, meanwhile, tried to reflect on how he would set about the problem of explaining to Paddy Brannigan why they would not be comrades-in-arms after all.
So, as soon as supper had ended, Mick got up from his chair, telling his mother that he had decided to go to hid friend’s house and tell him the bad news face-to-face. The sun had already set but there was still a bright and clear sky in which the stars had just begun to emerge, and a crescent moon was arising in the east. Outside the small terrace row of cottages children were still at play running, skipping, jumping, and laughing as they enjoyed their last moments of play before they would be sent to bed. On the outskirts of town, other children helped their parents in the fields to herd the goats, pigs, and sheep together before settling them down for the night ahead.
Mick continued on his path, down past the other cottages until, in front of the last one, he saw Fibber Morrissey sitting on a small stool and playing his violin. Now, Fibber had been blind from the moment he was born and he was a man of some fame in the area. His constant scraping and twanging on the violin strings, however, resulted in a wonderful variety of music being played every day by the blind man. Mick greeted Fibber as he walked past him and, as usual, the old man returned his cheery greeting without even skipping a beat. He had recognised Mick’s voice and raised his violin to him before resuming his playing. In the meantime, Mick continued on his way, following the path and humming to the tunes that old Fibber was. He began to notice, now that the sun was well down, the cool evening breeze had begun to blow a little stronger. There were scraps of straw and pieces of paper that were picked up by this breeze and blown down the road ahead of him and, without even realising he was doing it, Mick loosened a small stone from the edge of the road and kicked it with the toe of his boot.
He hadn’t gone more than a hundred yards from the blind fiddler when Mick came upon an old friend of the family. Peter McGann had been a close friend of Mick’s father and here he was, driving home a flock of ducks and ducklings from a nearby water hole. Every time that he saw Peter herding his flock of ducks Mick could not help but laugh to himself at the sight. Peter McGann was a large, burly man, with great broad shoulders and it was highly amusing seeing such a man herding ducks. Armed with a long, willow rod Peter was “shoo-shooing”, in an increasingly frustrated manner, his ducks and ducklings in an effort to ensure they did not straggle and wander all over the place.
“A good evening to you, young Mick Farrell,” Peter greeted Mick cheerfully as they approached each other.
Mick, for his part, was rather distracted and he didn’t quite hear Peter’s greeting. “What the hell is wrong with you, Mick Farrell?” asked Peter curtly. “Do you not return a greeting that has been given to you?”
Peter’s curtness brought Mick back to his senses quick enough to answer the rebuff he had just received. “I’m sorry Peter,” he apologised. “ My mind is so full of other things at the moment.”
Peter laughed and asked, ”A wee girl, I suppose? Sure what young man, like yourself, would not be distracted by some lovely wee girl?”
“It’s not a girl, Peter. I want to join the Army,” Mick began to tell him. “I want to make a life for myself but my mother is dead set against it and I cannot go. Now I have to tell my best friend that he will be enlisting on his own tomorrow.”
“Joining the Army?” asked Peter, almost as if he didn’t believe what his ears were hearing. “You want to join an Army that has tormented your people for centuries? You want to join an Army whose sole purpose is to ensure that the people of Ireland give up any hope of freedom and self-determination, and do what they are told to by their English masters?”
“Jesus Christ, Peter?” Mick exclaimed in shock at these words. “Be quiet before someone hears you! If somebody reports it you could be looking at being charged with high treason!”
“Treason my arse!” Peter sneered. “Sure it is you who are plotting the treason! You who is about to betray our people, your faith, your country and your ancestors! Just who do you think you are? Do you want to die for England or to live for Ireland?. You know Mick Farrell that it only on stout, hardy young men like yourself and Paddy Brannigan who are Ireland’s only hope for freedom. In fact, it is only the likes of you who maybe our last hope! So I plead with you to keep true to your own, Mick, and don’t join the ranks of the enemy!.”
“Ireland’s last hope?” Mick muttered to himself as he stared down at the ground to avoid Peter McGann’s eyes. A moment later he raised his head to thank Peter for his advice but found that Peter had vanished, the same way that any ideas of enlisting in the army had vanished.