It was one of those nights when low-lying clouds virtually covered the sky, obscuring almost all the light from the moon, making the entire area dark and impenetrable. Then, in the blackness of the night, bright flames coloured red, orange, yellow, and gold stretched upwards to the sky giving light to the dark clouds as they slowly floated over the mountains, westwards. The source of those bright leaping flames shone out like a beacon from its position higher up the mountain, visible for many miles in all directions and attracting the attention of many who were living nearby. It is difficult to recall exactly what the time when I first noticed the great hullabaloo of an approaching crowd of people that awakened me from a deep and most enjoyable sleep. In fact, it was my wife that was awakened first and, in her panic, nudged me with her boney elbow until I finally opened my eyes. “What the …,” I began to complain angrily but I held my tongue when I heard the crowd approaching the house. There was a rumble that appeared to be an earthquake threatening to shake the house, followed by the sound of voices.
“Who is it, Jackie?” my wife asked. When I didn’t answer immediately, she bellowed in my ear with a voice that sounded like that of a ‘Maghery Fishwife’. “Will, you get up, Jackie, for God’s sake and see what’s happening?”
The sleep needed to be rubbed from eyes before I could get up out of bed and move to the cottage door. “Who’s there?” I shouted sleepily, and then asked my wife, “Who do you think is out there?”
“How would I know?” she replied with a hiss and a sour look that I had often seen during forty years of marriage.
“It’s just that I am wondering who it is that is making all that noise, and it’s making me nervous,” I told her.
“Now, how would I know the answer, for Christ’s sake, you gobshite?” she snapped back impatiently. “Just get your fat arse out outside and ask them ‘what the hell is going on?’”
Still rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I went and lifted my trousers from the top of the blanket box sitting at the bottom of the bed, and I pulled them on. “There had better be a very good reason for all this noise-making, Maggie. Decent people are asleep at this hour and not shouting all over the place! Is this some kind of joke? If it is, then it is not very funny, and It will be their greatest ever mistake.”
“Christ, Jackie, will you get out there and stop this nonsense?” urged Maggie.
Taking the oil lamp from the top of the ‘Tall Boy’ and, turning up the wick, I went to the front door od the cottage, quickly running my fingers through my hair to tidy it a little. I opened the door and was immediately confronted by a tall man who was making ready to rap my door with the knob-end of his blackthorn stick. Immediately I recognized the man was Seán Curran, a close neighbour and friend to both Maggie and me.
“Jesus, Jackie,” groaned Sean, “Have you not seen the great fire that is blazing up yonder.” I had not seen a thing since, until five minutes previously, I had been fast asleep until rudely awakened by Maggie. In total amazement I looked in the direction that Seamus was pointing. “It looks like it’s old Paddy-kill-the-Cats’ house that has gone up in flames!” he said.
In the hope of getting a better view I stepped out of the doorway and, pushing my way through about a dozen men or more, I reached the gable wall of our cottage. From this viewpoint I could look up the mountain to where I knew Paddy’s cottage stood, and I saw the great flames leaping angrily toward the heavens, splitting the black, overcast sky and casting a flickering light over the entire area. “What, in the name of God, has happened? Paddy’s place is an absolute inferno!” I asked.
“Sure, Jackie, who would know the answer to that question?” Sean replied. “But I have gathered a crowd of local men, as you can see, and we intend to go up to that place to see if we can save anything from those flames.”
“That sound good to me,” I assured him. “I’ll get my heavy coat and boots and follow you up there. Let’s hope and pray that old devil up there and his wife, Bessie, have both survived this disaster.” I was still pulling up the collar of my overcoat up and around my neck as I caught up with the group, and we quickly marched up the stone-covered lane toward the blazing house. When we reached the site, the flames were still leaping skyward, and the air was filled with smell of burning thatch and charred wood. The men started their work without delay by establishing a chain of men passing buckets of water from the nearby stream to the burning house. Others, armed with various agricultural tools began pulling down large burning areas of the building and dowsing the flames with water. But there was no saving the old cottage which had quickly become a burned-out ruin that was beyond rescue. With the burning thatched roof removed the glowing embers that were once wooden rafters quickly crumpled into the house, while the earth walls that had once the cottage its strength crumbled and tumbled to the ground in the heat. Even a cursory glance at what remained of the cottage, still burning, or smoldering on the ground, gave proof to any claim that if there had been any person alive in there when the fire started there was certainly no one left alive after the conflagration.
Sean’s face was grime covered by the smoke and ashes from the fire. As he approached me, I could see his weary, sad eyes seeking me out. “Ah, Jackie, it looks like Paddy and Bessie are lost to us,” he sighed as he made the ‘Sign of the Cross’. Then, he added “May they rest in peace.”
“You might be right Sean,” I answered him. “But let us both join the rest of the lads and get stuck into putting out these gorse fires before the entire mountain goes up in flames.” The flames, the sparks, the intense heat from the cottage fire had caused nearby tinder-dry patches of gorse to burst into flames. With our shovels, rakes, and every other tool at our hands every man worked together, systematically, to beat out the fires and glowing embers so that the rest of the hillside would be secure.
Slowly the sky began to lighten as the new day began to dawn from the east just as the last flames of the burned-out cottage were dying, leaving only embers of wood that glowed red when the morning breeze blew over them. There was nothing left of the building that had once been a home to the elderly couple, who were so well-known in the area. Scattered about the place were the broken, charred and still smoking remnants of furniture that had once filled the rooms of that small comfortable home. “Whatever will we do with Paddy’s sheep, now that he is gone?” I asked as the problem first entered my mind.
Sean shrugged his shoulders and suggested, “Why don’t you take Paddy’s sheep and graze them with your own, Jackie?”
“And then what?”
“Well, at the next fair day you could sell them, and you could give the money to a charity, naming Paddy and his wife as the benefactors.”
“By Jesus, Sean Curran and Jackie Murphy, you will do no such thing!” came a voice from somewhere behind us. “The first man who dares to put a hand on just one of my sheep, I’ll crown him with my ‘Plant’. (Blackthorn Stick)” Taken by surprise I turned to see who had spoken. About fifty feet away, in the direction from which the voice came, there was a group of furze bushes and from the middle of these Paddy Dillon stood up with Bessie at his side, and both were looking in my direction. They were standing upright, rigidly and were wrapped in white bedclothes like no ghosts in that early morning light, with the grey smoke from the ruined cottage drifting over them.
Both Sean and I stared at the two figures whom we had been sure were buried in the ruins somewhere. “Christ, Paddy! Where did you and Bessie spring from? We were sure you were both dead!” I told him.
At this point, the most unnerving thing for me was that the two people that I had assumed to be dead were now actually walking toward me. Paddy called out to me, “It wasn’t for any lack of effort on the part of the all-consuming flames, for they wanted to consume us as well as our home. But we managed to scramble quickly out through our bedroom window to safety. When we found a secure place, we just lay down until we heard voices.”
“But what happened, Paddy? How did the fire begin in the first place?” I asked.
“Ah, sure, it was all down to Bessie and her novenas,” he answered. “She always lights one of those damned candles she buys from the chapel, and she starts to say her prayers for continued good health and for the souls in Purgatory. But we were very near joining them this night!”
“Come on, now, both of you,” I replied. “We will get you some warm coats to wrap yourselves in and then we will go down the lane to any house and get some hot tea with buttered bread. We will get you settled comfortably and then we can talk about what can be done to help you to get your lives back on track.”