A Mission of Mercy

In the early morning chill of that frost-filled winter’s morning a horse approached the large gate of the monastery, and on its back sat the figure of a man wearing a long, grey coat and a soft black hat. As soon as he reached the monastery gate the man dismounted and made his way to the smaller visitor entrance where he rang a large iron bell that hung at the side of the heavy oaken door. The bell tolled loudly in the morning stillness, and the stranger stood back for a moment to await the door being opened to him. As expected, the man did not have to wait long before he heard the loud clatter of a monk’s sandals on the stone floor as he approached the ‘Strangers’ Door’ to answer the call of the bell. He pulled strongly on the heavy iron bar that secured the oak door and it slowly creaked open to reveal the person who had rang.

Frosty Morning

The monk who opened the ‘Strangers’ Door’ was a small, portly looking man dressed in a habit of rough brown cloth, with a white rope girdle tied loosely around his expansive waist. From this rope belt was hung a large, highly polished, wooden rosary that was made from large beads. With great courtesy the stranger removed the hat from his head, and he began to fidget with it nervously as he introduced himself. Having done this, the stranger began to relate the reason for his visit to the monastery and the message with which he had been entrusted. In a quiet and nervous voice, he explained that that the friar who had been assigned to attend the sick was needed immediately by a patient that lived in the hill country, who had taken to his bed with a strange and severe illness.

The stranger told the monk that, although the local womenfolk had attended to the young patient with a variety of charms, ‘magic’ potions, and natural remedies, there had been none that had relieved his sickness. The monk was also informed that the young man had already grown very weak and that there was now a great deal of concern that the poor boy might not survive the night. As a last desperate gamble to save their son, the boy’s parents had sent this man with their appeal to the medical friar that he come and place his holy and healing hands over their son, Ciaran Horan.

With his message given, the stranger followed the monk in to see the medical friar and he explained to him just how the young man’s home could best be reached. There was no need for further explanation and within thirty minutes the friar was ready to take up his journey, and he turned to me and asked me if I would go with them. In those days it was unusual for an ordinary labourer to accompany a friar on a mission of mercy, but this friar had been born and reared in England. He had been sent to our part of the world from an associate monastery in Yorkshire and couldn’t speak a word of Irish, which was, of course, the first language for most people in this particular part of Ireland. It would be my task, therefore, on this mission of mercy to act as an interpreter because I could speak English almost as fluently as my native tongue.

We mounted our horses and rode off along the narrow country track that brought us past the lake, over the surface of which a light mist was beginning to form on that still, frosty morning. I was in the rear of the group as we passed the lake and entered a lightly wooded forest where, at the far end of it, we joined the road that would lead us straight into the hill country.

As we progressed along this road, we could see the rich arable land on both sides of the road slowly change to grey, barren, grazing land that was fit only for the raising of sheep and goats. We rode on a few miles further and the land began to turn into wild moorland and bog, coloured by the furze, heather, and bracken. The chill wind that had been blowing earlier was now still again and the sheep were lying down, with the weight of their heavy fleeces about them. The branches of the trees did not stir at all and their outlines against the pale sky appeared to be so many skeleton arms reaching up towards heaven. For the first time on this journey I was beginning to feel uneasy as we made our way through a wide network of dry-stone walls that marked the boundaries of absurdly small fields, which were all the land a family had to sustain it. Then, on a distant hillside, I saw the figure of a shepherd rise up on his feet with a crook in his hand, like some ancient prophet from the books of the ‘Old Testament’. But this ‘old testament prophet’ vanished just as quickly as he had disappeared.

The Friar

The morning had moved on to afternoon and was approaching evening. The light of day was fading and everywhere began to change tone as the scenery began to reflect the watery red sun that was setting in the west as we rode on in the silence that surrounded us. Here and there stood small stone cabins skirting the road along which we were travelling, and among those poor homes some of the residents could be seen moving around. When these people saw the friar riding past an occasional bare-footed woman would hurriedly curtsey, ensuring that her shawl covered her head. The children who were playing boisterously around the bleak stone cabins suddenly stopped and ran back into their houses at the sight of we three men on the road, popping their mop-haired heads above the half-door, and their smiling faces and sparkling eyes followed us as we went forward along the road.

The people we passed shouted out greetings to us in Irish as we rode past, but their salutations were worded as blessings for the journey that we had left to complete. Whenever we came to a stop, just for a moment or two, a small crowd of local people would gather around us, peering up at the tall friar from under their black, broad-brimmed hats with faces that had been tanned naturally by the wind and rain that is so common in the hill country. When the friar spoke to them, the crowd would turn to each other wondering what he had said. It was at these times that I would break into the conversation and repeat what the friar had said to the crowd, in Irish.

So, your reverence, it’s Ciaran Horan’s wee house that you’re going to?

It is,” I replied on the friar’s behalf.

Is his reverence going to be reading the words of the holy book over the poor boy?” one of the local men asked me.

He will, of course,” I confirmed.

Aye. The Horan’s will be expecting you, then?

Of course, they are,” I answered him. “sure, they were the ones that sent for us to come to the boy’s aid.

The man shook his head sorrowfully, saying, “We heard the poor boy was feeling pretty low and that a type of strangeness had come over him. Would that be right?

I didn’t want to say too much to the man and, instead of answering his question, I asked him, “Is the Horan home far from here?

No. It’s not that far away. Just you follow the road there, keeping the big, ivy covered, demesne wall to your right. Then, after a while, you will come to a wee stream that you will cross, and you will find a narrow boreen on your right as you come to the end of the wall. Go past that boreen and to the west you will see two large poplar trees, and beyond them you will come to another narrow track. You should take that track but be careful of the thorn hedges on each side of the boreen because they will cut your clothes and skin in the darkness. It would be better to ride your horses in line rather than side-by-side to prevent damage to yourselves. As you go along this boreen you will come to a shallow river that flows over a stone-covered bed, which will allow you all to ford the obstacle with your horses quite easily. Now, do you think you will remember all that I have told you?

Yes, and thank you very much for your help,” I replied politely.

Well, that’s a good thing,” said the man. “Now, listen carefully, for once you are across the ford at the end of the boreen, you go up to the Horan house by way of the back meadow and you will see a light shining in the north. If you give a loud call, Old Paddy Reilly will come out to you and lead your horses by the head to the house where Ciaran Horan is lying in his sick bed, God help him. Ah, sure, Ciaran’s a fine young man and a greater player of the tin whistle you have never heard. You should be off now, may God be with you all, and don’t forget to keep a keen watch out for the poplar trees.

We will,” I told him and wished him farewell on behalf of the party. As we rode onward my mind was busy trying to recall the details of the journey the man had laid out for us to Horan’s house. As directed, we rode alongside the ivy-covered wall of the demesne, across the stream, the passage, the boreens, until we finally came to the two poplar trees that stood like mighty sentinels in the rapidly reducing light. The entire land was being covered by a rapidly spreading darkness, and the clear star-filled sky above us warned of an upcoming severe frost on its way.

One-by-one, in single file, we moved through the boreen with some anxiety caused by the darkness we encountered. When we reached the end of the track we came to the shallow river, just as we had been told that we would. But despite the stone-covered riverbed, my horse needed a little touch of persuasion to enter the cold water. As we began to cross, however, we discovered that the water reached well above the fetlocks of our horses, and they splashed loudly in the slow-moving flow of water. Then, when we reached the opposite bank,      we saw the light in the north, as we had been told we would, shining in the night. As requested, I gave a loud call and we waited for Paddy Reilly to arrive. The friar had a hearty laugh at my efforts to gain Paddy’s attention, but within minutes a tall, well-built man approached us out of the darkness. It was Reilly himself and he took hold of the horses by their heads before leading them and us across the back meadow toward that light that shone brightly in the north.

Outside the long, low, thatched cabin stood a crowd of men smoking pipes and busily talking among themselves, creating a loud mumbling noise. The door to the house stood open and there were lights shining from all the windows. As we dismounted from our horses none of the men at the front of the house came to greet us but continued talking among themselves. They looked at us with cold stares and made us feel uncomfortable as strangers intruding on local business. But it was their evident discomfort at our presence that made us anxious until a voice asked, “Will you not be going into the house to see young Ciaran?” Reilly asked the friar and I translated for him. “Now, there’s no need to be worrying about these horses, for I will take good care of them for you. I will brush them down, feed them,” Paddy assured us and walked off with the horses.

As we walked to the open door of the house the men saluted the friar as was their custom and the friar, unsure of what they were going to say to him, made sure that I was by his side when we entered the cottage. From the doorway I led the way into the kitchen where two women were standing respectfully a good distance from the door, their faces looking a little anxious and fearful. Their eyes seemed to be glued to the friar and it seemed they were waiting for the arrival of a magician through the door to the kitchen. They made a little curtsey to the friar, which was more like a quick jerk of their bodies rather than a graceful movement of their female form. There was no other person in the kitchen but these two women, silently demonstrating the power that matriarchs hold in an Irish home at a time of crisis. They were, without doubt, in command of all things when a life had to be cared for. The menfolk, at these times, are usually relegated to being outside of the home and out of site. The older of the two women now came forward and welcomed the friar to her home in Irish.

At first, there appeared to be some slight misunderstanding between the woman and the friar, which I did not quite catch in time to parry, although I was interpreter to both parties. The friar, fair play to him, was well used to handling such little embarrassing moments with his bright, friendly smile that quickly thawed the icy formality that had arisen. The two women seemed to be relieved at that moment, for they had not expected him to say anything, and now they no longer concerned themselves about any appearance of being considered somewhat inferior. The friar had a natural warmth about him, and he possessed a talent for putting others at their ease in his presence. Perhaps, this was due to him being from peasant stock himself. Softly smiling, the elder of the two women led the priest into the room where Ciaran lay on his sickbed.

As the priest left the kitchen area, the younger woman placed a chair in front of the kitchen fire and invited me to sit on it. As I sat there, warming myself, I could hear the woman’s feet quickly and quietly shuffling about the floor, causing her clothing to swish as she began to undertake a variety of tasks. Then, she came over to where I was sitting and offered me a glass that contained a liquid which looked like slightly discoloured water. Despite my misgivings about this drink, the woman inspired a certain confidence within me, and I accepted the glass from her hands and began to drink the liquid it contained. There was a slight taste of peat left in my mouth, but the liquid passed smoothly down my throat, spreading a comforting warmth through my body, and I knew immediately that the liquid was poteen. As I drank, I noticed that standing to the side, and in the shadow, a young woman stood with her fair face illuminated by the yellow-red flames coming from the turf fire. Although she was standing quietly you could not fail to recognise the tension in her body as she kept alert to any movement from the sickroom.

The door to the room was slightly open and I could hear the low, soft murmur of the priest’s voice as he recited the litany of prayers in Latin. The young woman sighed loudly and made the sign of the cross before she took another chair from the table and sat herself down beside me.

My brother is very low,” she said in quiet, genteel voice.

Has he been ill for a long time?” I asked.

Aye, sure the poor boy has been ailing for a while, God love him,” she said. “But to look at him you would have thought he was as sound as a young bull heifer. At first, he became moody and just wanted to be left alone and he would spend hours down at the bottom of the meadow sitting under the ‘Fairy Thorn’ by the river, playing his tin whistle. Then he began to lose the use of his arms and legs, and he began to cry bitterly for no apparent reason. There were people who warned the family that the boy had been brought under some kind of strange influence, then he lost the power to speak. Surely, the holy friar will know the cause and what needs to be done to make him well again.

When the friar came out of the room, he was already removing the purple stole from around his neck. Just behind him walked the older woman with the excitement dancing across her face. “Ciaran spoke,” she announced to us all. “He looked up at his reverence and tried to bless himself. But I couldn’t hear what the poor boy was saying because his voice was so weak, but he definitely did speak.

Don’t be worrying yourself,” the younger woman replied, “Ciaran will live.” Her voice betrayed some of the excitement expressed by the mother, whose eyes were now fixed upon the priest and he quickly became of aware of her steady gaze. Although the woman’s gaze made him feel somewhat uneasy, the friar was more amused than frightened.

Just as I was watching all these events occur, I heard some loud shuffling of feet coming from outside the house, which reminded me of the bustle made by a herd of animals as they approached. The door creaked open and with a certain uneasiness I turned my eyes in that direction, but nothing appeared at the door, which confused me. Although nothing appeared, however, I kept a close watch on the door for some time. My alertness was rewarded by the sight of a cluster of heads and shoulders that belonged to men with weather beaten faces, all of which bore anxious expressions. They stood in the doorway, peering down at the priest who was now seated next to me at the fireside. It suddenly became clear to me that these eager faces were half-hoping that the legendary magic of a priest would conjure up some form of apparition for them. Then, this set of heads and shoulders were quickly replaced by a different grouping, all eagerly wanting to see into the house. The mother now turned to the friar and quietly asked him, “Do you think that Ciaran will live, Father?

The Sick Bed

We should all have courage,” the friar told her quietly.

Sure, we will all get a bit more courage now that you have read the prayers over him, Father

Just you keep that faith, Mrs. Horan,” the friar smiled. “It’s all in the hands of God now and, if it’s his will, all will be well again.

The bedroom door opened, and the daughter came out with an expression of immense joy etched on her face. “Ciaran’s going to live!” she announced loudly to all who were present. “He has just spoken to me!

Could you hear what he was saying?” the mother asked.

Indeed, I could hear it all. The boy told me clearly that in the month of April, when the water runs clear again in the river, I will be playing my tin whistle once more!

When the river has clear water again, then he will be playing his tin whistle again?” the mother questioned. “Sure, him and that old tin whistle of his would put years on a person!

The friar had now risen from his seat and was beginning to make his way toward the door, and I decided to follow him. But even as I followed him, I was able to catch a glimpse of the patient through the partly open bedroom door. On a crisp, white pillowcase lay the long, pallid, and anxious looking face of a young man. I noticed a light reflecting off his brow, and his eyes had an unnaturally bright shiny appearance around them. My mind began to wander as I looked at Ciaran Horan, because it seemed to me that he had the face of a teacher. I also began to think that, perhaps, his vision of playing his tin whistle by the river was just his vision of heaven on earth.

As we exited from the cottage, Paddy Reilly was already harnessing the horses in the sulphurous yellow light of the stable lantern. As we began to mount our horses the groups of men who had been standing outside the cottage began to shuffle toward us. Several of them broke the silence by speaking cordially to us and thanking us for coming. In those few minutes there was more said about young Ciaran than was said all night up to that point. We leaned enough about the young man that we began to suspect that he may have been brought under the influence of the ‘Good People.’ As we talked there was a sense of mystery and ill-omen that began to fill my very being. All the dark figures of those men standing about that lonely house mourning the loss of this tin whistle player affected me. But very soon they would hear the joyous news and would be able to depart happily as the grass beneath their feet sparkled with the heavy frost that was falling over the hill country.

JW

Letter From America

Wake up there, Jenny!” shouted Bridie Ferguson as she ran up to her neighbour’s door.

What in the name of Jaysus is wrong with ye?” replied Jenny Dunn.

Did you not hear the news?

What news? What’s it about?

Bridie shouted at the top of her voice, “Sure there’s a letter from Amerikay in the post-office.

“Wheesht, now! Don’t be daft!” answered Jenny

I’m telling you the truth, woman,” insisted Bridie Ferguson. “No word of lie! Micky Dunn brought word from the town this morning. He says that the letter is from Dessie McDowell to his old mother.

Oh, is that right? Well, now I know you’re telling lies! That dirty blackguard never had that much good in him from the day and hour he was born. He was always an idle, worthless ruffian, that was the ruination of everyone he came in contact with. The dirty old——

Jaysus, Jenny, don’t be holding yourself back! But, let me tell you that you’re wrong this time,” Bridie told her. “The letter is from Dessie McDowell to his old mother, and it contains money, believe it or not!” Her friend Jenny looked at her in disbelief and listened to the rest of what Bridie had to say. She told how the postmistress had sent word that old Mrs. McDowell should bring some responsible person that might guarantee her identity. The old woman was a widow, and the postmistress did not want to give the letter into the keeping of a frail old woman, especially when she did not know what might be inside the envelope. For the two greatest gossips in the area the outstanding question was to discover how that well known reprobate of a son had managed even to get the price of writing paper.

Jenny told her friend that she had seen old Sharon McDowell borrow a clean coat from her neighbour, and that she had sent for Conn King and his car. Mr. King was the local solicitor, who was known to everyone in the town, both rich and poor. Conn was going with the old woman to verify that she was Sharon McDowell of Tullybann, and the addressee of the letter from America. Bridie laughed at the idea, saying “That old crone is so well know that she could get every man, woman and child in the area to verify her identity. She didn’t need Conn King.

Dessie McDowell was the old woman’s only son, born to her when she was still freshly widowed. Sadly, Sharon’s husband had been killed by a falling tree before they had been married six months. All that was left to Sharon was her beautiful, curly-headed son and she lavished all her love upon him. She spoiled him terribly and as he grew up, he became the greatest young hooligan in the parish. As a young boy he developed a knack for throwing stones, the results of which were gathered and reported back to his mother. There was not one day in his young life that passed without him earning the blame for a list of damages and disasters. There were complaints about the chickens and other birds he had maimed and killed with his stones, windows broken into smithereens, and children that had been cut or badly bruised. Dessie was simply a one boy disaster zone and all his poor mother could say was, “For Christ’s sake, what do you want me to do with him, for there is really no harm in my son, for it would do me no good?

Terry and wife

The neighbours and townsfolk held their patience with young Dessie for quite a number of years, but finally decided that something would have to be done. Not wanting him to be sent to any delinquent centre, for Sharon’s sake, they came upon another way to resolve the problem. Although not a permanent solution, the tactic that they had agreed upon had the potential to keep him out of their way for the greater part of every day. The opportunity to enjoy that much of their lives in peace was a chance they could not turn down, and even the clergy were glad to agree since the solution might just converting Dessie from being the parish nuisance into a useful member of the community.

Each house in the parish agreed to give a small subscription every month, which would be used to send Dessie to the Christian Brothers’ School in the next town. The brothers were noted for their rigidness and for their teaching ability, as well as for their sports skills. Accordingly, Dessie left home and was sent to this new school for the next five or six years. There was peace in the Parish for these years and Dessie studied hard at all the subjects he was given. But Dessie was not an academic and preferred to make things out of wood and metal, becoming so proficient that his poor mother was able to boast of his success. Even the neighbours began to think better of him, and his teachers spoke highly of Dessie’s abilities. In fact, many of the teachers suggested that if Dessie could keep his head down to work then he would be a man fit for the company of any lady in the district. Encouraged by such compliments, Dessie attempted to keep his head down and work hard, putting his talent for metal and woodwork to good use. But in doing all these things Dessie came to ruination.

It was the end of his school days and Dessie knew that the time had finally come for him to make his way in the world. His mother, in an effort to help him get a good steady job, obtained a position for her son as a labourer on the large tract of land owned by a prominent businessman from the town. But, when he heard about the job, and what it entailed, Dessie was not in the least bit pleased. Sharon thought she had gained for him a good start in life, but Dessie was speechless, at first, when she told him. He asked her, “For why, then, did I go to school mother? Is this the sort of job that you want for me, and me qualified for better?

Despite Sharon’s pleadings that he should not reject the offer out of hand, Dessie felt himself to be above such lowly work. He boldly told his mother that nothing but being a carpenter would satisfy his ambitions. People began to look at Dessie as a man who had ideas above his station in life. But Dessie didn’t really care what anyone thought of him, and there was one other person who agreed with such thoughts. In fact, is it not a strange phenomenon that the most mischievous boys in town always seem to attract the prettiest girls? This is exactly what happened to Dessie McDowell. Unfortunately, for this young couple the young lady, Nancy Doran, had friends and family who were not prepared to quietly allow their relationship to continue unopposed. Undaunted, however, Dessie and Nancy were driven to carry on their relationship in secrecy.

 Driven by his great love for Nancy, Dessie urged Nancy her to elope with him. He believed that her family would, when they realised there was nothing else, they could do, give Nancy enough money to set matters right with her. Nancy had not yet gathered enough courage or daring to elope with her man. She also, unfortunately, had not the courage to end the relationship with Dessie, or the increasing secrecy required for the relationship to continue. The affair was becoming increasingly more hopeless in her eyes and, as a result, she began to feel increasing sorrow and shame. Nancy’s bright eyes, that were once like a magnet to all the young men in the district, had now began to grow dim. Her once rosy cheeks, that had caused more than one suitor to write poems to her beauty, had now began to grow pale and sallow. Then, true to his old ways, Dessie had been less than a gentleman towards her and he was forced to flee the country to avoid the righteous and murderous anger of her family. He fled to America and safety, though it remains very much a mystery as to how had obtained the necessary finance. Now, after a period of almost a year and a half, a letter from him had arrived and there were many who hoped it would answer all their questions.

This story, as you must have realised, happened quite a number of years ago when travel to foreign parts was not the everyday event it is today for people. In those days America to be almost like a different planet, and there would be little chance of someone who went there ever returning home. You can imagine, therefore, the fuss and bother that a letter from America could cause when it arrived in any small Irish village. The news that such a letter had arrived quickly became a matter of public interest to everyone in the village, and it was looked after almost as if it was valuable joint property. Country people generally regarded such a letter as being a general communication from neighbours abroad to all the neighbours at home, and hearing what such a letter contained was a matter of intense interest to all those who have seen a family member joining the numerous emigrants from this land. So, it was with the letter Sharon received from America.

When she arrived back home, after retrieving her letter from the post office, the old widow found herself pursued by a cavalcade of her neighbours. Every inch of the cottage interior was full to capacity and the crowd overflowed on to the entire area outside the front of the house. The door and the windows of the cottage were almost completely blocked up with various heads that strained in a vain effort to hear even a little of what was being read to Sharon. In a low voice the was read out, but many couldn’t hear because of the squabbles between individuals, as they tried to get a better place to listen from.

Damn you, Tom Burns, what the hell are you pushing me away for, sure I want to hear what’s happened with Dessie!

Ah, shut your beak, you eejit! Why wouldn’t I try to get in there to hear a letter about Sharon, sure isn’t she my sister-in-law?

Here boys! Does any of ye hear a word about my poor Paddy?” Biddy Casey called out from the back of the crowd.

For the past three years not a letter had come from America that Biddy had not gone to the addressee in the hope of getting some news about her husband, Paddy. He had been through some financially troubling times, which had caused him to become part of a trio of men who were rustling cattle and sheep. With the forces of law breathing down his neck, Paddy had gone to America to prepare a new life for his family. Regularly every market-day in town, Biddy went to the post-office and inquired if there was a letter from America addressed to her. But, week after week she received a negative answer, and her heart sank with despair. Biddy still attended the post office each market day, but could no longer ask the question, and only presented herself at the counter to receive the usual negative answer from the post-mistress. On some occasions she would turn her eyes to Heaven and pray, “God in heaven help me!”, as the tears flowed down her cheeks. From the day he left until the day Mrs. McDowell’s letter arrived, Biddy had never heard one word one word about her husband, or what had happened to him. The news contained in Sharon’s letter from America would give Biddy some closure on the labours and anxieties she had suffered since Paddy had left. Biddy learned that he was attracted to the city of New Orleans by the promise of high wages, but he met his end in the deadly swamps that surround the city.

But Dessie McDowell’s letter contained news for others. One such person was a red-cheeked lady called Peggy Dillon and, after getting her news, she elbowed her way out of the cottage and into the fresh air. She had tears in her eyes but, from the expression on her face, these were undoubtedly tears of joy.

Well, Peggy? Is there any news of your Bridie?” came the questions from the crowd that was gathered outside the cottage. “From the smile on your face, Peggy, it must be good news.

Oh, sure its great news!” Peggy answered delightedly. “Bridie has a wonderful fine place for herself in America and another for me. She even has my passage paid and in five weeks I’ll be away myself. Woo! Woo!  I’m so excited that I don’t know what to do with myself!”

It was, indeed, good news for Peggy Dillon, but others sought news for themselves from the letter. “Peggy darlin’, was there any news about our Mick?” asked someone from the crowd.

Or our Sally? Our Johnny? Or our wee George,” came other questions with which she was inundated.

Oh, I don’t know, I just don’t know. I couldn’t listen with the joy I felt in getting news of Bridie,” replied Peggy

Then, one more spoke out to her to ask he a very pertinent question, “But, Peggy darling, what will Tom Feeny think of all this? Do you just ignore all those vows and promises that you and he made to each other when you were coming home from the dance the other night?

Peggy did not worry about such questions, for she knew exactly what was going to happen. With the very first money that she earned in America; Peggy would send it to the care of the Parish Priest to pay Tom’s passage out to her. She was sure that the Parish Priest would help if she assured him that she and Tom would be married as soon as he set foot on American soil.

 As Peggy walked away with a huge smile across her face another happy face emerged from McDowell’s cottage. It was old Malachy Tighe, and he was clasping his hands, together as he looked up toward heaven, silently thanking God for the good news he had received. His son, his pride and joy, was going to be home with him before harvest time, with as much money as would buy another bit of land. His son’s wife threw her arms around her father-in-law when she heard the news from him, and his grandchildren jumped around, screaming with delight. “It’s good news Malachy, Johnny is coming home!” the neighbours celebrated and wished him well.

As usual in these things not everyone would be destined to hear good news. There was a message from Mick Finn to his sweetheart, Susie, telling her that he would soon have her fare gathered and would be sending it on to her. Unfortunately, Susie was not going to hear the message, for she took terribly ill a couple of months earlier and died. It was six weeks since the poor girl died, and the family had brought her to her last resting place in the cemetery at St. John’s Church. There in her grave Susie lay, and the daisies had already taken root, blooming there in the fresh air as beautiful as she had once been. Mick Finn’s words, however, had brought back the heartache and tears the family had shed in the days and weeks that had passed since her untimely demise.

Johnny Gallagher has got himself married to a girl from Cork, who has a bucketful of money behind her,” they read from the letter and Big Nancy Mulroy burst out laughing. Everyone had thought, before Johnny went to America, that he and Nancy would have wed, or at the least engaged. She was a tall well-built girl that no man in the district would dare to cross and this laughter was simply her attempt to deny how she truly felt. Although she wished him good luck, Nancy just wanted to get her hands on the eejit. There had been talk that Johnny had only gone to America in the first place to get away from Nancy, and she now wondered if these rumours were true. This letter had been Johnny’s first convenient opportunity to break her heart.

While the letter was being read out there were quite a few listeners, who had become increasingly curious about the absence of Nancy Doran. She, after all, should have been the one most interested in the fate of Dessie McDowell, and yet she was nowhere to be seen. Nancy, however, was not far away and was sitting in the dilapidated cottage into which she had been forced to move when her family threw her out of the house. She had been pregnant to Dessie before he left, and her father was incensed by the shame he believed she had brought to the family. As Dessie’s letter was being read, Nancy was sitting at her kitchen table with a pile of sewing, which provided the income she needed to support her and her baby. Every now and again she gave a sob, which would almost waken the baby asleep in the box beside her, though she tried to hide it. Nancy’s mother had quietly visited her daughter without the knowledge of her husband, and was seated on the hearth, angrily berating Nancy for feeling sorry for herself.

Will you stop your weeping,” the mother told her daughter, “Get a bit of back bone, girl. It’s something that you have never had, because if you did have it you wouldn’t have gotten yourself into trouble with the likes of Dessie McDowell.”

Mother, please,” Nancy answered the sufferer, “don’t always be condemning me. Is it not bad enough that I must sit here quietly, while his letter is being read out only a few doors away?

Well then, go to McDowell’s cottage and beg them to let you read it,” her mother told her angrily. “Go there, darling girl and find out for yourself how little thought he has for you, or the trouble he left behind him.”

It’s not for me, mother, no, not just for myself,” Nancy sobbed. “I can live without his thoughts or favours, but I would just like to know what he has said about the baby.

“Ah, be quiet!” exclaimed the mother. “You are always trying to get me to think about the whole bad situation. Wait ’til I tell you Nancy that I have never felt hatred for someone so badly as I do now. Please be quiet, I tell you.

You just have a very hard heart, mother,” Nancy told her.

You have no place to talk dear,” replied the mother. “If your own heart had been a little bit harder, darling, your family wouldn’t have to walk away with their heads down every time that your name is spoken.

A fresh burst of tears was all the answer that Nancy could give to this. It was an answer, however, that only caused an increase in Mrs. Doran’s wrath and lower the tone of her words. She had heard about the letter and had visited Nancy to persuade her to assume an air of quiet nonchalance, to demonstrate to neighbours that she had a “back-bone” in her character. It was obvious that Nancy had failed in her objective, and now Mrs. Doran directed her anger and frustration towards Nancy. In response, Nancy’s sorrow became louder, and, between crying and the shouting, the child was awakened from its sleep and began to add its bit to the general clamour. The noise did not lessen one little bit until a crowd unexpectedly gathered at the door Nancy’s dilapidated cottage and the voice of Sharon McDowell could be heard shouting joyfully over the din.

Well, if the girl won’t come to us,” Sharon called out to the crowd, “then we must go to her. After all, this news, is worth hearing!” Then, before another word was spoken Sharon, and a crowd of people, had made their way through the door without knocking, or asking permission to enter.

God save all here,” old Sharon greeted them, “including yourself, Mrs. Doran. After all we must now forgive and forget all that has kept us divided.”

And if I forgive and forget, what do I get in exchange?” asked an angry Mrs. Doran.

It’s good news and much to be thankful for,” said old Sharon as she revealed the letter. But, for her part, Mrs. Doran was in no mood to listen to any news from the letter, be it good or bad. She rose up from where she was seated, gathered her belongings, and haughtily pushed her way through the growing crowd. There was no word of goodbye to Nancy or the baby as she stormed out of the cottage.

Cheerio, then, may the sun shine on your back,” said Sharon as she recovered from the undisguised contempt Mrs. Doran had shown toward her. “Away on with, and if you never come back, it’ll be no great loss, for there’s not one word about you in the letter, you old serpent,” Sharon called out to her and then she turned to Nancy and the baby.

Now, Nancy, you and I should spend the whole of the day down upon our knees giving thanks, even though you thought the letter not worth your time,” said Sharon, and Nancy went down  on her knees clasping the baby close to her bosom. She raised her eyes to heaven and, oblivious to the crowd and commotion, with every nerve in her body trembling with excitement and joy, Nancy waited for old Sharon to ready a seat for the letter reader near to the window. As the reader settled himself into the seat, the old widow called out for silence and gave the letter over for it to be read out to the crowd for about the sixth time.

Dessie had grown to realise that survival in America was very much dependent upon his character, and he became very wary of not doing anything that might affect his character badly, even by the slightest degree. He was a changed man now, no longer an utter idiot, but a man of honour and integrity. All the while he never forgot Nancy Doran, nor his old mother, whom he had left behind him in Ireland. Images and thoughts of Nancy filled his dreams with such intensity that Dessie immediately began to put aside a little money every week so that he could send it to her, but he was ashamed to write to her until he had the total amount gathered. Unfortunately for Dessie his efforts were cut short and the money he had accumulated was used for his own subsistence. The event which had brought about this misfortune was the sudden death of the owner of the grocery business for which he worked. The unexpected death of the man who managed the entire concern caused the entire business to break up, and Dessie was once again unemployed. He found it exceedingly difficult to get another job and his small amount of savings was soon exhausted. Dessie decided it would be better to get out of the bulging city of New York and move westward, where labour was more plentiful and there were less people chasing each job.

Dessie travelled widely getting casual work as he went until, at length, he met a friend who had been one of the partners in the grocery business that had first given him a job. This man had money, but, he did not have the education or business acumen to put it to profitable use. He had no knowledge of reading, writing, or arithmetic. Now, these happened to be a specific talent that Dessie had cultivated when at school. One day, while talking to Dessie, he bemoaned his lack of a sound education which prevented him from using his capital to good effect, and Dessie very modestly suggested one way in which he could put his money to profitable use. After a little consideration of Dessie’s idea, he invested his money and in a very few days a grand new store appeared in the town in which they now lived. Dessie became the bookkeeper for the business and was rewarded with a junior partnership in the business.

In the latter half of the letter he gave thanks for the education he had been given and the faith that his mother had handed on to him. Dessie then told her to take hold of the large amount of money that he had sent with the letter. He told his old mother to keep half for herself to make her old days comfortable, or to use it to pay her passage out to him in America. The remainder, he told her, was to be given to Nancy, the girl of his dreams who had suffered so much because of him, and he wanted to assure her that he would spend the rest of his life making it up to her and their child. H said that he would expect her in New York by the end of the month, and that Nancy was to immediately purchase a gold wedding ring, which she should place on her finger at once, without waiting for the priest. “I’m her sworn husband already,” he wrote, “and I will bring her straight to the priest the minute she puts her foot on American soil.” He added that they should write to him giving the date and means of travel and named the place where they should meet. As a final surprise he told his mother, “When you write to me, address the letter to Desmond McDowell Esq. for that is what I am now, and I’m not kidding you.” The letter finally closed with Dessie wishing his mother and all the neighbours, “good luck.”

There was a loud cheer from the crowd as the reader finished the letter and they all rushed forward to congratulate Nancy and her infant. Old Sharon whispered in her ear, “It’s very hard to spoil an Irishman entirely, if there is any good at all in him.

Bessie and the Priest

An Irish Village Tale.

And what has become of Peggy?” I asked.

Sure, didn’t her mother pack her off to America as soon as she was able, after the baby was born? That has always been the case here, when a woman falls to misfortune. Sure, Didn’t Bessie have to go in the end, and her swearing she couldn’t give a damn for what the priest said about her?

Bessie, who?” I asked

Bessie Cairns, of course.”

There was something about that name that perked my interest and so I asked the driver to tell me about her. “Well,” he began, “it was Father Martyn that put her out of the parish. But the girl bit back and put a curse on the parish which lasts until this very day.”

“Sure, you don’t believe in things like curses, do you?”

Indeed, I do,” he insisted, “Isn’t it a desperate thing to put a curse on someone and the curse that Bessie put on this parish was a bad one. I’d go as far as to say that I have never heard tell of a worse one. The sun was well up at the time, and she was standing on the hilltop with both her hands raised skyward. Then, in her loudest voice, she laid out her terrible curse upon the entire parish. She said that every year a roof would collapse and the family in that house would leave for America, never to return. That was Bessie’s curse upon us and sure, hasn’t every word of it come true? Sure, you’ll soon see for yourself after we cross the stream.”

And whatever happened to Bessie’s baby?” I asked.

He looked at me with a puzzled expression and answered, “In the name of God, sure, I didn’t know that she had a wee one!

The driver turned his attention back to the road ahead, muttering under his breath while driving further toward the village. That old car shook, rattled and chugged along that graveled country road for a while. He was silent and I began that, perhaps, my apparent refusal to believe in the power of curses had offended him a little. But, despite this, I decided that I might be able to encourage him to be a little more forthcoming with any information he had about Miss Cairns. “Would you ever tell me, just who is this Bessie Cairns, and how was she able to get the power to put such a terrible curse on the village?

Och, sure, they say that she went into the mountains every night to meet and talk with the fairy folk. Aren’t they the only ones who could have given her the power to lay down such a curse?” he explained.

But, surely to God, she couldn’t have walked that far in one evening?

Wait ‘til I tell you, friend, that those who are in league with the fairies can walk that far, and as far as that again, in one evening. There was shepherd man that saw her, and you can see the ruins of the cottages for yourself as soon as we cross the stream. I will also show you the cottage where Bessie lived with the old blind woman before she went off.

How long is it since Bessie left?” I asked him.

Ah, now, it must be twenty years since that day,” he replied after a moment’s thought. “Sure, there hasn’t been a girl like her in these parts since she left. Of course, I was only a bit of a boy at that time, I recall her being tall and straight like a poplar tree and, when she walked along the street, there was always a bit of a swing in her hips that caused all the boys to stare after her. She had a pair of beautiful dark eyes and a smile that would light up a room. They say that she always enjoyed a laugh and could always be seen with a boy on her arm. But it was also at that time that Father Martyn first arrived in the parish and saw the village as a sort of mini Sodom and Gomorrah with all the courting that the boys and girls were doing. Now, there was no harm in it, at all, for they were young and enjoying life. Boys and girls have sought out each other’s company for hundreds of years and it has become a tradition that causes no harm. But Father Martyn closed the handball alley, because he said that the boys would go there before they would go to Mass. He also brought an end the dances at the cross-roads, claiming that they were sinful gatherings that led to immoral things happening between boys and girls that he would not permit in his parish. Personally, I never saw her, but they do say that there was no one in the district that could dance like Bessie Cairns, and many the boy would go just to see her moves. When I was a bit older, I heard it said that any boy who took a walk with her in the woods during the summer evenings would never have a thought for any other woman afterwards. In the village, the boys were all mad for her and many a fight broke out among them to see who would get the chance to walk out with her. It was all such activities that caused the priest to swear he would be rid o Bessie by hook or by crook.

The Cairns family were quite prosperous, and they ran the main village grocery store. Father Martyn decided, one evening, that he would go to the store and talk to Bessie’s parents about her behavior. But, when the priest entered the store, he found the richest farmer in the district, Mick Moore, already there and attempting to win Bessie’s hand in marriage.  Unfortunately, at least for Mick, he didn’t go straight up to Bessie to ask the question and mistake would destroy his quest. When you entered the shop there were two separate counters, with Bessie attending one and her father attending the other. But Mick Moore had chosen to approach Bessie’s father and ask him for his daughter’s hand. “How much of a fortune is there to go with Bessie?he asked.

Well now, Mick, there is many a man that would take Bessie without a fortune, you know,” said Mr. Cairns. But this did not prevent the conversation from continuing in manner approaching two men bartering for a cow. All the time, Bessie was listening to every word that was said, and she was not at all impressed. It was clear that Mick Moore had no idea just how high-spirited that Bessie was, and he continued to barter until the girl’s father until he was willing to pay fifty-pounds. The farmer thought that he had finally won through and as a final ploy told Bessie’s father, “I’ll not open a fly to her until you throw in the two heifers on the deal!”

“Bessie said nothing for the moment and continued to listen to the dealing as it continued, her temper rising with almost every word. But it was at this point that the priest chose to go over to Bessie’s counter, with a broad, satisfied smile on his face. “Aren’t you the proud one this day,” he began, “to hear that you’ll have such a fine fortune behind you? And sure, I’ll be the happy one to see you married, for I could not allow you to continue your sinful ways that lead the men of this parish astray. It is you that encourages the dancing and the courting in this village, and I’m going to put an end to it.””

“Bessie never said a word in reply and the priest moved back to where Mick Moore and Mr. Cairns were still bartering. “Now, men, why not just settle on fifty-five pounds?” said Father Martyn. The father immediately agreed to the amount since it had been suggested by the parish priest and all three men were satisfied that the marriage agreement had been settled. “What will you be taking, Father?” Cairns asked, “and you Mick?” Not one of them asked Bessie if she was pleased with the settlement and to be marrying Mick Moore.”

“None of the men knew what was in Bessie’s mind until they approached her counter. They were all rather pleased with themselves and were ready to tell her what had been agreed. But Bessie stared angrily at them and said, “I’ve just been listening to you three clowns talking about me and my future.” Then with a toss of her head she told them, in no uncertain terms, that she would be picking the man that she would marry, no matter who it pleased or didn’t.”

“Father Martyn was so angry with Bessie’s attitude that he lost all power of speech. It wasn’t just the detail of what she said, but the manner in which she had spoken to them. She had already decided that the man she would marry would be marrying her for herself alone, and not for any money that might be paid to him once the register was signed, or when the first child was born. As far as Father Martyn was concerned, a girl marrying a man of her own choosing was the thin end of the moral wedge and would lead to anarchy. He had often spoken from the pulpit, saying that parents should have better control of their children and especially those of marriageable age. He said young people should not be allowed to socialize unless accompanied by a responsible adult and insisted that the parents were responsible for arranging suitable marriages for their children. So, it is no wonder that the priest lost his temper when Bessie told everyone that she would do whatever she wanted. As parish priest he had a position to maintain in the community and tried to rein in his anger, even when Bessie told him that there was not a man in the village that she thought good enough to marry. When Bessie’s father heard what his daughter intended to do, he knew that she was a woman who would never be turned from the course she had chosen.”

“Mr. Cairns now turned to Mick Moore and quietly said, “Mick, son, you might as well be on your way, big man, for you’ll never get her now.” This said he went to hear what Bessie was saying to the priest and hoping she would not upset him too much more.”

“But It was Father Martyn who was talking to Bessie and asking her bluntly, “Do you think that I am just going to allow you to gallivant about the district with one or more of the boys in this Parish? Do you think that I am just going to stand idly by and watch the boys of this parish beat lumps out of each other over the likes of you? Do you think that I want to hear more stories like that of poor Paddy Cleary who, they say, lost his senses because of the cruel way you treated him? Well, let me tell you, Bessie Cairns, that I will have none of it! I’ll have you married, or I’ll have you run out of my parish!””

“Bessie chose not to answer him. She just tossed her head nonchalantly and continued to make up packets of tea, and sugar, silently demonstrating to Father Martyn that she didn’t care about what he said, at all. Meanwhile, her father trembled with fear at the prospect of what might now happen, and what the priest might do with the blackthorn stick he had in his hand. Worried that he might just strike Bessie with the blackthorn, Mr. Cairns tried to quieten the priest by promising him that Bessie would no longer be allowed out alone in the evenings. But, that very same evening, the headstrong girl left the house to meet a young man, and both were seen by the priest. Even when she was confronted by the priest about her continuing disobedience, Bessie just laughed loudly and told the priest she was just having fun checking out the local talent.”

“Father Martyn was filled with rage at the manner in which Bessie had spoken to him and her blatant disregard of the promise her father had made to him. The priest went to confront her in the shop a second and third time, but there are no witnesses to tell of what words they spoke to each other. Next Sunday, however, from the pulpit the priest spoke strongly about the sin of disobedience, which was initiated by the devil and a woman. A disobedient daughter, he told the packed Mass, would always be the sorrow of her family and she would have the worst devil in hell always by her side. Then, pointing to Bessie Cairns in the assembly, he branded her as an evil spirit that had been sent by Satan himself to drive men mad with immoral desires. Most of those who were at Mass that day are now either dead, or gone off to America, but I remember being told that the words flowed from the priest with a spitefulness that none had ever witnessed previously. They say that from that day those people who passed close to Bessie blessed themselves to ward off any evil, and the boys of the Parish who had once been besotted with her were now afraid to even look her way. Business at the Cairns’ shop dropped dramatically as people boycotted the business because of Bessie’s presence there, and she was ordered to leave the family home.”

“Her father had thrown her out of the house?” I asked the driver.

“Sure, didn’t the priest threaten the poor man with all sorts of things if he didn’t act as the priest wanted him to. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a person in the parish who would even speak to Bessie, because they were all so afraid of the priest. If it hadn’t been for the blind old woman, whom I told you about already, Bessie would have been left to roam the roads or enter the workhouse. The blind woman had a small cottage at the edge of the peat bog, and I’ll show it to you as we pass by. Bessie now stayed with that old blind woman for almost two years, during which she was publicly disowned by her parents. Her clothes wore out, but she was as beautiful in rags as she was in the best of clothes and, despite being told by the priest that the young men should no longer follow her with their eyes, the boys could not help but stare in admiration.”

“Despite his best efforts, Father Martyn did not get rid of her for a long time. The old blind woman had insisted that she wouldn’t see a girl like Bessie Cairns thrown onto the roads to fend for herself, and she was as good as her word for almost two years until Bessie finally went off to America. Well, at least that is what some people say she did, while others still insist that she had joined the fairy-folk. Pat Hughes said that on the day Bessie left the parish he had heard a person knocking at the window and asking him if he would leave her to the railway station in his cart. It was early morning, and Pat said that it was too early for him to be getting up, but he was certain that the person knocking the window was Bessie Cairns. He believes that she must have gritted her teeth and travelled the ten miles to the railway station by her own efforts.”

“You mentioned the curse she left?” I pointed out to him.

“Aye, indeed she did, and you’ll soon see the hill where she laid the curse for yourself. There was a local man taking a small flock of sheep to the fair that morning. The sun was just rising, and he saw her as she cursed the village, raising her hands up to the sky. Every year since that curse was laid, a roof has fallen in and, on occasion, two or three.”

There was no doubt in my mind that he believed every word of the story he had told me, and he had almost convinced me that it was true. A beautiful woman had become an evil spirit through the action of a clergyman, and she had cursed the village that would not defend her. “Look there!” the driver said suddenly, interrupting my train of thought. “Do you see that old woman? Well, that’s Bridie Cohan and she owns the house.” Looking out over the field I saw a small house built of loose stones that appeared to have no mortar holding them in place, but it appeared to be better built than some of the cottages I had seen so far. “Now,” the driver continued, “you’ll get a look at the loneliest village in Ireland!

All the surrounding fields that I saw appeared to be good, fertile land, but there were very few people wandering around the place. The number of untilled fields amazed me, and I was deeply shocked to see so many ruined homes. These were not the ruins typical of thirty or forty years previously, when people were evicted forcibly from their homes, but they had been recently abandoned by their tenants. “Aye, these homes were left voluntarily rather than the people being thrown out,” I said aloud.

That’s the truth! Sure, wouldn’t the landlord be a happy man to have them back here, but there’s no chance of that happening. Every person here will have to go eventually, and father Martyn will not have worry about immorality in the place, for he’ll be preaching to an empty chapel. There will only be old, blind Bridie Cohan who must be a hundred if she’s a day, and she can’t stand the sight of him. By the way, did you know that there has been a rumor that Bessie has been seen in America. I’ll be going there in the autumn, you know, and you can be sure that I will be keeping an eye out for her.

I smiled broadly at this and pointed out to him, “But, all of this happened twenty-years ago. Sure, you won’t be able to recognise her, for a woman changes a great deal in twenty years.”

He shook his head and said, “Now, don’t be talking nonsense. Bessie will not have changed a bit, for hasn’t she been with the fairies?