"Up the airy mountain
down the rushy glen
we daren't go a hunting
for fear of little men..."
Ireland is haunted. Or, for anyone who doesn't believe in the supernatural, it feels like it's haunted. Once you're in the deep countryside, especially in any of the mountain ranges, you will find yourself feeling more spiritual. You simply can't be there, surrounded by mist-enshrouded majesty and dark beckoning forests, and not feel like something magical has happened, or is perhaps happening. I am from the city of Dublin, itself a city with such a dark past that if there are such things as ghosts, then they must surely reside there - but that's another story. The story I want to tell here is set in the county of Mayo, in the province of Connaught, in the west of Ireland. Connaught is at once an area of such lush beauty and stark barrenness, you cannot help but feel that you yourself are a spectre there, wandering where the wind whispers you to go.
When I was a kid my father took me, my mother and my older brother Con, to Mayo - a beautiful county on the west coast teeming with voluptuous plant life, every shade of green you can imagine, dense woods, sacred mountains and lakes, and bonny brooks that blabber garrulously to themselves as they rush headlong down the hills.
We had driven, that day, right across Ireland from Dublin which is on the east coast of the land, and by nightfall a fierce gale had swept up, along with lashing rain and the threat of thunder. We were to stay on a house boat on the river Shannon for this holiday, but because of the storm my father decided that we would first stop into a local pub to find out where we could get some more solid accommodation for the night.
After about an hour's drive through dark country lanes we arrived at a tiny hamlet - I call it this because it couldn't be described as a village, for it was made up of a mere smattering of houses and, naturally, a pub. We dashed from the car towards the cosy glow from the windows of the pub, and were thoroughly soaked when we walked in the door. All eyes were on us as we entered the room. It was obvious that we were not from the area and probably just as obvious, even before we spoke, that we were Jackeens. Nevertheless we greeted the room, and a typically Irish salutation was bestowed upon us: "Sit down there by the fire will ye, for jaysus' sake and get a drink into ye, sure ye're all soaked to the marrow. Mary, would you ever get them a drink for the love o' god?" This warm hearted order was barked at us by a tall (despite his hooked back), thin old man, who was seated in a corner of the room smoking a pipe, shadows flickering across his face. The old man, Mary the barmaid and a very old couple were the only other occupants of the room besides ourselves. It was more like a sitting room than a pub really. The bar was no more than a metre across, and the room itself couldn't have held more than ten or fifteen people. On the wall opposite the door was a small fireplace in which burned an enchantingly cosy turf and log fire, which provided the only illumination in the room. We asked about where we could find a place to stay the night, and Mary advised us that the nearest proper village was thirty miles away. However, we were welcome to stay in the guest bedroom of the pub where she lived with her parents, who we discovered were the old couple. We thanked her for this hospitality and agreed to stay the night.
Having brought us our drinks, Mary locked the door of the pub and disappeared behind the bar into an adjoining room. When she returned she had two large loaves of turnover bread, a bread knife, a toasting fork and a huge dish of fresh butter. (Before I go on, I must describe to you what turnover bread is just in case you don't know. It's a rustic white milk loaf, of a very thick but somehow fluffy texture that should only be eaten in either chunks or slices of at least 1 inch thickness with a great smearing of real, salted, creamery butter - it is by far the most sumptuously delicious white bread that has ever been made). She set these things down in front of the old man, poured herself a whiskey and joined us all by the fire. The old man cut the loaves up into thick slices. As he was doing this, he told us that he was a Seanchaí, and asked us what kind of story we would like to hear. It is an old tradition in Ireland, particularly the west of Ireland, that each village or sometimes just a family has at least one gifted storyteller who is called the Seanchaí, and on stormy nights just like this one they would entertain people with their tales. This tradition is still very much alive in Ireland to this day, and so we were all very excited that we had met one. I, being the rather ghoulish minded member of the family begged for a scary story and that it be a true one. The old man smiled and agreed that that was the perfect kind of story for such a wild night.
One by one, he impaled the slabs of bread onto the fork and toasted them over the fire until they were golden brown on one side, and scented with the fragrant smoke from the turf and the wood. Each of us got two pieces and smothered them with butter, which instantly melted deep down into the bread and trickled along our hands as we ate. Outside, the banshee wail of the wind whipped all around us and the rain pelted furiously at the windows.
The story began on a Saturday night in 1931 on the eve of the month of Samhain, which in English is known as November. The Seanchaí, or Seamus as he is otherwise known, was eighteen years old. He and his brother William, and two of their pals Ferdia and Tom, were setting off from the little hamlet of Poulaphouca on their way to a céilí in the next village, Ballyclerihan, which was thirty miles away. The boys cycled along leisurely, enjoying the riotous colours of sunset that danced everywhere and left all the plants tinged with a cheery golden glow. The last tendrils of sunlight streamed all around them, setting every dark corner on fire with a red and orange radiance which, along with their high spirits and swift pedalling, kept the October chill at bay.
Finally, they reached Ballyclerihan. They could already hear the wild set dancing music from Fahy's barn as they approached and stowed away their bikes. The four strapping young lads burst into the barn, and dived straight into the violently swirling reel. All night long they leapt and ran and swung around the barn, dancing and yelping to the frantic beltings of the Ballaí Luimní (The Walls of Limerick), Baint an Fhéir (Haymakers Jig), Cór na Síóg (The Fairy Reel), and many more tunes that the band played. No alcoholic drink was available, nor was there a want for it, as it was a youth dance and all the young men and women were intoxicated enough on the excitement of the music and gaiety of the steps. Finally, as midnight was approaching, the Rince Mór na Tine (The Great Bonfire Dance) was danced, and everyone laughed and kissed and shouted and embraced their goodbyes. Exhausted, but feeling madly exhilarated, the boys found their bicycles and headed off into the darkness for home.
Now, the Seanchaí had no need to set the scene for the next part of the story as my family and I knew fine well what it was like, but now I must try to convey to you before I go on, what their journey home was like.
On our way to Mayo before we arrived at Poulaphouca, my father wanted to demonstrate to us how dark it gets in the countryside, compared to in the city where you always have the dingy glow of streetlights to provide some paltry illumination. So he stopped the car, and turned off the headlights and all interior lights. As soon as the lights went out, the darkness leapt upon us. So utter was it, that I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. I tried to calm myself by waiting for my eyes to adjust, but that did not happen. I tried to ask my dad to turn the lights back on but the words cowered in my throat, so terrified were they of leaving my body and being spoken out into this pitch black night. When I was younger than I was then, though not afraid of the dark, I was always afraid of leaving an arm or a leg dangling out of the bed for fear that something would bite it off, and that is exactly how I felt on that country lane. I was so grateful that I was inside the car, separated from the outside by metal and glass. The only sounds were the wind and rain, and the slithering of hands as my brother and I, unable to speak, reached over to the window to make sure that the lock on the door was down.
What vicious monster or evil creature could resist such total and perfect night? How could all things menacing not be drawn to such shelter? They wouldn't even have to bother to hide anywhere, or lurk in any shadows. They could be standing right in front of you... or right outside your car window, staring at you. They could even press their grimacing face very slowly right up against the glass, and bare their fangs in a malicious sneer, ready to break the glass and devour you as soon as they were finished savouring your helplessness, and you would never know. All you know is that you're trembling with fright.
After what seemed like a bit too much time, Dad, laughing, switched the lights back on, delighted that he had scared us senseless - although something in his voice told me that he too was shaken. We drove off again, in search of shelter.
That was the same dark road that the Seanchaí and his friends had to cycle along, legs and arms exposed, unprotected by glass or metal, and with a feeble light on the front of their flimsy vehicle, for miles until they reached the safety of their home. And so, only slightly nervous due to the heights of their good humour, they set off along it on the long journey home.
After cycling for some time, it was the Seanchaí who first noticed the fleeting reflection of his bicycle light in a pair of eyes up ahead. Though startled, and now slightly more nervous, he told himself it was only a cat, and cycled on. Still, his heart beat a little faster, and the darkness somehow seemed even darker than it had been only a moment ago. His brother was awoken from a sweet reverie about Sorcha Sheehan, from whom he'd got a rather passionate kiss before he rode off into the night, when he heard a scurrying alongside his bike. It gradually faded, leaving him with a small, spiky chill of panic. "Sure 'tis only my imagination and the noise of the trees", he told himself, not wanting to say anything for fear of the lads' jeers. Moments later, Ferdia heard the same scurrying and, having less steady nerves than William, he shouted out "What the hell is that, lads? There's something running next to me." His fear fuelled that of the others. None of them could reply, they just instinctively started to pedal frantically. Then, as if sensing the boys' fear, the scurrying began in earnest. They were now being chased. Every so often, they felt something brush against their legs as one of their feet went close to the ground. They could see nothing except the wilted beam of light ahead of them, reflected every now and then in a pair of keen eyes, or on a pair of long sharp fangs, but they could hear plenty. Their ears were assaulted with a series of growls and grunts, and an awful gnashing of teeth - noises which they knew did not come from any natural beast. The boys were exhausted, and every one of them was unsure as to how long they could keep pedalling this fast and furiously. They knew their terror and desperation would only take them so far before they had to slow down, or worse, before someone fell.
Then Seamus felt something grab hold of his trouser leg, and as he heard the fabric rip, he let out a tremendous shriek which was heard in nearby Poulaphouca. Lights came on in all of the houses and the pub, some people rushed out with lanterns, and so the darkness was breached. The boys kept on pedalling desperately until they reached the safety of their friends and family, but the creatures were gone. When he finally dismounted, the young Seanchaí wept as he rushed into his mother's arms.
"And what did she say to you?" I demanded, expecting some further action to have been taken.
"She gave me a clout."
"Cause my good Sunday trousers were ripped."
"That's ridiculous, you were almost killed - didn't she know?"
"She knew. And sure what could she do about it, love? What could any of us do?"
"But I don't understand, didn't anyone go after them? There was a whole bunch of those things just roaming around out there! What happened to them? Where are they?"
"No one knows about the síóg, nor will they ever, child. All you can do is be careful, and build up your leg muscles." He gave a soft laugh at his joke, but his eyes were distant. "Oh, and make sure your car door is safely locked."
I didn't sleep very well that night.