There was always the rain, the constant murmuring from heaven to earth. A “soft rain,” they called it. You were never really away from it. Throughout the day, the sky would open and let in bolts of sunshine, but the rain rarely left long enough to be forgotten.
The rain kept the bog-lands moist as a sponge and seeped up from them into the boy’s shoes. He crossed the bogs alone—his brothers and sisters preferred to take the road to school. He was at home in this green-brown barrenness, covered randomly with purple heather. He would dash along the resilient wet surface of the bog, startling curlews and larks into flight.
The larks shot straight up, high as they could go, singing all the while and then when they had reached their peak, would swoop away. From the distance, the path of the lone boy could be plotted by the sudden dashes of wild birds into the rain-suffused air.
The boy was my father. He grew up in County Leitrim, Ireland, in a world and way of life far removed from the world of concrete and traffic lights of my childhood, where the only wild birds were New York City pigeons.
Before he died, I sat down with him to talk in a way I had not talked with him as a child. “What was it like,” I asked, “the world where you grew up?”
In his answers I felt a psychic legacy pass to me, an uncanny sense resonate in me for a world gone forever, a memory wakened of a lost boyhood which somehow I knew.
The boy arrived at the far side of the bog. The water of the soft rain, soaked into the bog and sponged up into his shoes, now made its way to the wooden floor of Strigarn National School in the town of Mohill.
“How is it that there is a puddle of water on this dry floor, and there no leak in the roof?” the fearsome Schoolmaster Flynn would demand. Unseen by him, the boy, J.P., shy but daring, has slid his rain-bogged shoe from under his desk and squeezed the moisture from it into a puddle in the aisle. Before Master Flynn had turned to discover the puddle, the rascal shoe was back in its assigned place. Brilliant and schooled though he was, Master Flynn was never to connect the puddle with the bog. J.P. continued to enjoy a silent delight in his surreptitious signature. And Master Flynn went on terrifying the child population of Mohill and the surrounding farmlands into learning grammar, sums, geometry, Irish.
After school J.P. took the road home with his brothers Denny and Gerald. At the crossroads they would look to see if there were any small bags of stones, left by some poor creature seeking a cure for warts. To cure warts you would put a stone for each wart in a bag and leave it at the crossroads. In no time your warts would be gone.
The same crossroads where the boys searched were also the crossroads of social life, the site of summer dances where farmers’ sons and daughters came from over the surrounding hills to dance jigs and reels in the open air to the music of flutes and fiddles. Late into the Irish summer evening they could dance, in a land where the summer twilight lingers almost till midnight.
Continuing home beyond the crossroads, the boys would peek for traces of magic between the trees of the local “fairy fort”—a clump of trees mysteriously planted in a circle. It was said they dated back to ancient Celtic times. The space at the center of the circle was enchanted, inhabited by fairies.
Fairies were the souls of angels driven from heaven at the fall of Lucifer but spared from hell. They wandered about the earth causing mischief. “Doesn’t Aunt Katie tell us,” J.P. reminded his brothers, “the devilish fairies in their magic sometimes steal the butter off her milk as she churns it in her kitchen.” Farmers knew better than to plough into a fairy fort.
Approaching the boys along the road would come the sound of the rickety bicycle and the familiar whistling of Paddy Doonan, the mailman. Wherever he went, every Irish mailman whistled as he cycled. The thin sound wandered over the hills like a distant air from the ghost of a roving troubadour of long ago.
In summer it floated across the fields to the men making hay. That would be on the rare days when the sun pushed the rain aside long enough for them to cut down the hay with their scythes and to leave it out to dry before the rain could return to spoil it. Right timing would always be a challenge in a land whose sky James Joyce described as “uncertain as a child’s bottom.”
The most industrious farmers made hay while the sun shined. Dolan was the most industrious of all. “Get up, you!” his neighbors would yell to their sleeping sons on a fine day, “Dolan has a meadow mowed since sunrise.”
On days such as that, J.P., Denny and Gerald might be sent running to the neighboring farms with news of a meitheal, a party for hay gathering where all would share the work and celebrate in the fields with a keg of thick brown stout. The women would bring dinner at midday in tin pots—cabbage and potatoes boiled in milk.
Some would come to the meitheal on horseback, bicycle or on foot. Others might come in sidecars, three passengers on one side sitting back to back with three other passengers on the other side, drawn by a horse. More prosperous farmers rode over the hilly roads in traps, oval-shaped topless carriages, round inside, where passengers sat facing one another. Automobiles were still rare along the road where the boys made their way home.
Along the same road before they were born, the boys’ mother came home heartbroken one day as a young lady. She had been eight miles away (a world away) at the Reynolds farm, visiting as a “strange girl,” a young woman come to spend a few days at a different community. There had been a small farmhouse dance at the Reynolds’ to introduce the strange girl (any new face was a novelty) into the neighborhood. In the midst of it, her younger brother Pat was sent to fetch her. “Come home,” he said, “you have to get married.”
She cried all the way home, but nonetheless married Michael Whelan, the farmer suitor chosen for her. She bore him fourteen children, the eleventh of them the boy J.P., my father. As a mellow old woman years later, when asked about the fourteen, she confided, “After the tenth, we said there’d be no more. But sure when it was a cold night and you’d be under the covers, it was a different story entirely.”
Happy indiscretion on a cold night and a cow that later died assured my ultimate entry into the world, for the boy J.P. was the product of the first lapse after the resolution on 10. The cow came to the rescue fourteen years later. His mother, seeing that J.P. was both a smart and sensitive child, felt he would make a good priest. She was prepared to sell a cow to finance his seminary training. The cow, however, died and the celibate life in God’s service was forgotten.
As J.P. and his brothers made their way round the bend past the fairy fort, they would see their home, a whitewashed stone, thatched house, on the farmland named Drumhanny. Water waited in a trench beside the stone fence in front of the house. The farm’s horses would drink there. The boy was fascinated by the huge quantities they swallowed. A horse can drink a terrible lot of water.
The water drunk by the horses came the farm’s well outside the house. From the well each day the boys would carry in big porcelain buckets of water for cooking and washing, placing them on stools beside the stone kitchen fireplace. The water was icy clear and fresh. Some of it went directly into the iron kettle that hung from an iron arm inside the open hearth. Below it the turf, dug up from the bogs and dried, glowed in earthen bricks as it boiled water for tea. It gave off an aroma of smoky perfume.
“Tea,” the evening meal, would be brown bread and thick chunks of fresh butter, boiled bacon, cabbage and potatoes. The bread was baked in a cast iron oven standing on short black legs over the turf fire and surrounded on its side and top with additional blocks of smoldering turf. In this oven, too, was cooked the roast goose and the roast duck for Christmas dinner in a kitchen festooned with holly and red berries picked by J.P. and his brothers from bushes which were always so hard to reach.
With people coming and going into the kitchen, the heat of the hearth seemed to spread the scent of cooking for miles around. Entering the kitchen on late afternoons after school, the boys would sometimes be greeted by the sight of a huge copper pot of green gooseberries which has simmered there since early morning and were gradually turning bright red for gooseberry jam.
After tea, as the evening settled over Mohill and the Drumhanny cottage, J.P.’s mother would light the kerosene lamp. In almost a holy ritual, she would trim the wick and bring up the fluttering flame, then place the globe over it, making the flame suddenly even and calm. Under the glow of the lamp, J.P. and his brothers and sisters would do their lessons for Master Flynn, while his mother read the Messenger of the Sacred Heart and his father read his favorite newspaper, The Irish Independent.
Gradually neighbors would come in to visit, sitting around the fire, their coming taken for granted as much as the setting of the sun.
“God bless all here,” would say old Hubert Rafferty as he entered under the low arch of the Drumhanny doorway, leaning on his blackthorn stick. He smelled of tobacco and sweet country air, blended in the way it does only on old men who have lived close to the earth. He took his seat by the fire.
Finally, spinster Aunt Katie would arrive, come up from her cottage down the road, out of which she ran a small country shop. She was always full of jokes and laughing, interspersed with stores of the dead, for she was “Nurse Katie,” midwife to the newborn and comforter to the dying. She boasted that she had closed the eyes of all the dead of recent memory in Mohill cemetery, from which the riderless “Dead Coach” was known to emerge after midnight and dash along the road to the ruins of an ancient castle never seen.
Katie was at her best at wakes, where she loved to drink whiskey and play the spoons, clicking them in hornpipe rhythm against her knees and elbows. The men sat around her in the kitchen smoking clay pipes as the deceased lay in state in the bedroom.
Often Katie would have news of the latest crying of the banshees, harbinger spirits of death. “Only last night didn’t Deirdre Dwyer hear an unmerciful wailing rise up outside her window. She looked into the dark but there was not a soul there to be seen. She knew then,” Katie’s eyes would widen, “that it was the mournful sound of the banshees. There’s a death near in the Dwyer family as sure as I’m sitting here.”
“Now a knock follows the Whelans,” she would continue, bringing the portents closer to home, “a set of three knocks on the window—with no one there! It happened just before your poor grandfather Tom, Lord have mercy on him, passed.”
The ceile had begun, the ancient Gaelic ritual of storytelling around the fire. It built its own dramatic tempo as tales of the wondrous and the supernatural were exchanged. Often enough it might climax with the dark tale told by Hubert Rafferty.
“It was many years ago up in Ballanamour,” Hubert would begin, “when a knock come at the door of Liam Murphy’s house one dark, lonely night as the rain was howling through the trees. Now who should be at the door when Murphy opened it but a finely dressed gentleman. ‘I hear you’ve a cow to sell,’ said the gentleman.”
The familiar story was launched. Murphy had refused to sell his cow at the fair when offered what he considered too paltry a sum. In his anger he had sworn he’d sooner sell it to the devil himself than part with it for the amount offered at the fair. Now a stranger had come to his home offering a generous sum. Murphy had let the stranger enter but as he sat down at the fire Murphy’s wife Moira screamed, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, save us!” She had glanced down at the stranger’s feet. She saw there not feet but cloven hoofs.
“It was the devil himself,” explained Rafferty, his lined face glowing from the fire’s light. “He’d come to take Murphy up on his thoughtless pledge. Satan had found a pretext to enter a Christian home. He was seeking the chance to steal Murphy’s newborn child and make it into a changeling.
“Moira, by the grace of God, moved with the speed and instinct of a mother guided by the Mother of God. She grabbed the tongs by the fire, lifting them over her head and crisscrossing them into a fierce black crucifix. The stranger quivered. His breath became short and gruff, like the huff of a wild beast. He could not remain under the holy sign.
“He made a lightning dash to grab the infant, but Moira, guided again by the Mother of God, sprang up in front of him and held the cross of tongs over the crib, which was beside the fire. The stranger froze in his steps but spat with fury into the crib. His spittle shot beneath the cross and touched the feet of the infant Dermot. At that instant, the door of the house swung open, the lamp went out and the stranger was sucked into the darkness outside, never to be seen again.
“From that time on, the child Dermot was a cripple. He never could use the feet spat upon by the devil. He would hobble down the streets of Ballanamour on two crutches. He died, God rest his soul, a big grown man who never once walked on his own legs.”
There was silence. The fire had subsided into warm, sleeping embers. The smoke from them slowly curled up in a sinuous black thread and rose out of the chimney into the damp night. The sweet-tart smelling smoke returned earth to heaven in a cycle as ancient as that Irish world. The cycle began in the rain falling over the bogs, which in turn gave up the turf for the fire that transformed the sod from earth to air.
Out of this cycle in the world of my father emerged the Celtic imagination, a blend of earth and air. It rose like a thread of chimney smoke and played throughout the townland. It entered the bones, spoke into the ears, sat on the tips of the tongue, danced in the eyes and circled into the recesses of the soul.
It passes on perhaps in the uncanny familiarity an Irish-American son can sense in his soul with a very different, far-away, long-gone world.
*Originally published August 2015