Just as my habit of taking the long cut, eventually brings me home, so my writing, with it’s twists and turns, eventually gets to the the point.
On Lá Féile Bríde (Saint brigids day) my sister, Imelda made the above sculpture of ‘An Cailleach’ (the old hag).
Using the driftwood she gathered, she built it on site, on a stony beach, along the wild Atlantic way,
According to folklore, this particular old hag (there are others) appears on Saint Brigids day to stock up on timber for the following winter.
If the next winter is going to be severe, she will ensure the day is bright and sunny to allow her put down enough wood to see her through it.
The sculpture appears effortless, as though some wild winter wind had swirled along the shore, snatching up scraps of driftwood and whipping them into the shape of a human.
I love how its loose easy form sifts the flickering sunlight so that, when you look away for an instant and then back, you would swear you caught it in motion.
Then, just as some stories tell how An Cailleach, when finished her work, disappears into the sea, the next day the sculpture was gone,
Washed away by the tide, as my sister meant it to be.
But what her sculpture really reminded me of was the younger of two brothers whom I got to know when I lived beside this stretch of the Atlantic way.
I shall call this man ‘Tom’
I love to take a longcut.
Due to my curious nature, I find it much more beneficial than a shortcut.
So, after my mornings shopping, instead of going the straight route home, I choose the long slow push up out of the village.
When I reach the y junction at the coast road, I take the right fork, and freewheeling down a steep hill, brake at the bottom and turn sharply left onto an even smaller road.
A boreen really,
This takes me to the sea.
At first this boreen runs straight and looks as though it might actually end in the water, but, at the last moment, it turns right and runs parallel to the sea bringing me past the brothers cottage.
Here, turning another corner, it ends in the yard of the ‘Dream House’.
Now I should stick to my story, but I have to pause here to describe how this house earned it’s title.
The Dreamhouse sits in a sheltered hollow, in front of which, the strength of the sea has pushed the shingle into the shape of a large deep pool.
This pool, fed both by the sea when it breeches the shingle ‘dam’ at high tide, and by a meandering salmon filled river coming down from the mountain, is crystal clear and very cold.
The house, a long, one storied traditional cottage is protected on both sides by a series of neat sheds attached at right angles to both gables.
Like a pair of sheltering arms they embrace the cobbled yard on three sides.
At the open side facing the sea, a small stone bridge leads over the pool at the narrow point where the river runs into it.
It is more than just picturesque, it is cosy, familiar, sheltered.
The type of cottage, the likes of me, would dream about living in.
But back to my long cut!
Crossing the yard and going over the bridge, I continue my way which now splits in two!
One way heads along the shingle shore, a path too stony to push my bike, the other leads, to the gate of Packy’s field. (A field that features later on in my story)
Going through this gate, I follow a well worn track which makes its way diagonally across the field to another gate which in turn, brings me out onto yet another boreen.
By turning right here and cycling a short distance I am home.
It was by taking this long cut that I got to know Tom.
Tom spent a good portion of his day scuttling along the beach collecting fragments of driftwood.
I say scuttling, not in a derogatory way, but because he was bent double from Kyphosis, which had worsened in old age.
So he made his way along swiftly and efficiently, bent near to the ground, picking as he went.
He piled these fragments into neat bundles and when he had cleared the beach of the days ‘takings’ would carry them up and over the shingle hill to his cottage.
Now the gods had not been kind to Tom, for along with this physical disability, he also had a speech impediment which must have been very frustrating for him as he always had plenty to say.
When I first met him I would pretend to understand what he was saying and nod my head every now and again, but he was shrewd and tricked me.
So once I ended up, standing there, nodding my head stupidly when, what he had asked was, where my house was.
I knew it was a trick question because being a ‘blow in’ every local person would know exactly where I lived.
After this I listened more carefully and as time went by I began to understand him or at least get the gist of what he was saying.
He talked a lot about the weather and the sea, not in the mundane fashion we are inclined to do when greeting others, but in a concerned one.
Whether that march blizzard on the horizon meant he should bring in the sheep about to lamb. How the late frost would sweeten the turnips in the ground.
And the sea!
He had a grave respect of its power.
He told me of the time when a storm coincided with the big tide and He woke to seaweed on the kitchen floor and boulders strewn haphazardly across the yard, one even landing up against the door.
‘Come down for tea come for tea for tea tonight’ is what I heard one spring day
And so I did.
A bottle of Poitin stood on the table of the brothers cottage and they placed the whiskey I had brought them carefully in the cupboard.
The loaf of my homemade soda bread they unwrapped with glee.
Tom took out a large knife from the dresser drawer and straightening up as best he could, held the bread against his chest. Then sawing towards his heart, cut slices as neat as those of the white sliced pan I spied when they were putting the bottle of whiskey away.
I couldn’t bear to watch, but no slippage of the knife occurred and at last a plate of neatly cut slices arrived on the table.
We had a cup of tea first and the thickly buttered bread.
I was given the chair nearest to the fire, and shared this shin scalding place with the old sheepdog who lay and twitched every now and again in the heat.
As the wind picked up and howled and darkness filled the windows, they opened the bottle of poitín and, pouring me a wee sup first, filled their own glasses to the brim.
We talked of this and that, who was sick and who had died until at last our chat turned to píseogs and old ways and being ‘led astray’.
Tom told his story in fits and starts.
He was coming home from the pub one night and took the shortcut through ‘Packy’s field’.
As he tried to describe how he walked around and around the field looking for the gate, his words ran faster and faster.
He was now speaking too quickly for me to understand so Pat, the elder brother, who had everything his younger brother lacked, took over the telling of it, with Tom nodding excitedly in agreement.
‘You not only put your coat on backwards but inside out too! isn’t that so Tom?’
Tom nodded frantically.
‘They (the little folk or what ever you want to call them)’ Pat explained ‘see you heading off and make note of ye. Mark ye sort of and then await ye coming home, knowing you might have had a few and are easily caught and led astray. But, by putting your coat on differently on the way home, they don’t recognise ye. But it didn’t work in Tom’s case because they still tried their luck’.
Tom, knowing what was coming in the story, chuckled, holding his glass against his chest.
‘Around and around the field went Tom looking for the gate. In the place it should be and the place beyond where it should. But no gate. And then it dawned on ye, didn’t it Tom?’
Toms head wagged up and down again in agreement.
‘You were being led astray’
‘Goodness! So what did you do Tom?’ I asked curiously.
Again Pat answered for him.
This was serious stuff and they wanted to make sure I understood so I wouldn’t take Tom for an eejit.
And Tom allowed him continue, his bright eyes as blue as the sea, twinkling and sparkling with the fun of it, darting from my face to Pats and back again, hugging himself with delight, anxious for me to hear how he, instead of being fooled, had turned things on their tail and tricked the little folk instead.
‘Oh It was quite simple’ Pat said ‘He lay down in the shelter of the hedge and waited it out till the morning and as the sun rose there was the gate in the place it always stood. And though covered in dew, he was all in one piece and arrived at the back door just as I was putting the kettle on and about to call him’.
We sat in silence, mulling over the story as the poitín infused into our bones.
My eyes were beginning to close and if it wasn’t for Tom letting out a laugh of glee every now and again, I might have nodded off in the chair.
I knew I had better make a move so, standing up reluctantly, and stepping carefully over the sleeping dog, I bade the brothers farewell.
‘No don’t get up, I’ll see myself out’ and before they could stir, I took my coat off the hook and slipped out of the cottage.
‘Don’t forget to put your coat on inside out’ Pat called jokingly after me as I swung the old door shut.
The latch clicked and I stood for a few moments feeling the silence and blackness settle around me.
Feeling along the wall for my bicycle which I had left leaning against the gable, I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness and eventually they did.
I was just about able to make out the road ahead.
(I had already decided to avoid Packy’s field)
Clutching the handle bars, I placed my left foot on the left pedal and scooted off.
It was as I was threading my right foot over the bar and onto the right pedal that it happened.
I toppled, falling headlong into the ditch.
It is strange the thoughts that fly through your mind when taking a tumble.
As I flew through the air I remember thinking how I hadn’t put my coat on inside out.
In fact I hadn’t bothered putting it on at all.
I was dressed as I had arrived, in a frock and cardigan.
I landed, still clutching the handle bars,the bicycle landing on top of me.
I lay stunned for a few moments before wiggling my toes and fingers to make sure I hadn’t broken anything, then, taking a firm hold of the bike and pushing it off me, I used to steady myself and standing up made my way back into the road.
But there was no road, where the road should have been, only more ditch and now brambles .
to be continued.
My sister Imelda, an Artist, lives in the old workhouse along the Wild Atlantic Way. These photo’s of her work, are hers.