‘Up the airy mountain,
down the rushy glen, we dare not go ahunting for fear of little men,
wee folk good folk trooping all together
green jacket, jacket, red cap white owls feather’
Down along the rocky shore some make their home,
they live on crispy pancakes of yellow tide foam.
some in the reeds of the black mountain lake
with frogs as their watch dogs all night awake’. (William Allingham)
It should have been plain sailing, my cycle along the grand canal.
After all it was a fairly meek thing to do.
The only bits of roughness were a few parts of the tow paths that remain non gravelled.
Those parts were just enough to cause some excitement and stop me nodding off as I pedal along, but not enough to be unpleasant ,
Meandering more or less in a straight line, the paths have only the gentlest of bends for the indolent pedaller like myself to contend with.
In fact indolence was the name of the game that day.
Even the water itself along the canal hardly moved.
It is good to have a nice sunny warm day for such a spin.
And a breeze, Just enough to keep one’s cheeks cool but not enough to windsweep one’s hair.
Maybe some mayflower with its sensual scent in bloom and reflected in the still waters would also be acceptable.
To the above I will add a more epicurean side to the scene.
A picnic basket containing a crusty baguette, sun warmed vine ripened tomatoes, a crisp white wine and some very ripe Brie.
Oh and a male friend, brought along for chat and company.
I set out on this adventure mindful that, while others may have planned a day of tackling wild bears bare handed or scaling mountain slopes bare footed or careering down rapids naked, my day would be sublimely languorous.
In hindsight, the fact that, as I cycled up bloody Stoney road and turned left up misery hill, I had a distinct feeling that someone or something was watching me, should have given me an inkling that this day might not go as effortlessly as planned.
But apologies dear reader, I am pedalling ahead of myself.
The feeling of being watched was probably my imagination (which can be extremely vivid) because after looking over my shoulder once or twice I could see nobody who aroused my suspicions.
I put the feeling down to the excitement of heading up through the city on my yellow bicycle.
But first a stop off at my favourite coffee shop.
Lying tucked in at a corner on grand canal dock one could easily miss it, but the smell of its coffee is unmistakable and would entice the most discerning of coffee drinkers to look for it.
That morning Instead of the normal civilized queue, people were milling about muttering in dismay.
Their mutterings were reminiscent of a thousand buzzing bees and it was above this noise and melee that I noticed something was missing.
The barista himself was looking flustered and shook his head sadly as he wrestled with the uncooperative coffee machine .
‘It’s no good. I can’t get it to work’ He muttered, half to himself and half to the aggrieved crowd, his normally handsome brow wrinkled in exasperation.
‘But what will we DO?’ bleated a female office worker plaintively.
‘We could get coffee elsewhere’ her boyfriend whispered, putting a soothing arm around her shoulder.
‘No we can’t’ she shook his arm away crossly. ‘I want HIS coffee’ she said.
‘But we’ll be late for work’ He pointed out reasonably,
‘I don’t care’ She pouted ‘I’ll wait’
He shrugged his suited shoulders and looked around for support but everyone was now starting to sit in a disgruntled manner at various tables. I left them to it and elbowing my way through the ever growing crowd picked up the yellow bike which had fallen over on the pavement.
A bit grumpy for the want of a good cup of coffee I went in the wrong direction and ended up along the liffey by the lovely new Samuel Beckett bridge and wondered what the great man himself would have said about the coffee shop fiasco.
‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
I turned left and headed back towards the grand canal where Patrick kavanagh was sitting. ‘leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal pouring redemption on me.’
‘Morning Patrick’ I called.
On along the canal pathway I cycled.
The sound of a thousand buzzing bees, probably sipping on the sticky flowers of the sycamore trees whose leaves were a verdant green, followed me.
A large willow dipped its frond like branches and seemed to delight in tickling the canals still waters.
And a black moor hen, beak bright orange, jerked along, tut tutting to herself and disappeared into the reeds.
A heron stood on the opposite shore fixing me with one baleful eye, while the other watched the water for his breakfast.
All of a sudden a fly flew into my eye!
I hopped off the bike in pain, and made an attempt at removing it helped by a passing woman who kindly offered me the use of her small makeup mirror, but no sign of the fly.
Just those bloody bees
Thanking the woman I carried on.
The train from Euston would carry me safely past the gurriers who hang out further along the canal beyond inchicore, drinking the ‘hard stuff’ at this early hour and leaving shards of glass for the annoyed cyclist to try and avoid.
I could have taken the road a this point, but the huge articulated trucks are also heading to the west and I did not fancy their noise or fumes.
I buy a coffee eventually from the butlers coffee stand and board the train, hoisting the yellow bicycle up the steep steps and finding a comfortable seat I settle myself for the thirty or so minute journey as far as Hazel hatch where Tom would be waiting for me.
Behind me a group of ladies chat loudly about a recent trip to Vienna.
Within fifteen minutes the train pulls into Adamstown.
And stays there.
An announcement sounds over the tannoy.
‘Ladies and gentlemen due to an incident on board this train will remain in Adamstown until further notice’.
Well that put a stop to the Viennese chat I can tell you.
The voice continues. ‘We wish to apologise for this delay which is beyond our control, meanwhile if their is a doctor or a nurse or anyone with first aid experience on board would they please make their way to the front of the train where their assistance would be appreciated’.
The loudspeaker continued to crackle for a few seconds, then all was quiet.
I waited a moment but as no one else stirred I felt obliged to do as asked.
When I arrived at the scene I saw a very tiny ancient woman sprawled on the floor.
One of the train staff has kindly pulled her dress down over her wrinkly tights and placed a folded coat under her head.
Clutching a wheelie bag which she hung onto for dear life, she looked quite comfortable.
‘It’s me leg’ She said smiling at me. ‘I can’t move it’.
She didn’t appear to be in any distress but I crouched down to her level to assess her.’
‘Don’t touch her’ A shrill voice instructed.
Another equally tiny woman was standing behind me.
‘Move aside’ She demanded rather bossily. Her eye had a malevolent look. ‘I am a nurse’ She continued.
A strange knowing look passed between the two women
Now readers! You may wonder why I didn’t hold my ground and continue to attend to the little lady instead of leaving her in the hands of this obvious mad woman! But the sound of a thousand buzzing bees confused me and I backed away.
The train employee winked at me . ‘Don’t worry ma’am and thanks for trying to help we have called an ambulance it should be here shortly’.
Perplexed I made my way back to my seat.
The women’s chat had now resumed and turned to a visit to a recent visit to a hamam in budapest ‘I was scrubbed to an inch of my life, naked, mortifying……’
I made a decision.
I would get off the train here and cycle the rest of the way to Hazel Hatch.
Adamstown station was deserted.
I had no map and no idea which direction the canal was in.
As I stood trying to get my bearings I saw two figures approaching in the distance and as they draw near I noticed one was blind with a white stick tapping the pavement and another man also blind, had his hand on the shoulder of the man with the stick.
They tapped towards me and stopped.
I felt a bit stupid asking two blind men the way to the canal but as though they had read my mind, they answered my question before I had asked it.
‘You’re looking for the canal? Follow us, we’re going that way’.
And so a rather odd procession made up of a woman of middle years with a swollen eye pushing a yellow bicycle and two blind men tapped its way over the railway bridge and proceeded slowly down the other side.
‘Are you from around here’? I asked, more as a way of breaking the monotony of the tapping then for the need of conversation
‘No’ was the reply ‘we’re just out for a walk’
Just as the tapping was really beginning to irritate me, the speaker lifted his white stick and pointed down a small lane.
‘Go down the boreen there’ He instructed ‘You’ll see the canal just ahead’.
I waited till the tapping receded in the distance, then pushed the yellow bike along the stony lane.
Mobile phones are a great thing! They solve a lot of worry when things don’t go to plan.
I phoned Tom explaining why I would be late.
He laughed ‘well mind yourself. Odd bit of country along that stretch’ and he hung up before I had a chance to ask him what he meant.
Despite this warning I relaxed and started to enjoy the cycle.
I was in Hawthorne country now.
The scent was overpowering in the stillness of the day.
The white flowers exuberantly covered every bush and the bushes themselves dripped and were reflected in the motionless water.
All was quiet except for the humming of bees among the flowers and the moor hens skirting in and out of the reeds. A colourful flash caught my eye and was gone. A kingfisher maybe.
I began to feel drowsy
I was nearly on top of the frog before I saw it.
In fact I barely avoided squishing it with my front wheel.
It glared at me before continuing its way to the water,
‘Hurry up little frog’ I laughed, spying the slow flight of a heron, its greedy head swinging this way and that as it sailed majestically above the water following the course of the canal. A pterodactyl in this magical place .
Plop! in jumped the frog just in time.
I pedalled on.
When I arrived in Hazel Hatch Tom was already there and was chatting to one of the barge owners in the sun.
‘Where were you?’
He sounded worried, which surprised me as he was normally an easy going fellow, used to my cycling ways, aware of how I changed direction at a whim, knowing that I could be easily distracted at the sight of say, cowslips.
‘Aha’ Laughed the barge owner. ‘You’d need a patient man so you would. We’ve had tea and all, We thought maybe you had fallen into the canal’.
‘It’s two hours since you phoned’. Tom said frowning. ‘I was getting concerned’.
Two hours! It couldn’t have taken me that long.
‘Why didn’t you cycle to meet me then?’
A look passed between the two men and tom scuffed his shoe against a stone.
‘Wouldn’t catch me cycling that stretch if you paid me’ The bargeman said
‘Well you’re here now so let’s go’ Tom interrupted before his new friend had time to say anymore.
‘Let me catch my breath’ but I was already back on my bicycle and leading the way.
The thirteenth loch was very pretty with its neatly mowed grass and the sound of tumbling water.
A better place for a picnic you couldn’t find. We propped our bicycles against the lock gates.
Tom appeared to have got over his worry and whistled as he spread out the rug.
I laid out the picnic things.
When we were finished eating Tom sighed and lay back, pillowing his head on his jacket.
I lay on my side propping myself up on one arm and watched two butterflies dance a jig across the water.
A figure appeared in the distance, pushing what looked like a wheelbarrow.
I held up my hand to shade my eye’s from the sun.
‘Tom, Look!’ I whispered nudging him but he was fast asleep.
As the figure got closer I saw it was a woman, quite tall and dressed a clarinda bag, which, due to her tallness didn’t quite reach her bony knees.
She had a piece of baling twine tied around her waist, showing off her slim figure and giving the bag more of a dress like appearance.
On her feet were an old pair of Wellington boots which did not prevent her from moving gracefully in our direction despite the careful pushing her heavy load.
When she was close enough I could see that the wheelbarrow, including the wheel was made entirely of wood and it held a beehive.
Not the a modern wooden hive, but the old fashioned type made of coiled straw.
She was humming to herself.
Her song sounded much like the noise the bees which were flying in and out of the moving hive.
Some of the bees were flying in a circle around her head giving it a halo effect.
Her long flowing hair was white but looked silver in the sunlight and reached down to her waist.
Her hair appeared to be annoying her as she stopped every now and again and leaving down the barrow, swept it back impatiently over her shoulders.
Suddenly she leaned into the hedge and, plucking a twig off a nearby fuchsia with two flowers still attached, gracefully wound her hair in a bun and stabbed the twig through her hair to hold the bun in place.
Appearing happier with this more practical hairdo, she lifted the handles of the barrow once more and proceeded over to the canal bank where she abandoned her burden and she knelt down.
Staring into the water she gazed at her reflection, turning her head this way and that so that the two fuchsia flowers jangled and jingled like rubies.
She was obviously pleased with what she saw because she smiled and tucked a stray lock behind her ear.
Just when I thought was going to get up again she began rooting among the grasses, her hands moving about feverishly.
Then I watched her long fingers close around something.
It was my frog.
She lifted it up gently in her hands and they stared at each other for a few moments.
Then she slowly brought the small amphibian close to her mouth.
‘Dear god’ I thought in horror, ‘she is going to eat it’.
But instead she kissed it gently and then laughing, stretched her hand, with the frog still sitting in her palm, out over the canal. It remained there for a moment or two before gracefully leaping into the water.
The bees went mad.
Buzzing crazily! More joined the ones around her head, moving so fast and so thickly and shining so brightly in the late afternoon sun that it seemed she was wearing a crown of gold.
She knelt like that for a awhile as though paying homage to the water and to the Hawthorne tree’s beyond, before getting up, lifting the handles of the barrow and continuing on her way towards us.
I nudged Tom again but still he didn’t stir.
Finally she reached us and I smiled and said hello but she ignored me.
Instead she made straight for the two bicycles
Keeping the barrow between herself and the bikes she approached them slowly and circled them nervously paying particular attention the the yellow one.
Then, without further ado, she headed on at a much brisker pace, looking fearfully back over her shoulder once, the two fuchsia flowers dancing furiously on the back of her head and disappeared round the corner and out of sight.
‘Tom!’ I hissed loudly, getting up and nudging him with my foot.
‘You just missed the strangest old lady’ I said when at last he woke. As he blinked confusedly in the sun I described what I had seen.
‘You were asleep ya mad woman. You were dreaming! kissing a frog indeed!’ He laughed, ‘Next thing you’ll be telling me the frog turned into a handsome prince’.
‘No it didn’t’ I replied in a small voice. ‘It just jumped back into the canal and she WAS real’
‘Come on. It’s getting late. let’s go’ He lifted the rug and folding it glanced nervously back along the towpath.
I packed the basket and we walked to the bicycles.
The yellow bicycle had fallen over and was lying on it’s side.
Tom grabbed the handlebar and pulled it upright and I hung the basket on the back carrier.
He swung his leg easily over his saddle and headed off at speed.
I followed at a more sedate pace.
The puncture took me by surprise.
At first I thought it was the roughness of the road that caused the uncomfortable rumble under my saddle but looking down I saw the back tyre was completely flat.
I rooted in my basket and found a repair kit.
But no amount of rooting produced a pump which I was certain I had put in.
‘I am sure I had one as well’ Tom emptied out the contents of his pannier on the grass, but no luck.
And that is how we ended up walking back pushing our bikes along the canal towards the barges to borrow a one.
‘It could be worse, it could be raining!’ Tom tried to cheer me up.
But I was silently going back over the sequence of the day and I couldn’t get the tall lady out of my mind.
‘You are right Tom’. I said. ‘I must have been dreaming’.
But now it was Tom’s turn not to answer.
He leaned his bicycle against the hedge and bending down, picked something up off the path.
He turned it over in his hands and looked at it thoughtfully.
‘What is it? what did you find?’ But I already knew what it was going to be.
He stretched out his hand towards me.
On it lay a strand of silver hair wrapped around a twig and attached to the twig two limp fuchsia flowers hung.
Si (or Faeries as they are known in English) are not the tiny winged creature seen in children’s books, but rather they may be tall or small magical beings with supernatural powers of which there are many different varieties. They are thought to be descendants of the ‘Tuatha de Danann’ (people of the godess Danu, a mythological tribe who were driven underground due to misfortunes at battle).
The hawthorn tree is sacred to them and protects the entrances into their homes under ‘rath’s and ‘lios’ and ring forts and no man or woman in their right mind would ever dare to tamper with either a Hawthorne tree or a ring fort. It is also said when the faeries are near at hand and about to do mischief that you will hear a noise like a thousand buzzing bee’s. They have a fear of Iron, possibly as it is seen as a reminder of the final battle they fought before they were led underground by Mananann Mac Lir. What I did to deserve their attention I still do not know. But the mending of the puncture is a tale in itself, too long to add to this tale but may be told as a separate story at a later date.
Note on the moving of a bee hive: Bee hives may be moved only under the following conditions. The day should be wet or at least cloudy. The bee hive should be moved at least three miles away and the entrance should be blocked for about 48 hours.
If this is not done the hive may swarm or try to return to their original location. In my story it is likely that the woman(obviously a ‘si’ who has stolen the hive, a common practice by them)does not have to adhere to any of the bee moving regulations as she would have supernatural powers over the Bee’s.
A Clarinda bag is a sack used to contain meal for hens, large and made of Hessian.