The Ballads of Old Ireland

It was a poor piece of land, but it was our home. We had no horse, so my father and my brothers worked it by hand, forcing the plough along the reluctant furrows, turning over the thick mud, breaking up the rotting plastic that, with its orange and yellow fungal growths, turned up in the soil. My job was to take the basket of seed potatoes and plant them in careful handfuls.

‘Don’t waste them,’ my Da said.

The winter weather had eased and clouds raced across a blue sky, a northwesterly wind whipping the sea up into white horses that galloped across the rocky bay. It was four weeks after St Patrick’s Day, exactly a year since Mam had died. Up on the hill, in her favourite place looking across the bay, was the rough cairn of stones that marked where we had scattered her ashes. I had no flowers for her but the stones rested amongst purple heather and its sweet fragrance filled the air. Whenever I remembered her I felt that I should have helped her more. But I could not: the coughing sickness had taken her. I had gone every day to the sally-bushes to pick bark and leaves for the tea that eased her fever, but that was all I could do. She had struggled to breathe until she could breathe no more.

The basket was heavy and its rope handle dug into my shoulder. I scrabbled amongst the dirty little potatoes; at sixteen my hands were as hard as the men’s, my nails curled like claws over the ends of my fingers. I whispered a prayer so that the potatoes would not get the blight. Row after row I planted. The field was considered a small one, divided from its neighbours by the rough stone walls that had divided up this part of Ireland for as long as anyone could remember, but it still took a long time to finish.

Later we would go to the shebeen and I wondered if Stephen would be there, telling his stories as the folk drank poitín and basked in the glow of the ancient stove. I liked to hear him recount the tales of Queen Maeve and Cuchulainn, but he was fonder of the old legends than of history: the myths of cars and aeroplanes that took people anywhere in the world, of stories being written in books and computers and played out on the televisions that were in every house. He told of a race of men who had eaten of the flesh of fish and animals without harm, who had multiplied all over the world. He would tell the tale of how, in seven years of plagues, the coughing sickness had killed the people, first the old and then the young, until only children were left to wander the land in search of food. Then he always finished by singing a love song, and when he did his eye rested on me.

His mother would take him to task over it.

‘Caitlin’s promised to Oisin O’Sullivan,’ she would hiss at him.

Oisin O’Sullivan was our landlord. He owned a fishing boat, and boasted that he could reach Spain in four days, where his fish commanded high prices. He would return from his weeks at sea with a catch of fresh fish on the deck and a cargo of Spanish wares in the hold: wine, brandy, tobacco, and sometimes oranges. I had agreed to the betrothal, with a vague hope that if I married him he would take me to sea with him. My father agreed to it, with a vague hope that it would relieve him of paying rent.

Oisin owned a field which, protected from the winds on all four sides by forest, was green and lush, and I had seen a beautiful chestnut horse cropping its grass, and glimpsed beyond the trees a house of grey stone. If I married Oisin I would be the one who pumped the water from the well to wash its floors. Indeed when he had asked my father for me he had seemed more interested in my work capabilities – is she healthy? Can she keep a house? Make a fire? -than in any romantic notions. He did not sing and was rumoured to be handy with his fists and to keep a Spanish mistress in a Spanish town called Á Coruña.

They were both there, that night, in the shebeen, Oisin and Stephen. Oisin sat by the bar on a chair with a single pedestal leg that was completely rusted over, the heels of his Spanish boots locked on a rusty rail and his eyes locked on my face, watching me. I sat with my father and my brothers, and even though they were there I was afraid, for I knew Oisin already regarded me as his, and I dared not even glance at Stephen as he sang, but kept my eyes down, staring at the depths of the wine in my tumbler.

It was nearly Easter and that meant that Lent would be over, and that the season of marriages would begin. My time was running out.

Stephen waited for the applause for his song to end and then dropped his voice. I had to look.

‘This song is for Caitlin.’ His face glowed in the candle-light, young and pure. ‘For all the times to come that I shall want to sing for her and won’t be able.’

The crowd in the shebeen fell utterly silent, their hands ready to clap but halted in mid-air. They stared at Oisin O’Sullivan, and Oisin glowered at me.

I stood up, my heart pounding. I could not live a lie. Crossing the few yards between us felt like crossing a stormy sea.

‘Caitlin!’ groaned my father as I stood in front of Oisin. I took a deep breath and met his eye.

‘I can’t marry you,’ I said.

He kept his face as hard as stone. I had insulted him in front of the whole village and he would not betray his hurt.

‘Yez have until Whitsun to leave my land,’ he replied. He drained his poitín in one long swallow, banged the glass down on the bar, and left.

I turned to my father, my brothers.

‘I’m sorry, Da. I can’t.’

My father sighed.

‘Maybe ye’ll think better of it in the morning.’

But for now it was time for Stephen to sing, and he held out his hand to me, and our voices rose together in the familar words.

We sang the ballads of the ancient days of Ireland, the days before even the cars and aeroplanes, when mythical beasts and spirits good and evil owned the land, when the wild winds brought magical storms, when weary travellers sheltered in the houses of fairies, and ate of their food and drank of their drink, and were never seen again. It seemed to me that Stephen was conjuring magic as he sang, and that the shadowy corners of the candle-lit room were filled with the supernatural. At the end of the song there was a hushed silence and in the wind outside we heard a wail, as though visited by the banshee. It made me remember the night my mother died.

After that no-one wanted song, or drink. My Da said that we had work in the morning, and we put on our coats. I trudged home up the hill with him and my brothers, the wind knocking the breath out of our lungs. A faint glimmer of moonlight from the sea-horizon picked out the white wave crests that hit the rocky shore, seeming in their tumult to be the writhing bodies of mer-folk. Spin drift settled on my hair, and I felt it salty on my face. I could still hear Stephen’s voice, like a spell set to music, for hours later as I slept a fitful sleep.

In the morning we found Oisin O’Sullivan’s body, drowned, cold upon the shingle. The funeral was held upon his field and the chestnut horse seemed the only one who mourned him, standing with bowed head beside the grave long after the priest had gone.

There was no need now for our family to leave our land, and it was Stephen who took my hand in his, as we stood before the altar one morning in May. His face glowed in the sunlight, young and pure as he kissed me, but in a way I feared him more than I had feared Oisin.

© M Wallis 2020

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