“They called it Hy Brassil, the land of the Blessed”.
My name is Dr. Donal Daly, you may have read about me in the media. The Dicer Daly was what my colleagues in the coroner’s department of Dublin Unversity Hospital called me once, due to my job, carrying out complex post mortem examinations. They were shocked when I suddenly decided to leave that lucrative job and go to live on the aforementioned island off the west coast. But the decision to become a castaway had been building up within me. The day I made the final decision, I’d spent a harrowing 8 hours dissecting three bodies brought in from the Northside, as a result of gang warfare; various gunshot wounds to head and torso. Afterwards, as I scrubbed and put on civilian clothes, I felt soiled, and shocked at how insensitive I had become to death in body and soul all around me. Yet I also felt this daily dissecting of death was slowly taking its toll, eating away my peace of mind; I was becoming deeply disatisfied in my heart. This multiple shooting was the last straw in my process towards total alienation; it was a case of either escape or die.
This was how I felt, and our feelings never lie, for the heart is always wiser than the head. Dog tired and hungry I stumbled out the hospital door that day a broken man. Yet we are creatures of habit, and I still paused to check the bleeper I had received, in case I’d be called out during the night.
I might have eaten something but I had felt no appetite for the drab hospital food. My stomach was too raw in any case. As I got into my little squat sports car, Myrtle I called her, one of the few luxuries I allowed myself, I dreaded the other ordeal that lay ahead; hours fuming in the dense smoky lines of Dublin rush hour traffic. I cursing my lot as lines of cars stretched for miles in front of me and behind me; per usual, I felt trapped, lonely and alone.
I turned on the radio to some glib gushing DJ singing the praises of the latest boy band as if they were some new wonder of the world, a classic work he called it, playing a sentimental derivatative song about love; a poor cover of one of the crooning classics of the Fifties. I cursed and turned it on the classic channel, a slightly less glib DJ playing mediocre music from the musicals, followed by a blatantly pro-establishment news about all the initiatives of our glorious government. No mention of the vulnerable and poor they were screwing into the ground, while the rich got off scot free. I cursed again, the whole world seemed, as O’Casey wittily observed, “in a state of chassis”. No one seemed to care anymore.
This reflected a view of the world seen through the lens of my own slowly disintegrating life. What had I to go back to, a miserable “apartment” in the suburbs with last night’s TV dinner coagulating on the counter. How I missed my bright-eyed and fair-haired Siobhan of our early days together, climbing the Wicklow mountains and Bray head, and drinking beer and eating steaks afterwards in a mountainy retreats far from the harsh world.
We had met at a hospital bash for contributors to the hospital’s charity fund. Her father was a wealthy contributor. A sexual spark had immediately ignited with Siobhan, we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. But was there ever real love between us? We were happy for a time after Patrick came, and our lives revolved around him. We played the part of devoted parents well, but the spark soon fizzled out, and there was nothing deeper underneath to sustain the relationship.
So eventually it all began to fall apart. There was no obvious moment of breakdown, just a slow erosion of our togetherness that followed the cooling of the sexual ardour. I became more wedded to my work and she to posh Southside friends, her father’s world of lavish parties and late nights that I hated and avoided when possible, citing my work. It was in one of these jet-set parties that she met Matty, the slick southside accountant.
Patrick was put in creche every morning, and away she went to her tennis and upper-class lunches and cocktail nights out in fashionable hotels, with the said Matty usually in tow. Then she suddenly moved out with our child, then in the first class of primary school, to live with the slick accountant, Matty the cold number cruncher, from the plusher side of city. Said our marriage was going nowhere, it was no way to bring up a child, me keeping unholy hours due to my job, never around when he needed me, and she feeling like an abandoned wife all the time. Maybe she had a point; I let it be.
So she moved out, and moved me out without any ceremony, out of our spacious house in Blackrock, that we had spent years lovingly furnishing and decorating, out of the fine garden that had been my one great joy in this context. She also successfully got custody of Paidi, as I called him, after the separation; he would be better off with his mother the judge said, and my work made looking after a little boy problematic. So I was dumped to make way for the money man; consigned without mercy to a tiny “apartment”, jammed among thousands of the same, with a postal stamp piece of green in front, and a infinitismal balcony to look out over a sea of concrete, masses of sameness everywhere. A year there had nearly turned me into a walking zombie.
What had I to look forward to for tomorrow, I thought, as I sat in my car, trapped in the sluggish flow of city log jamb; another row of rigid corpses to be cut up, the smell of formaldyhyde, the awful stench of dead human blood and bone. I looked at myself in the car mirror, a thin sensitive 40-year-old face with lines gathering around the eyes, but still young enough and attractive enough to women; black hair with a growing hint of grey, a body going slightly to fat from late-night junk food and copious pints of black beer; comfort food and drink that brought little comfort now. Was that what I was here in this world for, I thought, to eat and drink too much; false comforts to quell the suffering of being and the emptiness of an existence that I seemed to be condemned to, the aimless purgatory without end of a living death in life.
The fact is that in this I had always been my own worst enemy. I had always done what others expected on me, or what expediency dictated, not what my heart told me would bring me peace. I had gone into the coroner’s job because it paid well. And it was a step up in society. It made my parents proud, but it never made my heart happy and that was the most important thing, I now knew. I had never consulted my soul, only the demands of the hard world, and herself, and they were as demanding as hell.
Thus I railed against the world I had helped to create. Horns honked around me of similar dissatisfied ants, trying in vain to achieve some far soul home. I was lost in a crawling ant line of blinkered cars, wipers frantically trying to keep off the persistent rain, dirtied by the city smog. Were they going to similar innocuous limbos as I, I thought, vain nitches in the jungle of the damned.
I must be experiencing some sort of breakdown, I thought, as i drove on interminably, in fits and starts. To think that once when I came up from the country I though this metropolis of bright lights and wild wild women, a paradise, as no doubt immigrants from obscure jungles of famine and war thought so now. Only upper middle class sods like me had the luxury of seeing through the glossiness to the emptiness underneath. Be that as it may, at that particular time I had enough of what I saw as its false promise. My life was empty, my soul was empty, my heart was empty. I was just going through the motions of existence, in a Dublin and a country which I felt had completely lost its soul, its independent spirit and its spiritual heart.
Maybe it was just a gripe, my family were staunch republicans, but I always felt that there was a brief moment after independence when we led the world. We were unique and special in culture and aspiration, and were respected by every other nation on earth as neutral from all war and colonial oppression, and economic fat cat tyranny. Now were we just another banana republic going cap in hand to our masters and changing everything valuable and unique in our land to suit their cultural imperialism. Were we now only a small laughed-at western nation on the edge of the world, of no more import to our new masters than the wilds of Timbuctoo; important only as long as we did what we were told, in their interests.
That’s how I felt at the time, and our deep feelings are what we should listen to. They are neither right not wrong in themselves, they just are; but usually they represent the deeper part of our being, the soul that stirs beneath the machine mind. And the fact was that I felt like an alientated zombie among two million other alienated zombies in an increasingly dying and soulless culture of every plastic crap seen as “wonderful”. What joy was there in going home to a tiny bedsit, oops its now an “apartment”, or better still a “condominium”, to fall asleep every night in front of the same imported canned TV programmes, put out by our supposed Irish public TV station we paid for.
All the stations were mostly the same now. Yet they had to be paid for through the nose; with added licence fees for the narrowly focussed ideologies of our own “public” stations so that they could insult the mass of the people and feed us with every imported rubbish like ghetto rats. I felt “home” programmes were that in name only, rammed with the latest government and EU propaganda that everything every day was getting “better and better”; all rigged, as unbalanced as hell. Where had all our idealistic investigative journalists gone? They should interview the old age pensioner in the flat next to mine, who was paying for the ministers’ pay hikes, and the fat cat’s tax-free accounts in the Cayman islands. That pensioner lived, if it could be called living, in and unheated and lonely flat. The phoniness of it all swamped me. I could no longer be a plastic nonentity in a rudderless country where the masses were cowed into conformity, and endless re-votes if they didn’t conform in the first go, to the dictates of new masters in Brussels.
So I reflected, as I sat in my car, breathing in toxic fumes by the ton, primed and ready to boil over into road rage. I felt like leaving my car there and walking somewhere, anywhere, nowhere, away from it all. For my heart was broken, my soul empty, my mind swamped by media mush, and my leaky pocket hit by so many austerity taxes I had lost count. There must be a better way, I thought.
At any rate I would submit a request for a holiday tomorrow, for I had to get away from it all or bust asunder. I couldn’t face another corpse, another tax, another hike in my payments to my estranged “partner”. We had never been formally married; yet she had claimed everything possible until I had felt like a pin cushion after the formal separation. Even our little boy, Paid, eight now and fair like his mother, that I loved dearly, had begun to look at me with estranged eyes lately. I don’t know what they were feeding him in the quiet, but I felt a time would come when he would no longer look forward to my visit, or I to visiting him. He too was on the edge of an abyss and there was no catcher to prevent him from falling over the yawning cliff.
I had always been deeply interested in literature; that was probably my real calling, if I’d listened to the man within. Now I felt like one of Dante’s lost souls in the inferno, cut off from all human sympathy and meaning; or one of Eliot’s hollow men of a new “Waste Land”. They had also taken from me the very faith that might have made sense of it all, bouyed me up, provided a bridge over the abyss to a finer paradise here and hereafter. There was no bridge now, even the school my child was going to had banned faith, lest God’s should intrude in any was into the children’s lives to raise them up to their true human freedom and digity. No the world seemed determined to keep under tight control their plastic stranded creatures. Leave them no outlet to bring them out of the angst of the soul, into a higher wisdom that would make sense of it all, their ideology seemed to No! The EU official agnosticism must become ours, lest our spiritual heritage should mean something either, all the freedom to believe we fought for and that gave depth to our lives in the worst times of a long drawn out colonial repression.
There was a new repression now and it sent shivers down my spine, the very core of my being seemed to shiver and cry out at the hard policies and hard voices on TV, cold eyes and cold voices echoing the secret agenda of secret masters of ideology who pulled the strings of our puppet world. I hated the hard calculation of those who now ruled us without mercy and without humanity from D4 or faraway beaurocracies in their own interests.
I though of my old grandmother and the gentle way she had as she said her rosary by the fire and rocked us to sleep in on her generous lap; a simple spiritual life and a warm heart. It was all gone like the summer flowers on the country roadsides, and my heart had gone with it, to Kifenora with its Ceili band and kind neighbors. It was the place I’d grown up in, in the wilds of the still untouched west. I suppose I was the last Irish romantic too and tended to idealize the past. But as one wise man said, if we have no past, we have no future either; we are just rootless beings on which an outside world will have no mercy.
It was then, in the midst this meaningless soul-searching maze of alienated pain, that I thought of the Island. Yes, I would go to Sharkin Dubh na Mainistere, near the west coast of love and beauty where I had been born. For it was the one place where I felt linked to the lost soul of our land once more. Last summer when I spent a few weeks there, cut off from the crass mainland, it revived my dying soul and relit all my floundering dreams.
Lost in the traffic maze, I thought of the lazy days by the sea among people with wrinkled wise faces and fishermen with words as wise as the black rocks of the sea they relied on. For, I suppose, despite my scientific medical degrees, I’d always remained a bit of a romantic at heart. The island retreat had been suggested to me by the chaplain in the hospital, Fr.Jim Quigley, a tall thin stopped individual with a kindly face, who had once been a pp but had suffered from the dictation of higher superiors and bishops, and got out. The world was harsh there too at times, putting the institution before humanity, the law before Christ. He had gone his own way of the heart, and kept the faith. So he was a man everyone looked up to, a kind of minature Mother Theresa or Pope Francis. For he saw the gentle care of others, especially those weak and suffering in hospital, as the essence of the faith and of a civilized people.
He had given me some poems about the islands off the western coast, that he thought still best retained some of our heritage. Indeed, one of the poems immediately inspired me with all my lost longings; I revised it into a sonnet to fit my own situation, for in my youth I had dabbled quite a bit in poetry composition; it had been my lost calling, although I suppose we are all poets and dreamers at heart:
There is an island, far away in the western wilds,
A ruined pier with blue painted boats, and a pathway
Leading to cottages with pitch roofs, squat grey
Rain-washed walls, and stacks of turf in undefiled
Expanses of rock and small stone fenced fields,
Round which narrow roads wind to the end of days.
My heart revived there as I sat at one with simple clay
By a thatched pub, listening to honks of mating seals,
And wild rhythms of goatskin bodhrans, jigs and reels
Accompanied by black beer and lobsters in pink shells.
As wind moaned in black rafters, I felt a-moment free
Within from pale death, part of a warmer Irish being.
For I’d grown sore weary of a slow eating away of the soul.
In places without any grand motivation to be inwardly whole.
To make us free and whole within, that was the church’s role; and if governments had any savvy, they’d see that that was the most important service of society, to care for our eternal part; all else was passsing dust and ashed. Bo society that neglected that part of people’s welfare could ever be complete and whole; maybe that was why so many alientated youths committed suicide of went on shoting sprees; citizens of Eliot’s spiritual waste land; where money and power were god and people were expendable.
In any case, my sonnet summed up the boy I once was. A child of nature, running barefoot in dusty days of summer, without a care in the world. To be free and whole, yes! That was my heart cry, in that time of the new Ireland of every lie sold as truth, and ever death sold as life. Here I’d be far from strife, far from frantic places where, as the poet said, “getting and spending we lay waste our powers”. I would languish in a lost Eden of the heart’s renewed hopes, in a land of timeless beauty, where the beat of the sea and the song of the wind would soothe me back to life and inner health. Here my soul would have room to breathe and love again. That was my vain dream, I sought a final door out of darkness, and it was there before me.
Yes, I would go back to that now, permanently! But then reality asserted itself, how would I live, on fresh air? I could sell my apartment, get the half of my flesh back, the house she insisted on keeping, and cash-in my pension fund, and live off my saving. A practical reality began to take shape in my grim groping mind. With a cottage and a few acres of land I could grow things, potatoes and carrots and swedes, and keep a cow and goat for milk, and make cheese, and keep a few free-ranging hens for eggs.
I’d manage, people did in the past, weaving their bainin sweaters from sheep’s wool, and gathering seagull’s eggs for a feast in the spring. They say fish is the best food of all and I would have fish in plenty, herring, plaice and mussels fresh from the pure depths of the blue briny ocean. I could invite friends like Jim Quigley down, and my son. I had no doubt our relationship could bloom again as he ran free on the island and swam with the seals in rock ponds. He too could be restored to humanity from violent cult video games, bullying in school, and unsubstantial lunches of sugar-packed fizzy drinks and crisps such as Siobhan fed him. She had never learned how to cook.
Perhaps I might even meet a cailin fair on the island, to warm me through the long winter nights and into a new summer. For they say its lonely on an island, especially when one is cut off by the frequent winter storms that batter away at the shore.
All this was my dream and much of it came true, but I was unprepared for the strange surprises the island would also throw up and the unusual controversies it would land me in. The retreat landed me smack back into the world of greed I had thought to have abandoned forever. Perhaps the lesson was that it is difficult to escape from the world today, its creeping finders find you out where ever you are and crush the spirit from the bones like sharks feeding on innocent dolphins. Yet I did win a victory in the long run, and a precious one.
The House on the Island
That evening among the traffic in Dublin decided my future and much more. For I did sell everything and go to the island. I had nothing to hold me anyway in that great sprawl of smut and smog. But first I had gone to the island of Sherken Dubh na Mainistere to spy out the land and pick a nice hideaway cottage sheltered from the black storms of life. I had consulted endless brochures with grand descriptions of derelick cottages as if they were sublime castles, with vastly inflated prices, as was the way with the greedy auctioneers that had in no small way fuelled our false boom. But it was chance that eventually landed me my dream home.
I eventually found it in a sheltered place among rocks, on the eastern part of the island, where a narrow road wound down to ever raging seas of white foam and yelping throngs of fat slimy playful seals. And the finding was providential. While perusing one highly-hyped and over-priced quite hopeless wreck of a house overlooking this wild western shore, a middle-aged lady, in warm hooded anorak and fur-topped wellington boots, came up to me, a little black and white collie yelping at her heels.
“Down Daisy, down!”, she said, as the affectionate bitch, jumped all over me. “This is just visitor” she said yanking her away from me. “Hello there, dear”, she continued, with a clear western brogue, “would you be looking for a holiday place or something to stay a while, for I couldn’t help seeing you poking about like a lost soul. If you are, I’ve surely a place close nearby that might interest you more than this awful wreck that used to be the Dodger O’Heigartaigh’s place; he died years ago in a storm at sea, God rest his soul. By the way I’m Nora Bean Ui Feitheartaigh, the Nora Bans as we’re called around here, we have Irish names and do speak some Gaelic here at times, when the humour is on us, its a gaeltacht area you know, one of the few left”.
I held out my hand and answered her with some relief:
“I’m Donal Daly, call me Donie, or Dicer, my nickname, I was a coroner in Dublin and cut up half the city I’m sad to say. I’m delighted to meet a true island soul. Yes, I’m looking for a place, and I’d be so glad to see the cottage you have to rent or buy. I’m tormented with auctioneers and their descriptions which never match the reality and ask for the moon. But is it the house you’re living in you’re talking about or some place else; I’d be glad to look at whatever you have, Nora ban”.
“No”, she said, “we have our own house over there, “but its Bridie’s, my late sister-in-law’s place that we’re having for sale or rent; she used to live there until her husband, Tadhg Cronan Croi O’Cronin, passed away, God rest his soul, a grand soul, a great traditional singer. That’s why they called him the Cronan Croi, or heart singer. A great fisherman he was too, though, sadly, his boat is rusting now in the yard. Then Bridie got cancer and followed him; strange it was, just six months later, God help us, as if she couldn’t bear to be away from him for long; I often see that with couples who have grown into one down the years. They had one son but he’s way abroad in Canada, ot so I think. Now, he do be wanting me to sell the cottage and us to send him the money to get him settled in Newfoundland, where he hopes to follow his father’s trade, sure ’twas what he was brought up on, a fine gramhar gasson, and as wild as an island goat at times, always climbing down cliffs to get at bird’s eggs, I wonder he wasn’t killed long ago. But I’m talking too much, I’ll show you the cottage, its still habitable, we’ve kept the heat on and we’ve had the occasional lodger there since. Come, musha, I’ll show it to you and you can decide then whatever way you want a chroi”.
She led me next door to a small neat whitewashed cottage, with a green door, its paint slightly flaking away, and a yawning half door, and a weedy front yard with a noble old boat rotting among the high grass. She produced a large iron key and opened the door. I was surprised to see how well kept it was inside. A large kitchen with a flagged floor, and with and old Stanley range in the corner, and pots and pans stacked above it. At the back there was an outhouse full of stacked black turf for the range; apparently it had a back boiler and heated the whole house quite well, for the cottage was small and cosy. Hurray for local self-reliance, no need for the grid here, no one here is at the mercy of the greedy international energy brokers. I always thought the solution to the energy crisis was small local sources of energy, self-reliance, and the sun which was free.
The cottage had just two large rooms, a large kitchen and a bedroom off of it, with the minimum of old furniture, black with age and use. A settle in the corner, a dresser and a few sugan chairs and an old leather sofa, the only sop to modernity. There was a woven reed basket in the corner full of sods of fine hard black turf harvested from the western lowlands. The adjoining room had a large bed, a chair and a little mahogony chest of drawers for clothes. I felt as if I was being dragged back in time to some mystic world of a harsh poverty-stricken yet also perhaps a kinder and gentler Irish past.
The windows were all small and shuttered with old oak wood, handy to close one off from the attacking world, during the frequent storms that battered the island. When we went back into the kitchen she put up a ladder to the high door of an upper room. I climbed up and found it furnished similar to the other room, with a picture of the sacred heart with a red lamp in front of it, on a stand, and a basin for water and an towel.
“What about light”, I said, descending the ladder again, “and power for any modern toys I might have, such as a mobile phone, I don’t want to be too cut off..”.
“Oh, we don’t have electicity on this side of the island”, she said apologetically, “but there is a functioning generator at the back of the house, housed in an outhouse, and we’ve kept it serviced; there’ll be enough power from that for all you want, I’d be thinking, unless you’d be one of these technological fanatics who have electric gadgets for everything. We find we can do without that but maybe you being from the city would have higher expectations; but I think you won’t find anything very sophisticated here, except of course you want to visit that big house of the American millionaire, the Badger O’Murcu we call him, on the eastern shore. He was part of the badger Murphy clan of dubious fame from the eastern island. His real name is Frederick James Murphy Junior from Jersey, it reads like a title but his family was originally from these parts. He built that mansion on the eastern side near the pier, though how he got planning for that monstrosity’s beyond me; no doubt a few yellow envelopes went astray somewhere. You can go to see him, when he’s here, get a taste of high city life, without its terrors, if you suddenly begin to crave what you left behind”.
“No!”, I said, “what I see here should be sufficient for all my needs, though my boy when he comes to see me, might want things like radio and TV and video games, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. But what about the back of the house, are there a few fields going with the house where I might grow things and keep a few animals, for I’ve a mind to do that”.
“Ah, yes”, she said, “We’ve outhouses and three fair-sized fields at the back, the Cronan was a great man for spuds and vegetables, grew them using kelp fertilizer as they used to do in the old days, and good healthy crops he always produced, the city people were mad for them for they said they were “organic produce”, and that they were, I’m sure. He put up signs to get a few bob, and trippers bought them like candy. The Cronins kept a cow and a few goats also, and hens in the back haggard”.
She led me out the door to where some slightly delapidated outhouses languished, full of turf and smelling of animal manure. There were two big rocks sheltering the house, left wisely from the clearance of the land of old, and between them a wraught iron gate led into three sparse fields that sloped down towards the sea.
Beyond these there was the ruins of small monastery and beyond that again the circular walls of a small Dun. It seems that this was the popular part of the island. The fields had been fed by the Feitherty animals, so they were quite bare, apart from a few buachalans, and thistles that a scraggy donkey was tentatively nibbling at. I’d enjoy showing him off to city slickers who had never seen such things as donkeys except in Disney movies.
The ditches were all built of grey limestone, evidence of no small craftsmanship. At the bottom of the third field down, beyond which were but masses of boulders sloping far away to the turbulent western sea, there were a few overhanging rocks under which a little sheltered cave had been hewn out. This attracted my immediate curiosity, curiosity killed the cat they say, and I was to regret that. But now I went down with Nora to inspect it. This was to prove the most interesting place in the whole island and opened up a whole can of succulent worms later.
The Cave of Dreams
The cave, when we reached it, was, I saw, a natural phenomenon which had been converted into a large room. There were windows broken in the ceiling of the cave, and in a side room a broken down bed lay among animal droppings. There was a fireplace leading to flue and a hole in the celing. Also there was what looked like a altar if sorts at the back of the room, though it was somewhat trampled down now by the animals.
“What would this place be Nora?”, I said, bending down and stepping onto its spongy debri strewn floor, “seems like some habitation of sorts, surely someone didn’t live here at some time past, under stark rocks open to the wild elements when the wind was from the east, though I suppose that wasn’t often?”.
“Well, to be sure”, she said, “I’m thinking that’s a mystery we have all been wondering about, even the Cronan didn’t rightly know what it was. Its near the monastery so maybe it had some links to that. The older people remember when it was used by an old hermit, who lived here, An File Mannach na hUachtar Farraige the old people used to call him, the hermit poet of the western shore. But there are only a few examples of his poems or musing left now, at least not in the tradition. Apparently he kept very much to himself, though he left a few poems with his abbot, and very good and deep they are, that’s how we knew about him.
There is an large holy well just below here, spring water still bubbling up in abundance there, a wonder surely. That’s what made this area so attractive for the monastery and the dun and the hermit, fresh spring water near at hand. Sure we still use it ourselves, better than the shop water we pay for, they say people make more money now from water than milk, God help us, who’d ever think we’d see the day, maybe we could sell this water ourselves and make a fortune from the city amadans”, she said, with a laugh.
“Well”, I said, “all this is very intriguing, I’ll surely take it if its anyway affordable”, I said, immediately falling in love with it all, so full of color and mystery.
“Come in to our house”, she said, “and welcome. We’ll have a cup of tea and we can discuss the price in a civilized way, no need to go to auctioneers, we’ll save their big fat fees anyway and that’ll help bring the price down. Come and meet my twins, Molly and Mairead, and our Son Cormac. They’ll be delighted with the company. We don’t see many strangers around here, visiting, you’ll be a nine-day wonder surely”.
I went with her into their cottage which was similar but bigger and had three rooms added at the back for the children, and a large back kitchen, and more land around it. Molly, a chubby dark-haired child who was just about Patrick’s age came over and practically mobbed me, pulling at my clothes and gazing up into my face with wide wondering eyes of blue. Mairead, thinner and fairer and a little shyer, held back with a bemused expression on her face as she sucked at a little antique wolly towel, her comforter. They were fraternal, not identical twins. The boy, about 12, was quiet, and trying on the act the grown up man of the house, squaring his shoulders and grasping my hand firmly with a few gruff murmurs of greeting. His father, Padraig Dearg O’Feitheartaigh na mBad, as he was called, was away with the eldest girl, Grainne Dearg Alainn they called her, ferrying tourists to and from Ballynascullogue to the Mannach’s abode of stones.
I’d met Padraig on the boat coming to the island, a fine tall sturdy western specimen of manhood with a weather-beaten face, and his fair daughter, Grainne, a red-head of about twenty-seven. The Feigherties had married young, and Grainne, their eldest, had a fine fresh complexion and bright large blue eyes that made her look very attractive and mysterious; I was soon under her spell. She couldn’t find a job after her graduation from the mainland secondary school and Technical College, but the boat trips gave her an income for much of the year. She gathered the fares coyly, and obviously she wooed the tourists who might otherwise complain of the boat prices.
I spent a nice few hours or so with the Feigherty family, and a price was agreed, subject to the papers being drawn up by their solicitor on the mainland, and the agreement of the nephew in Canada, though she assured me that that was the price he wanted. It was slightly more than I could afford, but the house was exactly what I wanted, so it was well worth the extra. I was given the key and told I could move in anytime, after the paperwork and the deposit had been paid, and all was in order of course, they didn’t want a squatter.
Afterwards I strolled down to the holy well, and sitting on its stone surround, gazing into its crystal depths, I found myself praying for the first time in a long time, for I suddenly realized that I too had risked becoming a godless hollow man. People had come here, to pray and be healed from time immemorial; it was part of human nature and our deep longing for sustenance for the soul that would outlive all our frantic grasping for empty gain. After we had enough, then the heart needs more, the pledge of eternal lands which is our lasting home.
I was reminded of the holy well we had in Kifenora, when I was growing up; I was always fascinated by its purity and stillness, and the surge of crystal water from below reminded me of all the potential glory, the divinity that was locked within us and whose development was the real goal of human existence. To raise us up to our real depth and heavenly glory and enable us to move from being hollow surface people to the people whose inner man and woman flowered into glory and full humanity. The crystal soul as the real road to happiness here and hereafter, I felt, as I gazed into the depths of the sparkling well.
It was the first time I had felt like this, and reflected like this. It made me feel really good inside for the first time. If I had stayed where I was that inner man, I now knew, would probably have shrivelled and died completely. And when I died I’d probably have had just a vain cold empty soul for all eternity. I shivered.
Then suddenly I recalled an old poem I had heard about such a well, for strangely at the time poems and songs seemed to come into my mind as out of the blue, I suppose it was an effort to recharge my starved soul, to restore my sanity with the healing power of fine words and songs of the purest heart. The poem was about a barefoot young man and poet coming home from school and looking in and drinking from a holy well in a summer field:
Pausing by a sacred well, I pray near its stone surround.
As my face mingles with the glitter of pennies cast down,
I kneel on roses by which pilgrims adorn the holy ground.
The water is clear and cool. In the warm summer silence
Spidery creatures dance across its smooth rink surface,
I trail fingers in the water. Unused to such disturbance,
The insect spirits flee, flying to St.Ita, their mistress.
Like her I delve deep within, questing for lost perfection;
As white clouds wander in those heavenly blue reflections,
Subterranean urges well in me of a world free of corruption.
From pure depths I splash icy freshness on my fevered face.
I lap up cool wholeness, as country simplicities replace
Cynicism, my starved soul revels again in lost crystal ways.
Thats what I hoped for here too, that my heavy heart would be
wooed back to the lightness of being, here by the holiest well of the great and mysterious western isles of all our inner dreams, in the great Christ of the immortal soul of time. For it is the heart’s needs that we most need to assuage in islands far away.
Return to the Hermit’s Island
It was weeks before I finally wrapped up my affairs in Dublin. Endless meeting with Siobhan and her solictors to sort out the part of our house that was mine. She and her brusque accountant labored the financial details in a big way, disputing every penny until I was blue in the face with frustration. They would pay me from a new morgage they’d raise; but I had no pity for them; they were getting twenty years of my sweat and blood for nothing.
Sure! I would pay something for the child’s education but I refused any further payments to her, citing the fact that I just couldn’t afford it; I was now an unemployed coroner living on a small pension that I had cashed in early, and on any saving I had scraped together since our estrangement. They were on the pig’s back in any case, much better provided for than I could ever be. Her father had made a large settlement on her, and he was making money hand over fist sorting out the murky affairs of bankrupt fat cats with secret accounts abroad, who’d crashed during the recession.
Yet they fought tooth and nail for every last penny they could eek out of me. I in turn ensured that it was like getting blood out of a turnip. For I was still immersed to some extent in the cruel way of the world I was abandoning, a hard and grasping world I was well off without. Yet that still held a large part of my soul; though I was on the way to believing under the spell of the island and its hermit, that the way of a world is always the enemy of inner wholeness.
Welcome to nothing, I said, as I looked at Siobhan across the table in her fine cut suit, perfect hair style and carefully manicured hands. Her make-up was from the beauty parlours of the Southside that she frequented, spending the accountant’s money lavishly, as she had once spent mine.
I was biased of course, and bitter, but as I looked at her, I thought how little real love we had shared, apart from the joyful early living together, the pleasure of frequent robust sex, a way to the soul too, and the dreamy honeymoon of sorts that we had enjoyed in the Bahamas, with every luxury provided for us by her doting father.
But our souls were never one, we were always poles apart in culture and aspiration. She had bought into the whole crass money dream with heart and soul, conditioned by her wealthy snobbish parents. I didn’t blame her for that, in a way, she knew nothing else, though I hated it with a fierce inner loathing. In the beginning I was Dr.Daly the noted coroner, and she showed me off to all her fine friends with pride, but I never felt at ease among that jet set of parties and Prada outfits, and Gucci handbags and fine feasts of caviar and open prawn sandwitches. It was too artificial for my tastes, a poor country boy from the wilds of the west, made good, but whose deeper cultural roots were still in the heart of that other Ireland, the secret Ireland where, as I saw it, its soul was.
For countries have souls too, that like entering a house one senses when entering their shores, and these can be corrupted as easily as individuals into vain pursuits and useless soul-destorying endeavours that turn into slavish nothings in the long run.
My mind said live it up ruthlessly, pal, but my heart said all the time that what is important is not money, not pleasure, not power, but inner happiness. My old grandmother uses to say that when the era of the horse ended, man lost his commune with the good earth and began building a mechanical tower of plastic pride and a plastic soul. Technological savages we were now, as this wise old commentator put it, with soulless man-made utopias foisted upon us, and the hard god of economics and high finance our new masters; men becoming more and more a useless adjunct to all that, the ordinary man becoming fodder for narcissistic rapacious economic rats and top hats; a rat race in which only the rats were winning. Kept quiet by mindless lottos and vain quiz shows, the masses cult of the pub and the premiership game.
When our negotiations were done, I shook hands with my tormentors, and I could sense what they were thinking behind proud pitying smiles:
Going to bury himself in some absurd island cottage; he was always a sentimental fool, a romantic; and he having everything as city doctor, to throw it all away, what a waste! He’ll soon come to senses poor thing, when his money is all down the drain and he’s stranded in the back-of-beyonds with a crowd of culchie yokels who’ll bleed him dry; always was a sentimental fool, a culchie throwback, but he has made his crude bed and let him lie on it now, God help him!.
I could sense the raw contempt that they shared among themselves. But had not courage enoug to say to my face, the suits of Dublin suburd society in the plush Southside, with their 4-by-fours and flashy holidays abroad and yellow wrecked cocaine noses. But I did not envy them, now that I had spurned all that for peace and simplicity and the reality of the stripped soul, returning to its roots in the heart of the real Ireland we fought for and were gradually and inexorably abandoning for a plastic imported soul and sordid values of a dying western civilization in Europe. Indeed a sense of disquite seized me when I looked at Siobhan’s glazed eyes; was she on drugs or something, I’d seen that look many times in my clinic. Was this a safe place for Paid, if she was on drugs?
I set that aside for the moment, wrapped up in wrapping up the deal with Siobahn. And it was with great relief that I managed to wrestle some of my income from the hands of her rapacious lawyers, a nest egg, for my future. For I too had to make some provision for the future, underpin my dream with practical considerations. I wasn’t the complete fool they thought me; I’d have part of my monthly pension still, and a reduced nest egg for rainy days.
I’d be OK. But above all I’d be happy inside and that was worth more than any amount of almighty dollars or the numerous euro supplements for which we had sold our soul. I was off to the free west on the edge of the world where the long hand of the hard all-conditioning media and EU ideology couldn’t reach me, with their cold voices. There no one could destroy my peace.
So it was with great relief that, on the first day of June, I packed my few apartment possessions into a new spacious van I had bought, I’d sold the Porsche, and headed for the west like a schoolboy set loose for the long summer holidays. All across Ireland I voyaged, the rain beginning to fall copiously once I crossed the Shannon. Yet I went into the wild west with great expectations, on tenderhooks until I arrived at the little pier in Ballynascullogue, where boats embarked for the island, every few hours. I waited for the Feigherty boat skippered by Paddy and presided over by the fair foxy colleen, his shining daughter, and it was all worth waiting for. Paddy came forward with a warm handshake when I had identified myself, and behind him the flame-haired Grainne, whose very appearance, as natural as a summer rose and as unspoilt as a sea pearl, immediately bowled me over. Already it was love at first sight, and I looked forward to having her as my neighbor, tripping up the pathway with presents and mail for the pleasant new neighbor, and shyly waiting at the door while I watched from within, and took my fill of her pretty shapely appearance, before opening the door.
At the moment, however, we were nothing less than strangers, and I was older than her, so I thought maybe I should temper my passion and my expectations of a return. Be realistic, you fool, I said to myself. Doubtless there were many dashing young island boys who would sweep her off her feet soon and away to some foreign shore, that was my fear. For most of our youth were in Canada or Australia now, more luck to them, for they were fine places too. But not for Grainne, I hoped. Please stay here, I prayed in my heart, and please stay perfect as you already are!
The crossing was a little rough for the sea had suddenly risen with a brief harsh gale from the south, and that tempered by romantic dreams. I was a little sick, for sea travel always unsettled me, though the natives waltzed around as if it was as natural as dancing a polka.I gripped the rail tighly and waiting impatiently for the island shore to loom up and save me.
I disembarked without my traps, with the mob of sightseers. Paddy would load and bring over my furniture and the Van at a later time when the tourist schedule was finished for the day. I strolled up from the shore to the cottage, trying to restore my equilibrium. I let myself in through what I hope would be final door out of darkness, a dignified finale to my life’s journey and on to another life, to all the Dalys who had gone down the road before me to the land of the blessed, the great Hy Brassil out beyond the far western shore of dreams.
My life on the Island Unfolds
The house was warm, Nora had lit the stove and placed a basket of turf nearby and I could hear the humming of the generator in the background. “Home is the traveller home from the sea and the hunter home from the hill”, I thought, recalling an old poem I had learned in school; I was glad now that the master, a severe man but a great lover of literature had made us learn all the poems off by heart; for poems I always thought were meant to be recited and felt in rime and rhythm in the bone, not just crammed commentary on them for some state exam, as was the custom now. This, I felt, only killed all the joy of literature in our youth, instead of education it was deformation.
I sat in the corner of the island collage like a monarch of all I surveyed, lord of the fowl and the brute, and even enjoyed the moaning of the wind around the house and the rattle of the shutters. At length a knock came at the door; it was Nora with a big dish of fish stew, full of onions, carrots and floury potatoes, and a cake of her lucious home-baked soda bread, and art she had learned from her mother. I learned how to bake like that later myself. In fact I learned all sorts of island cooking from her and became quite an expert on the rich homely cousine of the western seaboard.
“Welcome, Donie, if I may be so bold to call you that, a ghra, we’re so glad to have an neighbor again”, Nora said with a broad smile on her face, “I hope everything is Ok. I’ve put fresh sheets and blankets on the bed, and lit the fire as you see. I’ll show you how to do it; there are sticks at the back, but the best thing is to leave some cinders in the ashes at night and then use those to kindle the turf in the morning. Even during the summer, unless its very warm you can leave a bit of a fire on to offset the damp, these houses have no wall or roof insulation such as you have been used, a chroi. Some damp turf bruss thrown on top will keep it smouldering for you all day, and keep the cinders for the morning fire. I also got Paddy to start the generator for the light. So I hope all is OK, I brought you a bite to eat, and a cake, and I put some tea and sugar in the larder, and some milk for the breakfast; after that you’ll want to look out for yourself, I’m afraid, and good luck to you. There’s a little shop down by the pier, it has most things, and the boat will bring things over for you if you ask.
“Thank you Nora, I said, “I’m so grateful for all your kindness, you’re a real angel of mercy. I came over with Paddy and Grainne on the boat, and the crossing was a bit rough so I need some time to recover and when I do, I’ll look forward to your grand pie and cake bread, a real treat from the sort of instant city food I’ve been having, I assure you. And the fire is reassuring on this wet day, and the generator, I must learn how to get that going too”.
“Ah sure Paddy will show you in the morning, for it can be a bit awkward at times, eccentric you know, but once you get the knack of getting it started you’ll have no trouble. I’d say to leave it on until the morning now. I must be getting back to the gang now and preparing the dinner for Paddy and Grainne, they’ll be ravenous after all the crossings; and Molly and Mairead and Cormac are always ravenous, growing children you know, but thank God they’ve good appetites, it would be worse if they didn’t eat, I’d be worrying there might be something wrong with them, God save us from all harm. Well, I run on now, enjoy you first day”.
After she left, I tried some of the grub, though I still felt a little queasy, and then, feeling bone tired after the journey, I went up to bed, dampening the fire down as she said, and turning the generator down to low. For a long time I lay in the dark listening to the moaning of the wind and the sighing of the sea in the distance, which like a lullaby from the good Lord, lulled me into a deeper sleep than I’d ever enjoyed in the city. I subsided into blanket street, with and old melody rumbling away in my mind like a mantra, I seemed to have that gift: “I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by”. The sea was here and the ship of song and the star was all that the great hermit poet of the island would teach me.
An unexpected Discovery
The next few weeks were spent in settling in to my new haven of the blessed. I got a female goat and a nearly grown female calf from my neighbors for to graze the two lower fields. The old grey donkey, who must have been nearly twenty years old at least, had become a real pet, trooping up for his meal feed each day, and nuzzling and licking my hand like a dog. I put him near me in the haggard behind the house for I grew very fond of him. I fenced off the third field, the one next to the haggard, to make way for some future crops. I also repaired the old small boat in the yard, and moved it down near to the stony beach, for some minor inshore fishing in fine calm weather.
It was a happy time. Grainne frequently came up to do some housework for me, and some daily cooking, for which I could only afford to pay her a pittance; but she did it all the same, for like me she enjoyed the company and the evenings by the fire chatting and scheming how to develop my little cottage and holding. I often felt like holding her too. But I deferred any intimacy, feeling my age as a deterrent and waiting for better times, let her find romance with her own age group for I was essentially a moral man, and that was the greatest gift, inner integrity. I felt she was too young for any commitment anyway, let alone to an older man. I scrupulously kept from any undue exploitation of our relationship, what I wanted more than anything else was pleasant neighbourly companionship, for the place was lonely for a man on his own.
Her father and mother knew and appreciated that, and knew I could be trusted. And Nora also came at times to help and advise me with her gentle wise ways and speech. For the moment anyway there was no serpent in the garden, and I certainly didn’t want to be one. They were my second family, and I got as close to them as I could without spoiling everything.
As the summer wore on, I turned my energies to planning for the coming of Patrick, my son, who was to visit me as soon as school shut for the summer holidays. Also I had invited Jim Quigley, my hospital spiritual mentor. And planning for the housing of the animals for the winter moved forward apace. I thought to develop the cave at the bottom of the ground for that purpose. Grainne was full of enthusiasm for that project and soon won me over.
So we began excavating the floor of the cave to put in a foundation for a concrete floor, and turning the fireplace in the corner into a manger for the animal feed. I worked at this all one fine summer day in late June, Grainne standing by, advising, and supervising the work and occasionally pitching in when I got tired. It was when she was in the middle of one such stint, that she suddenly gave an excited exclamation:
“Donie, there’s something I’ve hit here, seems like a metal box. Hurrah! We’ve hit buried treasure maybe”, she said, her young face suddenly lighting up with the excitement of the find and the anticipation of what lay inside.
As I saw her there, her big blue eyes open and shining, she seemed more and more like an angel sent to me in my need, out of the blue heaven itself. I gazed into her shining eyes and saw there the innocence and enthusiasm of first love I once had. I didn’t want to take that away, but I didn’t want to exploit it either. She had no idea what the world was like. I did, and I didn’t want to go down that road again. Though I cursed my hardened heart and was trying to do something about it, it hadn’t yet fully healed: I thought of that text in the Bible that I was very fond of, “take away our hearts if stone, O lord, and give us hearts of flesh instead”. My heart was still made to some extent of stone.
Yet the find also lit up my heart to some extent. I too got excited and hunkered down beside her, working carefully around the large box until we could grasp and lift it out, for it seemed relatively ight. This, however, dampened my expectations that there might be monetary treasure inside, that would be heavier.
We hauled it up onto the land and tried to open it, but there was some sort of a lock, I could discern the opening for a key, but the iron was sturdy and would not yield to blows from the spade or efforts to prise open the top. We stood there frustrated and impotent, like two two swimmers in sight of the land swept away by a new cold undercurrent off the shore.
“We’ll have to get help from the ironmonger on the mainland”, I said, “we don’t want to damage what’s inside, with rough clumsy effort to break it open. Lets haul it up to the house, and put it in a safe place until we can get professional help to open it. Maybe we should inform the Museum of Ireland, for I suppose, this is technically buried treasure from the era of the hermit poet, or the older era of the Celtic monastery that was here; you can see some Celtic decorations there. We might be like the finders of the Derrynaflan chalice”, I said, carried away.
“Nonsense”, Grainne said, the old possessive spirit taking hold of her, “we found it and its on your land and its ours, not the property of some musty foogies up in Dublin. We’ll keep it I’m saying, whatever is in it, it might even be a dowry for our future”, she said blushing but with a twinkle in her eye, but a warm glow rose in me for it was the first admission that she cared. But I held back still, turning away as if I did not see.
I didn’t want to encourage a false spring or exploit the very people who had been so good to me, by stealing their daughter for my own benefit; this was more than likely a passing infatuation, I thought, for she must have had little experience in the love game. In any case I didn’t want it to be a game, give it time and it will grow or die and then everyone will be happier. I didn’t want to be like those actors or actresses who jump into marriage every months and end up with nothing in the long run but a host of lost hopes. Only what was deep and permanent also satisfied the soul’s lust for love, or maybe it was just a case of “once bitten, twice shy”.
I was reflecting on all this while we drove down the van, the fields were quite firm and stony. We loaded the box into it, careful so as not to disturb anything that might be fragile inside. Like the fragility of the human heart, I thought, all the love that is buried within needs to be treated with the tenderest and truest care and concern, lest it break in a thousand shards of splintered pain, and never be mended again.
Yet we drove the van up with eager excitement, like two people after finding treasure throve in some faraway island of romance. But this was Sharken the Manistere, the abode of the File Mannach na hUachtar Farriage, so what we would find was maybe no gold but the deeper gold of the soul. So I thought, remembering that he was a poet, not a hoarder of vain gold or silver corruption. I had a feeling that we might find his poems and other manuscripts of equal importance for our spiritual heritage. It may still be worth a lot of money, so what I feared most was the trouble this might get us into, endless litigation and disputes as to whom the buried material belonged.
As such I had to mind to bury it again, or store it somewhere in my house where it would never be found until I was dead and buried, like the wise poet had done. But obviously Grainne, who was younger and less experienced in the ways of the world, wanted to shout to everyone what we had found, bring the whole world teeming into our island paradise, the very thing I wanted to avoid. But since she was in it, there was no escape from that, she would spill the beans to all and sundry.
Indeed, now she put her arm around me, though when I cringed away, she looked a little hurt as a result, and I read in her eyes the glory of a love and a secret shared; it was our great secret, our treasure, our future guaranteed in gold. I was less sure.