All this talk about Martin Tom and Rooskey, set me thinking of the first time I was in those parts during the Christmas of 1968. It was five years before my marriage to the lovely Helen, whose family as it turned out lived next door to the first house I visited, to be greeted with a cup of tea and lashings of potato cakes by that most welcoming Mrs Henry.
Sometime between Christmas day and New Year there was a dance in the hall in Tubbercurry, an interesting town, over the border in Co Sligo. So carefree and young, I was approaching 23 years old but not able to dance a step, I went along hoping to meet the local girl of my dreams because naturally I thought I was God’s gift.
During the dance and after many a pint of Guinness was washed down in some of the plethora of pubs that Tubbercurry was famous for in those wild west days, I met a group of New Zealand girls, over from London, where they were working, visiting relations for the Christmas. I took a fancy to one, a tall full breasted young Kiwi from Auckland. For the life of me I cannot now remember her name but I found out she was staying at a house in Doocastle, only a mile up the road from Henry’s house in Cloonlarhan. We got on so well I invited her back to a party my friend McHale was having in his mother in law’s kitchen. not so much a party, more a late night get together to sing songs and tell stories over a few bottles of this and that.
My young lady accepted the invitation with alacrity and I could see at once that she was a girl who would not let grass grow under her feet. So off to Henry’s house we went to a great welcome from all assembled. Johnny Henry without any urging got out his fiddle and started to play a few jigs and reels whilst we all settled into McHales selection of drink. In fact the choice was poteen or water and most settled for the former. I have to give it to McHale although the poor man is now three years dead, dying in the very house we had the party in. McHale could find drink when the whole world was in drought. There we were seven miles to the nearest shop and way past midnight and there was McHale producing bottles of the finest poteen a man could drink.
Within minutes inhibitions were thrown to the wind, Carmel was singing and even I was dancing with my full breasted Kiwi. We made a fine couple on the flagged floor of the kitchen although I say it myself. She was lapping the atmosphere up, her eyes were sparkling, then the stories started and each story became more scary and has the scary got scarier, you could hear a pin drop has the narrator spoke.
Outside the house and down the way towards Towey’s house, there was a cillin. A dark and sombre place where the people in the old days used to bury their children who had died in the birthing process or were stillborn. Children that had not been baptised. That eejit Church of ours would not let those poor innocent parents bury their unbaptised in the consecrated ground of a cemetery. These poor folk had to go in the dead of night to bury their little corpses in these unofficially recognised plots. Come to think of it, the Church’s argument on abortion is that a child is a child on conception and therefore their life cannot be aborted. So how come these fully formed bodies could not be entertained in a cemetery.
However I digress, one of these stories was about this cillin and how this man has he walked home in the dark blackness of night and on passing this place would often see his dead child come out onto the road pleading to be buried in the graveyard. You have to realise out there in the country there were no street lights and on winter nights it gets very dark indeed and the darkest place along that road was where the cillin was situated. I know because I have walked the mile or so from Benson’s pub to Towey’s house late at night and if you are on your own you can feel the ghostly hand of death on your shoulder and your step definitely quickens.
Anyway the later it got the stories became even more scary and looking into my Kiwi’s eyes I could see the devilment and lust for life had deserted her, she was petrified. I offered to drive her home, she again accepted my offer quickly. She was staying in a two storey house up a boreen in the townland of Cloontaconnagh, which was situated a little off the boreen and was approached by a long path.
To get her back into the land of the living and become more responsive to my topic and away from the ghosts, I started talking about anything. I parked up beside her gate and snuggled up next to her, for warmth more than anything on that bitterly cold, jet black December night. She immediately responded and has we snuggled and discussed the latest political matters the more she relaxed. I could see she knew a lot about what was going on. She certainly was not backward at coming forward and expressing her ideas and I suppose the poteen helped to cement our relationship.
I was just getting to grips with a rather knotty question, when the car started shaking as if an earthquake was happening. Not just the car but its occupants were being shook as well. We cut short our discussion and looked at each other with a little more than concern. Was this God’s reply to our little transgression? The windows were all steamed up with condensation after the rather heated debate we had been engaged in, the shaking vehicle returned to its normal torpid state. I straightened myself up and wiped the windscreen of the car with my hand just in time to see the rear end of a bullock walk past. He had been rubbing his neck on the back bumper of the car.
We resumed our positions but the talk would not flow, our hearts were not in it and after a few more minutes of furtive meandering, we postponed our discussion for another night and I suggested that I walk her up the path to the house. We supported each other in our brave walk, we got to the front door and quickly went through the final points of my argument and gently pushed her through the front door to safety, promising each other another future night of interlocution.
I then had to navigate the long path back to the car which I did at the speed of light, jumped in, started the engine, turned the car round with difficulty on the narrow boreen and set my cap for Henry’s house where the party was still going hell for leather. There was some remarks about my pallid countenance which was quickly dissipated by a couple of mouthfuls of that great Irish recuperative, poteen.