Authors: Patrick McCabe
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Call Me the Breeze
Emerald Germs of Ireland
Breakfast on Pluto
The Dead School
he Butcher Boy
Music on Clinton Street
First published in Great Britain 2006
Copyright © Patrick McCabe 2006
This electronic edition published 2009 by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
The right of Patrick McCabe to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
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To Katie McCabe
T WAS THE AUTUMN of 1981 and I'd been asked by my paper the
to do an article on folklore and changing ways in Ireland, a chance I jumped at, availing myself of the opportunity to return
home to Slievenageeha, which I hadn't been to visit in years.
And was more than glad that I did, as it happened, for quite unexpectedly it turned out to be festival week, with a ceilidh
starting up as I drove into town. On a crude platform in the square a slap-bass combo was banging away goodo, with a whiskery
old-timer sawing at his fiddle, stomping out hornpipes to beat the band. He must have been close on seventy years of age,
with a curly copper thatch and this great unruly rusty beard touched throughout with streaks of silver. He slapped his thighs
and whooped and catcalled, encouraging anyone who knew it to join in the 'traditional come-all-you'!
Who, by the looks of things, weren't exactly a multitude - in fact, nobody at all seemed to know the words. Presumably because
prosperity had begun to take hold of the valley with such ballads being perceived now as somewhat out of date. There was no
shortage, however, of spirited shouts of approval:
—Good man, Ned! You never lost it!
—He's a good one, Auld Pappie, make no mistake!
As the band cheered and chorded along merrily, the lyrics sailing out over the tall pine trees:
Well don't we look sweet as here we both lie My partner for ever just him and I Like lovers betrothed in the cold stony clay
From peep of the sun until the end of the day.
In keeping with the 'good old days' theme, everyone had dressed up in britches and brogues, with not a modern conveyance in
sight, nothing but a motley assortment of charabancs and carts. There were livestock shows and cattle auctions, horse-pulling
contests and a poultry competition. A woman in a bonnet offered to sell me 'the choicest' free-range eggs. I thanked her profusely
but politely declined, regretting it somewhat, I have to say, when she mentioned my father. She told me she'd known him well.
—Ah yes! she said. Auld Daddy Hatch - sure we all knew each other, back in those days!
I met the old fiddler by chance later on. His face was livid-red now and I watched him as he flung the instrument on the table
with undisguised disdain. He told me he'd been drinking all day. I asked him would he consider being interviewed for the paper?
He said yes - on one condition. I would have to play host with a 'clatter of drinks'.
I readily agreed as he regarded me intently through narrow, suspicious eyes. When I was ordering, the barman shook my hand
and heartily welcomed me to Slievenageeha. I told him I'd been born here and was overjoyed to be back.
—It's always nice to welcome our own, he said cheerily, before adding: And I see you've already met Auld Pappie the wild and
woolly rascal from the hills! —I have indeed, I said, and what a fine musician he is!
He handed me the drinks and laughed.
—Oh, he's a musician all right — but then, of course, he'd be a fiddler by nature! Ha ha!
When I asked him what he meant he tossed back his head and told me he was only joking. Adding with a conspiratorial wink as
I turned to go:
—Just be careful of them auld stories of his. You wouldn't know whether to believe them or not. He's an awful man once he
gets going. Tells everyone he spent years in America. And sure the poor auld fucker - he's never once left the valley. Never
set foot outside Slievenageeha. Now, there's your drinks, welcome home and thanks very much!
As soon as I came back to join my companion with the drinks, I could tell that he had been listening to every word we'd said.
—Don't mind that barman, he snorted as I sat down, sure the poor auld fool is fucking doting. He's not from the mountain at
all, in fact. He's not one of us. Fuck him and ride his wife, Redmond. Ha ha. Cheers!
Slainte mhatth, a
mhic og an chnoic! Failte abhaile.
To your good health, young son of the mountain. Welcome home.
We remained in the pub until well after closing time and then he invited me up to his house - if that's what you'd call it.
It took us nearly half an hour to get there, winding our way up a rugged hilly track, pushing our way through a plantation
of firs, through tangled copsewood and green depths of fern. Eventually arriving at a tumbledown shack, evidently constructed
from any materials that happened to be at hand. Random tufts of grass sprouted wildly from its roof.
When we got inside, he lit a candle and pressed it down into the middle of the table. A silhouette began forming ever so slowly
on the wall. He chucked the cork from the whiskey with his teeth, throwing me this odd look as he spat it away, locating,
at length, two filthy mugs.
—So you're Daddy Hatch's son. Well, isn't that a good one! he said, lighting up a 'stogie', planking himself down in the creaking
—He was a great man for the cards, your father. Him and Florian, that brother of his. Like a lot of men from about the valley,
it was hard to tell the pair of them apart. It be's hard for strangers trying to do that - tell us menfolk one from the other,
with our great big beards and red curly heads. Some says that we does it on purpose, take refuge behind our close-knit tribe
so nobody can ever get blamed - for the wicked things we get up to sometimes. Like your father, for example, God bless us
but he gave that poor mother of yours an awful life. Matter of fact, I seen him kicking her one night. Hitting her a kick
right up the backside, and Florian there doing nothing, only laughing his head off, on account of she didn't bring him his
drink quick enough. And then, be the hokey, what do you know but she goes and dies and her still a young woman! Not that he
went kind of odd or anything like that. Oh no. We're made of much hardier stuff than that about here. Anyhow it meant he could
devote all his time now entirely to the cards. Isn't that right, Mr Hatch?
He tapped his foot and looked at me, twinkling. I didn't answer him. I was much too taken aback by his forthrightness.
—You'll see a lot of changes, Redmond, he said, it ain't like the old place any more.
I coughed, with a ridiculously incongruous politeness. Partly, I have to admit, to disguise my inadequacy. I had been so long
away, I was at a loss to make any kind of proper response.
—There certainly have been a lot of changes, I agreed, now that we're entering the modern world, I suppose.
He nodded as he continued rocking to and fro. Said nothing for some considerable time. Then he elevated his stocky bulk and
—I want to tell you something and I want you to remember this, Redmond, my friend.
He stared directly at me.
—The mountain doesn't go away. It doesn't go away —you hear?
He stiffened sharply, his brows knitting tensely.
he repeated. I'm talking to you — what's wrong, are you
He flicked the stogie as he continued obsessively:
—Once upon a time, Redmond. There was this woman. The old woman. The old woman, what was she doing? She was sitting in her
cabin. Sitting in her cabin late one night. A simple little homestead the very same as this, doing her knitting and sitting
in the chair. Just rocking away like I'm doing now. Then all of a sudden she heard it. She heard the noise. At first she thought:
It's nothing, I'll think no more about it. But then what happened, she heard it again. She heard it again, Redmond. Then looked
up and saw it standing there. She saw its shadow first, you see, then slowly looked up and saw it standing before her. Standing
right there before her — staring down. Looking at her with these two dead eyes. There was no feeling in them, Redmond. They
were dead, them eyes. You know what they were like? Two black holes. Like two black holes bored right into its skull. It wasn't
a human being, Redmond. It was a
that had come creeping around there that night. Them was hard times, Redmond. That's how it was in these rural places - and
you know it. Them memories, they don't just up and walk away. You reckon them memories just get up and walk?
I wasn't sure what to say. I just shook my head and stared blankly at the floor, swirling the colourless liquor in my mug.
—No, I replied.
—That's right, Redmond, he went on, they don't. They last as long as them fucking pine trees. Till there's frost in hell,
Redmond. Did you hear me singing that verse today?
Before I could respond, his fiddle had appeared as if by magic and the bow was sweeping up and down as he scraped:
How long will we lie here O Lord who can tell?
Till the winter snow whitens the high hills of hell.
Till the winter snow whitens the high hills of hell!
He flung the instrument away and spat disdainfully:
—That's right. That's how long. That's how long - and don't you forget it! Don't you forget it, Redmond Hatch!
A crooked branch tapped softly against the window. The tobacco smoke wafted desultorily in the silence, floating past the
black glass pane. We sat there surrounded by swarming shadows, which seemed to lunge forward before retreating once more,
as if in the throes of some nether-worldly game.
He said that he'd tell me anything I wanted to know. There was nothing he didn't know about the valley, he said.
—Ned's the boy who knows his history, he insisted, for he's been here longer than any of the bastards. Ever since Old God's
time, he laughed. I went to school with your father and your Uncle Florian. Florian thought he was the toughest customer going.
He was in a knife fight once. That's where he got the scar on his cheek. And do you know who it was that gave it to him? Do
you know who it was who gave him that scar, Red?
He turned his finger into his chest.
—Muggins, he snorted, swelling with mirth.
He used many phrases familiar to me from my childhood.
—Fucking muggins, he laughed again, before rising from the chair and looming over me.
—I made this myself, he told me, liberally refilling our mugs with a flourish, genuine 'clear' from Slievenageeha Mountain.
That's what me and your daddy used to call it. Your father, by cripes, I never seen a man hardier. He'd have supped that clear
till it streamed out his ears. Here - help yourself to another drop there, Redmond! By the time we've got a good drunk on
us there'll be more crack in this valley than the night I pissed on the electric fence!
I did as he said. And, boy, was Ned right. That old clear, it went slipping down a treat. As he observed whilst weaving his
way back from the dresser:
—It tasted so nice that it tasted like more! It tasted like more, Redmond!
So much more, in fact, that I didn't manage to make it home at all. All I remember is standing there with him outside the
cabin, as we gazed far down into the valley below where the skeletal girders of the new shopping mall were starkly outlined
against the spreading night sky. He told me about the proposed motorway.
—They're even talking about a casino, he said, The Gold Club they're gonna call it. I'm thinking they're getting above their
raising, my friend. Anyhow, it'll never happen.
and slapped me resoundingly across the back.
I staggered blearily, but contentedly, back down the winding track, calling Catherine from the phone box in the town and stammering
out some laughable excuse. I realised afterwards, of course, that I needn't have bothered my head being worried. There was
absolutely no need to be making up excuses. Not in those days. For Catherine and me, we had been getting on like a house on
fire. You could tell by the sound of her voice that she wasn't perturbed in the least. Just so long as I was enjoying myself,
she said. That was all she cared about.
—I'm glad you went, I heard her say, I've always felt it's something you needed to do, go back to Slievenageeha, your old
—Thanks, sugar lips, I said, blowing a kiss down the phone.
'Sugar lips' was one of our private and intimate exchanges. I know it sounds corny but we kind of loved it.
When I got back to the house, Ned was standing with his fiddle at the ready.
—'The Pride of Erin'! he cried out and began vigorously fingering a soaring jig, bellowing with gusto: 'Round the flure and
shift the dresser!'
—More clear? I asked him, grinning like a half-idiot, with a down-home casualness, entirely unconvincing.
I was still pretty unsteady as I stood beside him with the bottle.
—May the giving hand never falter - a gentleman and a scholar is what you are, Redmond! A son of your father's — a bucking
son of your father's!
When I looked again the moon had disappeared, faded into a shining silver sun.
After that, I began to visit the valley regularly. I'd be so eager to get out of the city on Fridays, looking forward to more
of Ned's stories about life in the valley and the days of long ago. There seemed to be no end to his tales, each one wilder
than the next. There were stories about card playing, drink-binging and women, cattle raids and horse racing and ceilidhs
that had gone on for weeks. You definitely, at times, did get the impression that he was making them up as he went along.