Dark Clouds

I suppose I take after my mother in being forthright in giving my opinion and in not suffering fools lightly. Unfortunately the world is full of fools and, unfortunately, there have been times when I have kept my thought and opinions to myself, but later regretted doing so. On those occasions, for the most part, I was persuaded to remain quiet by someone in the false belief that silence was the best way to maintain peace. Let me give you an example.
One evening several friends had joined my wife and I in enjoying a meal at a local restaurant. It was a busy Saturday night and the small restaurant was packed with diners. At a table beside ours sat two couples who became engaged in quite a loud exchange of views. They were probably the “worst for wear” after a night’s drinking at a nearby hostelry, but this was no excuse for the language being used or the views being expressed. Although I had my back to them it was impossible for me to avoid hearing what they said and the resentment it caused me.
I went to the doctors this morning,” one of the men began and then continued. “The damn place was full of foreigners. There were “Pakis”, “Poles”. Portuguese, “Chinks”, Blacks and God only knows who else. It’s not any wonder that it takes so long for us to get an appointment when all these foreigners come here to get free medical treatment!”
I agree”, replied the other man. “They come here take our jobs and now take our National Health Service that we pay for. Every week in the papers you see how many of them are involved in various crimes in the area. It’s a bloody disgrace! Just what the hell is the government doing?”
Meanwhile, the anger within me grew. My wife, always very perceptive, knew what was happening. The conversation at the next table had completely distracted me from our own company and the more warming discussion they were having about their families. Touching my hand softly with hers, she gently whispered advice to me. “Just ignore them. They are not worth you troubling yourself.”
There are several things that I dislike and loud, disagreeable people are high on the list. Racism and Sectarianism are at about the same level. In a nation where racism was virtually unknown it as grown quickly in the last decade or so since the European Union opened its borders to free travel between citizens of the member states. Twenty years ago, in Northern Ireland, one would have hardly ever seen a black person. In my own hometown the only persons of colour one would have seen at that time were the family that ran the local Chinese restaurant. Moreover, outside of these Chinese people, whenever one would hear someone speaking in a foreign language they could be almost sure that they were tourists. All of this has now changed and the country has become more cosmopolitan with people from every land and culture now residing here among us. But, not all of my countrymen appreciate the presence of these “outsiders”. With the rise of racism and right-wing extremism crimes of hate have become ever more frequent in our society, much to our shame.
In normal circumstances I would have assumed that racism, like sectarianism, was a past-time of those with a very low I.Q. I have, however, discovered that this is not necessarily and accurate assumption on my part. Yet I sat at my table with my wife and friends, smiling and being sociable while those at the table behind me continued their loud and vile discussion. Still I “bit my tongue” and kept my own counsel.  “If I don’t know them why should I interfere?” I asked myself.  Some might say that I should not have been listening to their conversation, and yet how could I avoid listening when they spoke so loudly. It was as if they wanted to share their vile opinions with the whole restaurant. Even as I sat there my conscience seemed to recall the words, “Evil men prosper when good men do and say nothing.”
Finally we finished our meal and we prepared to leave the restaurant after paying our bill. As I stood up from my chair I decided to glance at those sitting behind us. To say that I was shocked by what I saw there is actually putting it quite mildly. The two “gentlemen” sitting at that table were both known to me. They were both teachers at a local school and one of them was a lay minister in the Church. The red-headed man spoke to me, saying – “Hi Jim! How are things?”
I gave him a look of disgust and then replied to his question – “Do I know you? I do not normally recognise people who speak as you do!” My retort appeared to have the desired affect, and I said it just loud enough so that all the diners would hear me. My wife and I immediately walked away with our friends to pay our bill and leave. Since that time I have always found myself warmly received by the staff at “The Golden Dragon” Chinese restaurant.
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Doubting Thomas

holy-wellMother’s and grandmothers tell us that it is a goodthing not to be scared of theach fairy folk, or ‘Goodpeople’. If you show no feare toward them then the fairy folk will have less power over you an your actions. It is equally important, however, that you should not show too much familiarity with them, or to totally disregard and disbelieve in their existence. There is nothing more foolish that a man or woman can do than profess their disbelief in the existence of the fairy folk.
Yet another good, traditional piece of advice handed down from the older generation is that: “Good manners is not a burden, and civility toward others costs nothing.” Nevertheless, every day of our lives we encounter people who carelessly disregard doing the civil sort of thing. They do so thinking that they can never harm or hurt themselves,  or anyone else. In fact, these same people will actually go out of their way to cause some sort of mischief that cannot ever do them any good. There is an old Irish adage: “Long runs the fox,” which is another way of saying that such people will, sooner or later, learn their lesson and come to know better. Let us consider the story of Tommy Hall, for example, who was a fine, well built boy from Derryard and had a reputation for making mischief.
Tommy Hall was a carefree young man, who would wander from place to place, doing whatever pleased him because he feared nothing and no person. Unlike many of his peers he preferred to travel by night  because darkness hid his mischievous ways much better. Stories of ghouls, ghosts, or fairies could not deter him from entering cemeteries, fairy glens, or other places where spirits might lie in wait. Tommy simply did not believe in such things and laughed in the faces of those who did. So deep was his dislike of such superstitions that he never made the sign of the Cross, or wished a person good luck in any  new endeavour that they might undertake.
One night Tommy found himself walking home along ‘Kiln Lane’, on the outskirts of Derryard. As he passed the ‘Holy Well’ at the foot of ‘Fern Hill’ he met another man who was walking in the same direction as he was. The stranger was a well dressed man in his forties and walked at a good pace. The night was very dark and the two men walked side by side without much conversation passing between them. In fact, both men barely greeted each other when they first met upon this road. Then Tommy asked the stranger just how far he was going.
 “I am not going very far, your way,” said the man who, from his appearance, looked like a farmer. “I am just going to walk to the top of this hill,” he added.
“Why would you want to go there?” asked Tommy, “especially at this time of night.”
“Simple,” replied the man. “I am going to see the good people.”
“The fairies?” Laughed Tommy.
“Be quiet! Keep your voice down as you might just be a sorry man,” said the farmer as he turned off the main road on to a narrow pathway that led up the side of the mountain. “Good Night, young man, and a safe journey home,” he said.
As he watched the stranger start along the narrow path his suspicious mind began to work overtime. “That man is up to good,” Tommy told himself. “Fairies! Absolute nonsense! I am certain that whatever he is up to, it has nothing to do with fairies, Good People. There is something more than superstitious nonsense taking him up that mountain at this time of night.”
Tommy looked again at the stranger as he got further along the path. “Fairies, damn it!” He swore to himself. “What would make a respectable looking man like him be wanting with fairies? I know there are some who believe in such nonsense, but there are many who do not. But, whether they are real or not, they hold no fear over me, no matter how many there might be.”
As all these thoughts rushed through his mind he kept his eyes steadfastly upon the hillside, behind which a full moon was rising brightly. In that bright silver light Tommy could see the figure of a man walking briskly up the path. It was, undoubtedly, the figure of the farmer with whom he had not long parted company. Tommy now resolved to follow the stranger up the hillside. His curiosity and his sense of determination had now reached a peak and he decided to move. Muttering loudly to himself he declared, “I am going to follow you and see exactly what you are up to!”
Although the full moon gave a bright light, it was a difficult task to follow the path that the stranger had taken. Nonetheless, Tommy persevered in his task and was assisted when he occasionally looked up the hillside and saw the man still ahead of him. The time passed quickly as he toiled along that rugged and swampy path, finally coming to a grass covered area at the top of a the hill. But, Tommy was greatly puzzled that there was no sign of the stranger and, despite his best efforts, no trace of him could be found. But, as Tommy searched, he discovered an opening in the hill, which resembled the mouth of a pit. It crossed Tommy’s mind that when he was a young boy he had been told about “The Black Hole of Fern Hill.” In those days the story was told that this hole was actually the entrance to a fairy castle, which was supposed to be hidden within the mountain. The older people within the town recalled the story of a surveyor called O’Hara who had spent weeks mapping the area. It was said that he had come across the pit and tried to measure its depth with a line. They could only surmise that he had been dragged into the depths by the fairies, because he was never heard of again.
This was only one of a series of mysterious tales concerning “The Black Hole” but Tommy disregarded them. “They are just old wives’ tales,” said Tommy to himself and decided since he had taken the trouble to climb the hill he would first knock the castle door and see if the fairies were at home. Tommy took up a large stone from the ground and, using all his strength, he threw the stone down the ‘Black Hole’. He leaned his head over the hole to hear the progress of the stone down the ‘Black Hole’ as it fell down the pit. It bounded and tumbled from one rock to another with a great noise that echoed through the pit. Tommy leaned over the pit a little more to hear it reach the bottom. But, he heard nothing, for the stone was returning up the pit with as much force as Tommy had thrown it down there. Without any signal or warning this large stone hit Tommy a full blow in the face that caused him to be knocked head over heels. Down that hillside Tommy tumbled from one crag to another, much faster than he had climbed the hillside.
It was not until the following morning that Tommy Hall regained consciousness and gingerly made his way home from the foot of ‘Fern Hill’. When he arrived home and looked in the mirror he saw the damage sustained because of his fall. He had broken the bridge of his nose, his head was covered with bruises and cuts, both eyes were swollen shut and as black as a Panda’s eyes. But, Tommy Hall had learned his lesson and never again wandered near possible haunts of fairies after dark. On those rare occasions, after this incident, when he found himself alone in a dark place he would hurriedly and directly make his way home. He never asked questions of strangers and never again sought out the ‘Good People’.

The Piper’s Tale

eamonn-ceannt-uillean-pipesMany long years ago there was a man living in the village of Derrytrask, whom many considered to be a bit of an ‘eejit’. To prove their view of the man, they would point to the way he was demonstratively fond of music but had never been able to learn to play more than one tune on his pipes, namely the “Black Rogue”. In the various bars and at the local festivities he used to make a few shillings from those who would make fun of him as he played his tune. The money helped both the man and his widow mother to pay the rent on their small holding and occasionally buy some luxuries, like snuff and a bottle of stout or two.

One night the Piper was walking home from a local house, where there had been a bit of a dance, and he was somewhat the worse for wear because of the whisky he had imbibed. As he walked along the the narrow cart track road he came up to a little bridge that was close by his mother’s house. He stopped for a moment, breathed into his pipe bag and squeezed it to begin playing that one tune that he knew so well, the “Black Rogue.” From behind him, in the darkness a ‘Puca’ came upon him, grabbed him and flung him on his own back. The ‘Puca’ is a spirit creature which takes on many forms and shapes. On this particular spirit creature there were long horns and the Piper had to take a good, strong grip of these. As he grabbed the horns he cried out at the creature, saying, “Damn you to hell, you evil creature. Let me go on my way home for I have a silver sixpence in my pocket for my mother, and she wants some snuff.

Never you mind your mother, or even what she wants” said the ‘Puca’, “but concentrate your mind on keeping your hold on those horns. If you should fall from my back you will surely break your neck and those pipes you carry.” Then, more softly, the ‘Puca’ asked him, “Why don’t you play for me the ‘The Blackbird?‘”

But, I don’t know that tune,” replied the Piper.

Do not concern yourself about whether you do or you don’t know the tune,” Puca snapped at him. “Just you begin playing those pipes and I’ll make certain you know the tune.”

Frightened, the Piper put wind in his bag and he began to play such fine music that it made him wonder how such a thing could happen. “Upon my word but you’re a fine music teacher,” says the Piper, adding, “now tell me where you are taking me with such speed.”

Tonight there is a great feast being held in the house of the Banshee, which stands on the top of Croagh Patrick,” said the Puca. “I am now bringing you to the feast where you will play your music and have no doubt that you will be well rewarded for your trouble.

Sure isn’t that a great thing, for you’ll save me a journey, ” replied the Piper, “Father Tom has told me that I should make the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick as a penance, because it was me who stole the big white goose from the Martins’ farmhouse yard.

The Puca paid him no mind, put down his head and rushed the piper across hills, bogs and rough places, until he finally brought him to the top of Croagh Patrick. As they came to a halt the Puca struck three blows on the ground with his foot, and a great door opened before them. Unhesitatingly they both passed through the door and found themselves in a large, finely adorned room.

In the middle of the room the Piper saw a large golden table, around which sat hundreds of old women, and all were staring toward him. One of the old women stood up from her seat and greeted him, “A hundred thousand welcomes to you, Puca of November. Who is this mortal being that you have brought with you?

This mortal is the very best Piper in all of Ireland,” said the Puca, proudly.

One of the old women now struck a blow on the ground, which caused a door to open in the side wall of the fine room. Then, very much to the Piper’s surprise he noticed, coming out of the door, the big white goose, which he had stolen from Martins’ farmyard. “It’s a miracle to me,” says the Piper, “myself and my mother ate every last morsel of that goose, except for one wing. It was that one wing that I gave to old Red Mary, and it was her that told the priest I had stolen the goose..”

The goose now marched over to clean the table before carrying it away. The Puca now turned to the piper and urged him to, “Play your music for the enjoyment of these ladies.” The Piper put air into the bag and began to play. He played so well that all the old women took to the floor and began to dance, dancing so lively until they were too tired to dance any more. It was then that the Puca came forward to demand that they pay the Piper. Without complaint each and every old woman took out a gold piece from their pockets and gave it to him.

By the staff of Patrick,” says the Piper, “sure I’m as rich as the son of any great lord.

Now come with me,” asked the Puca, “and I will bring you back to your home.”

They went out of the room and, just as the Piper was about to mount the back of the Puca, the goose waddled over to him and presented him with a new set of pipes. With the same speed as before the Puca set off and it did not take him long until he brought the Piper back to Derrytrask. They came at last to the little bridge again and the Piper dismounted the Puca, who quietly told him that he should go home. Before the Piper left the Puca told him, “You now have two things that you have never had before. You now have sense and music.

Feeling on top of the world the Piper hurried home, and he knocked loudly at his mother’s door, calling out to her, “Mother, let me in. Your son is as rich as any lord, and I have become the very best Piper in the whole of Ireland.

You’re drunk again,” replied his mother in disgust.

No,Mother, indeed I’m not,” insisted the Piper, “Not a single drop of liquor has passed my lips.

The mother opened the door to him, and he gave her the gold pieces he had received from the old women. “Wait, now,” says he, “until you hear the wonderful music that I can play now.” He quickly buckled on the pipes and began to play, but instead of sweet music there now came a sound as if all the geese and ganders in Ireland were screeching together. The terrible noise that he made wakened all the neighbours, and they were all mocking him. Their mocking continued until the Piper put on his old pipes and, from that moment, he played the most melodious music for them. Now that they had heard his music the Piper told them all the great adventure that he had gone through that night and they listened to his story in disbelief.

The next morning, when Piper’s mother went to look at the gold pieces her son had given her, there was nothing there but the leaves of a plant. Shocked by this the Piper went to see the priest and related to him the adventure he had undertaken. But the priest would not believe a word that he uttered and the Piper decided to play the pipes for him. As he did so the screeching of the ganders and the geese began once again. “Leave my sight, you thief,” the angry priest roared at him. But the Piper would not move an inch until he put the old pipes on him to demonstrate to the priest that his story was indeed true. He buckled on his old pipes, and he began to played the most wonderful and melodious music. Such became his fame that it is said from that day until the day of he died there was never his equal as a Piper in all the west of Ireland.

Trio in the Park

It was a beautiful autumn morning and Maria was determined that she would get out into the park to enjoy the sunshine. She brushed her grey hair before she put her knitting needle, wool and half-finished red sweater into her “Bag-for-Life” shopping bag. Maria was almost ready and only needed to put on her brown jacket, which was hanging in the hall, before she left the house on her short excursion. She was glad that she had put the jacket on because although the sun was bright there was still freshness about the morning air, a remnant of the rain that had fallen over the last two days.
It was an absolute joy just to get out of the house and she was looking forward to sitting on her favourite park bench for an hour or two. In peace and quiet, Maria planned to sit, knit and watch the world go by. There was something therapeutic in knitting and Maria took special pleasure from the fact that the items she produced were donated to those who most needed them. The charity that she donated to was one that brought aid to seriously underfunded orphanages in Romania. Even as she knitted each stitch of this little red sweater she could almost visualise it being worn by some unfortunate child in that far-off country.
It wasn’t far to the bench in the park that Maria preferred to sit on. You could get a good all around view of the park from this bench, which sat in the shade of a large, spreading chestnut tree. At this time of the year the leaves on the tree, like so many other trees in the park, were changing colour; Beautiful autumn colours of brownish red, golden yellow, and orange. As Maria sat down on the bench, and took out her half completed sweater, several of the colourful leaves fluttered down from the branches to the ground.
Earlier that morning Lucy was in her own house alone and in a state of confusion. “This is a miracle,” she told herself. Of course she had hoped and prayed that one day she would become pregnant and hold a child of her own in her arms. But she had become used to the probability that this would not happen and was anxious about how Michael would react to the news. He was due back home at any moment and she knew she would have to “bite-the-bullet” and tell him what she had known for the last two days.
Lucy didn’t know why she hadn’t told Michael that she was pregnant. He wanted children and they had planned a family before their marriage, but that was ten years ago. They had tried and tried without success. The doctor had told them that there was no medical reason why Lucy couldn’t become pregnant but, much to her disappointment, she hadn’t. All talk of family had almost disappeared as had their hopes of having a child. “Would Michael accept the news?” she wondered. “How would he act?” she asked herself.
The front door opened and Michael walked directly into the kitchen, placing two cartons of milk on the table. “It’s a beautiful day outside”, he smiled at Lucy.
“Hopefully it will get better,” she replied.
“You think so?” asked Michael as he began removing his jacket. For the first time since returning home he looked at his wife and noticed the anxiety in her face and the nervous way she biting her lower lip. “What’s wrong?” he questioned and the concern was evident in his voice.
Lucy took a deep breath and told him, “We’re pregnant.”
At first Michael couldn’t quite take in what Lucy was telling him. He was in shock at the news and his mind paralysed with excitement. But, as his senses returned, his eyes opened wide and he cheered, “Hallelujah, I’m going to be a father!” The tears began to flow from his eyes as he held out his arms and took hold of his wife.
Together the happy couple embraced, each crying on the shoulder of the other. The happiness of the moment filled their body with a sort of electricity and they tingled. They laughed as they cried and the tears were those warm tears of joy felt when we receive an unexpected and beautiful surprise. Michael now swung his wife around and around, proclaiming his total love for her and he promised that neither Lucy nor their child would need for anything. The tears began to dry and the excitement subsided just enough to bring the overjoyed couple back to reality. “You know what we have to do now, of course?” Michael asked.
“Tell your Mother”, laughed Lucy, wiping another tear from her eye.
“Come on darling. Get your coat on and we will head over there now to tell her,” he told her.
Michael and Lucy walked through the park together, holding hands. They pass an old woman sitting on a bench. The old woman is knitting a small, red sweater. Michael began to cry – “Mam, your going to be  a granny,” he announced and the old woman looked up from her knitting and smiled.

The Visit

the-visitHe walked up toward the big double door made of pine-wood, one door of which was open to whoever wanted to enter. Joe walked through the open door and stepped into the small, but modern built church and went to the nearby water-font, into which he dipped his fingers. He blessed himself, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” The holy water was cool to the touch and the drop on his forehead rolled down the bridge of Joe’s nose causing him to wipe it away.
All churches, new or old, have a unique smell about them. There is a scent of incense mixed with the aroma of melting beeswax coming from the many votive candles on the candle-stand near the altar, alight with flickering flames that people hope would carry their prayers upward to God in his heaven. Their fragrance mingled with the lavender bouquet that remained from the furniture polish that someone had used with to shine the lines of wooden pews. These caretakers also arranged the many flowers that stood in containers on the altar and at the feet of the many saints whose statues looked down upon the prayerful.
There was no need for lights on this day. The sunshine provided all the illumination that was needed, reflecting the many colours of the stained-glass windows that lined each side of the church. There was crimson red, flaming orange, golden yellow, subtle shades of green, various blues, and Lenten purple. But rather than being a confusion of colour it all added to the feeling of comfort that one had when they entered the building. Joe genuflected, feeling the pain of his arthritic knee that had just begun to flare-up again that morning. He tried to ignore its sharpness and moved into the pew that he and his family used every Sunday. On this occasion he chose not to kneel, afraid of aggravating the inflamed knee further, and he trusted God would understand.
Sitting on the wooden pew Joe rested his hands on his lap and closed his eyes and began to relax. He wanted to empty his mind of all the irrelevancies of the day because this was God’s time. Just as you would visit a friend and talk about what was going on in your life, the joys and the setbacks, Joe was visiting his friend; God. He just wanted some quiet time with his dearest friend and though there were others present, with the same idea, Joe “centred” his mind and was able to ignore them. At last, when he was ready, he began to talk to God and ensured that he would stop every now and then, to listen to what his “friend” had to say.