Many people were standing beside the stones in the early dawn, on that first day of August, in a year not so long ago. They came bringing garlands of flowers to place on the high altar for the Lughnasa festival. A whispering, borne on the winds, had brought them to the ancient site, resting as it did under the long shadow of Knockadoon Hill.
Ériu stood in the centre of the stone circle, her blazing hair luminescent in the sunrise. Her cloak of marbled green billowed around her, agitating the grasses and the tiny flowers at her feet. No-one had witnessed her arrival.
The people walked among the stones or sat on the bank of the henge murmuring in low voices, respecting the reverence of the place. As Ériu appeared, their attention was caught by the unexpected vision of her, and a strange vibration disturbed the early autumn air. Silence descended on the crowd as they noticed the majestic entrance stones lying broken at their feet and they felt the restless waters of Lough Gur, to the East.
They watched as the enigmatic woman walked nearer to the stones. It was as if she was searching for something, listening for sounds no one else could discern. Back and forth she went around the circle, laying her hands on the surface of the largest stone, the one known as Rannach Crom Dubh, resting her forehead against the coolness of it. And time disconnected. The skeletons of ancient bulls, once sacrificed to appease the gods of the harvest, rattled under her feet. When she returned to the centre and the sun continued to rise once again, she threw her arms wide in salutation to them all.
‘I have listened to the voices of these stones. They have whispered to me of sorrows past. And they give hope for times to come.’
She turned to an old man who was in despair, seeking to find peace with the ghosts of his family’s story. He wore the scars of his past like medals on his chest.
Anger rose from him, like a lesion. Ériu witnessed the ancient mounds of a cillín in his eyes. The memories of his forefathers festered inside of him as they buried their unbaptised babies in fields by the roadsides; the ones born dead to their wives, their sisters, their mothers. They lay side by side with people who had died by their own hands and with the beggars and the criminals and the ship-wrecked of the seas, washed up, on the shores of Ireland. The babies’ bones lay cold in the ground, together with all the other innocents, who had been refused sanction of a consecrated grave by the pejorative Church of the land.
She saw too his memory of his mother. Cold in her own grave from her strangled outrage. Her first-born escaped the cillín, then suffered worse, as his little body was pitched in putrid abandonment into the wretched sewage tank in Tuam. Ériu read the fury and the grief, how dared they, engraved on the man’s heart.
She held him to her like a child.
‘All the babies that were treated so, their souls are in peace. The burden of their past is lifted from you. These stones will hold their story. You are free now, to make new memories, in an Ireland that is learning how to heal.’
And all those who were gathered heard a song coming from the megaliths.
We record that time gone past
when storm clouds blew and ripped aghast.
Songs amid flowers yellow,
standing guard, on the unmarked snow.
Memories, of kisses few,
placed with love, lips so cold and blue.
Days when time itself stood still,
and babies lay ‘neath daffodils.
The man’s timeworn medals seeped from his eyes like a soothing rain and peace overcame him as he bowed down in gratitude.
A young mother stood with two small children hanging from her skirts. Her skin was dark, and her eyes spoke of suffering and foreign lands.
‘What is your name?’ Ériu asked. ‘Tell me of the sadness you carry.’
‘Saoirse. It’s Irish, for liberty and freedom. My father named me, as he believed Ireland to be a country of the free. But I don’t feel free. And I have no liberty.’
As she spoke, the truth of her story poured from her in her grief.
‘My grandfather’s father left Ireland to work on the railways in Syria more than a hundred years ago. When he was in Damascus, he met and fell in love with my great grandmother. He was a good man, so they say. They had a prosperous life there, surrounded by family and love.
Now I have returned as a refugee from my war-torn country. My Irish blood not thick enough to give me standing here. I am lost in a system that does not want me. My husband died on the journey, and I left my memories in the sea, of who I thought myself to be. I wonder every day whether this country, the one that I now call home, will ever let me live with the freedom of my name.’
Ériu cried at Saoirse’s words, her tears making patterns in the dust. In the salty water, three leaves took shape, rising up and finding form, genuflecting to the sun.
‘Such tiny leaves to bear the burden of such mystic, sacred power; revered by all those of Druid, Christian and Islamic beliefs. From ancient scripts to present-day, the humble shamrock holds the power of three, tight within its grasp. The flower of heaven, triple goddess, holy trinity. Come, it is my gift to you.’
Saoirse raised her head and looked into the eyes of Ériu, as the older woman put the tiny plant into her outstretched hand. She saw then, how she was part of Ireland’s history. How she was still part of her Syrian history too. Her children of both identities, their cultures indelibly combined. It may not be easy, and she and her children might walk a fragile path. But she could teach them how not to get lost, how not to fragment, like she had done in the hybridity of both paths. Teach them the joy and the diversity to be found in both, so they could experience the world through two perspectives. She stroked their heads with tenderness and love, seeing at last the possibilities of a richer future for them. The people saw it too and they held out their arms, inviting the little family to sit with them. It was a benediction to them all.
As the day was drawing in, an old woman with a roughened countenance stepped forward. She had walked across the fields to reach the place with just a gnarled blackthorn stick to aid her. Around her shoulders she draped a Galway shawl, the one her mother had given her sixty years before, on her wedding day. Her shoes were flat and worn and her stockings full of holes. She had lost her husband back thirty years or more.
‘Welcome Mother,’ Ériu said, and she called for some rugs so that the old travelling woman could find comfort on the ground. She sat beside her and took her hands in hers. They had known many years of toil, the skin like leather and the nails toughened by hard work. She lifted the woman’s chin so that she could contemplate the weather-aged face and saw shadows in her eyes, ones that held secrets and sorrows in their depths.
‘You have seen much hardship, Mother,’ and her voice was soft with concern. ‘Who takes care of you, now you are so late in age?’
‘I take care of myself,’ said the old woman. Her voice jagged from want of use. ‘For all I’ve ever loved has left these shores. I birthed ten children, but it was only seven I raised. Three died along the way. Two boys left for the West Coast of America when they was young and I have not seen them since. I had four girls and I saw all of them wed from my own door, down over in the gleann. But they live all around the world now, scattered, chasing dreams, that make no sense to me. They send me letters, but I can’t read their words.’
She took a breath, holding herself steady, for the hardest part of all.
‘My smallest son, he used to read them letters to me. I thought he’d be the one to stay. But he caught a notion right inside his head. He left the bed still warm, the tay not even wet. They say he’s in New York city, living with yer man. He was a good boy and surprised me most of all.’
The woman’s eyes misted over as she disappeared further into her reverie. She whistled her words through her blackened teeth with a rage building, too long held.
‘I cooked and cleaned for all of them and put them all through school. Dug the earth and mended clothes and dabbed their cuts and patched their knees and rubbed potions on their chests when they had colds. And for all of Ireland, and for all I’ve loved, they’ve gone now, and I doubt any will ever come home to me.’
A keening began, high over the people, springing from the broken stones at the entrance to the circle. It was a cry for Mother Ireland. In memory of too many gone, too few come back.
I look for you in clouds up in the sky,
and in the darkest waters of the sea.
The emptiness you leave puts up a cry,
for you have gone, and never more will be.
I thought I heard you in the blackbird’s call,
and in the bitter wind that raged the night,
but those long shadows made my heart stop small,
with nothing left of you, but bluest light.
If there are ghosts here in this world of sand,
the transience of neither here nor there,
then I should go to you across the strand
and visit you, to break my bleak despair.
But I will wait till death shall conquer me:
To see your sweetest smile, will set me free.
It was the saddest story of them all. Ériu held the defeated woman in her arms for a long time and lay her down to sleep on the blankets on that sacred ground.
Autumnal winds exhaled from the direction of the lough and the sun’s rays waned as it began its decent to the West. The people gathered close into the circle of the stones, talking amongst themselves, whispering words of comfort, healing, and love. Their stories softened, just by the telling of them and were held in the venerability of the stones.
‘Go back to your homes now. You are all children of Ireland. Tell your loved ones what has happened here today. Say you have left the old stories in the stones, guarded by the trees in this hallowed place, for healing and remembrance.’
The light was fading as they heard the churring of a nightjar and sensed a vibration humming from the stones. An evening mist was falling, and the people looked around for Ériu, but she was no-where among them. She had slipped back into the other worlds. They saw the entrance stones, no longer lying broken on the ground but standing tall and proud in their rightful place, under the watchful eye of Rannach Crom Dubh. There had been much restoration in the hearts of the people, on that day of Lughnasa, and no sacrificial bull had lost his life for their healing. To the displaced and to the angry, the truest blessing came. For those without a sense of place, home beckoned. Onto the mothers of Ireland, descended an overwhelming sense of peace.
Pippa Slattery has just completed the M.A. for Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. She has recently been shortlisted by New Irish Writing and was long listed for the 2021 Fish Short Story Award. She has short stories published in The Galway Review, The Blue Nib, The Ogham Stone and The Tiny Seed Journal. Her flash fiction piece Rag Doll was shortlisted for the Kanturk International Arts Festival. She has short stories and poems in the anthologies Vessel of Voices and Opening Doors.Pippa lives overlooking Lough Derg, in Co Tipperary and is currently working on her first novel.