It is when the wet west wind blows keening through the thickets that I fancy I can hear him. The wild sound of his reed pipe seems to ride the soft mist of moisture bearing the scent of the sea. I tell myself that he is long gone and. together with the other half-dreams of my fading memory’, he belongs to the world of myth and legend. Nevertheless, of all my ghosts, he is the dearest and the one that holds me here, alone and lonely.
It was not always so. The old house, now crumbling in decay, was alive then in the days of my youth. Its fifty rooms rang with sound of voices — and laughter; we were a happy company. My father, a great jovial man, would like as not be leading his guests whooping and cheering, in the Hunt, the colourful crowd streaming behind him as they galloped pell mell across the moor. My mother, meanwhile, would be quietly directing the smooth running of tire house; a murmured command or a minute gesture with the folded fan she carried would suffice. The servants leapt to her bidding, and the guests were assured of stirrup cups, warm baths to ease their aches, and victuals enough to restore their expended energy. We, the children, delighted in the frequent house parties that were frittering away our patrimony; but it was a happy time and my memory falsely assures me that the sky was always blue and the sun shining.
The legend of the Piper was strong in those days. He was one of the attractions that drew people to Ballymoray Castle; that and the lavish hospitality. We claimed him as the family ghost, although it was, perhaps, presumptuous of us; he was never known to have entered the house. Still, he did have an affinity with the family. He was reputed to be Donal O’Donnell the famous piper of Finn M’Cool himself and it is said that my ancestor won him in a wager. From that time on he was doomed, on the solemn oath of Finn himself to serve the family whilst yet there was a first son living. He seemed to take this decree lightly because the tunes he played upon the wind were usually merry ones. Only in times of danger and dire trouble did the music darken and proclaim impending doom.
And those times came. Our family is an old one, but we, the young, paid little heed to its sunset years. Week-long parties caroused the nights away. Good whiskey washed down good food. The horses thundered over the heath, their riders deaf to the tune on the wind. I sometimes felt that I was the only one to hear file piper. My mother, perhaps, being of file blood (she was first cousin to my father) also heard him, but she didn’t confide in me. After the death of my father in a riding accident, she seemed to fade, her silences turning inward. My boisterous siblings drowned out file warnings of the piper, and the headlong rush to ruin continued unchecked.
I was always the runt of the litter, the strange one. With my stammer and my bookish ways, I kept to the background, while my five brothers and sisters mirrored my boisterous extrovert father. They galloped the moors in the hunt, but I was to be found in the library, my nose in a book. I read ail there was to read about Donal file Piper, but that was precious little. I tried to make my own pipe with a reed from the marsh, but it was a failure. I settled for a simple tin whistle that I bought at a fair. Before long I could play a tune, and often I would sneak off to my secret island in file bog and allowed file west wind to carry my music on its wings. I consoled myself with the thought that, despite everything, I was indeed the firstborn, and it was to my service that Donal was sworn. I called to him.
And he answered, or so I believe. I can only speak of how it seemed to me. If it wasn’t Donal, who else would have sent her? The Marsh Maiden.
I had been conscious of being watched for some time. Have you ever felt that yourself? That strange itch in the middle of the back, that feeling of unseen eyes. As I tell you of this I am back there; the tall reeds, the tussocks of grass. The buzz of insects a background to the occasional ripple of water. The rich sweet smell of the marsh the pungent precursor to the peat fire. The bright green of water weeds amongst the browning reeds. All combine into a vivid sense picture of some eternal Now. But still I feel watched. I raise the tin whistle to my lips.
I played a little lilting reel, a merry tune designed to twitch the feet into a dance; a haunting, taunting melody to lure the unseen watcher. And she came. Hesitantly at first, and then bolder, the plashing footsteps sounded. Her kirtle hitched up to save it from the brownish water lapping her brown knees, she waded towards my island. Her hair was red and her eyes were green, and a galaxy of freckles banded her brow. She spoke.
“And who have we here? Is it tire O’Donnel himself?” Her nose wrinkled. “Faith, and I’d have imagined you a bigger man. You have not the look of one of us, the bog folk. Who are you then, to be playing your wild music here?I Her bold stare unnerved me. “Well, speak up for yourself!”
I lowered my whistle. “I am p, Patrick Fitz-Patrick, s, son of Lord Fitz-Patrick,”. I stuttered “And who are you?”
She performed a derisive curtsy. “Meg O’Connell at your service, Son of a Lord.
And what brings you to the bog?
“It is my place.” I said simply. “Whenever I have troubles I come here. And I play to Donal O’Donnell” I made a gesture of resignation “I feel at home here. Do you know the O’Donnell?”
“Play me another tune.” she said inconsequentially, “Play me a merry jig.”
I played my heart out. I played all the merry jigs, all the reels I knew, and then, as though compelled, the laments. It was then, for the first time, that I really felt Donal’s presence. We seemed to play in unison, file wild sound of his reed pipe strengthening the thinner notes of my penny whistle. The girl stared at me agape. Then tears filled her eyes and she sank to the ground. She bowed her head and lifted her pinafore with both hands to cover her face. I found myself speaking to her, my stammer gone and my words curiously old fashioned. A sudden realisation, I was speaking the Gaelic.
As children, we had had the usual perfunctory lessons in the old language, but despite my efforts, and my sympathy for the tongue, I had never distinguished myself. In my parent’s circle it was considered rather demeaning to acknowledge our heritage. Sad to say, the old Irish aristocracy had a tendency to ape the Anglo-Irish in its disdain for the language of our tenants. But I was speaking it now, and with a fluency I didn’t know I possessed.
The effect on file girl was dramatic. Switching to the old language, she spoke to me in a respectful tone. “Forgive me sir.” she said, “for any disrespect. I could well believe you to be the O’Donnell himself. Never have I heard the old music played so.” she wiped her eyes with the back of her wrist, “You almost tore the heart rigid out of me.”
“Do you know the old tunes? Perhaps you could teach me.” I said
She looked at me strangely “There’s little I could teach you, I think; but have you
heard this. It was taught me by my grandmother, and she learnt it from hers.” and
she began to sing, timidly at first, and then more strongly. She had a rich clear
I listened enthralled to the haunting melody as it twisted and turned through some minor key, little grace notes spicing the sad song with a sense of mischief. There was a twinkle in her eye as she took liberties with the Air. Effortlessly, she speeded up the tempo and the melancholy ditty was transformed into a carol of joy. I picked up the tune on my whistle and together we made music until laughter forced us to stop.
That was the first meeting of many in the summer of happiness that preceded the darkening of the light. The autumn to come would see the death of my father in the hunt, but happily ignorant of our fate we took pleasure in the moment.
Meg called me Donal and indeed I seemed to become the piper. Superstitious folk have claimed that I was possessed by the ghost but, truth to tell, it was I who possessed him. It was my music now that was heard on the wind. It was I who, with swashbuckling cries, chased a giggling Meg through the secret places of the marsh until she breathlessly surrendered. We learned of love and mutual tenderness, so engrossed in each other that the outside world faded into an unreal triviality, whose insignificant demands we dismissed as a nuisance that interrupted our times together. Unalloyed happiness is a dangerous affair indeed.
On the death of my father, everything changed. As the heir, I had duties for which I was unready. My mother’s grief deteriorated into a deep melancholia. Her quiet efficiency deserted her, and the servants, though well meaning, lacked her guidance and grew slack. Fiona, the eldest of my three sisters, was far too impatient to cope with die running of the big house. After a few blazing confrontations, which resulted in the cook threatening to give notice, she gave up and left us all to our own devices, joining the younger ones in their escape to the world of horse and heath. Perhaps I am unkind; I am sure they were grieving in their own way. But this was of little help to me as I grappled with the endless meetings of lawyers and creditors. I was ill prepared for my responsibilities. No longer did I play my tunes in the marsh. And Meg waited in vain. With the whole world watching, it was impossible to get away.
It was in the night that he came. I had flung myself on my bed, exhausted and defeated. The battle was lost — the house lost — the estate, lost. The bailiffs would move in on the morrow and I was beaten. My mother was lost in a world of her own. It was then that I heard him. The music seemed to come from afar, but it was also in my head. It was my calling tune, the melody I had used in the summer, to lure Meg to my little island.
As if under a spell, I dressed warmly and drew on my boots. I put on the heavy tweed overcoat, wrapped a woollen scarf about my face and donned the hat with the ear muffs; it was a bitter night outside. Later, my gloved hands checked the capacious pockets. Bread and cheese, hastily pilfered from the kitchen shared the space with my whiskey flask; my precious musical pipe was tucked in an inner pocket. Taking my blackthorn from the rack in the hall, I slipped quietly from the sleeping house.
The music, muted during the preparations, increased in volume and grew wilder and more urgent as it summoned me to the bog. I was not reluctant. I was as eager to answer the summons as that which called me. A combination of eagerness and dread hurried my footsteps, my heavy brogues crushing the hoar frost under foot with a sound like fine gravel. The moon had risen and cast a chill radiance on the silver scene. I hurried on.
The landmarks were still recognisable despite their winter garb, and I made good time as I sought out our old rendezvous. I drew’ nearer and could now discern lights and the flicker of a fire. The sound of voices raised, of bursts of laughter, tantalised me. There was the sound of music too, and somehow the music in my head changed its tempo and message to blend with the sounds coming across the marsh. As the music of the real world grew in volume, the magic music of Donal died down, its task achieved.
Cautious now, I neared the group carefully. There were some twenty-five to thirty people assembled on my little island. In the middle was a small fire fed by dry reeds that crackled and flared, sending a scattering of burning motes into the air. There, on the other side, was Meg, my Meg, hand in hand with a burly tinker lad. She was wearing a beribboned dress and wore a crown of winter berries in her hair. The dress was not a good fit. The material was stretched by the fullness of her waist. I had no doubt in my mind that the child would be mine.
Coward that I was, I remained concealed by the reeds. I parted them to see Meg, her face resigned but determined, leap the tinker’s fire. According to the old custom, she was now bound to him by vows as strong as any devised by the Church. A ragged cheer rose up from the Bog-folk and the Tinkers’ contingent. Jars of poteen were produced and the company drank the health of the bridal pair.
I withdrew to a vantage point across the channel, my most secret place. I could still see the fire and hear the merrymaking. Shucking off my gloves. I blew on my cold fingers. After a long swig from my flask. I drew my reed pipe from my pocket and. very softly at first, I began to play. This was the wedding of the girl I loved. She should have music from me if nothing else! I played the traditional tunes for the occasion. My music grew louder and louder, and I heard cries of surprise coming over the water. But, loud as my music grew’, it was not as loud as the music that returned to fill my head. The music of Donal engulfed me, drowning my senses, swamping my consciousness, and I fell senseless to the ground.
What happened then is open to conjecture. According to tire official version, my absence from the house was discovered on the following morning. A search was instituted, and I was found unconscious and suffering from extreme hypothermia. My condition was complicated by a form of catatonia. Distinguished mental specialists disputed my case for the next several years. Learned papers were written; reputations made and lost. But I too was lost, in a world beyond their imagining.
From my point of view, things were very different. I was living in a fairy land whose time scale was vastly different from that of the everyday world. There, minutes are years. The story of Rip van Winkle did not exaggerate when it spoke of twenty years passing in a single night. To me, I was only absent for a day. When I awoke, I was many years older, and the world as I had known it was long gone
And what was that magic world? I can speak only of colours and light; of music and dance; and of the warm acceptance of beings whose features my earthbound mind can no longer conjure up. Nebulous as they now are, they still evoke a feeling of veneration. I got to know Donal too, but he left me in their care when his duty called him. He was sworn to serve the first born of my line and it seems that Meg bore me a bonny son.
Now I live in the ruins of the old house. There was a fire, it seems, and the insurance money paid off the larger debts. The old stable escaped destruction and is cosy enough. Superstitious bog folk leave offerings of food “For the O’Donnell!”
I have a feeling that tins charity is organised by a certain Meg McCafferty, the widow of a tinker but bog-born. Dear Meg. I find it hard to reconcile the rather severe old woman with (lie fresh faced girl of my memories, but then. I am hardly the love struck young lad who played her music.
I still play my pipe as I wander the old paths through the marshes. Sometimes I fancy that I hear Donal, but he, if he exists, will have emigrated to America with Meg’s eldest son. I now, am the Whistler in the Wind.
© H.St.V.Beechey 1994