Copywrite © Gavin Sclanders : 2007
The farmhouse, milking-sheds and barns were gone. In their
place were a simple cottage and a crude shed. Instead of the hosed-clean,
concrete forecourt was a cobbled yard with the shit of years between its
rough stones. Through the open door of the cottage, Hannah could see two men
A woman appeared from behind the shed as the younger of
the men tripped leaving the cottage and fell to his knees. Scrambling up, he
spoke to her, kissed her cheek, and strode off through the thick hawthorn
hedge. He crossed the field through the herd of cows lying in the sun
chewing the cud. He paid no attention to them, passing through them as he
had the hedge, as though they were not there.
A gentle hand touched her shoulder.
"Your auntie Bernadette has the kettle on for a cup of
tea. Do you want one?"
Hannah jerked under the hand.
"Iím sorry lassie. I didnít see you were having a wee
It took a few seconds for Hannah to gather her senses. Her
book lay on her breast, defeated by the warmth of the sun, the droning of
insects and the smell of fresh-cut hay. Higher-Leaving Certificate exams had
finished two weeks previously. Now she was in Carlingford for a holiday. The
peace and pace of Ireland suited her better than the demands of family-life
Her grandparents had opened the Castle Inn fifty years
ago, now passed on to her uncle James. Mack and Ann Sleanagh had moved into
their retirement cottage when James took the pub over. Today Hannah was at
Rathhamilton, the farm of a distant cousin, where the Sleanaghs had their
"Are you all right lassie? I think you were far away just
"Sorry, Gran, what did you say?"
"Do you want a cup of tea?"
"Is there any lemonade?"
"Are you all right?"
"I had the strangest dream. I dreamt that there was a wee
cottage with a thatched roof, there where the barn is. And over there was a
wee shed with lots of trees round it. Two men were fighting and there were
hens flapping all over the place. There was a woman as well. And then one of
the men walked off down to the main road, but he went straight through the
hedge there, as though it wasnít there, and those cows too; just walked
through them like they werenít there. Then he just disappeared, and you woke
Ann Sleanagh looked at her grand-daughter. "Have you been
talking to your auntie Cath?"
"No reason lassie. Just wondering. Why donít you tell your
granda about your dream tonight when we get back to the house. Heís
interested in dreams. Heís got all sorts of ideas about what they mean."
"I had a dream down in the pub the other night just like
this one. The same young man was in it. He was in the wee bar at the back,
drinking whiskey with a different old man, and he was crying. I think he was
drunk, for the old man had to help him to walk. They walked straight through
the wall at the back of the pub. The place was full of spinning-wheels."
Ann Sleanagh put her hand on her grand-daughterís shoulder
knowing that the gift had been passed on again.
"Tell your granda tonight. Heíll be really interested to
hear about it."
Ann Sleanagh went to get the lemonade.
"Youíve heard of the second-sight?" Mack Sleanagh raised
the teacup in his arthritic fingers and sipped his earl grey. His grey-blue
eyes peered over the rim of the cup through his spectacles at his grand-daughter.
"You believe in it?"
"I donít know. Itís something old people talk about. They
didnít understand the world the way we do today. I mean, look at all the
scientific knowledge we have now. They had to find an explanation for
things, and they put it down to the supernatural. Iím sure there are still a
lot of things we canít explain. My friends and I used to talk about things
like this at school, but it was all so much philosophising. The church
didnít help with all itís mumbo-jumbo."
"Now that could be the aulí-man, your great-grandfather
"Sorry, Iím not a great one for the church. The nuns at
St. Augustineís put me off for life."
"Thatís all right Hannah. Youíll find your own way to God.
Heíll be waiting for you when youíre ready for him. As you know, I have
great faith in God and His holy mother. We Sleanaghs have a gift which is
passed from generation to generation. My father Cormac had it, your auntie
Cath in Kerlaw has it, or rather had it. Now you have it, she hasnít got it
any more. Folk call it the second-sight. In the family we call it Ďthe
gift.í We describe the sightings as Ďvisits.í Youíre a late developer. The
first visit usually comes at about the age of fifteen or so. What are you
"Iím not sure I want this gift Granda. Sounds kind of
weird to me. Can I see into the future? Am I going to see terrible things
that are going to happen and not be able to do anything about it?"
"No Hannah. Thank God, there is no clairvoyance. Itís a
gift, not a burden. Having said that, there is an element of duty involved.
Let me explain. What you saw the last couple of days was in some way an
introduction. It seems that the first visit is a vision of something in the
past. By the sound of it, what you saw was my father Cormac being
disinherited and leaving the farm here in Rathhamilton.
The aulí-man was visited once by a young man who had
been murdered in Kerlaw, and whose parents back in Ireland didnít know. He
wrote to them and told them. That is the element of duty. We have always
assumed that the visits were from unhappy souls who needed help to find
"How often does it happen, these visits?"
"I have no idea. The ones with the gift donít say much
about it. Once they tell somebody itís started, they usually never mention
it again. As far as we can tell itís very infrequent, but I just donít
"So what happens now?"
"Well, itís not so much that itís a big secret. Itís more
that itís something special and private. A few of us in our generation know
about it. Most donít. I wouldnít say anything to any-one till some-one says
something to you. Your granny and I will let it be known that you have it.
Iíll tell Cath first. Sheíll be relieved. She didnít like it.
Itís up to you to watch for signs of the next one. Youíve
handled it quite well, but then youíre that bit older. The ones that come to
it earlier are more likely to be confused or even afraid. Watch them when
they turn fourteen or so. Itís always Sleanaghs."
He ruffled her red hair. "Find some nice man to be happy
with and have lots of bairns. Here, I want you to have something. Wait there
He returned a few minutes later with an old shoe-box.
"Iím not getting any younger, lassie. Iím 76. Your great
grand-father Cormac wrote a letter every year to his uncle Thomas, the
wheelwright. Uncle Thomas kept them all, and I found them in the house when
your granny and I came over here in 1923. Thomas left me his house when he
died. After Thomas died, the aul'-man wrote to me. I stuck the box in a
corner, and every year, I put the letter in it. You take them. Itís a real
history of the Sleanaghs for the last ... oh, it must be at least eighty-odd
years now. Your auntie Leslie in Irvine has been writing to me since the
aulí-man died. Theyíre yours now. Iíll tell her youíve got them."
Later, back in Kerlaw in the privacy of her bed-room,
Hannah opened the box of letters. The oldest ones were yellow and brittle.
Carefully, she took the first one out of the envelope.
Kerlaw, Tues. 9 August, 1972.
Dear Gran and Granda,
how are you both? I am nearly finished my job in the
office. This year I was in the accounts department. This is the third year
Iíve been there, and I like it. I had no idea how much money the company
made. I was astonished. I go up to Glasgow in three weeks to start
university. I am going to study modern history. Iím really looking forward
to that Ė all them student parties. I canít wait!!!
Thanks again for the lovely time I had in Carlingford. I
always enjoy myself there with you. I especially enjoyed the day we went
fishing in the stream up behind the town. I donít think Iíll ever be as good
as you, Granda. And the trout was delicious Gran. I never had fresh trout
baked in oatmeal before. I told Mum about it, and she has promised to make
it for dinner soon.
Everybody here is fine and sends their love. I have
finished reading all the letters you gave me. What a history we Sleanaghs
have. Weíve even got smugglers!! Old uncle John laughed when I asked him
about it. I am going to write a book about all their adventures and become a
Love you both,
"Bedamned to you old man. Bedamned to your damned farm,
and bedamned to your damned inheritance."
Cormac faced his father across the room. Deepened to black
by emotion, his brown eyes flashed. The silence lengthened. A slane
of peat crumbled and flamed in the hearth, breaking the silence and
briefly lessening the gloom in the drystone cottage that was their home.
Sparks drifted upwards around the blackened kettle hanging on the spit. The
hot smoke carried them up to cool and add to the tendrils of soot hanging
around the hole left open in the thatch to let the smoke out. Chickens
flapped and fled at his raised voice, raising dust from the slate flags on
the floor of the single room. The two farm dogs sleeping in the yard cocked
their ears at their flight but soon closed their eyes again. Working dogs
were used to shouting.
High summer in the year 1889 in Rathhamilton, the family
farm on the shores of Carlingford Lough, was hot and dry. The sheep were on
the hill and the cattle were finding forage along the edge of the water.
There, the Glenore to Newry railway tracks had created a plateau above the
rocks where fine grass grew. The pratie shaws
behind the house were yellowing for want of rain. The peat had been
cut and was drying on the hill, above where the sheep were cropping the
grass among the heather. The sun was halfway across the August afternoon
sky. Cormac and Hugh were pitting their wills as they had been doing since
the spring. The lack of jobs to be done on the farm left time for their
difference to be re-opened and raked over.
Hugh took a red handkerchief from his pocket. Wiping his
brow, which stretched to the back of his head, his close-set, short-sighted
eyes squinted down a long thin nose at his son.
"Iím sorry Dada." Cormac tried to repair the damage done
by his outburst.. He had not called his father that since he began doing a
manís work on the farm nine years ago when he had turned fourteen.
"I have no taste for farming. Iíve no taste for
Rathhamilton any more. Iím going to America. Liam Brady wrote last month
that he earns four dollars a week in Chicago, working in the stock-yards.
They need men who know cattle. Iím going to take a boat at Belfast and go to
"Who the hell said you could go to America? You never
asked me. How are you going to find the fare? Donít think you can come to me
"Iíll find the money. Iíve asked father James to write to
Liam. Heíll sponsor me. Heís settled with a wife and already has two sons,
and him only five years there. Dada, thereís no-one here for me to marry. If
I stay here, Iíll end up marrying somebody Iím half-related to. Weíre
already related to half the folk in the parish. How many folk do you see
whoíre not right in the head? Thereís at least half a dozen of them. If we
keep marrying among ourselves, in fifty years weíll all be eejits.
And then whoíll inherit the farm?"
"Damnation. Youíre the oldest. Itís your birthright. Will
you walk away from what any young man would wish his older brother dead for?
Itís the way of it. You have no choice in it. The land belongs to you. No
lawyer in Ireland would dare draw up a paper taking away your right to it.
Your brother Harry would not sleep in his bed waiting for you to come back
to claim it. He wonít take the farm. Damnation, but youíre an unbiddable
torment of a man. If you were one of the dogs, Iíd shoot you."
Since he inherited the farm, Hughís expectation had always
been of handing the farm over to Cormac and spending his autumn years
working around the farm as long as he could. That was the way Hugh had taken
over from his father. Old Pat had spent eight more years being tolerated by
his son Hugh and his wife Biddy. True to tradition, Biddy had not been
tolerated by Patís wife, Meg, who remained head of the household until she
died. Biddy had no intention of tolerating Cormacís wife when she came.
"Father, I am not going to take the farm," he grated
through clenched teeth. "I am not going to work it. I am not going to stay
in Rathhamilton. If I canít do this with your blessing, youíll force me to
leave here without it."
"Blessing? A blessing you want? Over my dead body."
"Listen damn you." The young man lost control of his
"I want to finish the year, get the cattle sold, and this
yearís lambs. Weíll get the praties out of the ground, and the turf is
already cut and drying. We should get most of it down off the hill before
the leaves turn. It will take at least that long before Liamís letter
arrives. father James wrote away last month, so Liam should have it soon. I
was hoping to take passage from Belfast in the spring. Weíll have the whole
farm ready for the new spring, and Harry can start right in. Itíll be a
well-made bed that heíll have no bother lying in."
He lowered his voice, getting his anger under control
"Iíll have Father James write a letter for me to sign,
saying that I pass my inheritance to Harry. Then heíll sleep at night. Donít
make me go away in sorrow, for going I am."
"Iíll be damned if Iím the one who breaks the Sleanagh
line of father to son. Weíve had the land for generations. We even held on
to it in the famine. My fathers for generations past would turn in their
grave if I passed it on to any-one but you, the first-born. Iíll not have it
any other way."
"Dammit, you will be handing it on to your son. Why does
it have to be the oldest?"
"If you do not take over and work the farm, you can take
yourself off to America this very day. If you cannot do my bidding, then
youíre no son of mine."
Cormacís face darkened under his lowered brows. The tang
of peat glowing in the hearth and the smell of baking wheaten-bread on the
griddle would ever, in all his years to come, remind him of Ireland.
"Weíre too different old man, you and me. Youíre stuck in
the old ways. I can hear new ideas and see that not all the old ways are the
best. When Harry marries that Maguire girl heís sniffing around, and
provides you with a pack of half-witted eejits for grandweans, remember that
sheís our first cousin. Think then of the strong sons and bonny daughters
Iíll have fathered in America. Then youíll weep the same bitter tears Iíll
be weeping on that boat, watching Ireland going down in the east forever."
"You and your new ideas. That damned shanachie, Fergus
Sweeney, filling your damned head with nonsense. When I see him next, Iíll
take a fence-post to the back of his head. How many others has he infected
with his damned new ideas. There wonít be a son left in the parish to hand a
farm over to when heís finished. All you ever needed to know is how to plant
praties and keep cattle."
"You old fool. The world is changing. This lifeís
finished. Small farms like this are finished. Your generation will be the
last to live like this. Even if Harry takes it over, heíll not die here like
our fore-fathers did. At some point, heíll have to go into a town to find
work. Weíre hardly keeping body and soul together here as it is."
They locked glares, each seeing the terror in the eyes of
the other at the turn of events neither had wanted or expected.
"Fuck off to America then. I donít need you."
"Right, I will."
Cormac turned towards the shaft of light in the door and
walked out through the rays of sunlight still visible in the swirling dust
raised by the fleeing chickens. As he had done dozens of times in the past,
he caught his toe on the raised flag that was the door-sill. He stumbled and
fell out the door into the dust of the yard.
"Even the damned house is against me," he cursed under his
breath. He got up as Hugh laughed, never thinking that he was leaving.
Biddy was behind the house in the cobbled yard between it
and the byre. Walking back from collecting eggs from the hen-boxes, she had
heard raised voices. She guessed their cause but not their content, and
certainly not the outcome. She saw Cormac round the corner and walk towards
her, brushing the dust off his pants.
"Mammy, weíve had hard words, the old-man and myself. They
cannot be turned back and I have to go. Iíll find a priest whoíll write
letters for me. Father James will read them for you. Iím going to Liam Brady
in Chicago, so donít you be worrying that I have nowhere to go."
He put both hands on her shoulders and kissed her on the
cheek, a thing he had never done in his life. She looked up into his eyes.
Cormac was a small man, but Biddy was tiny. Her blue eyes and red hair, now
streaked with grey, attested to the Viking presence in Ireland generations
He took her hands in his, let them go, turned, strode
round the corner of the house and walked down the winding farm track to join
the road from Newry to Dundalk. Turning left he took the road west to Newry.
He had never been further than Carlingford, which was three miles from the
farm. Newry was twelve miles further at the head of the Lough. It was a
frightening, unknown prospect.
Belfast was somewhere to the north, beyond Newry.
Anger fought with sorrow and kept the upper hand for many
hours till darkness began to fall. Dusk coincided with hunger, which made
him face his empty belly and lack of a roof over his head. After leaving the
farm, he had walked west on the road for a quarter of an hour, then turned
off into a thicket of bushes. Here, he lay in the sun going over and over
the dayís events in his mind, ever modifying them with better arguments to
convince his father that what he said made sense. The reality however,
Standing up, he pulled the dry grass from his coarse shirt
and pants. Picking the hairy heads of wild barley out of his jet-black hair,
he climbed the gate onto the road and continued into Carlingford where he
went to Thomas Sleanaghís workshop. Thomas the wheelwright they called him.
He made spinning-wheels, and was Cormacís unmarried uncle. Cormac rapped on
the door with his knuckles and pushed the door open.
"Cormac my man, youíre late on the road. How are you?"
"Homeless, penniless, and disinherited," he replied, great
sobs finally getting the better of his anger.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph. What has the man done now? Sit
down there. Thereís a drop of something in the press."
Thomas stood up from his chair by the fire and took a bottle and two dusty
tumblers from a cupboard.
"Get that down you."
Over several tumblers of whiskey, Cormac told his story.
The whiskey on an empty stomach soon made him drowsy and maudlin. Thomas
brought him to the hay-byre, rolled his jacket under his head for a pillow,
covered him with a blanket and left him to sleep.
Cormac woke the next morning with a dry mouth and
headache. He took off his shirt and washed in the green, moss-furred
rain-butt. He finished by sticking his head into it. Picking up his shirt
and jacket, he dripped his way into the workshop where Thomas was already at
work. Thomas looked him over.
Thomas took him through into the house where he made a
breakfast of coarse wheaten bread and smoked herring. Cormac drank a whole
jug of milk before starting on the food and a pot of tea. When he had
finished, he stood up. Brushing off the light coating of beech-wood dust his
trousers had collected, he looked round the room. The dust was everywhere.
It made him aware of the smell of fresh-sawn wood.
"So. What do you do now? You going back to make your peace
with the old-fella?" Thomas stroked at a chisel with a fine whetstone. His
big hands and fat fingers seemed ill-suited to his calling as a maker of
delicate woodwork. He scratched his head of brown curls with the point of
the stone. Sprinkling water on the stone he continued to work the chisel.
"Donít be bloody stupid. Iíll not have the life of a dog
if I go back now. No. Itís for the best. I was always leaving. I was being
foolish thinking it could be done peaceably."
"So whatíll you do? You could stay with me and learn the
trade. Thereís a decent living to be made, and Iíll not be here forever."
"Ah no Uncle Thomas, the whole point is that Iíve got to
get out of Ireland. I might as well stay on the farm as come here. And
thereís no future for a young man in spinning-wheels. Soon weíll all be
buying factory-made cloth, even factory-made clothes one of these days."
Cormac walked around the room, too restless to sit still.
"Ah, thatíll never happen boy. How could any machine tease
the wool out like the fingers of a woman? Never happen. You listen to a man
that knows the trade. Come in with me. I always regretted never marrying and
having a son to pass the skill onto."
"Thank you, no, Uncle Thomas. Iím going to Belfast to take
a boat to America. Iím going to Chicago. Liam Brady is going to sponsor me,
and weíll both work in the stock-yards."
Thomas looked at him. "Have you not heard? Liamís dead.
His mother got the letter three days past. Father James read it for her.
Crushed by a bull in the pen. Rope broke and it got loose. Liam never had a
Cormac stopped by the window. Aware again of the
wood-dust; this time coating the glass. The sunlight fought its way in from
the lane outside.
"Mother of God. Poor Liam; his poor young wife and bairns.
Whatíll happen to them? God help us. What am I going to do now? Iíve burned
my boats. Iím a dead man. I only know farming, and what farmer needs a hired
man when heís got half a dozen sons to feed? Liamís dead, so I cannot go to
America. God help me."
The door of the workshop banged open.
"Thomas, where the hell are you?" Larry Rourke came
through from the workshop into the house. "Have you got that much money that
you can afford to sit on your backside drinking tea with your relations all
day? Whereís that wheel I promised our Eileen for her wedding? Itís this
Saturday, and sheíll cut off my head if itís not ready." He paused.
"Good day to you young Cormac. Howís that father of
"Good day Larry. My father is in good health."
"Tell him I was asking for him."
"Iíll do that when I see him, thank you."
Larry owned one of the fishing boats in Carlingford
harbour. Cormacís hesitance aroused his curiosity. There had been talk that
Cormac was at odds with Hugh.
"And when will you be seeing him then? Not had a falling
out have youse?"
"Ah Larry, youíre an awful man. The ladís just broken with
his father and is off to America. It was not a happy parting. Now leave him
in peace, for heís not in the mood for talking about it right now. Come
through and Iíll get you Eileenís wheel. Sheíll like it. I put some extra
ornamentation on it for her." The two big, muscular men went through to the
workshop. Cormac heard their voices through the open door.
"Cormac, come through here a minute," Thomas called after
"Youíre not all that big, but Iíve heard youíre a strong
wee bugger," said Larry looking at him.
"Our Paddy Joe has broken his leg and wonít be back on the
boat this side of Christmas. Iím a man short on the nets. Thomas says youíre
leaving for America, but have no sponsor. Fish the autumn with me and Iíll
set you off in Scotland when Paddy Joe gets back on his feet. No sponsor
needed in Scotland, and thereís plenty of work in Glasgow. Youíll
get a wage and a twentieth share of the catch, same as Robbie and Kevin."
"Whatís the wage?"
"Ninepence a day at sea. Weíre out most days if the
weatherís good; except Sunday. Robbie and Kevin mostly never get less than
three shillings a week, plus another three shillings or so for their share
of the catch."
Cormac never had money and had very little idea of its
value. He looked at Thomas who understood what was troubling him.
"Itís fair money for hard work. You could stay with me in
the meantime. Iíll probably get the rough edge of Hughís tongue for
harbouring his fugitive son. But then Iíve had that before. Iíll suffer it
again." He grinned at Cormac. "In your shoes, I would take it. Itíll do you
no harm to see something other than farming. Youíll be able to put something
by to get you started in Glasgow or wherever you decide to go."
Cormac stuck out his hand to Larry. "Iíll do it. Thanks
Larry." They shook hands firmly and it was done.
Manyís the day Cormac rued that handshake as he hauled on
the soaking, heavy nets, his fingernails gone, his blood washed away by the
stinging salt-water. Paddy Joeís leg needed more mending than they thought.
It was a cruel winter; cold and stormy. Christmas came and went and winter
began to ease. Paddy Joeís leg mended at last and Cormac retired from the
fishing. He had four sovereigns and a half-crown in the bag under Thomasí
"Weíll be going to Scotland to sell a catch in a week or
two. Iíll tell you when weíre going."
Larry paid him his last wage, shook his hand and wished
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