As she hesitated, the strong, oak-planked door opened and a figure stood, squat and solid against the smoky firelight within; he was dressed in the long, dark habit of a friar. A ghost from the past perhaps; but there was nothing ephemeral about him. She felt him size her up with as much wonder as she did him. His voice, when he spoke, was mellow and kind:
“God save you, child. However did you get here? It's cold weather and late in the day to be travelling abroad.”
“I called to ask the way, Father. Am I on the right road to Bantry?”
“You are that. Just follow the track
you just left southwards through the Pass of the Deer till you come to the Owvane valley. If you
keep to the right bank of the river you'll come to Ballylickey
“My own two feet, Father.”
“Then it's days it'll take you gettin to Bantry.”
“So the sooner I start the better.”
“Not a start you'll make, my child. Do you think I'd want it on my conscience that I let you face the pass at this time of a December day ..... you, and whoever's with you.”
“I'm alone, Father.”
“Alone! It's mad you must be to think of making such a journey alone ..... and at this time. Even in broad daylight on a fine day, it's no road for a slip of a girl to be travelling by herself.”
“I'm used to rough roads ..... and lonely places.”
“None as rough as this, I'd say. I have heard rumours of wild men in the pass. Robbers, they say; not that I ever met any of them. The people tell me that they lie up in the heather waiting for travellers, especially after night. What chance would you have if they lit on you?”
“Not much I suppose. But travel the road I must. I need to get to Bantry as quickly as I can. Maybe, if you said a prayer for me I'd be safe.”
“Ay, the good God would take care of you, I have no doubt. But what would he think of me for letting you run into danger? It's little speed you'll make by night, anyway. You'd travel faster by daylight if you had a night's rest first. You're welcome to stay the night here, if you're so minded. This was a great centre of hospitality in the old days. Many's a traveller supped and slept here and none asking him what his mission was, but only that he needed help. Never let it be said that the hospitality of the blessed St. Finnbar failed, and that a traveller was let go hungry into the terrors of the night.”
“I believe you mean that.”
“I do. What there is of hospitality in this humble house is little enough, but it’s yours and welcome. Step from the cold, my child. The clouds are gathering over the mountains. There's a team of rain ready for spilling any minute. You might as well be warm and dry.”
He stood aside to let her come in. The room reeked of smoke which made her eyes sting, but the high-piled peat fire was inviting and the savoury smell of cooking made her mouth water. There was little furniture, but the essentials were solid and hand-made. A heavy oak table was spread with the makings of a meal. The humble room wrapped itself around her in warm welcome. It was so safe and quiet after the outer gloom and lonely sounds.
“Sit you down,” the friar invited,
setting a stool by the fire. “I'll have a bite for you to eat in no time at
all. Praise be to God, this lake's full of the fattest
brown trout, and myself's got the skill of catching
them. I have a store of potatoes by me and the goats give more milk than I can
drink. The best pair of goats in
As Caroline warmed her hands and feet by the fire, her host busied himself with the cooking. Fat brown trout sizzled on a gridiron over raked-out embers; potatoes roasted in their jackets till they cracked open. The friar hummed to himself as he set a second place at the table. When all was done to a turn he invited her to draw up to the board, and laid a wooden platter before her. Two brown trout lay on a bed of fresh watercress. A platter of roasted potatoes stood in the centre of the table. From a big, wooden ewer, he poured her a mugful of creamy milk.
“I've got salt too,” he said eagerly, as he scooped some from the salt box on the wall by the fire. Then, seating himself, he offered thanks to God for his good gifts. Caroline added a sincere 'Amen'.
Both she and the friar were hungry and the meal they fell to with enthusiasm was excellent. To her relief, the old man concentrated on the goodness of food and fire and shelter and how peaceful it was on the island.
He asked no questions nor evinced any surprise that she should be abroad in the night. The moment was enough, and it was good. When both were replete, Caroline turned again to the fire which now was a red mound of heat, emitting very little smoke. The friar, a tidy man, cleared away the remains of their meal and washed the platters. Then, drawing up another stool, he seated himself on the opposite side of the fire, his benign, rosy face beaming with contentment. He was obviously pleased to have a guest and had no intention of starting an inquisition. For a moment, Caroline reflected how hard it would be to dissemble under the clear gaze of those wise, kindly, blue eyes.
She found that, as their rambling conversation progressed, she could speak to him as freely as she had always done to old Bridget; in fact these two old, wise people had a great deal in common.
“It was a blessed day for me,” he
said, “when I found this spot to rest my bones after years of wandering. All my
life, since I first took the vows, I was on the road,
and many a hard road I travelled and in all kinds of weather. In
“How did you find this place, father?”
“Once on a winter's day ..... it was colder than this day, and the snow threatening ..... I was on my way from Bantry to Macroom. The Pass nearly finished me. Against the wind I was battling the whole way. It nearly beat me. I felt near to death. Well, I knelt down in the track and I prayed to God that He wouldn't leave me to die by the lonely roadside ..... I who had always ended my journeys with the shelter and the fireside. I prayed for even the humblest place to creep into ..... even if it wasn't a house ..... a place safe and quiet out of the bitter wind, where I could be at peace to pray and die. And when I struggled to my feet again, I saw the island and the little huts and remembered the monastery that was once such a hospitable place. There would be some aura of kindliness about the place after all the years.
I had to crawl down on my hands and knees to the lake-shore, and there was an old boat tied up and waiting like as if the good Lord Himself left it. It didn't look very safe, but I just put my faith in God, and somehow, in spite of the wind and rough water, I made my way here. I was washed up on the island you might say. So it was that I came here and found this little house with the roof still sound and the walls thick to keep out the blast, and the hearthstone waiting for a fire to be kindled. When I had rested a bit, I gathered some kindling and set it alight with my tinder that I kept dry inside my habit. The kindling was dry, and presently the fire was crackling like a good deed laughing in the face of evil. I knew I had come home.
There was no food, but the Lord who sent the ravens with food to the prophet Elijah, opened my eyes and, as soon as it was light, I fixed me a line and went down to the water and caught a fat trout. As time went on I found roots and herbs and berries, a whole richness of comestibles. Isolated as I was, I found neighbours too. They began to appear from the nooks and crannies among the hills. Always they'd come with the little gifts and I helped them over their sicknesses with the old herbal remedies and with the prayers and the few words of comfort. And still they come; that is why I fixed the old boat and built a new, bigger one, so that there would always be a way to the island for friend or stranger. These people never see me wanting. They gave me the goats ..... little kids they were at the time, and merry as springtime ..... and they keep me supplied with potatoes and oatmeal, and sometimes a bit of bacon. I'm thankful to them, for it is little they have to spare, and they spare it generously. I do what I can to help and comfort them when they need it. I feel that I have a little 'parish' of my own here, and that I'm of some use in my old age, and for that I am thankful.”
“You never go wandering any more?”
“A wanderer is always a wanderer; the
pilgrim's feet are shaped to the hard road. When the days grow long and warm
towards summer, I set out on my travels; but nowadays I seldom venture beyond
the borders of west
He paused for a moment, seeing far places in the glowing fire. Caroline had heard him with delight. She turned eager eyes on his rubicund face with the question uppermost in her mind:
“Have you been to
“I have that ..... to
the walled city of the tribes ..... not a very
hospitable place for the poor friar, but it's the way of cities. The
“Did you ever visit the
“I did that. A grim and desolate place it looked from the outside ..... like a place deserted. But I came to know better. At the worst, and that was not bad, I was made welcome by the old retainer; at best, when the master was at home, I got the mother and father of all welcomes. A great man for the company was Turlough O'Shaughnessy. And his wife, she was as gentle as an angel.”
“Had they any children?”
“They had, but it was seldom I saw
them, and never all at the one time. There was a son by the chief's first
marriage to a Frenchwoman ..... a
bright young boy with a great thirst for information. He had a touch of the
foreigner about him, he was taken with the notion of
being a wandering friar. But it was a child's notion. He went to school in
“Were there any daughters?”
“There were three of the prettiest
little girls I ever laid eyes on. The elder two I saw but once; they were away
with an aunt in the King's County. One of them was dark and curly-haired and
full of mischief. The eyes of her sparkled like the dew of morning. The other
was fair and gentle like her mother. She had the sweetest smile and the most
winning ways. Then there was the baby. She was born on a ship on a rough night
in winter and they coming on one of their secret
He paused suddenly and looked long and thoughtfully at Caroline's rapt face.
“By the Holy Mother!” he exclaimed, “if she wasn't just as you must have been at the same age. I'm an old man ..... I see visions at times ..... it couldn't be ..... it couldn't possibly be .....”
“It is, father. I am Caroline O'Shaughnessy.”
The friar rose and threw his arms in the air, for a moment poised as though he were about to dance a jig.
“Caroline O'Shaughnessy! HER name was Caroline. Tell me again that you are she.”
“I am Caroline O'Shaughnessy. You are not dreaming.”
The friar looked at her intently, his face beaming.
“Tell me,” he asked, “do you know Hugh Ro O'Moran?”
“I do, father.”
“It was but yesterday he broke bread
with me, and he on his way to
“Did he tell you why?”
“He did that. He said that the French were on the sea.”
“My brother Fergal is with them. I am going to Bantry ..... to meet him.”
“I told you I had visions. Two nights ago I saw a fleet put to sea .....”
A shadow crossed his rubicund face. Caroline noted his hesitation with alarm.
“What else did you see?” she asked anxiously.
“Some obstruction ..... everything clouded over ..... then the leading sails appeared, coming clear out of the darkness. It was all right. I'm sure it was all right. I dreamt no more.”
“You think Fergal is safe.”
“I believe he is, my child. I am sure. I'll be praying for him.”
He threw some turf on the fire and a great shower of sparks rose and settled again. Blue flames began to lick round the new turves. Caroline watched the changing colours in a sort of trance. Then she turned an earnest gaze on the old man. He fidgeted a little under its candour, dreading what she might ask.
“Tell me, truly, what do you think of this expedition? Is it really what the people want? Will they rise and fight with the French? Will it be worth while?”
He shook his head, staring into the fire, taking time to reply:
“It is hard for me to answer, my child. This country is very confused and divided and I am out of touch with any but the simple poor now. It was the old Irish nobility who held the link with France and the rest of Europe, always hoping that, one day, those they served would help them. They patronised the poets who sang songs of hope and fostered the romantic dream. The poor people were always more concerned with the simple, practical things like security of tenure in their little holdings, food, regular employment, a chance for their children in their own country. They always appreciated a good landlord, whoever he was, and they served him faithfully.”
“They are agitated and confused. For many, generations of hunger and hardship have bred cynicism. They have little faith in great armies and glorious victories. They fight their own battles, sometimes very cruelly, to revenge their own cruel wrongs. They take the short view. The long view and the splendid cause do not put food in their children's mouths. They go along with the dream of the poets, sing the songs that put courage into them, then they have to face the reality of hardship ..... maybe eviction ..... always touching of the forelock.”
“Don't they feel they would be better off under their own rulers?”
“They cannot be sure. Power is safe in no man's hands. It depends on the heart. Sometimes the stranger has been just and kind.”
“Like Mr Hemson. Do you know him?”
“Ah, the Quaker. He is a kind, just man ..... a very small landlord, but a shining example. Would that there were more like him.”
“I have heard that the church has no
love for the
“The bishops will advise against collaboration. The hierarchy always favoured the big house and the patriarchal system. The French revolution upset the old order. Divine right is no more. Reason is all powerful.”
“And Wolfe Tone ..... what of his dream of a new Ireland?”
“It is a noble dream he has, of an
Caroline smiled and was silent for a long time as she watched the dancing flames. Outside, the darkness folded the little house like a blanket, the thundering waterfalls were a rampart of sound. It was so safe here ..... and so free in the company of this saintly old man who had seen so much and judged so little.
“Father,” she said softly, “I have a trouble on my mind.”
“If it will relieve your mind, tell me, my child.”
“You may be shocked.”
“Who am I to be shocked. Nothing shocks God. We are alone with God and the elements. Speak your mind, my child.”
“I ..... I am in love, father ..... with a man my brother would call an enemy ..... an officer in the King's army.”
“With a human being ..... with one of God's creatures. Who is to judge. Like the wind, love bloweth where it listeth.”
“Then I am not wicked ..... to love this man?”
“It is never wicked to love. To hate is wicked.”
A great peace fell upon her. At rest in mind and body, she accepted the friar's offer of his trundle bed. Wrapped in her sealskin, she slept with his blessing in her ears.