The fire blazed merrily on the hearth, the reek of peat smoke stung her nostrils. In the embers a little black pot bubbled and steamed, emitting the wholesome smell of oatmeal porridge; the table was set with two wooden bowls and spoons. Caroline rose and went out into the morning air. All was fresh and sweet after the night's rain; among scowling clouds, patches of blue appeared. The friar was milking his goats, talking to them as the milk flowed. Bainne and Aine he called them.
“God bless you this morning,” he said. “I trust you had a restful night.”
“I had, father, a very restful night.”
“Well, we’ll be having breakfast in a minute or two, and then you can start on your journey any time you like.”
He fed the goats some dry, sweet hay and, as they munched, they watched him out of their strange, wise eyes.
“I have another pair of friends you haven't seen yet,” he said and, raising his voice, he called out, “Duvan!” and “Gealan!”, and immediately there was a thud of small hooves and the donkeys appeared from behind the bushes, eager for their morning fodder. Duvan was a small, pert, black donkey and Gealan was silvery grey.
“I have them on loan from my good friends,” he explained. “The grass grows rich and green on this island and I can save enough hay to do them over the winter. They come in useful many's a time and I in a hurry, or too weary to walk.”
After they had breakfasted, the friar left the hut again. Caroline seized the opportunity to change into her boyish garb. She was not sure how the friar would take it but, when he saw her standing in the doorway, he grinned broadly.
“Now isn't that the sensible rig for travelling in the mountains,” he said. “You can ride astride; it'll be safer than holding on side-saddle on the steep, stony track. Right well you look, too, if I may say so.”
“You mean I'll not be walking?”
“You have no call to walk and two fine, well-fed, well-rested donkeys here to give you a lift. I'll convoy you through the pass. I'll be glad of an outing. I'd be uneasy and you travelling that road by yourself and you not knowing the pitfalls.”
He wrapped up a slice of boiled bacon and bread for the journey, and filled a jar apiece with fresh goats' milk. Then they led the saddled donkeys down to the jetty where the big, flat-bottomed cot was moored. They took an oar each and, in no time, were safely across, mounted and on their way, Caroline on the silver-grey mare and the friar on the sturdy Duvan. The going was rough, but the donkeys were well suited to the mountainy tracks. They jogged along at a nice, even pace.
At the summit of the Pass of the Deer, they stopped for a while, and partook of their refreshments. Having rested a while, they began the descent into the Owvane valley. Ballylickey lay some five miles ahead to the west and, though the road was rough, it was easy to follow. They jogged along in the gathering dusk, humming and whistling in turns to amuse themselves.
“I will convoy you to within sight of the village,” the friar said. “You will find friends there. Just mention Hugh Ro. A little way off this track there is a house where I can rest for the night. They are old friends whom I have not seen for some time. I will start back early tomorrow ..... very early, for the goats will be missing me.”
“What about Gealan? You'll take her, won't you?”
“There's no call. When you get into Ballylickey, enquire for the house of Liam O'Drisheen. Tell him I sent you. You'll not be without supper and a place to sleep. And he'll see that Gealan is returned to me. There's no hurry if he has need of her. The donkeys are what you might call public transport. But the night's dropping down, now. Do not delay. Bless you, my child, and may God speed your journey, and guide your heart.”
The tears rained down Caroline's
cheeks as she spurred the donkey towards the little village. Would she ever
again see the kind old man who had given her so much comfort and help. He had been like some guardian angel on the way over
the pass with its sombre mountains lowering down, listening, watching, plotting against the foolhardy traveller. It had been easy
to believe the tale of robbers lurking to pounce. Even now, following the
gentle line of the river, the atmosphere was full of rustlings and mutterings.
She urged the tired donkey on. She felt herself to be a tiny, vulnerable figure
in a vast, gloomy landscape with only the stumbling hooves and the river's
sullen murmur for company. Then, a streak of pewter in the gathering darkness,
she caught a first glimpse of
At one lighted doorway she drew rein. A man stood peering out, as though watching for something.
“God bless all here,” she greeted.
“You are welcome,” the man replied. “It is late you are travelling abroad, young man. Come away in an' warm yourself by the fire.”
“Thank you, but I am looking for the house of Liam O'Drisheen.”
“'Tis here. I am Liam O'Drisheen. Who sent you?”
“The friar of Gougane Barra.”
“Then 'tis doubly welcome you are. Come away in. I'll see to the donkey. The woman of the house is this minute gettin' the supper. We'd be honoured if you'd share the bite with us.”
The room was warm and lively with children. The woman of the house shooed them aside and made way for her in the chimney corner.
“An' how is the good man himself?” she asked. “It's long since we set eyes on him.”
Caroline told her how she had spent the previous night. As they supped, she related as much of her own story as seemed prudent. If the young man ..... if a young man it was ..... wanted to go to Bantry, they would get him a lift there in the morning; somebody would be going for sure. After supper there was a story or two for the children. Liam O'Drisheen brought out a tin whistle and played a tune and the children danced for the stranger. All was going merry when the door-latch lifted.
“God bless all here,” said a familiar voice and Hugh Ro O'Moran walked in, his cloak glistening with the night's damp, his shaggy hair streaked about his face.
“Ah Hugh Ro, an' is it yourself?” they greeted.
“I heard the music,” he said,” and I thought it would be a good thing to be where the music was, so in I came. I see you have got company. No, you needn't introduce us, Liam. 'Tis the very person I was waiting for.”
O'Drisheen and his wife looked at each other in bewilderment and Hugh Ro read the look.
“I did say a young lady, but in these times things don't always turn out as expected. 'Tis as well to be a young man when you're travelling the lonesome roads and night falling. Whatever you're asked, 'tis a young man called Ciaran you're entertaining. You'll remember that, Liam. Whatever else you think, keep it under your caubeen.”
On the following morning, they set out
at a brisk pace, Hugh Ro singing and whistling the miles away. The road to Bantry ran along by the sea, sometimes by the very edge of
the bay. Though the day was sullen and cold, no rain fell and the salty air was
bracing. But the sky brooded, leaden grey with a purplish tinge and there was
an eerie quietness in the air as though land and sea held its breath, waiting
for something. The sea spread, blank and steely, to the western horizon, empty
Hugh Ro began to hum the Shan Van Vocht and, at the sound, Caroline strained her gaze towards the sea; but it was an empty waste. No ghostly sail ..... nothing but the falling snow and the eerie stillness.
“The French are on the sea, says the Shan Van Vocht,” Hugh Ro sang softly.
“Do you believe they are?” Caroline asked, interrupting him.
“I do. You must believe it too.”
“It's hard. There's no sign of a welcome.”
“Maybe there is no welcome. Maybe it's
to the wrong port they're coming. In
Hugh Ro found them lodgings in a cottage. He was well known in the neighbourhood, and always welcome, for he brought the song and the story and the music for dancing. The people who gathered about the firesides, asked no questions about his young companion, for he often picked up companions on his travels. By daylight he and Caroline walked the headlands, scanning the sea for signs of sail. The snow lingered on the mountains, the air was chill, the sea dark and sombre, but calm.
There were a few who, to some extent,
shared Hugh Ro's secret, and with these he conversed in cryptic sentences. They
inspected their boats daily, looked west to the empty sea. In the midst of firelit jollity, they sat alert, waiting for some sign or
sound beyond the music. Less alert were the men of the small garrison of the
Though she was tired from walking the goat-paths by day, Caroline slept uneasily at nights. She dreamt of ships, full-rigged, speeding to the shore; but they never reached it. There was always darkness and confusion in the end and she woke sweating and fearful. She would see Fergal's face, white and smeared with blood sometimes. And she saw the face of another man, seamed with a duelling scar, dark anger in his eyes. More than once she woke, crying aloud, clutching the soft comfort of her sealskin cover.