By Aoife Daly, St Anne’s Community College, Killaloe
Junior winner, Clare Champion short story competition.
THE nearby crash of waves can scarcely be heard over the fierce murmurs and mutters of the tacticians and the pounding heartbeats of the warriors. Fervent prayers uttered from trembling lips, the melody of battle songs celebrating past triumphs, the screeching, grinding sound of sword against whetstone all meld together to form a vibrant and powerful cacophony.
My eyes flash open and slowly I rise from the Grey Rock, Craig Liath, reliving that memory from one thousand years ago. Gliding across the air, I gaze at the ever-changing landscape beneath me, the trees I saw rise and fall, the rapid rushing river that grew from a mere trickling stream and the jade green fields dotted by towns and cities.
I watch the land go by, seeing a glimpse of a long forgotten past, the present, tainted by the human emotions of greed and hate, and the future, shrouded by the mists of human indecisiveness and uncertainty. My feet skim along the tree top, trees that once covered the land undisturbed, except perhaps by a wandering elk and the silence broken only by the lonely howl of a she-wolf. Trees which were felled by the first strangers, who built their homes, their farms. Trees that became hiding places for the native Gaels when a band of foreigners came, claiming the land as their own.
I soar towards the sky, amongst the clouds, all varying in shapes and sizes. This land is a land of strangers and invaders. For thousands of years, beings of my kind took power of this country, over the first farmers and we were worshipped and revered in every ring fort and dún by the fearsome Celts. Foreigners came from across the sea, bringing both good and bad, freedom and oppression, becoming more Irish than the Irish themselves. Another foreigner came, preaching of a being not of their kind, nor mine, one who is the creator. Who is powerful, merciful, great and yet is as humble and simple as the shamrock, three parts in one. The stranger promised this being, this God would always be there for the people.
But when the cities burned to the ground, torn by hate and prejudice it seemed He had forsaken the people. When the crops failed, when the potatoes succumbed to the blight and the people’s bellies were stuck to their backs, when thousands fell as they worked, when tiny children died from want of food it seemed like He was nowhere to be found. When His faithful disciples were slaughtered by the dreaded Norsemen, when war turned brother against brother. I watched as the people left the country in droves, fleeing from starvation, prejudice and in search of jobs and a better future, unable to do anything.
But there was always some good. I saw it in the smiles of children’s faces as they ran around the farmyards, playing in the hay and searching for the fairies, in the cosy kitchens before the crackling fires as children listened to tales of fairies and warriors. I heard it in the music that emanated from the concertinas, fiddles, accordions and whistles at every party and felt it in the breathlessness of laughing couples as they waltzed across the dance floor. I felt it in the quiet afternoons as people sat content in front of the radio, the television or a book, just happy to be with one another.
I feel a pull towards the ground and I know I am at the battleground once again. There are houses nearby, filled with sleeping families and I can hear the noises of the city over the waves.
I close my eyes and remember making my way through the labyrinth of tents.
Men pass me by, unseeing. I approach the flap of a tent and step inside.
I see an old man on his knees, praying. His back is straight with pride and majesty but his face is lined and his shoulders shrunken.
“Brian,” I thunder. He turns around, trembling.
“I am not of your kind Brian. I am part of the land, of the Dal Cais, of the sídhe. I am part of the wind that whispers through the trees of Béal Ború, part of every drop of water that flows down the Shannon. I hear all, from the crackle of the crisp autumn leaves underfoot to the faint brushing of a butterfly’s wing. I have heard the most private of secrets and confessions and I have heard your innermost thoughts and dreams. I have heard from the very beginning, of the treacheries against you and the men of Thomond that have led to this very battle,” I announce.
“I have seen you live your life Brian. I have seen every smile of triumph that crossed your face as a child when you succeeded, that may now seem like such an unimportant matter. I was there the night the Norsemen ravaged Béal Ború and I wept alongside you and played my dreaded harp, lamenting the spilled blood of the Dal Cais. I watched as you grew in knowledge and in strength.
I have watched every one of your ancestors live their lives. I have been with them in times of triumph and in times of hardships and loss. I have seen your descendants Brian; yes I have seen the future.
Tomorrow shall be a day that will always be remembered in the hearts of the Irish people. The Battle of Clontarf, where Brian Ború and his brave men chased the Vikings from Ireland. Your army shall win the battle tomorrow Brian. The Norsemen shall no longer plunder our towns and churches but they won’t leave, not all of them. But Brian, even though the Danes shall remain in Ireland, you will have achieved what no King has done before. All of Ireland shall be united under one king; there will be a respite from the frequent battles and wars between tribes,” I explain, eyes shining.
“You however, will not live to see it, nor your son, or his son. To win the war thousands of men shall be slain by the glinting axes of the Norsemen and the sea will become crimson from blood. You won’t take part in the battle tomorrow. I hear you argue silently but once Death has set his merciless eye on you, there will be no escape,” I finish quietly.
I gaze with a trace of pity at this man, whose face is parchment white and whose withered hands tremble. But still he stands tall and proud, with a glint in his eyes which show he has no fear anymore, of Death or defeat. It is a glint which had convinced men to follow him into battle when he was a mere outlaw, hiding in the hills. A glint which has often attracted years of trouble and landed him in several difficult situations.
“Who are you?” he asks in a clear, strong voice, the voice of a king. I smile slightly.
“I am the protector of the Dal Cais, I watch over all the people of Thomond, of Munster, of Ireland. Some call me the Queen of the Fairies, one of the Tuatha de Dannan. I am the sound of the harp before a Death that echoes against the rolling hills of Craglea. I am the whisper in your ear as you ride into battle. I hear all, I see all, I know all.
Brian, I am Aoibheall.”
St Anne’s Community