A life passed, told again

While I lived in Scotland, I spent every holiday until the age of 15 in the middle-of-bloody-nowhere Ireland, where my entire extended family lived. For me, a second home. Stories, before and during my time on earth, bound me, not only to the the people, but the land itself.

We would visit my Granny’s childhood home up on the hill in Rossinver, long-abandoned over inheritance issues, where she would tell stories of her childhood and our shared past as we peered through the cobwebbed windows. My siblings, cousins and I would then venture up to the top of the hill and foot the turf, leaning hard against the spade to cut into its roots. On the plateau perched a large almost vertical mound, a cave formed out of the tip. Despite the eternal ferocity of the wind in that particular spot, we would fight our way up, though the nettles, and, reaching the brink, would gaze out at the landscape below. There, a network of hewn turf stitched together was lain out, a quilt shaped by my entire family. So many tales I had been told about individuals I had never met, and ones I knew better than myself, were mapped out in the ridges of that landscape.

The cave was encroached upon by nettles, the corpses of sheep that had sheltered there in their last moment, seeking comfort, lay decaying. Their skulls would always make me shiver, a loneliness I never completely understood instilled in their hollow eyes. I would trace the names carved into the stone with my fingertips. 

There was a pub we used to frequent called the ‘Confession Box’, aptly named from all the gossip and rumours that would circulate like the strands of smoke which twirled from each cigarette and pipe. My Granny sat centre in this community, people naturally congregating around her as she told her tales, eyes bright, animated in the flickering light of the fire. My Granny was a notorious story teller, she would spin and thread the stories into the fabric of daily life, extending through generations in the swoop of a sentence. ‘A family tradition’, I was told by others. I would watch, spellbound. Proud.

The old, and in my experience, the Irish, are particularly superstitious individuals. Mysteries stay mysteries, enigmatic secrets triumph over truth. In many ways I miss this sense of ambiguity and intrigue. Rationalisation, knowledge and the greatest of all, Internet, rules. Myths are swiftly debunked, as are ghosts. The land itself is a map of these tales. People would joke, but respect for the unknown was always instilled within you. Even if you laughed and mocked superstition, you never put your shoes on the table or walked under a ladder. That would be asking for it.

We would walk back home at midnight once the pub shut, the moon and stars the only light we could navigate by. We would cling to one another and edge our way down the country road, stumbling and laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation. It was always then, when every sensation apart from sight was on full alert that someone would start to tell the story about the fairy circle that was along this path, only dangerous at night and to people with sinful thoughts. Similar to that sensation of walking down a corridor after watching a horror movie, where, despite rationalisation, your stomach jumps and your pace quickens in time with your heartbeat, I would laugh, but cling a little harder, pushing my fingertips into the soft flesh of my aunt’s arm.

Then, when we returned home, the mood would be somber after our near miss with death. The house a beacon of light, a will-o’-the-wisp in the inky, spooling lake of night. At some point, before bed, the story of the banshee would resurface and be told in a hushed, reverent manner.

I have heard the tale countless times, and while the story itself hasn’t changed apart from the wording, to me it sounds different each time. When I was fourteen, I declared the story idiotic, and my family for believing it. Shaking my head in naive wisdom I refused to understand how so many adults could believe in such a clearly fabricated, or at least, one-sided story. There had to be a simple explanation, or perhaps it was a strange coincidence exaggerated through time.

It took place in the 70s, in that same house we would peer into on the hill, before it was left to rot. My mother and various members of her family: brothers, sisters, granny and mother, were all piled into the two-bed familial home, top to tail. My mother always recounts the detail of the red burning tips of cigarettes being drawn in a steady rhythm as they chatted before drifting off to sleep. They were awoken by a great wailing. High, shrill and piercing. It appeared in the room, swelling and receding into the house, retreating and entering once more. Each member is adamant they felt it in their bones, a deep, stirring ache. My uncle, fifteen at the time, grabbed a crucifix that was bolstered to the wall and pressed it against his lips. Everyone clung to the person beside them for comfort, to feel the rhythm of their heartbeats. Once it left they lay there, shaking and sobbing, later to congregate and discuss its meaning. There was absolutely no doubt that it was a Banshee. There was no phone in the house, and so it was not until early morning the next day that they received the news from a cousin sprinting from town. My mother’s aunt had died in childbirth. Banshees are said to be connected to a homestead, a particular family, and they foreshadow the death of a relative. Their wail prepares  relations for the approaching passing of the soul.

I once woke to the alien sound of cats fighting outside my window. The story of the Banshee echoing in my head, I thought, ‘This is it’. Rushing upstairs, voice caught in my throat, I pushed into the rooms of my family to check their breathing, pressing my fingers against the soft curve of their necks in a desperate bid to find their pulse. Each was slow and even.

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