Authors: Anita Fennelly
Seán and Séamus prayed aloud at the entrance before they bent down to peer into the darkness. The steps were sticky and wet. They could see nothing. Inside the
was dark, freezing cold and rancid. Neither could breathe with the stench. They pulled their jackets up over their mouths and stood paralysed with terror at the foot of the steps. Gradually their eyes adjusted. Through the dim light from the stairway and the chimney hole, they began to see the floor of the
, which was a bloody mess of putrefying lumps of human flesh. At the end of the steps by the men’s feet was what was left of Tomás Ó Catháin; a bloated torso with its limbs hacked off and missing. Séamus threw up and clambered back up the steps into the air.
Seán stared into the darkness of the far wall. He could hear what sounded like a terrified animal under the fleeces and woollen blanket. Some kind of devilish animal had done this. In a fit of rage, he ran at it and tore the cover off the creature.
It cowered there, matted hair caked to its blood-smeared face. The eyes stared out, but saw nothing. It took a while for Seán to recognise the young girl he had once danced with in Dún Chaoin. Peig Ní Chatháin lay starving, half-dead and quite mad.
She was carried off the island and nursed on the Great Blasket for many, many months. She was not aware of anything that was done for her or of anything going on around her. The islanders said that her spirit had broken away; she had not spoken since the day the men had discovered her. Feelings ran high on both the island and the mainland: everyone had their own version of what had happened between Tomás and Peig. No version painted Peig in a good light and there were some people who would have been quite prepared to take the law into their own hands.
One day, Peig’s spirit returned to her and she began to see the world around her once more. As she did, she started to talk and tell her story. Nobody who heard her ever doubted the truth of what she said.
Shortly after they had arrived on the island, Tomás began to complain of sickness and dizziness. He stopped eating and became very weak. As his fever worsened, Peig still managed to get some water past his lips and he still spoke to her. When he fell into a coma, she was gripped with fear for him and lit the distress fire. She used all the turf in that blaze, but nobody came to their rescue. He took three days to die in the darkness and the cold. The loneliness and the silence engulfed her. Tomás never regained consciousness to recognise her one last time. He died, leaving her alone. The fire had been dead for three days; she had no means of lighting a candle. While he was alive, there had been the company of his breathing in the darkness. Now there was only the black silence of death as she lay by his body.
During the days that followed, she huddled in the wind and rain at the entrance, waiting and waiting for help to arrive from the Blasket. Why didn’t they see her fire? Why didn’t they come for her? At night, she retreated down the steps to shelter, darkness and the cold body of her dead husband. By the time ten days had passed, the body smelled badly. The stormy weather continued and Peig remained confined in the
. Finally she decided to drag the body outside. Tomás had been a heavy man, over six foot tall. Peig was slight, and greatly weakened by grief, hunger and cold. She rolled the body to the end of the steps and then began the almost impossible task of dragging his weight up the steps. Hooking her elbows under his armpits, she strained until she cried and screamed with frustration. She couldn’t remember how many days she had spent trying to move the body onto the first step. It began to decompose quickly, making her retch constantly. At night, she began to imagine that it moved, spoke to her and laughed. She screamed at it to get out, but it never would. There was only one thing to do. When it went to sleep, she would take it outside in little pieces. During daylight was the only time that it lay quietly; it would be done then.
The next morning Peig took the knife and began to hack off the arms and legs. She dragged them out singly and tried to bury them, but with no strength left, she barely covered them with grass. Then, as she hacked off the second leg, she recognised it as the body of her husband. It was Tomás. She wanted to kill herself, but she could not, so she crawled in under the fleeces and waited there to die. She could not remember the men finding her, nor could she remember her first six months back in on the Great Blasket Island.
I shivered despite the sunshine as I gazed across at the
on Inis Tuaisceart. The majesty of the Dead Man, lying oblivious to the eternal dance of sun and storms in the Atlantic Ocean was awe-inspiring, yet it made me uneasy. Sleep brought nightmares and, with those nightmares, the monster returned. I was glad of the three miles between us. How the sheep men had spent a night in that place I just could not understand. I would never go there. It was preferable to admire it from a distance under the warmth of the Blasket sunshine.
ne day merged into another as my stay on the Great Blasket Island entered its fourth week. The mainland and the events taking place there became irrelevant. My existence had gradually taken on the rhythm of island life. Daylight and darkness, sunshine and rain, determined the pace and process of my day. As the sun arced through the sky and the clouds floated across the sea, every angle offered a fresh perspective on the world. My days were suddenly bursting with life. Each moment pulsed with excitement. With the new dawn I breathed fresh energy.
Morning led me to the isolation at the far end of the island. Evening led me to the communal hearth in Sue’s house. She and I exchanged reports on the seals, the dolphin, the chough family, the falcons, the tides, the weather and the sunset.
One evening, a teenage girl sat at Sue’s fireside. I had seen her a few times as I returned home at the end of the day. She came into the island every day on the ferry and sat for hours reading on a fish box outside the remains of
Teach an Rí
. Although it was the dwelling closest to mine, I always succeeded in passing her by with just the briefest nod. Sue introduced us as I stood in the doorway. Had I been left to my own devices, it would have taken me a long time before I introduced myself to her. Her name was Aisling. She was sixteen and the granddaughter of a Blasket Islander. She was also a native Irish speaker. Her sister had started a small book business, and Aisling was the one charged with the task of selling them to the day-trippers on the Blasket. Aisling loved the island. Every day was an adventure. Irrespective of whether she made sales or did not make sales, her day was full and exciting.
From the day of our meeting onwards, I served her a cup of tea on her fish box as she set up shop in the mornings. She worked her way through her book supplies, reading both the Irish and English versions of each title during that summer. Sometimes she translated passages of island folklore for me, providing the seeds for the daydreams of my rambles.
One day, I returned from my walk at lunchtime to escape the blazing sun. The island was swarming with tourists. Squeals and shouts carried on the breeze from the direction of the beach. A steady stream of visitors struggled up the path past my door. Two large American men towered over Aisling outside
Teach an Rí
. ‘You are a real Irish colleen. Gee, she’s got the cutest freckles and green eyes.’
‘My great-granddaddy came from Ireland. Ma-hoe-ney, from Cork. My wife’s maternal grandmother was a MacIntyre from County Monaghan. Now, her first cousin was born in Leitrim and…’When I emerged from the hut twenty minutes later, Aisling was still smiling bravely up into the face from which the monologue streamed. Her face and neck were burned red. She attempted to deal with other potential customers and escape into the shade of
Teach an Rí
, but the man did not appear to draw even a breath.
I stood at my door and called down to her. ‘Aisling dear, come up for your lunch now.’
She looked up at me in surprise as the man launched into another lecture about the lineage of his second cousins on his father’s side. ‘Don’t you be delaying those nice gentlemen now, and get up here for your lunch.’
‘Coming, Mam,’ she called. ‘I’m sorry. I have to go. Did you want to buy anything?’ As he began a lengthy explanation as to why he was unable to buy anything, Aisling scampered up the bank and raced into my hut. I closed the door and we watched through the crack until the coast was clear. The men passed by slowly, presumably speculating as to how any family could live in a 3 metre by 1.5 metre cowshed. ‘You should have told me to call my ten brothers and sisters as well,’ Aisling giggled.
My provisions had reduced to porridge, rice, tea, tinned fish and beans, none of which tempted my newly acquired daughter. She explained that she normally went over to the cafe for chocolate and Coke but she just had not had a chance. A crowd of visitors still bustled around her little shop. Rather than dealing with them, I opted to go to the cafe for her.
So I headed off nervously, up past the
and across to the cafe to make my first island purchase. I stepped in my bare feet over the rough ground outside the hostel. Both doors were open. Inside one door, a woman sat writing at a table. Inside the other, some walkers were cooking. Beyond this was the cafe where a dark-haired girl was handing out drinks over a half-door to heat-weary day-trippers. I approached and gave Aisling’s order. ‘Two Mars Bars and a can of Diet Coke, please.’
‘There can’t be two people on the island with that lunch order. That has to be for Aisling.’ I nodded. ‘You must be the girl staying in Ray’s? There are rumours that you exist. Now I have proof.’ While she chatted, she proceeded to make a tuna sandwich. ‘She’ll eat tuna, that’s about all. I don’t know how she manages to have such beautiful skin, what with all the chocolate she eats.’ Between serving other customers, making sandwiches and baking, she continued to chat. Finally she leaned on the half-door again and introduced herself. Her name was Laura and she was from Canada. Her father was Russian. She had worked with a touring dramatic group on the European circuit and now was doing her own little tour. The European tour had become the Blasket stopover. She just could not leave the place. Every day she walked the island before the ferries arrived and then again after they left. Her routine was the reverse of mine. Working in the cafe earned her enough to survive. ‘Now, I know someone who would like to deliver a take-away tuna sandwich.’ With that, I was relieved of my messenger duty. A sixteen-year-old boy who worked in the cafe jumped at the task entrusted to him with obvious enthusiasm. Laura leaned on the door, gazing dreamily after him. ‘Young love. Romance begins on the Great Blasket. Well, for some of us. We won’t see him for an hour.’ She had slipped a second can of Coke into the bag. Each time there was a lull in customer orders, she picked up a wind mobile she was making and threaded extra shells and feathers onto it. ‘Men! Wouldn’t you easily know one man owns the place and another runs it? There’s not a picture, an ornament or a mirror in the place.’ Laura’s stamp could be seen already here and there. On the deep windowsills sat two dramatic pieces of driftwood. ‘Nothing – neither a map of the island, nor a photo of Peig on the wall. It was her house after all.’ She seemed to be able to do ten things at once, all the while chatting with me and laughing with the dozens of tourists. Every so often she took a glance out over the half-door, down to the left. Some distance away, a TV reporter was interviewing a man. ‘We’ll have to wait to hear the great plans on the telly.’
After a few minutes Seán came hurrying up the bank to the cafe. ‘Everything under control?’ He needn’t have asked. Laura could run the place single-handedly while blindfolded. ‘Where’s Colm?’
Laura looked up, feigning surprise. ‘Oh, has he gone out?’
I was about to disappear when the cameraman hailed me. ‘Can you lean on the door, as you were a few minutes ago, and the two of you continue talking?’ I excused myself and suggested that he shoot the many other tourists around instead. ‘No. The frayed shirt looks great against the backdrop of the cottage.’
‘You mean the brown legs look great,’ Laura challenged him from inside. The cameraman’s colleague, a reporter, immediately intervened, as I turned away, embarrassed.
‘We just want a shot of the heads chatting over the door,’ he assured me.
‘Come on,’ Laura said to me. ‘My mom will see me on TV at last. Will you broadcast this in Canada? I can call my mom.’ The cameraman took her seriously and began to explain that
was broadcast on RTÉ, only in Ireland.
I leaned on the door, as directed, and held a most self-conscious conversation with Laura. As I left, she called after me. ‘Drop up to the hostel some evening.’
I walked back along the rabbit track. A cluster of students were peering in the window of my hut when I returned, so I sat on a grassy mound outside the
and waited. When the coast was clear, I ducked inside and put water on the stove to make some tea. Then, armed with two steaming mugs, I dropped down to Aisling and suggested to her admirer that he’d better get back to work and have an alibi at the ready for Seán when he arrived at the cafe. He looked at his watch in shock and sped off.
‘Colm teaches sailing in Dingle and he crewed on a huge sailing ship in the Tall Ships race. He saw whales and millions of dolphins and…’Aisling was as smitten as her admirer. We decided that, from now on, she had to close up shop and get to the cafe for lunch, even if business was brisk. There were more important things in life than making money, such as an island romance.
‘Anita, there’s somebody after opening your door and going into your house,’ said Aisling. I looked up in surprise. A troop of about twenty boys were gathered around my door. I raced up and squeezed my way through. A female youth leader stood at my bed, reading my journal.
‘Excuse me, this is a private house. Do you mind?’
‘Told ya, Miss,’ came a voice from outside. But the woman was not going to be shown up by a child.