Hazel at the Carndonagh Cross

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Fear was the weapon
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Fear was the weapon
The missionaries came with touring caravans towed by big black Ford motor cars, straining and puffing black fumes from their exhausts; a rare sight indeed in 1950's rural Inishowen. They set up camp in a bare green field a mile or so from the village. They were charismatic characters, who went from house to house with their 'good news' message, aimed at the young they said. The venue was the village hall, they promised refreshments afterwards, and a choir. And so we set off through the quiet lanes on an early autumn evening to hear the 'good news' and avail of the refreshments.

The hall was almost full of children and teenagers when we arrived. A table at the rear was set with jugs of orange juice, small dainty sandwiches and biscuits. The choir began to sing sweetly, accompanied by a portable organ.
Then the preacher began to address us. To begin with his tone was low, his voice seductive, with an accent that crossed between the American deep south and south of the Bann. The subject was sin, punishment and the works of the devil. The devil awaited us at every turning point in our lives; he was luring us with rock 'n' roll, he was lurking in the TV screens that unwary people were installing in their homes. The work of the devil was everywhere; dancing was yet another pursuit where the devil frequented. Sin was everywhere. Then his voice rose to a higher pitch that vibrated the very building, "you know the pain of burning your small finger. Can you imagine your whole body burning forever throughout all eternity?" A mass shudder seemed to shake the wooden benches as the sheer terror of his words vibrated amongst the assembled youth, like the audience in a cinema watching unspeakable horrors on a screen. If the love and compassion of God was mentioned, none of us remembered it. And, when it was over we had lost our appetite for the refreshments.
We silently filed out into the darkness and walked home with our fearful thoughts on a vengeful God waiting to trip us up at every turn of the road. Was hell and damnation the price we would have to pay for watching 'Rawhide' through a snow-flurry on TV, or the sound of Buddy Holly, hissing his way through 'rave on' on the old wireless? And with the showband era getting into full swing, promising an image of jiving in winkle-picker shoes with sugar-starched petticoats swinging, my ten year old brain felt a gloom such as I had never known before. And so it seemed that avoiding the horrors of hell would mean forgoing every little pleasure that this life had to offer.

Time and reason allayed most of the terrors and showed God in a truer light, which enabled most of us to enjoy our childhood and youth. But, sometimes departed childhood awakes and we reach into that special cupboard of the mind, where we thought we safely stored our fears, only to find their dark echoes still there.
All religions were guilty, to a greater or lesser extent, of using the tactics of fear and guilt as weapons of control. This left many of us with deeply buried fears and guilt. By taking these skeletons out of the cupboard we can recognise them for what they are, and so lay them to rest.

 



A Winter Tale and a Summer Ghost


W
e walked up the steep hill and along a narrow lane to reach Jimmy's house. The house was tucked neatly under a hill, and was sheltered by six pine trees.
He was seated by a roaring fire made up of turf and bog fir; one end of which stretched a considerable length down the floor.
"Welcome to you all. It's a raw cold night," he greeted us, pushing the bog fir a bit further into the fire.
"Try as I might I couldn't get this fir block split up and in the finish, I broke the shaft of my hatchet," he said sitting down again. The dancing flames leaped and danced around the big log of fir, lighting up the weather beaten creases in his face, and deep set blue eyes framed by dark bushy eyebrows.
Jimmy was the best storyteller in the neighborhood, and we were regular visitors. We loved to listen to his stories about ghosts and banshees.
"I'm just about to make my cocoa, would you all like a cup?"
"Aye, thanks," we all chanted.
With our cups of hot cocoa in our hands we were ready for a good frightening ghost story.
"Have you any new ghost stories to tell us?" Joe asked.
"Well now, let me see if I can think of any I haven't told you before. MM. .... mmm," he muttered, staring into the fire in deep concentration. Then he lit his pipe, lifting his eyebrows with a frown to keep them safe from the flames that leapt from the thin fold of newspaper that he used instead of matches.
As the story progressed we could feel the goose pimples rising on the backs of our necks. His bright blue eyes moved from one wide eyed scared face to the other as he told the story.
"I had just reached the top of the brae beside O'Neill's derelict house, when I saw the black cloaked figure of a woman walk right through the stone ditch, not an inch from me. As I stood there in the moonlight I knew that I had witnessed a being, not of this world.

"Walking home through the darkness we linked arms for safety, and when we reached O'Neill's brae we shuffled along in a huddled fearful mass, with eyes and ears on red alert for the cloaked figure of a supernatural woman; but she was nowhere to be seen.
"My father says there is no such things as ghosts. He says Jimmy just makes up his stories as he goes along," Sara said in a shaky wee voice, as her shaking fingertips dug into my upper arm.
"Well I believe in ghosts no matter what your father says. And besides a world without ghosts would be no fun," Joe's voice came back from the blackness. Much to our disappointment we reached home without a ghost or ghoul to be seen.

In the early spring a builder from the nearby town started to renovate O'Neill's old house. Rotting windows and doors were replaced, the roof was repaired, and finally the walls were whitewashed.
One day in late June as we made our way to the shore, we saw that the house was occupied.
"Holiday makers from Scotland have rented the place out," Pat informed us while we stood in the door of the byre as he milked the cows.
"It must be thirty years or more since anybody slept under that roof," he added as he headed for the house carrying two buckets of milk.

July began wet and windy, but soon gave way to warm sunshine. One morning on our way to the shore two young girls with red hair sat on the stone ditch outside O'Neill's.
"We are going down to the shore for a dip. Do you want to come with us?" I asked them a little shyly.
"I'll go and ask my Ma," the bigger of the girls said as she hurried off into the house.
"What's your name?" Sara asked the girl sitting on the wall.
"I'm Edith, and she's Fiona," she answered nodding in the direction of her sister who had just reappeared.
Before the day was out we had formed a bond of friendship. They came from Glasgow, and lived next door to the man who owned O'Neill's old house.
The following morning we set off with our newfound friends on a tour of the neighborhood. As we rounded a comer in the lane Johnny Mc Laughlin was putting his cows out. Fiona stood in the middle of the lane and let out a piercing yell, while the astonished cows turned around and bolted back towards the farmyard.
"God in heaven what possessed you to roar like that?" Johnny spat throwing his stick to the ground in anger.
From the ditch sandwiched between two hawthorn bushes Edith said in her Glasgow lilt,
"She is terrified of cows, and so am I."
"If I'm any judge, the cows were more terrified of you wailing like a banshee than you were of them. But you are city wains I suppose," he added graciously.
To our amusement their fear of animals extended to anything on four legs, and that included Neddy. However, a ride in the cart was irresistible, and facing backwards they giggled with glee as they bumped noisily along the lane. But when Neddy in one of his stubborn moods sat down between the shafts of the cart, they hightailed it to a safe distance, while we tried in vain to persuade him to get up again.
On the last day of July we all sat on the beach reluctant to say goodbye to our Glasgow friends.
"I wish we could stay longer, but we will come back next summer." Fiona said a little sadly.
"We all want to come back next year except my mother," Edith said, as she absently made holes in the sand with a stick.
"Why does your mother not want to come back?" Sara asked.
"Because she thought she saw the ghost of a woman in a black clock at the head of the stairs.


© Hazel McIntyre

 

Cleanliness Next To Godliness

Elizabeth is the second eldest of the family. She made herself responsible for keeping the younger members of the brood clean. On bath nights she would descend on us unawares, leaving us no escape route from her clutches.
In a small tin basin, the shampoo powder would have been mixed with warm water, and then our torture would begin. She would scrub us, one at a time from head to toe, while we yelled in useless protest. When the torturous procedure was finished, we each emerged from the water like lobsters, rubbing our stinging eyes, that the dreaded shampoo had seeped into.
During school terms she was our driver, and protector all in one. Because the distance to school was too far to walk, our uncle gave us his pony and trap.
Jackie the pony was a black gelding, with a white star on his head. We were as proud as peacocks arriving at school in the trap, with Jackie stepping smartly into the school yard.We would all make our way into the school, while big sister unharressed Jackie and gave him his hay and oats.Reverend Jones came into school each morning, for morning prayer. But the prayers were almost always delayed until Elizabeth had attended to the pony's needs.
He would march up and down the floor looking at his watch impatiently.
"How much longer is that girl going to be?" he would ask, looking from one of us to the other in some bewilderment while we related the long list of Jackie's morning requirements.
"At long last, you have decided to honour us with your presence," he would say somewhat sarcastically, when she would finally make an appearance.

On one fine September afternoon mother had given us instructions to collect a roll of linoleum from the village shop on our way home. With the aid of the shopkeeper we got the linoleum into the trap, then we all piled in around it, and headed for home.
A short distance from the village, Elizabeth gave Jackie his head as usual. Suddenly he caught sight of the long roll looming above his head. And like all the demons in hell were in pursuit, he bolted down the road at speed. Clinging tightly to the sides of the trap, we hung on for dear life.
Above the noise of the fleeing hooves and clanking wheels, she shouted.
"Throw the damned lino over the ditch,when I say. One, two, three, HEAVE." The roll went over the ditch in haste, and landed in a field. Then with relief we reached the big brae. The upwards pull finally slowed the terrified animal down to a trot, then finally to a walk.
"We'll go back for the lino. And for heavens sake don't go dramatizing anything when we get home, or you might end up walking to school tomorrow," she warned the three white, terrified faces, that stared back at her nodding silently.
With a struggle we managed to get the linoleum back into the trap. But this time horizontally across. Then we all held it carefully in position, while big sister kept a tight rein on Jackie.
Many years later, I found myself helping my mother to get the kitchen floor stripped and ready for new floor covering. The rust colored linoleum that had been hidden under a second layer brought the memory of Jackie flooding back.
"I'll never forget the day we took this stuff home in the trap," I said. 
"I heard all about it from Johnnie Healey.The poor man could have lost his head.
"What do you mean?" I asked a little bewildered.
"Well, he told me he was draining a ditch, in the field when suddenly, this long roll flew past his head. It just missed him by inches," she said, shaking her head reprovingly.

 

© Hazel McIntyre
 
 

Presbyterian Cow

A weak wintry sun had just crept over the horizon as Joe and Hanna made their way up the hill to visit the returned 'Yankee'.
"First time home in twenty-five years," Joe had said the night before.
"They say she has a whole suitcase full of candy." This piece of news clinched it for Hanna. They would go the following morning and welcome the 'Yankee' back home.
"Yanks in the movies drink coffee and Martinis," Joe announced as they neared the top of the hill. "What is Martini like?"
"Poteen well, a bit like Poteen," Joe replied, his breath coming like bursts of mist in the frosty air. "Hope she doesn't offer us any then. Daddy says Poteen's only for sick cows that's why he keeps it."

The hall door was open when they reached the house. They knocked and went in. When we were introduced she stood up to greet us. She was tall and was elegantly dressed in a fawn suit; she wore red lipstick and red nail varnish. Bending down she gave each in turn a big slobbery kiss.
'YUK!' Joe said inwardly, then made to wipe his cheek. He thought of the candy and decided to wait in case he upset her.
As Anna watched her sip black coffee and listened to her strange sounding accent she wondered if she really was a movie star after all.
Then came the moment they had been waiting for. The 'Yankee' left the room and returned with the candy, lots of it in brightly coloured packets.
As they were leaving she handed each of them a small package. "Just a couple of trinkets to remember me by," she drooled, planting another kiss on each of their cheeks. This time Joe hastily wiped his sloppy kiss away on his sleeve when they were out of sight. Tearing open her small parcel Hanna uncovered a green necklace and bracelet, "Emeralds" she cried out in glee. That her emeralds were made of plastic mattered not a whit. "What did you get Joe?"
"A gun with bullets. Paper ones," he said, holding out the roll of paper caps.

They had munched their way though a pound of the 'Yankee' candy by the time they reached the home straight. Willy, their nearest neighbour was leading a red cow into the byre as they neared his farmyard. His wife Sara appeared from the back door of the cottage. "Andy's just bought another cow," she announced. They followed her into the byre, dimly lit by a hurricane lamp. "She looks a grand animal" she said, with pride. "I must bless her." She reached up to a shelf at the far corner and took down a bottle.
"Where did you buy her?" Joe inquired, as he put the last candy into his mouth.
"From Robert Johns. No, she wouldn't have had a drop of holy water on her before with that background," she added, as she liberally shook the liquid over the cow's back. Suddenly the cow began to jump, flinging her hind legs in the air.
"Hold her Willy, the Presbyterian is very strong in her," she shouted above the commotion. Retreating out of the flinging animal's way, John grabbed the bottle from his wife and headed for the open door.
"Stupid woman," he shouted, "it's caustic soda you blessed her with."


© Hazel McIntyre

 

The Cuckoo Clock

The snow came silently while we slept, and we awoke to find a white, snow-covered landscape. The snow was still falling thick and fast by school time, and it was decided that we should have the day off.
At eleven o'clock Aunt Bea moved over to her window seat to wait for the postman as usual.
"Poor Eddy will have a struggle this morning," she said, her eyes glued to the distant road. Her white hair was pinned up in a neat bun, and perched sedately on top, her black beret with the little tassel on it.

She had reached the grand old age of eighty, and could still walk the two miles to the village for her pension each Friday. With unfailing eyesight she was able to knit our sweaters without the aid of spectacles. Reading and letter writing were her other pass times.
"I should have had a letter from Mary before now. It must be all of six weeks since I wrote to her. And I was sure that my cuckoo clock would have come weeks ago," she said, dropping her eyes to her knitting again.
"Oh Lord! Eddy's down, and the letters are scattered everywhere," she suddenly shrieked. "Run, quick, one of you, and help him. Poor Eddy, he's too old to be out delivering mail on a day like this."

John and I scrambled into our coats, and made off down the lane at speed, to rescue Eddy. As we neared the spot where the unfortunate Eddy came a cropper, he suddenly sprang to his young and sprightly feet.
"We should have known it was you up to your tricks again," John said, as William came towards us with a broad grin. Behind him lay a trail of old newspaper squares scattered in the snow.
"Was she watching? Did she think it was Eddy?" he asked us still grinning.
"Aye, she thought it was Eddy all right. I wouldn't show my nose for a while if I were you," John warned, as the three of us walked back up the lane through the snow.
"You are a right bad rascal, playing a trick like that on me," she scolded when he came in, "And there was me thinking poor Eddy might have broken a leg." "I just couldn't resist it. I knew you would be watching," he said with a chuckle.

An hour or so later, Eddy made his appearance. "It's a day neither fit for man nor beast," he announced shaking the snow from his coat as he came into the kitchen carrying a parcel.
As my mother busied herself making him hot tea, we set about the parcel. Out of the wood shavings and cardboard emerged Aunt Bea's cuckoo clock.
"It's all in one piece anyway, nothing broken," she commented with a broad smile of pleasure.
After the instructions were carefully read, and understood, the clock was carefully hung on the wall. We waited patiently as the hour of one came closer. Then on the dot, the little wooden doors sprang open, and out popped the bird, "cuckoo! cuckoo!" it chanted loud and clear. Aunt Bea beamed with pleasure. "Isn't the cuckoo a wee dote," she exclaimed. We all nodded in agreement.
The snow didn't let up that afternoon, and we became bored and restless. We finally went outside to play in the shed. John began target practice with his treasured air gun. "Another bulls eye," he shouted triumphantly at intervals.
"I'm sick of that flipping gun, that's all you seem to want to do anymore," I complained as I headed for the house again. In the kitchen the hour was approaching three, and Aunt Bea's eyes were held firmly on the clock. "Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo," rang out again much to her delight.
As the weeks passed the clock was beginning to grate on the nerves of everyone apart from its proud owner. The "wee dote" became "that damned cuckoo," especially as the hours grew to high niunbers. Ten cuckoos became just too much for the nerves to bear.

One night in February, the family sat around the fire. Only the soothing sounds of knitting nee ' dles clicking and newspaper rustling disturbed the silence. None of us were aware of the impending disaster, as the hour of ten o'clock drew near.
The wooden doors on the clock opened, "Cuc....... and then BANG! All eyes were suddenly on John, where he sat on the sofa; the air gun still poised in mid air. The cuckoo hung limply from its perch, suddenly silent. "You young rascal, you shot my poor wee cuckoo," Bea cried out in anguish. John dived for the door, my father grabbing the gun before he disappeared outside.
"I'm hiding this gun, where you won't get your hands on it again," he called after him. William set to work at once on the repair of "the wee dote" When the intricate operation was finished, we waited again as the hour drew near.
The doors opened, and out popped a lopsided cuckoo, sitting precariously on his perch, " ook, ...ook, ...ook, ...ook," he crooked miserably. "Good lad, you fixed it," Aunt Bea said in obvious delight.
"This is one occasion when loss of hearing seems to be a blessing," my father said quietly.

© Hazel McIntyre

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