Monday, August 30, 2010
The Irish Bardic Tradition. Part 1.
THE IRISH BARDIC TRADITION.
In Ireland, there is a revered vocation that predates Christianity. It predates the great chieftains, and even Gaelic mythology itself. With roots that go back to the age of Stonehenge, the Irish bardic tradition is one of the first and greatest forms of preserving and sharing culture.
At first only whispered by the fireside, the complicated and beautiful stories of unbreakable spirit later developed a degree of sophistication with the addition of meter and rhyme. The poetics of the 8th century monks show the greatest documentation for this bardic tradition.
More influential than even the poetry, however, were the great storytellers and musicians that passed on legends and histories from tribe to tribe. Enigmatic entertainers, these sages communicated carefully constructed tales through lyrics and rhyme without cultural prejudice or politics. Wearing the colours of all lands, but under the thumb of none, these men of strong voice and heart became known as the bards.
The tradition continues in our times.
The Cry of the Banshee.
James Madden, head propped up by two plump pillows, prepared to die. He knew his time was near. He could see the hill from where he lay. The moon would soon rise from behind it, the same moon that shone the night his father died. Eighty years ago.
At the age of ninety James Madden had forgotten many things, but that night haunted him all his life. Gravel crunched under James's feet on that fateful night, as he herded the last cow into the shed. Spot, the dog, nipped at its heels, trying to hurry it up. Frost had already settled on the ground as James bolted the cow byre door.
A beam of warm yellow light streamed from the small kitchen window laying a welcome path for James. He grinned at the thought of what was waiting for him inside Thick beef soup, with chunks of bread, still warm from the oven.
The hill at the back of the house brightened as the tip of the moon appeared. Trapped by the beams, small stones in the yard sparkled like frosty diamonds. Suddenly, Spot growled, deep from within his chest. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as his eyes grew small. At first James couldn't see why the dog gave warning.
Then, as the moon rose higher into the black night sky, he saw it.
There, on the top of the hill, in dark profile against a cold green moon, stood a woman. She was tall and slim. Hair, as long as her body streamed out from her head, twisting and turning on a windless night. In her hand she held, what looked like a hair brush.
An anguished cry filled the air and sent a cold knife through his heart and slowly spread through his body.
James Madden, at the age of ten, knew what is... It was called... Fear.
As the moon cleared the hill, whatever it was, called out again. James covered his ears as the pain entered his brain. Once more she cried, his empty stomach churned and bile rose in his throat. The back door crashed open. Spot seeing his chance rushed into the kitchen nearly toppling James's mother.
"In God's name, what was that noise!?"
Unable to speak, James pointed to the hill.
His mother gasped. She grabbed James's arm and dragged him toward the house.
"Hurry up! We must get inside and light a candle and put it in the window. Your father is not home yet!"
His father had ridden out early that morning. He had taken some cattle to the fair, to sell. It was a long way there and back and James was not surprised he was not home. He was puzzled. Why did his mother want to put a candle in the window when the horse could find its own way home, without his father having to show it?
When they were inside the house, his mother instructed him to build up the fire. She ran around the house checking the windows and doors. He heard his mother’s prayers as she placed a lighted candle on the front window sill.
Flames leaped up the chimney, as if in a hurry to leave the house
"Mammy...who is that woman on the top of the hill?"
His mother brushed past him and took the bubbling pot of stew off the fire.
"If your not careful son, you'll burn the dinner."
"Sorry mammy...but who is she. Why is she crying like that?"
His mother pulled two chairs up close to a fire that seemed to dance to some devil tune as it twisted and turned its way up the flue. She bade him sit. Taking one of his hands in hers, she gazed vacantly for some moments before answering. She spoke quietly, as if someone might overhear what she had to say.
"'Tis the bringer of death. The Banshee."
James stared at her, not understanding.
"The Banshee," she continued, "follows some families no matter where they go. Some say they even follow them around the world! She foretells death in these families. But when she comes, it is already too late, for they are doomed as soon as she cries."
James started to feel frightened but, he had to ask.
His mother picked at an invisible thread on her skirt. "Oh... Family's like the Brogans on the farm next to us and, the Mayhews next to them.....and us...The Maddens!"
A cry, much closer now, brought a whimper from Spot as he tried to make himself smaller in a corner of the kitchen. Again, James felt the fear touch his heart.
He gripped his mothers arm. "How...how will we know who she has come for!?"
"Hush child...we'll know soon enough."
"But mammy! Can't we run away? We... we could go and meet dad!"
"You don't understand! You can't run away! If it is you... the Banshee will find you! Now, hush, for surely it will pass us by."
Teeth bared, Spot stared at the back door. The only sound in the room was the clock on the mantelpiece, ticking, and the fire settling.
James felt pressure from his mother’s hand the same time he heard the rusty gate to the back of the house slowly open, followed by the sound of pebbles, crushed under heavy feet that suddenly stopped in the middle of the yard.
The chickens in their shed started to squawk but quickly fell silent. One of the cows, kicked once at the cow shed door. Then there was silence. The fire caved inwards sending sparks racing up the flue. Bile rose in James's throat as he heard the moan from outside. Spot whimpered. His mother's hand tightened on his, her other hand covered her mouth, as if to stop a scream.
Crunch... crunch. The steps came toward the back door, and then stopped.
James stared unblinking at the door handle. He felt the cold spreading down his arms and legs.
Then it moved.
The handle turned one way, stopped, then turned the other way. The door shook as if a giant hand had hit it. His eyes lifted to the bolt at the top of the door. It held fast. Suddenly, the plates on the table stated to vibrate and move across the top, reach the edge and crash to the floor. The clock fell at James's feet. It had stopped. The time, he noticed was eleven minutes past nine.
A cry, so long, so lonely, so sad, filled the house. James felt the salty tears run down his face, he cried and why, he didn't know, but, he saw too that his mother wept. Then it was gone. The coldness, the sadness the fear. All gone. Spot slid across the floor on his belly toward the back door. He sniffed for some moments, then turned, tail wagging and walked to James
"'Tis your father, son. The Banshee came for your father, God rest his soul."
James did not understand.
Later that night, two men knocked on the front door. She surprised them by telling them she knew her husband was dead, but how, she asked, did it happen?
The horse bolted and tried to jump a fence. It fell and rolled on top of her husband. The horse seemed uninjured. It looked as if it had been frightened to death!
"Nurse! What time is it?"
"Now, now Mr. Madden! You have asked me that question so many times this evening! Let me see...it's a quarter to nine and if you want the weather forecast as well it’s freezing outside! And it looks like we'll have a full moon tonight. Now settle back, I'll get you your tablets in a minute! Give you a good night’s sleep."
"I don't want the tablets tonight. Did you bring the candle?"
"Yes, I did and why I don't know! All the old superstitions! Banshees! Indeed. The doctor said you're as fit as a fiddle, all you need is rest."
"Be a good girl and stop the chatter! Just light the candle and put it in the window."
Standing the lighted candle in the window, the nurse looked out, she paused. "Who's that woman on the hill? She'll get her death of cold on a night like this!"
James Madden tried to sit up. "She's there!? You can see her?"
The nurse shielded the candle.
"Of course I can see her; the moon is rising just behind her. What beautiful long hair! It must touch the ground!"
"That's her. You can go now. Come back in the morning."
"Go?? I can't go. It's my job to stay here all night. What do you mean...that's her you mean the Banshee! Ha! Mr. Madden you were always good for a story! I can remember when I was young..."
The cry from the hill rent into the nurse’s heart. She quickly stepped back from the window. She put her hand to her breast.
"Mother of God...who is that!??"
James Madden smiled, he felt no fear. "She comes for me. Go now child! Come back in the morning."
He heard the rusty gate swing inward and the slow steps on the gravel.
This time the bolt was not closed.
The last thing James Madden's fading eyes rested on was long grey hair, floating through the open door.
© John W. Kelly. An Seanachí.